Dec 212012
 December 21, 2012  Posted by at 6:33 pm Energy
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Artwork: Ilargi

The UK is set to embark on its second dash for gas. The first, beginning in the early 1990s, occurred when gas was first permitted to be used for power generation. Prior to that it had been considered a premium fuel too valuable to be used in this way. The regulatory change initiated a substantial building programme for combined cycle gas plants, fuelled by North Sea gas. Very quickly gas generation became a major component of baseload in the UK, despite warnings that North Sea gas was a temporary bonus and its depletion would leave a structural dependency on Russian gas.

Twenty years later, now that those warnings have been borne out, the UK is increasingly concerned about security of gas supply. The extent of the gas dependency has been greatly increased in the meantime by the housing bubble years, during which many very large, open plan homes were constructed, requiring gas for heating. Also, many more existing homes than previously have installed gas or electric central heating systems, and often these homes are poorly insulated.

As the years of cheap gas are over and gas prices rise inexorably, the structural dependency on cheap gas begins to cause real pain. Household energy bills are at record levels, having risen between 6-11% in 2012 and predicted to rise again in early 2013.

Fuel poverty is sharply increasing:

At the Fair Energy summit today, hosted by The Independent and Policy Review Intelligence, Ed Davey, the Energy Secretary, will remind energy companies about new rules which mean they will have to be more open about the reason why electricity and gas bills are increasing. He says companies are exaggerating the expense of the Government's energy efficiency measures.

His comments will follow the shocking claim from the Government's Fuel Poverty Advisory Group that 300,000 homes will be pushed into fuel poverty by Christmas. A household is considered to be in fuel poverty if it needs to spend more than 10 per cent of its income on fuel for adequate heating.

The group also warns that unless the Government tackles the problem of people being forced to choose between heating and eating, nine million households could fall into fuel poverty by 2016. It is estimated that six million households are already in fuel poverty.

The timing is particularly unfortunate, as the gas crunch is hitting at the same time as the credit bubble is bursting, falling house prices are leading to negative equity, austerity measures are being imposed, including welfare cuts for many of the poorest, unemployment is rising and household budgets are being considerably squeezed. The UK is also facing its third cold winter in a row. Estimates suggest that for every 1% increase in energy prices, about 40,000 households are pushed into fuel poverty.

In response, the British government has mandated The Energy Company Obligation to improve the energy efficiency of the housing stock, but there are concerns that these measures would initially add to energy bills:

The Energy Company Obligation (ECO), designed to cut bills of poor households by forcing suppliers to fit solid wall insulation, offer energy efficient boilers and other energy-saving measures, could add up to £116 to the average bill and push families that did not receive support further into fuel poverty. It said that while there were 2.7m fuel poor households in England alone, it expected the measure to help between 125,000 and 250,000 households out of fuel poverty by 2023.

Previous governments, going back at least twenty years, had been repeatedly advised to address the poor energy efficiency of the housing stock, particularly for public housing. They could have done this when mitigation would have been readily affordable, but chose to wait until the transition, if it can be afforded at all in a period of financial crisis, will be far more painful.

The current government has taken the fateful decision to pin its hopes, and much of the energy future of the country, on trying to prop up falling conventional gas supplies with unconventional alternatives. The second dash for gas has been launched with the lifting of the interim ban on fracking (imposed after minor seismic events in fracked areas) and plans to build 30 new gas plants. In his recent autumn statement, Chancellor George Osborne has announced the creation of a new Office for Unconventional Oil and Gas, along with plans for a system of generous tax incentives.


A wholesale commitment has been made to the 'shale gas revolution', with the promise of decades worth of affordable gas, and that the American experience of falling gas prices can be replicated in the UK. The Chancellor has indicated that he "does not want British families and business to be left behind as gas prices tumble on the other side of the Atlantic". The hype has been considerable, despite the acknowledgement that, even if the gas is plentiful and the technology successful in extracting it, unconventional gas could not make a substantial contribution to current levels of gas demand for at least a decade. Britain will be in energy difficulties long before that.

Matt Ridley, former chairman of Northern Rock and author of Genome and The Rational Optimist, offered this hyperbolic, but ill-informed, endorsement:

As recently as 10 years ago, there was a consensus that gas was going to run out in a few decades and grow ever more expensive in the meantime. Such pessimism is now a distant memory everywhere, except perhaps in the forecasting models of the Department of Energy and Climate Change. Gas, the most abundant fossil fuel, is going to last at least a century, probably much longer.

London Mayor Boris Johnson is on the record with even more over-the-top pronouncements:

We are…increasingly and humiliatingly dependent on Vladimir Putin’s gas or on the atomic power of the French state. And then in the region of Blackpool – as if by a miracle – we may have found the solution. The extraction of shale gas by hydraulic fracture, or fracking, seems an answer to the nation’s prayers. There is loads of the stuff, apparently – about 1.3 trillion barrels; and if we could get it out we could power our toasters and dishwashers for the foreseeable future. By offering the hope of cheap electricity, fracking would make Britain once again competitive in sectors of industry – bauxite smelting springs to mind – where we have lost hope…

…In their mad denunciations of fracking, the Greens and the eco-warriors betray the mindset of people who cannot bear a piece of unadulterated good news. Beware this new technology, they wail. Do not tamper with the corsets of Gaia! Don’t probe her loamy undergarments with so much as a finger — or else the goddess of the earth will erupt with seismic revenge. Dig out this shale gas, they warn, and our water will be poisoned and our children will be stunted and our cattle will be victims of terrible intestinal explosions.


Clearly the mayor has no idea of the energy intensity of bauxite smelting, and no understanding of net energy, along with very little respect for the very real concerns surrounding shale gas. Still, he is really only propagating the exceptionally optimistic forecasts of Cuadrilla Resources, which has been doing the preliminary drilling in the Blackpool area:

The huge scale of a natural gas field discovered under the north-west of England has been revealed, potentially revolutionising the UK's energy outlook and creating thousands of jobs, but environmental groups are alarmed at the controversial method by which the gas is extracted.

Preliminary wells drilled around Blackpool have uncovered 5.6tn cubic metres (200tn cubic ft) – equal to the kind of recoverable reserves of big energy exporting countries such as Venezuela, according to Cuadrilla Resources, a small energy company which has the former BP boss Lord Browne on its board. It said up to 800 more wells might be drilled in the region, creating 5,600 jobs and promising a repeat of the "shale gas revolution" that swept the US, sending local energy prices spinning downwards.

To compare shale gas in in Lancashire to Venezuela is simply laughable, especially on the basis of a handful of exploratory wells in one small region of the country, but then so is suggesting that the US will be the next Saudi Arabia based on shale energy resources. It seems the shale hype is rife on both sides of the Atlantic. Estimates such as 120 years UK supply, and a £1.5 trillion injection into the economy, are being enthusiastically bandied about, albeit with minor acknowledgement that not all of it may be recoverable.


Protesters demand blanket ban on fracking. Photo: PA

We have covered the shale energy situation in the US at TAE before in detail, both with regard to gas and to oil. To recap, the energy profit ratio is extremely low, meaning that scarcely any more energy is produced than had to be invested in production. Depletion rates are very high, setting producers on a drilling treadmill that runs ever faster. Fracking is both capital and energy intensive, requiring a substantial surplus of both, well in advance of needing a return on either one.

As we have pointed out before, prices are set by perception, not by reality. The perception of a gas glut is what has depressed gas prices in the US, not realistic long term prospects of producing gas in meaningful quantities. The reality is quite different, as the insiders know perfectly well:

Geologist and official from Anglo-European Energy:

After buying production for over 20 years, hopefully I know the characteristics of great wells (flat decline curves, low operating costs, large production), and as you know, the shale plays have none of these. The herd mentality into the shale will eventually end possibly like the sub-prime mortgage did. In the meantime it is very difficult to sell any kind of prospect that is not a shale play.

Analyst from PNC Wealth Management (2011):

Money is pouring in from investors even though shale gas is inherently unprofitable. Reminds you of dot-coms.

Analyst from IHS Drilling Data (2009):

The word in the world of independents is that the shale plays are just giant Ponzi schemes and the economics just do not work.

Retired geologist for major oil and gas company (2011):

As I think you would agree, we are looking at a bubble here with caveats. The caveats are how corporate hubris and bad science have caused a lot of folks to think that gas is nearly too cheap to meter. And now these corporate giants are having an Enron moment, they want to bend light to hide the truth. The bubble will burst, folks will get run over, reason will be restored, if only temporarily.

Official from Bold Minerals LLC (2010):

The ‘bait and switch’ where one massive set of capital outlays in the ‘best’ shale uncovered was soon to be eclipsed by the recognition of even better shales which required even more outlays before a thorough technical assessment of existing shale positions had been obtained could only be classified as a type of ‘mania’. It has no precedent in financial scale to any of the previous lease plays that experienced a speculative frenzy in domestic onshore petroleum history.

Official at Phoenix Canada Oil Company (2010):

It is my strong view that we will see a near collapse of that play, probably sooner rather than later. Perhaps we will see a repeat of the coal bed methane (CBM) play 'disappearance' — where that 'exciting' development faded into history 'without a trace'!

Official from Schlumberger (2010):

All about making money. I'm working on a shale gas well that was just drilled in Europe. Looks like crap, but the operator will flip it based on ‘potential’ and make some money on it. Always a greater sucker….


The low gas prices seen in the US have been a financial disaster for the production companies, although in a classic ponzi move they have made money flipping land leases even as they lost it on producing gas at a higher cost than they could sell it for. Drilling rigs are already deserting shale gas plays in the US in favour of shale oil – the next great white hope (which happens to suffer from all the same deficiencies as shale gas).

Rig count is a leading indicator of production, so we can expect shale gas production in the US to fall substantially. As production falls, we could see the US shift from perceived glut into real shortage, given the dependence there on affordable gas for both heating and electricity. We could then see a major price spike.

This is exactly the boom and bust dynamic the UK is proposing to set itself up for as North sea depletion rates pick up steam and desperation sets in. After all, it was a similar desperation over conventional gas prospects that drove the industry in the US into trying to develop unconventional supplies. However, the UK is unlikely to experience the full upward and downward swing seen in the US. It is far more likely the reserves will prove to have been overstated, and opposition to fracking in the UK countryside will be huge – far larger than the already substantial protests against on-shore windfarms.

Unlike the US, where landowners are paid royalties for the gas under their land, in the UK, mineral rights are the property of the government. The disparity between where costs and impacts would lie and where benefits would accrue increases the odds of opposition even further. The inevitable protests could delay the process well into the era of financial crisis, at which point it would not be realistically affordable.

The choice to pursue the shale option has been labelled a dangerous gamble:

Professor John Stevens, Senior Research Fellow in Energy, Environment and Resources at independent analysis organization Chatham House, opposes the government's promotion of shale gas as a viable energy alternative.

"Osborne's view of the future of energy is misleading and dangerous. It is misleading because it ignores the very real barriers to shale gas development in the U.K. and Europe more generally," he said this week.

"The U.S. revolution was triggered by favorable factors such as geology, tax breaks and a vibrant service industry among many others. However, in Western Europe the geology is less favorable, notably with the shale containing a higher clay content making it more difficult to use hydraulic fracturing (fracking)," he said. He called the U.K's "dash for shale gas" a"dangerous gamble."

Stevens added that the government's hope that shale would reduce the rising costs of energy in the U.K. were flawed.

"[The government's view] assumes that gas will be cheaper in the future and, as already explained, while this could be the case it will certainly not be the result of any shale gas revolution in U.K. or Europe in the next five to ten years."

As Professor Stevens points out, circumstances in the US and the UK are not at all similar. The UK is far more densely populated, and land-use in the countryside is tightly controlled. Fracking requires space and infrastructure:

Melissa Stark, Managing Director of Accenture's Clean energy group, said shale gas can require a number of wells over one site. Even if the number of wells can be reduced by horizontal drilling, the site will need roads, machinery and storage facilities.

"One of the biggest challenges for the UK is probably going to be the population density. The UK is much more densely populated than the US making the management of movements more challenging.

"The sharp influx of logistics activity during the drilling and fracking phases can have a significant impact on the local community. Increased traffic congestion, damage to local roads, noise and air pollution are among the most commonly cited concerns."

Ms Stark pointed out that fracking is extremely water intensive, requiring around 5m gallons per well. Although the UK is not a water stressed area, she pointed out that in certain areas in certain years, industrial water use can be restricted. Also the waste water from fracking needs to be transported off the site and treated or injected into wells deep underground. She said the UK will have to find disposal sites or build enough treatment works.

"As the volume grows, the question is can the used water treatment works keep up?"

In anticipation of substantial opposition, the government is preparing to remove planning control for fracking from local municipalities:

Under new laws, Government ministers, rather than local authorities, could have the final say on more "nationally significant infrastructure" projects, including onshore gas extraction. Proposals in the Growth and Infrastructure Bill would would exempt shale gas plans from some local planning procedures and consultations. The laws are aimed at stopping local blockages in the planning system to fast-track infrastructure and boost economic growth. Campaigners, who warn that fracking could cause "major damage" to the landscape, could have less opportunity to challenge unwanted developments.


Photo: AFP

Vague promises of 'community benefits', particularly if these come in the form of "voluntary contributions by developers to an area where their business has a long–term impact on local resources and the environment" are unlikely to appease anyone. However, if proposals to share business rates with local councils are, in fact, enacted, then councils, which a very squeezed financially, and set to become far more so, could effectively be bought off.

Apparently over 60% of England is currently under 'license block' consideration for the development of shale gas, much of it under the Home Counties. It is ironic that Conservative Party politicians are the most ardent champions of shale gas development, yet the land that would be affected is home to much of their key powerbase.

This does seem to be an obvious form of political suicide, and the fact that the present government seems blind to that is a measure of the level of concern over Britain's energy future. The powerful impulse to deny reality in order to cling to business as usual is understandable, but terribly misguided.

Under such circumstances, it is natural human behaviour to look for a saviour. Given our ghastly choices, it wouldn’t be surprising if we were susceptible to false dawns….With the West on its economic uppers, and losing power relative to the rest of the world, a home-grown energy bonanza sounds appealing…

When the big energy companies and Western governments push in the same direction, they can, for a while anyway, create any conventional wisdom they like, even one with little regard for the facts.

Unfortunately for proponents of the appealing fantasy, reality wins in the end. We are not destined to see the geo-strategic map redrawn in favour of the West as a result of shale energy. Instead, we are going to be facing some very hard decisions on rationing scarce resources for the foreseeable future, and we are going to be doing it in a time of deepening financial crisis. Britain will be critically short of both money and energy, and sadly those twin deficits can be expected to aggravate each other significantly.

Shale gas is a Faustian bargain meant to kick the energy can down the road, but it amounts to nothing more than a cruel deception.


Home Forums The Second UK Dash for Gas – A Faustian Bargain

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December 21, 2012 at 6:33 pm #8410

Nicole Foss

Artwork: Ilargi The UK is set to embark on its second dash for gas. The first, beginning in the early 1990s, occurred when gas was first permitted to
[See the full post at: The Second UK Dash for Gas – A Faustian Bargain]

December 22, 2012 at 3:05 am #6652


Thank you in particular for the link to the NY Times page that, in turn, links to documents and articles demonstrating that shale gas is a bubble and a Ponzi scheme. In New York State we’ve been fighting fracking and pipelines for four exhausting and terrifying years. While it is heartening to realize that the bubble will burst and the Ponzi collapse, we can see in neighboring Pennsylvania how much grievous harm the drillers can do while waiting for the inevitable bust. So, alas, we cannot let up on our efforts to stop the atrocity of fracking.


December 22, 2012 at 4:09 am #6653


I am thoroughly fed up with the regular articles in the “Daily Reckoning” from down-under which exalt the wonders of shale gas.

The shares of an Australian company that has some sort of permission to drill in the UK have gone up by 60% this past week. It is totally insane.

The FT also had a recent one in which most comments were very positive and dismissive of “greens”

The whole thing looks like another “pump and dump” operation.

December 22, 2012 at 6:43 pm #6654



Daily Reckoning certainly come up with some weird stuff at times, some of it is definitely in the pump n dump category. I subscibed to their newsletter and got mostly spam really. Today I was thinking that it was damaging disinformation. Humanities lost paradigm, clutching at straws in desperation as it plunges into the yawning chasm. Must remember not to feed the goblins.

Just logged in to say hi really and that, as the world ended yesterday, I’m quite amazed at how similar this limbo we are living in now is to the previous dimension.

Merry Christmas, but not too merry, to all.

December 23, 2012 at 7:55 pm #6659


Hi Stoneleigh,

Thanks again for another erudite article. Of course what few outside (and many inside) the UK will know is that recent planning changes (read total restructure of UK planning regs – the new ‘LDF’ Local Development Framework in England replaces the previous Unitary Development Plan) mean that all ‘major’ infrastructure projects (airports, roads and ‘mining’) go through Whitehall for approval and not the local authority. Also it should come as no surprise that the first ‘permissions’ for fracking are given in tory (conservative) areas with majority tory councils, as that’s where there will be least resistance.

Jane Jacob’s once commented that England was little more than a fuedal state, and in her last book “Dark Age Ahead” (2004, Random House), she talks about the demise of culture and the rise of “credentialling”:

A vigorous culture capable of making corrective, stabilizing changes depends heavily on its educated people, and especially upon their critical capacities and depth of understanding.”(p.63)


Very partial understanding combined with typical scientific overconfidence emboldens us to accept mistakes we would not otherwise accept.” (p.99)

Ironically the internet and the blog and twit-o-spheres have helped to fuel this problem, most sites (including this one) have meters on them that allow prolific users to attain ‘credentials’ of rank such as ‘master’ or ‘senior’ or ‘expert’ in some supposed subject matter. Sometimes this is a genuine reflection of knowledge in that area, but often it is just down to shear volume of posts and time spent at a computer screen – an ironic twist in forums devoted to non- computer oriented skill sets.

Such endeavours as ‘fracking’ and windfarm (another hopeless case) developments are typical symptoms of this cultural demise, and not just an attempt at BAU. Coupled with the final thrust of the neo-liberal the ‘market knows best’ agenda and one can see that the road ahead is indeed ‘liberally’ adorned with neo-good intentions and bad ideas and is leading straight to hell.

Though to be honest, when was it ever different?
Case Study: Bawtry Gas Works proves gas production and the environment in the UK have never been great bedfellows…
Perhaps we do indeed forget what we have forgotten.


December 24, 2012 at 7:16 am #6660


Ain’t Central Planning grand? It always seems to meet the needs of the “connected!”

December 24, 2012 at 7:33 pm #6662


Jane Jacob’s again:

Q. When you first moved to Toronto from New York, were there elements in Toronto, because it was a smaller city, that made you more optimistic that you could make more of a difference there compared to New York, where everything had become so politicized, so big?

A. No. I thought it was an adventure, how nice and so on. And then we heard about this expressway that was coming through right where we lived, and my husband said, “Oh my God, another expressway.” And we had to get into that. There are responsibilities you can’t evade if you find yourself in an expressway path. You have to do something about it. But, you know, I’m like most people in this. I have other things to do. I don’t like getting in these fights. I hate the government making my life absurd. I don’t want the government to set an agenda for what I have to be doing by it being so stupid that I have to devote myself to that. I have other things to do. And this is true of most people. It is really an outrage when you come to think of it. Here are all these people who get paid for government jobs, and we the taxpayers are paying them. And how are they spending their time? Making life miserable for us so we can hardly earn the money to pay their wages because we are so busy fighting them. That’s what I mean by making our lives absurd.

Q. When you start talking about the big role of government and that it messes around too much in people’s lives sometimes, is there a danger that one can become too free-enterprise, that one is forgetting the social network that government can provide?

[b]A[/b]. You are putting words in my mouth. I never said that government was messing around too much in our lives. I said it was doing stupid things. That’s not the same thing at all. It may be doing too little in our lives and still be doing stupid things. It’s not an ideological thing.


December 26, 2012 at 4:28 am #6666

John Day

I keep thinking about mitigation, and I’m often led back to the idea of very warm garment, which are still comfortable, and can be worn in house or bed, when temperatures are cold, by skinny-old-ladies.
I just don’t have any fresh ideas.
Things can be done with Peltier junctions as heat-pumps, and there are some special fibers which might be used as heat transfer channels, by these things are pretty speculative, compared to wool and goose-down.
Jimmy Carter was very unpopular when he appeared on TV in a sweater, urging Americans to turn down their thermostats that winter.
Ronald Reagan borrowed from the future, sold out Social Security, “proved deficits don’t matter”, and claimed that “happy days were here again”. He was a “good president”.
Maybe warm, comfortable and inexpensive clothes can be a policy priority.
Some kind of warmers for wrists and ankles could just be thermal mass, heated on the stove, to keep hands and feet warm, but that seems cumbersome.

December 26, 2012 at 12:01 pm #6667


Today, I drove past the “National Wool Museum” (of Australia):

and the nearby “Wool Exchange”:

Of course, it used to be a huge business – before cheap coal, town gas, natural gas and electricity made house-warming affordable for almost everyone. I was thinking that maybe its time will come back.

Apparently, 4-5 million people in the UK are now classified as “fuel poor”. This total is expected to rise to 8-9 million by 2016 – 10% of the population.

I suspect that wool will return to favour in a big way in Europe, and cotton will lose its shine. People will have to dress warmly indoors.

December 26, 2012 at 12:08 pm #6668


Continued …

Some motorcyclists wear electrically-heated clothing. I am not sure how practical it would be to do something like that for people indoors. Many elderly people don’t move about much. In any case, it would only need to be 20-30 Watts rather than the 100 Watts that riders require – an enormous energy saving compared to heating the house to a similar temperature. Also, there are substances that release a lot of heat as they solidify (e.g. wax)

December 26, 2012 at 9:35 pm #6669


We need gas now and drinking water can always be purified after the fact…

Optimism bias in action I suppose.

December 31, 2012 at 2:21 am #6676


Our Fucked Up Fiscal Fate

December 31, 2012 at 7:53 am #6680


After slowly reading the article and some comments I am more and more believing people are not being overly optimistic but incredibly unprepared.

History has already written the books and we don’t get to alter it that much. Yes people will live under the standards we hope for with modern societies but its a little worse than that. People need to bend their minds around the idea that without heat and with less food society will move towards 3rd world standards. Expect a larger gap between the upper class and poverty class and a nearly non existent middle class. Most shocking to me is the currant absence of the death toll this will take.

Many will die if the numbers are correct in this article. The only solution that has had any success historically for mankind is to form protective societies. In a world of the kind of scarcity that will eliminate masses expect capitalism and the greed system to fail significantly.

December 31, 2012 at 8:03 pm #6681


@william – From what I see of the people that I know, if they believed that we are moving towards 3rd world standards, they would do some kind of preparing. But they don’t believe that our standards will decline. Therefore, they are not preparing. I’ve even had people tell me they don’t believe it. What they have now, is normal. They are unable to see anything get worse, only that things are going to get better. Technology will save us!

January 1, 2013 at 1:27 am #6684


Seems to me, a good solution to the energy deficit is to encourage population shifts from the extremes of the North and East, to the milder regions of the South and West. Wasn’t it, after all, cheap energy that enabled growth in frigid northern climes in the first place?

In Europe, maybe more Mediterranean climes should be considered?

Has anyone ever studied the difference between the carbon footprint/monetary cost of structure heating and cooling in San Diego as opposed to Toronto? Detroit as opposed to San Francisco? Orlando/Salt Lake City? London/Rome? Stockholm/Cypress?

I would certainly prefer (and in fact now enjoy) life in mild climates rather than end up sitting in a cold house under an electric blanket every winter.

I would think one could get a bit closer to energy “sustainability” by locating in a place where achieving the comfort zone only requires 10 degrees of heat from outside temperature to inside, as opposed to 60 degrees.

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