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.

City Living

Do you live in a city? Probably. Over 50 percent of the world’s population does and every week this number swells by a further 1 million so that by 2050, 70 percent of the world’s inhabitants will be city dwellers. So of course these cities are under an inordinate amount of pressure to cope with the strain on resources, while at the same time maintaining their position as the engines of the economy. Furthermore they must be resilient to the pressures of climate change which as New York found in October 2012 can cause devastating damage.

The event was at the Siemens Crystal building at Royal Victoria, accessible by cable car
The event was at the Siemens Crystal building at Royal Victoria, accessible by cable car

So it was reassuring this week to attend an event which was designed to bring together the world’s largest cities and highlight the great planning underway to ensure that they are fit for the pressures of the future. And even more importantly that these cities are doing it in a sustainable way, a way that improves the environment instead of continuing to bleed dry the few valuable resources that the the world has left. As a journalist I get invited to lots of awards and events, some of which are nothing but a PR exercise designed to raise cash for events organisers, but I am pleased to say that this one has the potential to really make a difference to the world that we are living in. The C40 global cities initiative has combined forces with technology giant Siemens to establish the award event for cities that are showing leadership in managing climate change. Mayor’s from cities all over the world came together and talked about their initiatives, shared their ideas and learned from each other. This was kicked off by London Mayor Boris Johnson who welcomed the guests with the words “We will shamelessly steal your ideas, and lengthen London’s lead as the cleanest, greenest capital – with the possible exception of some of the cities here today.”

But the idea of intellectual theft persisted with several presenters and Mayor’s joking about where they had “stolen” their initiatives from. For example Melbourne has an award winning sustainable buildings programme inspired by New York’s Empire State Building retrofit project. I was lucky enough to interview the Lord Mayor of Melbourne Robert Doyle for New Civil Engineer (NCE) magazine and find out more about how his innovative project works and critically has harnessed private investment.  This and a host of other projects from the awards will be highlighted in NCE’s next Future Cities report, due for publication on 12th September.

After participating in the event for 2 days I left with a clear message which I have unsuccessfully tried to impart to my 4 year old son who started school this week.  “By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail,” said former US President Benjamin Franklin. Whether you are a 4 year old writing your name, a journalist readying for an interview or a Mayor considering the future needs of your city, preparation is everything.

Footnote: Benjamin Franklin was rather wise. Here are a few other words of wisdom from him:

“Any fool can condemn, criticise and complain – and most fools do”

“Well done is better than well said”

“Do not fear mistakes, you will know failure. Continue to reach out”

“Wine is constant proof that God loves us”

“I wake up every morning and grab for the morning paper. Then I look  at the obituary page. If my name is not on it I get up”

Seeking site stories……

The 450t Prime Drilling rig

For the most recent issue of Underground Utilities I was struggling to find a strong cover story. We knew that we would be looking at Horizontal Directional Drilling (HDD) but the theory piece and market overview that I had written was not going to make an exciting cover. Luckily VolkerWessels UK came to my rescue with the suggestion that I hotfooted it over to the Netherlands to see their sister company Visser &Smit Hanab deliver a new gas main for local energy firm Gasunie. Not only were they undertaking HDD they were undertaking it in several locations giving me a wealth of case studies to choose from. Most exciting had to be the banana bore which the team explained required a steep angle of inclination to get the 48inch steel pipe under canal sheet piles. Read more here: Autumn UU

As always I am very grateful to Tim, Jurre, Jeff, Joey, William and everyone else onsite that helped in the research.

I am now on the lookout for auger boring, rock drilling and vacuum excavation case studies for the next issue so get in touch if you have exciting projects to talk about.

NCE Future Cities report out now

Producing the latest issue of NCE’s report on sustainable cities of the future in collaboration with Base London was highly problematic because there are so many amazing things happening in this area, and only a limited amount of space in which to cover it.

The Future Sustainable Cities report for London is in the 27/06/2013 issue of NCE
The Future Sustainable Cities report for London is in the 27/06/2013 issue of NCE

Of all the features, which include London’s transport priorities, alternative transport modes, decentralised energy and waste reduction, my favourite was the piece on smart infrastructure.  Meeting the team at Cambridge University’s Centre for Smart Infrastructure and Construction (CSIC) was a huge highlight, and it was refreshing to see so many women working at the cutting edge of the industry. Female researchers such as Heba Bevan and Njemile Faustin have been taking their smart technologies into the heart of London’s biggest construction projects such as Crossrail and London Bridge, to really get the measure of new infrastructure.

“There has been a revolution in sensor technology and the purpose of our centre is really to exploit that for construction and infrastructure,” explained Professor Robert Mair, the centre’s principal investigator .

The implications of the centre’s work are revolutionary. Infrastructure of the future will be able to report its condition remotely using the network of wireless sensors ensuring that sudden catastrophic failures are a thing of the past, and at a less sensational level ensuring that the true condition of assets is genuinely known – something that would make regulators in the rail and water industries extremely happy. “There are two aspects to this, existing infrastructure of which there is a whole world out there of old tunnels and existing bridges; and then new construction opportunities,” says Mair.

FCrick05_Pile cage in place
The pile cage at the new Francis Crick Institute is instrumented with fibre optic strain cables before being dropped into place.

As smart as this would be smarter still is the potential for self-powering MEMS (micro electro mechanical systems) sensors. “In an ideal world you would have a sensor that powers itself. The advantage of MEMS is that it is low power and it is using semi-conductor device technology made out of etched silicon. By etching it you can make a MEM machine,” says centre director Dr Jennifer Schooling who explains that one of the PhD students has designed a vibration energy harvester which can harvest energy over a range of frequencies. “The sensor is located on something that vibrates like a bridge with traffic or a tunnel where trains are rattling past then you can make use of the vibrations and store the energy. The sensor takes the reading and uses the harvested energy to transmit the information wirelessly, and that is our holy grail,” says Mair.

Read the full report here

Another major innovation that unfortunately didn’t make the final cut was a piece on urban agriculture.  Sustainable farming pioneers Tom Webster and Kate Hoffman have worked together to found a project called GrowUp where aquaponic technology is used in buildings to create urban farms. Read more about GrowUp here

A demonstration project, the GrowUp Box, is located at Marlborough Playground near London Bridge
A demonstration project, the GrowUp Box, is located at Marlborough Playground near London Bridge

Find out more about sustainable infrastructure in London on 11 July at Base London (SportsDock, University of East London, University Way, London, E16 2RD).   I will be there researching the next report.