License: All rights reserved. Credit: Greenpeace

Fracking go ahead: Five differences between the US and UK

Damian Kahya
Damian Kahya is the Energydesk editor and former foreign, business and energy reporter for the BBC. You can following him on Twitter @damiankahya
License: All rights reserved. Credit: Greenpeace

The US 'shale gas revolution' cut the price of gas by more than half and is reported to have created around half a million jobs.

At the same time it's partially replaced coal - helping the US to cut its carbon emissions. It's little wonder the phrase 'US style' shale gas revolution is so widely used. But is it plausible to imagine the same thing will happen here?

Following on from our analysis of Boris Johnson's claims on shale we look at key differences between the US and UK and assess their impact:

1) The US has more gas than we do.

The US has a bounty of shale gas. In 2011 the US Energy Information Agency (EIA) estimated that it has a total recoverable reserve of 862trn cubic feet. By contrast the estimate for the UK was 20trn cubic feet.

That works out as 2.7trn cubic feet of shale per million Americans, versus about 0.3 per million Brits. Some suggest the UK shale reserve is around double the EIA estimate, but the point remains.

This is likely to be mirrored in production terms. 

A report by the Energy Contract Company, covered in the FT, suggests yearly production of 2.1m cubic feet a day by 2030.

Cuadrilla has recently supplied figures to Poyry suggesting they could extract almost exactly the same amount each year from the Bowland shale alone by 2035.

That's about 21% of total UK demand. This scenario leaves the UK 58% dependent on imports - compared to 78% without shale. 

Production in the US is around ten times that, far more per head and, taking into account its conventional supplies, leaves the country almost self sufficient for gas

Ultimately though nobody really knows the extent of UK shale gas reserves until testing is complete. Higher volumes would benefit the UK's balance of trade - and the treasury's tax revenues - but do little to impact on price (see below). 

2) Their gas was locked in - ours can be sold to the highest bidder

Gas is hard to export, you can either pipe it or freeze it and put it - under high pressure - into a specially designed tanker - Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG).

When the shale gas started flowing in the US they had very little export infrastructure. All the gas that flowed went into the domestic market.

Thanks to its North Sea infrastructure the UK is already a 'gas hub' with two European interconnector pipelines and large LNG infrastructure.

Indeed, despite falling North Sea production and rising imports, UK exports actually reached record levels last year. 

It's hard to have a gas glut in a gas hub. Instead, just like North Sea oil, UK shale gas will be sold to highest bidder from around the world and so do little - on its own - to alter UK prices.

Instead the price in the UK will depend on the regional and global price of gas - just as it does now - no matter how much shale we produce. 

A recent estimate by Poyry found that, taking into account likely UK and global production, UK gas prices would be 2-4% lower than they otherwise would have been without shale.

The IEA has estimated that prices in Europe will remain around 40% above their 2010 levels (a little above current levels) in a scenario in which most of the world's best shale reserves are used. 

Prices may fall far more sharply, thanks to shale in China, global economic woes or the widespread extraction of shale oil lowering overall gas demand - but it won't be a "US style" shale revolution.

3) The economics are different

Once you've drilled a well - or lots of wells - it makes sense to keep producing from it/them even if the price falls lower than you were expecting. 

In the US shale came on stream just as the economy flat-lined, crashing the price well below what anyone predicted.

Earlier this year the price fell as low as $1.73 but has now risen to $3.30 and is expected to average $3.49 in 2013 (a little over half UK levels) compared to $2.77 in 2012

Some expertsExxon and the IEA have suggested that it is not actually economic to drill for shale at below $3, with some wells needing over double that price to make sense. 

As a consequence the number of drilling rigs in the US has almost halved since the start of the year, with the EIA forecasting a drop in shale gas production in 2013. 

Such a scenario is unlikely in the UK - especially as shale gas can be exported to more lucrative markets - shale here is likely to be sold at least 'at cost'.

4) The geology and costs are different

There is some debate over whether the geology in the UK and Europe is as promising as that in the US.

The IEA believes extracting the gas in Europe is between two and three times more expensive thanks to different geology and regulation.

Professor Paul Stevens from Chatham House has argued that fracking using current US technology won't work here.

"The geology for shale gas is much less promising than in the United States. In general the deposits are deeper, the materiality in terms of gas deposits lower and the basins smaller. The plays are more fragmented and the shale is richer in clay."

Early experiences in Europe's most developed shale market, Poland, have not been promising. The country dramatically revised down its reserve estimates and saw oil and gas giant Exxon leave, blaming problems getting the gas out of the ground. 

However the British Geological Survey (BGS) appear to disagree with Professor Stevens and even argue our geology may be more promising - endorsing Cuadrilla's claims that UK shale is thicker than that in the US.

"I just took one example and compared it with America. They have a much greater thickness of shales. The greater thickness of shale, the more gas you are going to get. Their figure, in my opinion, is more reliable than mine."

One thing alone is for sure, the geology is not the same. 

5) We don't own the land under our feet (Her Majesty does)

In the US you own the land under your feet and most of the initial fracking was vertical - straight down. In the UK you don't, and a lot of the drilling will be horizontal under ground.

That means, in the US, if a farmer finds shale under his land, he may become a rich man. If that shale extends under the land of his neighbours, they too may become wealthy. 

In the UK if a farmer finds shale under his land he might be able to sell the land to a firm with a liscense to explore in his area. They have lots of options of farms to buy and are unlikely to make him rich. They may then - depending on regulations - frack deep under his neighbour's land.

They just get to admire the view. People are far more willing to have things in their backyard, if they also make them rich.

That said shale in the UK may make Her Majesty's government richer (or less skint), boost the balance of payments and generate direct employment in extraction and the supply chain.

It's just unlikely to attract the same kind of local support as it does in the US, potentially limiting scope for drilling.

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And none of this will matter a rat's patootie if the people who are currently in standing in the way get out of the way, and let those who are willing to do so provide the British public with the energy they want and need.

Useful and concise. Thanks!

This is a good report, and I say this as a sceptic of all things imperative told to me ;)

However, I wonder if I could have a technical point of clarity of meaning answered?*

Who says the following?:


"I just took one example and compared it with America. They have a much greater thickness of shales. The greater thickness of shale, the more gas you are going to get. Their figure, in my opinion, is more reliable than mine."

It is preceded with this 


However the British Geological Survey (BGS) appear to disagree with Professor Stevens and even argue our geology may be more promising - endorsing Cuadrilla's claims that UK shale is thicker than that in the US

Which has two candidates - BGS or prof Stevens?

* some would say that is a bit rich for me to ask ;)



This seems to be FUD.

You pose a question, list some differences but never get around to giving an anwer to the original question.

"But is it plausible to imagine the same thing will happen here?"

The most important question to you in my mind is:-

"Do you approve of US fracking?"

If you don't then everything you have set out above is irrelevant - because even if we were identical to the US you would oppose it anyway... So why consider the differences?


An interesting argument for and against the two countries. I would like to see a system in place that for all those responsible for creating and recommending Fracking that if they get it wrong and it becomes a disaster that they loose all thier assests and spend time in jail. Including those in government.

Burgess, don't be an idiot. Whenever in human history did this sort of sanction apply to research into new energy sources, or indeed anything else? On the basis of your argument we wouldn't even have dared develop the wheel.

But I'm happy to go along so long as everyone from Ed Davey to Damian Kahya who have done their level best to stop this development with any argument — factual, counter-factual, direct action, simple straightforward lying — will end up suffering the same fate when the rest of us are enjoying the benefits of a healthy economy based on cheap, clean, abundant energy.

The article ignores the biggest difference between US shale and UK shale .

- One is located in a country of entrepreneurs who have a mature attitude towards risk and rise to engineering challenges .

- The other is located in a country of institutionalised nimbys who have a childish attitude towards any sort of risk and are constantly searching for reasons not to do something .

Not only would it have been impossible for the unconventional hydrocarbon revolution to have originated in the UK the fact that it originated in the US makes it a target of people with mindless anti-American tendencies .

I'm really hoping that shale can help bring about a cultural change in the UK .

Even if the price is no lower it makes a big difference to our balance of payments .


Burgess ,

Perhaps you can convince the Norwegians and Dutch to just give us gas seeing as the world owes us a living or make a case for buying it from Russia so we can sit on our backside and do nothing , as is our way .

Otherwise maybe your aims would be better served by campaigning for introduction of a one child policy and euthanasia to protect the earth from pesky human beings .



Another key point is that the UK is a crowded island. The fracking corporations won't be able to poison water tables, streams, ponds, and the environment with impugnity as it has done in the US.

Fracking is stupid.

A significant difference is in the US shale gas is associated with conventional hydrocarbons. As a consequence the plays are better understood due to existing drilling and seismic coverage. There is also abundant infrastructure. This allows the companies to target the core part of plays giving the best gas delivery rates and therefore the best economic returns. Outside the core plays only 25% of shale gas wells have a positive rate of return.

In the UK we have no idea of where those core plays may be located and face a steep learning curve to understand these plays. Combined with concerns over fugitive methane emissions, CO2 footprint, groundwater pollution, noise pollution, surface water and land contamination - nothing convinces me to believe that shale gas will ever happen in the UK.

healthy economy on a sick planet?

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