On 28 July the government launched the UK’s 14th onshore oil and gas licensing round. The process will allow companies to bid for a licence to explore for shale gas. Supporters point to the possibility of years of secure, low cost energy and billions of pounds of tax and other revenues. However the process is very controversial and there are major commercial, technological, legal and socio/political hurdles to overcome before full scale shale gas production can start.
Critics were handed powerful ammunition when shale gas exploration in Lancashire was linked to minor earth tremors. That incident, in 2011, led to a suspension of exploration which has recently ended. At present the UK does not have a driven shale gas well and until further exploration and testing is carried out there is no certainty that it is commercially recoverable here. Successful bidders in the current licencing round will seek to answer that question.
The demands on, but opportunities for, the construction industry will be significant if the potential for shale gas is to be realised. That work will coincide with similar major expansion in the nuclear and renewable energy sectors so tough decision on the allocation of resources and funding will need to be made.
Proponents of shale gas point to its widespread exploitation in the US although the use of this technology has only become commonplace relatively recently. The UK is also a vastly different place to the US. For a start, our island is far more crowded which has significant implications for a technology which requires extensive road transport, huge quantities of water and exploits extensive subsurface deposits.
While there are undoubtedly lessons to be learned from the UK’s conventional onshore oil and gas sector (there are around 2,000 onshore oil wells in the UK) there are likely to be considerable advantages in studying analogous energy projects. Nuclear energy has for many years had to deal with the type of concerted and well-organised protest that shale gas is likely to face. Making a compelling case for shale gas may not be enough to persuade all of the doubters but it will be necessary to retain enough public support to maintain ongoing government backing. This will be key, particularly to advance the legislative changes that will be necessary (see article on trespass below). The recent expansion of offshore wind has been made possible by the amalgamation of offshore oil and gas expertise with more conventional civil and process engineering. The same is true of wave and tidal energy projects. As shale gas is an onshore technology it is likely to benefit from the consenting, access and grid connection lessons learned by the solar, biomass and onshore wind sectors.
One issue that shale gas developers will need to find a solution to on their own is the massive water demand of the process, and the huge amounts of road traffic that generates. Water demand is so great that it would be no surprise to see water companies becoming involved in the consortia currently bidding for exploration rights. Treatment is also a major challenge as the process generates significant quantities of waste water which are likely to contain naturally occurring radioactive materials brought up from deep strata.
If the issue of trespass can be overcome then as shale gas extraction is not unduly site specific in the way that, for example, solar and wind most definitely are, sites can be situated to alleviate the access and water issues.
As there are very few experienced players in the market, and most of those are from the US, now is the time for the UK construction industry to gear up to make sure it gets its share of the market.