Don’t get overly excited about the UK’s new shale gas findings

Frack prevention.
Frack prevention.
Image: Georgie Gillard/PA Wire/via AP Images
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The British Geological Survey today doubled its estimate of shale gas contained within a northern English basin called Bowland. But, as has occurred in the US, much wishful thinking has gone into the after-the-fact analysis, almost certainly exaggerating how much can be ultimately extracted.

In its announcement, the Geological Survey said that the Bowland shale contains about 1,300 trillion cubic feet (40 trillion cubic meters) of natural gas “in place.” The tricky metric—after you know the resource in place—is the “recovery rate,” the percentage that can actually be extracted, and here is where the hyperbole has appeared.

Pre-empting the official announcement, UK Treasury Minister Danny Alexander trumpeted the increased figures and urged Parliament to approve tax breaks and accelerated drilling permits to get at the gas. He upbraided government opponents, suggesting the country would be better off if they “stopped fracking around.”

Neither Alexander nor the Geological Survey ventured a recovery rate, but reporters quoted past British government figures of a 10%-15% figure. If that’s so, the new estimate, when divided by the UK’s 2012 gas consumption of 2.76 trillion cubic feet, suggest a gas supply lasting 47-70 years.

Still nothing to sniff at. Except that the recovery rate may be seriously exaggerated. Last year, the US Energy Information Administration estimated the UK recovery rate at 4%. If the rate still holds, the recovery from the Bowland would be 52 trillion cubic feet, theoretically satisfying about 19 years of demand.

Still, not pocket change. But it lacks the ring of a half-century of gas. For comparison, the US’s recoverable shale gas reserves are around 665 trillion cubic feet according to the government’s Energy Information Administration, and would satisfy 73 years of US demand.