Shale Gas and Fracking

Last week I attended the Shale UK event for Infrastructure Intelligence. This particular conference was run by The Geological Society and as such it had an underlying technical and professional tone that ensured the event was all about the facts of the matter, and not the politics or even the philosophy. The geologists, engineers and academics were not lecturing on what the UK should do with regard to shale gas and hydraulic fracturing, they were discussing the technical issues in an impartial way and that is something that the entire debate really needs.

Cuadrilla revealed results from its first hydraulically fracked well in Lancashire

Several important issues became apparent as the conference rolled on starting with the fact that despite having over 100 years of oil and gas expertise and some of the best minds in the world examining the UK shale beds, there is a lot that we do not know. Without any test data from exploration it is not possible to calculate the cost of recovery and therefore the potential volume of the reserve. Early findings from the only hydraulically fracked well in the UK so far, Cuadrilla’s Preese Hall well in Lancashire were revealed at the conference with senior geoscientist Huw Clarke explaining that the findings showed high levels of free gas, (a desirable quality for energy firms), and a larger resource than initially forecast. However this cannot yet be translated into a reserve value.

Interestingly the conference revealed that geologists are not concerned about seismic risks from hydraulic fracturing. Professor Peter Styles of Keele University says that in reality only three earthquakes have been induced by hydraulic fracturing despite over 35,000 wells having been drilled in the US alone and that the UK could have had its “Black Swan” event early with the Blackpool tremors that registered 2.3 and 1.5 in magnitude. “Hydraulic fracturing a well as presently implemented does not pose a high risk for inducing felt  seismic  events,” he says.

In terms of pollution prevention well integrity is crucial said several presenters. Well construction experts from Moorhouse Drilling & Completions and Petroleum Safety Services Ltd explained the key design criteria and demonstrated how the sequential construction of the well creates several barriers between the borehole and the external environment – when done properly. Ensuring that it is done properly will be the Health & Safety Executive and the Environment Agency along with an independent well inspector. This inspector role has been the subject of debate with energy companies paying experts and thereby challenging the “independent” position. More guidance is expected on this subject.

Other unknowns include the levels of naturally occurring radiation that will be present in the fracturing water once it has done its job, and how this will be dealt with if it is above permissible limits. Long term re-injection has higher seismic risk than fracking itself said experts; and whether the current regulatory set up is adequate for production phase with the Environment Agency confirming that this is “under review”

A more detailed analysis will appear in a forthcoming issue of Infrastructure Intelligence.

Infrastructure Intelligence


The ACE this week launched its new communications platform with Infrastructure Intelligence. Led by former NCE editor Antony Oliver the first launch blasts into the issues of the day for the infrastructure community. Sir John Armit sets out the challenge for long term infrastructure investment and the need for a new Independent Infrastructure Commission;  the Environment Agency’s cost benefit analysis process for flood defence investment is challenged in the light of the recent flooding which has left the Somerset Levels under water for over a month;  ACE chief executive Nelson Ogunshakin says making the case for long term infrastructure investment is vital as political parties write their manifestos in 2014; and I report on the ongoing House of Lord’s fracking enquiry that saw the Energy Minister stress that more test wells are needed. Read it here 

Underground Utilities Winter 2013


The winter issue of Underground Utilities is now online

It includes a great Saudi Arabia site story, a profile of rig giants American Augers, a special report on the increasingly popular technique of vacuum excavation, analysis on progress of hydraulic fracturing or fracking in the UK and a report on rock construction in Switzerland.

NCE Middle East report

NCE Middle East report A recent report that I did for NCE on the Middle East construction market is now online. Engineers are excited again – not surprisingly given the World Cup in 2022 and now the Dubai Expo 2020 (awarded after the report was written) are going to create many more opportunities. But everyone […]

Retrofit for the Future

The latest NCE Future Cities report (- read it here) is out and the most important topic that it covers is without doubt building retrofit. More and more buildings are being upgraded, reducing cost and energy use – but take up is generally slow.


According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) buildings are responsible for 40% of global energy use and around a third of global CO2 emissions, but in high density cities this is much higher.  New York for example estimates that 75% of all emissions are generated in buildings and London closer to 80%. Against this backdrop cities are working towards a range of carbon reduction targets, the largest of which is set out in the Climate Change Act of 2008 and requires an 80% reduction in overall emissions by 2050 against 1990 values.

In response to this some global cities are taking a leading position and their actions are having an important effect worldwide. The world’s most famous office block for example, the Empire State Building is coming to the end of a $13.2m energy retrofit programme that is set to pay back the capital investment in just over three years. Two years on from the commencement of the EPC contract and the building is outperforming expectations by 5 per cent in the first year and 4 per cent in the second. Perhaps more importantly though it has also met its original goal of producing a replicable model having made all of its data openly available. As a result around 100 buildings in the US are thought to be using the methodology. For other cities it has had a more inspirational effect with the Right Honorable Lord Mayor of Melbourne Robert Doyle telling NCE that this was the inspiration for its project to retrofit 1200 buildings with energy efficiency measures. To do this the city has created a unique funding model with private banks. So far 200 retrofit schemes are underway. The benefits have surpassed all expectations with a AUS$10bn boost to GDP and an additional 50,000 jobs created in construction, smart building, retrofitting, technical services and real estate . “We are having a mini boom in our city,” says Doyle. 

So what about the UK? Consultants and contractors tell NCE that to date retrofit work is mainly driven by large businesses and public buildings. “For me the green retrofit market has not moved as quickly as we thought it would,” says Paul Chandler executive vice president of Skanska UK. Skanska also features in the Future Cities report thanks to its leading position on green contracting.

There are many reasons for the slow take up on the commercial side not least a controversial decision by the Treasury in September 2011 to throw out proposals to make Display Energy Certificates (DECs), which are mandatory in public buildings, compulsory for the commercial sector too. Instead government is insisting that all building landlords have a minimum standard Energy Performance Certificate (EPC) rating of F by 2018, but experts say this does not go far enough. 

Without any requirements to report actual consumption many landlords are lacking motivation to invest, particularly given the troubled times that have beset the property sector in the wake of the recession.  Energy costs are often low down in the hierarchy of spending requirements.

Despite these stumbling blocks there is some good work being done in the UK. “We often see energy upgrades being carried out as part of a wider retrofit programme,” says Dr Paul Toyne, director of sustainability at Balfour Beatty. He points to a number of recent UK retrofit schemes as being important examples of what can be achieved. At Blackfriars station in London for example Balfour Beatty have fitted 6000m2 of solar panels to the roof generating half of the stations energy requirements and reducing carbon emissions by 511t per year.

The full article appears in NCE Future Cities November 2013

Lifting down

The latest issue of Cranes Today is out now  (see here) and contains a feature I did on the use of cranes in tunnelling work. It explores the technical issues that come into play when lifting components down into tunnels rather than more traditional applications where lifting up is the norm.

Big Bertha is a 17.5m, 7000t Hitachi Zozen TBM which will build a new viaduct in Seattle. A special gantry system was used to construct it.


A couple of companies were really helpful in assisting me with research. Taylor Woodrow BAM Nuttall kindly showed me around Tottenham Court Rd station where all manner of cranes from gantries to  crawlers are being used to rebuild the station box and connecting tunnels ready for Crossrail; Dragados USA as part of Seattle Tunnel Partners with Tutor Perini Corp gave me a briefing on the lifting strategy for the world’s largest TBM (for now – these things are growing!); UK lifting specialists Ainscough Crane Hire gave me the inside track on the technical considerations and down under Melrose Crane and Rigging talked me through a complex underwater TBM lift.