Professor Jon Gluyas: North Sea oil well worth second look

IT'S time to look again at revitalising the offshore industry instead of investing in fracking, writes Professor Jon Gluyas

Drilling at Kirby Misperton. Picture: PA
Drilling at Kirby Misperton. Picture: PA

So, we now know that North Yorkshire Council has given the go-ahead for shale-gas extraction using the fracking technique.

The Kirby Misperton Gas Field has been producing from a conventional reservoir for around 20 years. The decision by the council will allow the exploitation of gas deep beneath the conventional field in a reservoir of much lower quality and one from which it could not flow without fracking.

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We can expect challenges to this decision from groups opposed to fracking and are still a long way off knowing whether gas can be produced from the deep gas accumulation at Kirby Misperton.

Even once this well is drilled, we still won’t know whether the vast shale-gas resource attributed to UK sedimentary basins in official figures might ever be realised as reserves. By their very nature shale gas reservoirs don’t give up their gas easily and no two basins in the UK are alike.

Despite the huge remaining uncertainty as to whether the UK has any shale gas reserves, this decision by North Yorkshire Council is without doubt significant. Unsurprisingly, it has been greeted with enthusiasm by a UK government envious of the US shale gas revolution and in desperate need to plug a looming energy gap in the UK and improve the nation’s energy security, which is becoming ever more threatened.

This is certainly the case for the UK’s gas supplies. On 4 November the country came within 1 per cent cover on gas demand versus supply. Had the situation been just a tiny bit worse, gas supply to industry would have been cut.

We also lack gas storage, with only 14 days at the most. Even though we have that volume in store it could not be produced in such a short timeframe. Both Germany and France have three months’ supply.

The decision is also important for it brings to the fore the difference between Westminster, which supports exploitation of shale gas, and the Scottish Government, which doesn’t. How this might play out in the longer term will depend on the outcome of the well at Kirby Misperton and those wells that might follow in England and Wales.

Many would contend that the North Sea has had its day – after all, companies are fast disappearing, fields are being abandoned, many industry personnel have been laid off and the Scottish economy in particular has been badly hit, all a function of the low oil and gas prices.

This is happening despite the fact that most of our existing fields have produced less than half of the oil originally in the ground. The situation is better for gas, but again abandonment now would leave copious quantities in the ground. Moreover this oil and gas is proven to be extractable – unlike the speculative shale gas venture.

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The UK and Scotland in particular could reinvigorate the offshore industry; it requires intervention and investment from government. So rather than look enviously at the US shale gas industry, we should replicate what Texas did in the 1970s – revitalising a dying industry, one that now leads the world in enhanced oil recovery.

• Prof Jon Gluyas is Dean of Knowledge Exchange at Durham University