Will There Be a British Shale Revolution?

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French super-major Total (NYSE: TOT  ) is about to be the first major oil company to explore for oil and natural gas in British shale. According to the Telegraph, under the terms of a deal which will soon be announced, Total will pay $50 million for about 40% interest for exploration licenses in Gainsborough Trough geological basin in Central Britain. While the deal may seem small for a company of Total's size, it has great significance in that it is a sign of potentially much bigger things to come. 

Controversial but rewarding resource
Though they have abundant shale resources, most Western European countries have not adopted shale drilling because of environmental concerns. Shale detractors worry that fracking, which involves pumping water and chemicals into the ground, could contaminate local drinking supplies and might increase the probability of minor earthquakes. They also worry that spills could occur in the pipelines that transport oil and natural gas to refineries.

Despite those concerns, Britain stands out as the the only Western European country looking into shale because it wants the 'fracking dividend.' Since it started aggressively developing its shale resources with fracking five years ago, the United States has seen great dividends.

The U.S. is now more energy independent. Last year, the U.S. passed Saudi Arabia and Russia as the world's largest producer of oil and gas combined. 

Because it is producing so much oil and gas domestically, U.S. petroleum imports are significantly lower than before. According to the Wall Street Journal, U.S. imports of crude oil and natural gas have fallen 15% and 32% respectively over the past five years. 

According to economist Ed Yardeni, the U.S. petroleum deficit may even go to zero in the next couple of years.

Shale development has also helped the U.S. macro-economy. Experts estimate that the unconventional gas industry contributes around $49 billion to government revenue annually and supports 1.7 million jobs.

The average american also has more disposable income because they pay less in utility bills. According to IHS Global Insight, electricity costs are 10% lower because of domestic natural gas abundance. 

The environment has also benefited. Since 2007, U.S. carbon dioxide emissions have fallen 13%, a greater amount than Europe even though Europe has invested far more in renewable energy. 

The bottom line
Britain has ample shale resources. According to the British Geological Survey, the part of Britain where Total is exploring may contain 1,300 trillion cubic feet of gas. 

If 10% of that potential is recovered, the resource could supply current annual British consumption for 46 years. 

Because of the large reserves in play, Total will benefit greatly if it finds wells that can be drilled economically. Because they are British companies, BP (NYSE: BP  ) and Royal Dutch Shell (NYSE: RDS-B  ) may follow Total's lead and explore other parts of Britain.

If Britain succeeds in developing its shale resources, France and Germany, two countries adamantly opposed to fracking, may reconsider.

I think this is a good sign for the oil and gas industry, as the shale revolution is slowly spreading to other countries. The British leadership wants it to be done, and there are a lot of compelling benefits. This could be a win-win for both Britain and large oil companies. 

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Jay Yao

Jay is an energy and materials writer. He reports on oil and gas fundamentals and macro trends in the industry.

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