Manchester at the heart of the UK shale gas revolution

The British Geological Survey/Dept of Energy and Climate Change report, published on 27 June 2013, on the potential gas in place in the buried Bowland shale formation shows Manchester at the geographic heart of the occurrence of this resource.  Shale gas potentially can go a long way towards meeting UK energy needs for up to 60 years, depending on how much can be recovered in a safe and well-managed regulatory framework. It can reduce substantially our nation’s dependence on expensive and politically unreliable gas shipped from the Middle East or by pipeline from Asia. It can provide baseload electricity generation capacity and could help stabilize domestic gas prices. As the North American experience has shown, it can help power a new industrial renaissance, creating new jobs in areas where they are desperately needed.

View Bowland Shale in a larger map
The thick line bounds occurrence of Bowland shale both buried and outcropping as the surface in northern England. Source: Andrews, I.J. 2013. The Carboniferous Bowland Shale gas study: geology and resource estimation. British Geological Survey for Department of Energy and Climate Change, London, UK.


However, there is a price to be paid for such a major industrial operation. Based on operational activity in the USA, in the northwest alone between 500 and 1000 drilling operations will likely have to be carried out sequentially, with the drillpads (several wells per drillpad) connected by underground pipes and networks of minor roads laid to carry out the trucking operations required. Each drill pad will require water volumes corresponding to a full size swimming pool, and wastewaters will be tankered away for disposal elsewhere (usually down deep boreholes) after on-site treatment. Thus there will be an environmental impact for some local communities for the year or two that operations are locally carried out and land remediation completed. One of the challenges will be to minimize this environmental footprint. This requires continuing development of new and existing technology to focus where we drill and how we stimulate the reservoir to get maximum rates of flow.  These are just some of the focus areas for the research being done at Manchester.  This all comes together under broader energy-related activities carried out by the University’s ‘Manchester Energy’ initiative.

As with all large industrial operations, safe operation in a strong regulatory environment is of paramount importance, and exploitation of shale gas in the UK will have learned a great deal from the USA experience. There is good reason to believe that operations can be carried out with no significant risk to water supplies (gas-bearing formations are 2.5km deep, whereas aquifers are less than 100 m deep) and no significant risk of earth tremors. Worldwide 2.5 million fracking operations have been carried out since 1947 to stimulate oil and gas wells without inducing significant amounts of seismicity. It has been a core part of getting commercial rates from challenging reservoirs across the globe including in the North Sea.

How are the School of Earth, Atmospheric and Environmental Sciences and the  University of Manchester  contributing to research into the potential development of this resource? Presently, we do so in several ways, integrating areas of expertise in the School :

  1. Geologists study the details of the shale rock succession in this and other areas, facilitating correlation of strata and mapping the potential distribution of the most potentially productive intervals - the sweet spots for development. Material Scientists are undertaking research into the multi-scale variability within these rocks and the impacts upon gas flow.
  2. In the area of rock mechanics and petrophysics, we study the strength, fracture and friction of shales, and in particular their permeabilities to gas, with the aim of understanding the depletion of shale gas and optimization of productivity.
  3. Methane is a strong greenhouse gas and further emissions to the atmosphere could exacerbate climate change and affect local air quality. Atmospheric scientists at Manchester are concerned with mapping atmospheric gas concentrations from surface sites and the air and how this might change with time. Environmental scientists have developed tools for measuring gas concentrations in boreholes – initially developed for monitoring landfill gas generation and this is being applied to natural gas monitoring.

Contact staff in the School of Earth, Atmospheric and Environmental Sciences:  Prof Kevin Taylor, Dr Julian Mecklenburgh, Prof. E. Rutter, Dr. G. Allen, Dr. S. Boult. Contact for Manchester Energy: Prof Ian Cotton.

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