As the world’s resources of oil continue to decline, fracking is the the word on everyone’s lips. However, hydraulic fracturing – the process of using water, sand and chemicals to release deep deposits of oil and gas – does not come without its difficulties. Whilst the fracking industry has taken off in the US over the past few years, here in the UK concerns over the safety and environmental effects of the process have prevented it getting the go ahead.
In a report released today, it was announced that fracking could potentially be done safely in the UK under “rigorous regulation”, but it is too early to say whether it would be “a good idea”. However, the unavoidable fact is time to find newer energy resources is running out. Green energy such as wind and solar are all very well – until the wind stops blowing and the sun stops shining, as it is prone to do in England. It’s becoming clear that, with most oil plants in the North Sea set to close in under ten years, there is little other choice. The UK government backs it, the Environment Agency has granted energy firm Cuadrilla permits for exploratory fracking at two sites in Lancashire, and an attempt by a group of MPs to impose a moratorium on fracking was recently defeated.
If fracking goes ahead, as it appears it might have to, Britain’s reserves of gas and oil trapped within layers of shale rock could be worth billions of pounds; generating handsome returns for early investors. But, given the uncertainty of its future, is it worth taking the risk?
So far, the only company with a permit to dig in the UK is Cuadrilla, an alternative energy company that is privately owned, meaning shares cannot be bought. One of the few with shares you can buy is iGas Energy, which is listed on the Alternative Investment Market (Aim) for small start-ups. iGas is currently working on a five-year plan to develop shale gas sites in the North West and East Midlands, after a £170million deal was made with petrochemicals giant Ineos to join together in a number of shale projects.
Egdon Resources is a small fish in the UK gas sea, but its intentions for growth are clear. The company nearly doubled its UK shale gas acreage by acquiring Alkane Energy’s licences in a deal funded by a £6.4m share placing.
Given the difficulty finding public companies that are actually carrying out the fracking, it may be worth considering those in industries that are intrinsically linked with it.
Alkane Energy has technology that could benefit from a growth of British fracking. The company has developed a generator than can convert gas into electricity; the generators are currently in operation converting methane from disused coal mines to power, but they can be transported by lorry and deployed on site at low cost. Similarly, Scottish-based engineering company Weir Group provides pumps for the US shale industry and would be well placed to supply to UK sites.
The best method when investing in any area is to spread the risk – investing in funds who cover a range of companies is a good way to go. John Dodd, manager of the relatively new £80m Artemis Global Energy fund, has half of his fund in the US, including a large weighting to fracking companies including Pioneer.
Jason Hollands, managing director of financial adviser Bestinvest, says: “Fracking is the big story in energy at the moment — and it’s already had a major impact in the U.S. Undoubtedly, it could become a real growth area in the UK, and that will whet the appetites of investors who like to take risks.”
However, the collapse of shale gas prospects in Poland shows how unstable the industry can be. Wells were drilled and gas flowed, but the fractures in the rock quickly closed, causing gas flow to reduce to a trickle and calling a halt to operations.
Without a doubt, investing in fracking at this stage is far from safe. However, the British Geological Survey estimates that there are 1,300 trillion cubic feet of natural gas trapped in shale rock beneath northern England in the Bowland shale region; if just a fraction of those gas resources are realised at today’s prices, they would be worth more than £1 trillion. Clearly, there’s real potential; if you’re prepared to take the risk, there’s a chance it could really pay off.