Can Shale Gas Save The Netherlands?
With estimates in the USA citing an overall increase in employment of between 500,000 – 600,000 jobs attributable to the shale gas resource boom, it is understandable why policymakers are intrigued by the potential for shale gas resources to rejuvenate European economies too.
The Netherlands is one of these countries. With one early estimate from TNO, a Dutch innovation and enterprise institute, stating that 200-500 BCM of gas may be accessible by fracking this geological formation interest is increasing. There are businesses too, ready to move toward development of this resource such as Cuadrilla Resources, headed by Frank de Boer in the Netherlands, who strikes an optimistic chord: “Cuadrilla’s technology will ensure commercial and operational viability in developing this resource.”
But whilst the commercial ambition is there, a number of critics have publicly called for a ban on developing the resource on health, safety and environmental grounds. As a result, the Netherlands’ government has issued a moratorium on the development of shale gas resources until a Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) can deliver a definitive answer on whether the resource is safe to access.
Whilst there are often comments raised about fracking potentially causing earthquakes, it should be noted that the tremors felt emanating from the giant Groningen gas field in the east of the country have been caused by conventional production, and that fracking companies state they are aware of pressure thresholds that they can operate within, thus not creating tremors of any significance.
A second key concern of this assessment will be whether there is a danger to local potable water reserves. That being said, current evidence does indicate that the depths at which shale exists in the Netherlands means that fracking should not endanger drinking water resources. The EBN, the non-operating E&P player in the Netherlands, details why: “In the Netherlands, conventional gas reservoirs are present at a depth of around 2,000m or more. Unconventional gas plays are found even deeper, with shale layers being present at 3,000 – 4,000m below surface. Water layers used for drinking water production in the Netherlands typically occur at 50 – 200m depth, with a maximum depth of around 500m. Thick layers, several hundreds thousands of meters, of impermeable rock formations separate the gas bearing formations from the potable water layers and surface.”
On top of this, companies such as Cuadrilla are highly conscious of the need for sensitive development. “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,” explains de Boer. “On top of this, we have three further layers of casing, with cementing in between.” Cuadrilla also selects chemicals intended to have a minimal environmental impact – glutaraldehyde and polyacrylamide. The former is a biocide which degradable in anaerobic and aerobic conditions, and the latter is used in facial creams and beauty products.
“Our monitoring also is extensive, covering all aspects of the operation,” adds de Boer. “We measure everything – pressures under the surface and are alert to any potential gas leakage that might occur.”
Whilst it seems that fracking could be used to develop shale gas resources safely in the Netherlands, there are some experts who do not think that shale gas will be the panacea to the country’s gas needs, or make a substantive contribution to achieving the EBN’s 30/30 objectives: maintaining 30 BCM production annually until at least 2030. Professor Rien Herber of the University of Groningen is one such expert. Formerly the vice president of exploration in Europe for Shell, he comments, “to give a clearer idea of what shale gas could deliver in the Netherlands, it is worth remembering that the country is currently consuming 40-45 BCM per annum.” Herber then expands on why this is significant: “Even if one took 1,000 shale gas wells, producing flat out (not at the initial rate, but at a respectable average rate of 10-15,000m3 per day for a shale well), their collective production annually would be around 3.5 BCM.”
“Shale gas should not in any way be considered a replacement for the Groningen gas resource.”
As such, it would seem that whilst there is some potential for the Netherlands to safely develop shale resources, this geological wealth will not even approach the historical abundance that the nation has obtained from the Groningen gas field and that the opportunity may be a fleeting one, principally seized by smaller players.
Article by Fraser Wallace