Richard North, 03/06/2013  

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The BBC is reporting good news from UK shale gas explorer Igas. The company now reckons its licence area in northwest England could hold enough gas to meet the country's entire consumption for over five years.

This dwarfs a previous forecast and national proven reserves, lifting it from an estimate of nine trillion to a range from 15.1 to 172.3 trillion cubic feet. The most likely reserve is 102 TCF and, assuming a recovery rate of 10-15 percent, that could satisfy the UK demand of three TCF per annum for a period of five years or more, making us self-sufficient in gas for that period.

This is just from the company licence area which covers an area of 300 square miles across Cheshire, sitting between Liverpool and Manchester. On top of that, energy firm Cuadrilla, which has drilled wells near Blackpool in Lancashire, says it has 200 TCF in its licence area of the Bowland Shale, potentially satisfying total UK demand for another ten years.

However, IGas chief executive Andrew Austin agrues that, "It's not unreasonable to assume that there could be as much as 500 trillion cubic feet in the Bowland shale across the North West", which, combined with North Sea reserves, could make the UK self sufficient in gas for decades to come.

An official assessment of the reserves in the Bowland shale is due from the British Geological Survey, on behalf of the Department of Energy, and industry sources are expecting a "very big number".

Thus, despite the manifest failures in UK energy policy, the premature closing of coal-fired plants, and the excessive delays in replacing nuclear capacity, it looks as if the government is going to be saved by an unexpected shale gas bonanza.

Considering that I first wrote about shale gas only in August 2008, long before most British pundits had woken up to the potential, there is no way any British government could have factored this into the energy mix until relatively recently.

Gas-powered electricity generation plants, however, are the quickest to build, so it is now possible that the expected capacity shortfall can be staved off by commissioning new gas plants to take advantage of shale gas supplies, with the added benefit of eliminating the balance of payment burden that would have arisen from imported supplies.

This does not absolve successive governments from their responsibility for poor policy-making, and in many ways, using gas for central electricity generation is the wrong thing to do. This is the fuel best suited for distribution for domestic heating and to use it centrally is a misuse.

Nevertheless, it will be used for electricity generation, making the prospect of the lights going out an unlikely event. And thus will we be saved, not because of but in spite of government intervention. Energy policy will live to see another day.


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