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Thursday, 22 October 2015

NERC plans a scientific study of shale gas (and other resources)

Thanks to the UK's Natural Environment Research Council, I am currently at the British Geological Survey with 50 or so British scientists, members of industry and representatives of the UK government, DECC and the Environment Agency. The purpose of the meeting is to discuss and plan two facilities for the scientific analysis of resource provision in the subsurface over at least the next 20 years. Shale gas is of central importance, as is geothermal energy, CCS and the storage underground of gas and radioactive waste.

The mood is extremely positive that, at last, there might be the measurement of the processes involved in shale gas exploitation, from the source of the resource to the monitoring and analysis of any environmental risks that might occur. There, it seems, will be the opportunity to monitor the whole process in 4D from the borehole to the surface and the atmosphere, depending upon scale, position and time.

The buzzword is "integration", such that data of all types are available to compare as time passes, and so that changes can be linked to the drilling and fracking processes which are occurring at the time.

There is an agreement that data should be taken from a long time before any drilling starts and include air and water monitoring, reflection seismic and seismological measurements, borehole and aquifer measurements, microseismic measurements, and satellite measurements, and continue throughout the multi-decadal lifetime of the project. It has been repeatedly proposed that the atmosphere and surface will continue to be fully monitored.

Underground, wells can be drilled and measured during and after the process has finished. The integrity of the boreholes can also be monitored and the presence of any pollutants entering local aquifers. Cross-borehole techniques and 3D seismics can be used to delineate and monitor the rocks between the wells so that they are fully understood and that any changes to them or the fluids they contain can be monitored.

Only a few from industry were invited, but those to whom I have talked are very happy that a collaboration between them and British scientists could provide UK data for the first time, which they believe will provide evidence for their claims. They have pointed out that it is incredibly important for the process to be completely open and transparent, and to fully involve the general public.

The UK government have committed £31 million to this ESIOS study so far, and the hope is that the measurements will ultimately allay fears, where fears are groundless, understand the scope of the risks, where they really occur, so that risks can be removed, minimised or mitigated, and also to lead to swift changes in policy and rules where they are necessary. All so that the general public can gain trust in processes involving the exploitation of the Earth's resources in the UK.

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