Resources – Frank de Boer, Director – Netherlands
Frank de Boer of Cuadrilla Resources discusses the potential for shale gas in the Netherlands, and the opportunity that exists for companies seeking to exploit it. Specifically to Cuadrilla, he describes the innovative and substantive measures the business has taken to ensure safety and reliability across its production systems.
In the light of the EBN’s objective for production- that of 30 BCM annually in 2030, what is the role that shale gas could play in achieving that aim?
To be honest, we do not know. There are estimations of what the shale gas resource in the Netherlands may be, which have been formed by geologists with a great knowledge of what is happening underground. With regard to shale gas specifically, more information is needed, and the only way a more definitive answer can be ascertained is through exploration drilling. In Poland, for example, the estimates of gas were revised down following shale gas test wells. In the UK, the contrary situation happened. There, the original expectations were originally quite low and were revised upwards subsequently. Now, an enormous resource is anticipated – our own company considers that 200 TCF might be achievable whereas the British Geological Survey estimated 1300-1700 TCF (GIP) in a study completed last year. This is an estimate of gas in place of course, but were only ten percent of that resource accessible, then this would be more gas than has ever been realized from the Groningen resource.
In the Netherlands, exploration drilling is the next necessary phase to fully understand what is feasible. Initial estimates by TNO, for example consider that 200-500 BCM is accessible annually and the IEA found a similar figure but this is something that needs confirmed.
For shale gas to make any contribution to the Netherland’s gas supplies, well tests need to be performed. These will give a better idea of what can be expected, and from Cuadrilla’s perspective, would enable the company to demonstrate its high levels of technology which we could apply not only to the drilling, and maintenance of the well bore (through our high-tech well casings for example) but also through our comprehensive monitoring efforts. This covers methane emissions, noise and tremors and earthquakes as well as many other factors. This enables us to deliver fully transparent information about what’s going on- people can see how safely and effectively we can access this resource.
To what extent have earthquakes associated with the conventional Groningen resource been unfairly associated with shale gas, to what extent has this led to misconceptions with regard to the industry, and how are these being addressed?
The industry is of course investigating the Groningen earthquakes on its own. There is an enormous effort associated with organizations such as TNO and the like into tackling this problem. In general, the industry knows that fracking can cause some tremors, such as those associated with our own site in the UK, which experienced two tremors. That being said, there is a big difference between the earthquakes at Groningen, where there is conventional gas production and that of the tremors associated with fracking. Subsidence is the biggest issue at Groningen- this is unpredictable and uncontrollable. Fracking on the other hand, is entirely different. With adequate distance made between a fracking site and an existing fault line, many tremors can be avoided. Additionally, any movement caused by fracking will be almost instantaneous- which means it is controllable. Measuring of tremors in the subsoil means that at one can determine threshold values whereby fracking should not take place. One can then operate perfectly safely within these established boundaries. This can prevent damage entirely and it is of note that these thresholds are already used in the Netherlands. At the Bergemeer gas storage facility, there is an operating facility which injects gas into the ground, changing pressures potentially affecting underground structures. The system of regulating pressures in this system – referred to as a ‘traffic light’ system has been evaluated by MIT – it is considered to ensure operations do not cause harm.
This system has been accepted in the UK by the Department for Energy and Climate Change on the basis of seismological assessment.
This all seems quite clear; that the risks of earthquakes are understood and manageable. What is Cuadrilla doing to make sure the public has access to information letting them know that the company can address any concerns raised with regard to fracking activity?
We believe that we need to improve public awareness and perceptions of fracking, not only for shale gas, but for gas in general. We are in favor of starting a dialogue with the public, and with NGOs to cooperatively determine how we would want to develop from the current stage of using fossil fuels and gas to that where more sustainable energies are used. This is, however, an enormous challenge, the government stating the goal of 14 percent power from renewables by 2020, and 16 percent in 2023. The remainder of our energy will still come from fossil fuels however, and gas is the cleanest such fuel. However, the public perception of gas and its production is poor at the moment, not just for shale gas.
However, Cuadrilla is a strong promoter of gas as a fuel source, and together with the industry we are looking toward starting a dialogue with the public about how to move towards an optimal situation for sourcing our energy needs. This is a difficult tack to take, however.
Expanding on the strategic environmental assessment underway, initiated by the government in 2013, simultaneously there was an investigation on how local interests were represented in the planning process. How does the government currently interact with shale gas development applications, and where could the process be improved?
If you look at the various governmental layers which we have to deal with, this runs from the local community all the way to central government. The local municipalities, rightly, wish to look out for the interests of their constituents but often have access to fewer technically informed personnel who can interpret data relevant to shale gas development. Other governmental departments have a great deal of expertise, though and can assist through provision of information or direct presence in the planning process. The State supervision of Mines and the Ministry of Economic Affairs both are very involved in the planning process, and KNMI is a center for expertise which can offer information with regard to earthquakes.
The local government can also knock on those doors in order to obtain feedback. With regard to what is relevant to the Netherlands, and whether the country should proceed with shale gas development, this is indeed a question for the entire country, as the entire state would see the economic benefits of this development. Of course, the planning process should give due consideration to local interests where possible.
What indicators do we have about the impacts of shale gas development in the Netherlands?
EBN commissioned a notional field development plan, performed by Halliburton and Royal Haskoning DHV. It was very elaborate, though is limited by the lack of proper well tests. It considers landscaping, visual impact. Field developments are very unobtrusive, and represent a similar or even smaller impact than oil fields developed by NAM in Schoonebeek in the east of the Netherlands. Shale gas development is a very different prospect than its opponents would have one believe.
What technologies and capabilities has Cuadrilla developed which will allow it to drill with confidence in the reliability and safety of its operations?
To ensure well integrity the first well casing we have on our developments runs to a depth twice as great as that of the potable water table. This is an important element in protecting the water tables- areas which have legitimate complaints about fracking often involve players unlike Cuadrilla who have been less stringent in the application of equipment like this.
On top of this, we have three further layers of casing, with cementing in-between. Our monitoring also, as mentioned earlier, is extensive covering all aspects of the operation from pressures under the surface to any potential gas leakage that might occur.
To illustrate the security of our measures, in Brabant, we worked with the local water utility to ensure our operations would not compromise the local water supply- undoubtedly a key consideration in our plans. At the end of this process, Brabant concluded, after an extensive and in-depth study, our operations would not likely endanger the water supplies, but asked for five extra safeguards to be enforced to make as certain as possible there was no risk to the water supply. It turned out that of their five requests, four were enshrined in legislation and the last was easily accommodated- that we monitor not just potable water resources, but water reserves at a deeper level. Cuadrilla was happy to comply as this ought to serve as further evidence for the security of our operations. This anecdote also attests to how robust the regulations covering this form of activity are already in the Netherlands.
To give another perspective which highlights the safety of our operations, in Brabant we will drill to 3,000 meters, whereas the water table is 300 meters. There is a substantial distance between our end activities and the water table. On top of this, our well casing extends, as mentioned, twice as deep as the potable water table itself.
The chemicals Cuadrilla uses- glutaraldehyde and polyacrylamide. The former is a biocide, but is degradable in anaerobic and aerobic conditions, and the latter is used in facial creams in beauty products.
Cuadrilla’s technology also ensures the commercial viability of our operations. State of the art is a term we can apply across our operations. There are continuous developments in fracking technology, spurred on by investment in this sector.
Post 2015, how do you see shale gas benefitting the Netherlands?
What is very important is that the Netherlands is reminded that, whilst it is an energy exporter for the moment, current indications stand as showing the country becoming an energy importer in the early 2020’s. This would have a significant impact on government tax revenues, and subsequently for the entire economy. The longer we can produce our own gas the better. Studies that we completed alongside the University of Utrecht and Royal Haskoning DHV have also indicated that both LNG and imported Russian gas are more environmentally harmful than Dutch domestically produced gas, resulting in greater total greenhouse gas emissions throughout the production and supply process. This is why domestic shale gas offers the Netherlands a great opportunity to safeguard its economic future, whilst simultaneously assisting efforts to minimize environmental harms.