Across the Atlantic, the United States is moving towards energy self-sufficiency thanks to the boom of shale gas. In Switzerland too, new extraction techniques have relaunched the search for natural gas.
The world is entering a “golden age of gas”, according to the International Energy Agency. It’s a sentiment echoed by Patrick Lahusen, vice-president of the Swiss Petroleum Company.
“We are facing a real revolution,” said Lahusen. “All the theories that said there are reserves of gas and oil for another 20 to 30 years on earth can be completely forgotten. We have gas and petroleum for at least 200 to 300 years.”
For over 30 years, the one-time Zurich banker has been looking for energy hidden underground. To do this he has created various companies, raised money and prospected in all sorts of places - eight of the 18 explorations in the last half century in Switzerland are his work. But until now he has had little success.
Yet Lahusen is sure of one thing: there is gas aplenty under the Swiss soil. “Today we know that the probability of finding large quantities of petroleum in Switzerland is fairly slight. Subjected to pressure and heat, petroleum turns into gas. And that’s just what happened in our part of the world when the Alps were formed – it generated enormous pressure and very high heat.”
“So there is gas. We have been able to confirm this with the drilling we have done in the last few decades,” he says.
In fact, natural gas has been found almost everywhere, even if sufficient quantities have not been discovered to make extraction profitable in the long term. The only attempt, made in the 1980s in canton Lucerne, lasted only a short while and lost several million francs.
But for Lahusen, there is hope on the horizon. “For over a century we have been using a mistaken approach in looking for gas and petroleum all over the world. Until now we thought we could extract hydrocarbons only from the porous rock in which they had accumulated. So a vertical drill shaft was used to reach the highest point of the deposit underneath the impermeable strata of rock. With this method, only one shaft in sixteen was successful.”
Golden age of gas
“For some years, though, we have known that gas and petroleum are to be found in large quantities even in impermeable rock, in particular in shale. Thanks to the new technique of fracking [hydraulic fracturing], we are now able to exploit shale oil and gas, which is a lot more plentiful and easier to find underground,” he explains.
To do this, oil workers bore a vertical shaft down into the shale stratum. They then work outwards horizontally, breaking up the rock with injections of water, sand and chemical substances to free up the gas or petroleum. Within the last few years, fracking has yielded extraordinary results in North America, especially when it comes to extracting gas.
According to the International Energy Agency, by 2020 the US will overtake Saudi Arabia as the major producer of hydrocarbons, and by 2035 it will have achieved energy self-sufficiency. For the IEA, which is talking of planetary reserves enough to last 250 years, a “dramatic twist” is taking place in world energy scenarios.
Lighter than water and subjected to strong pressure underground, natural gas tends to rise to the earth’s surface, where it evaporates.
Large quantities of gas are however still locked underground, held under layers of impermeable rock.
So far prospecting has focussed almost completely on deposits accumulated in porous rock 2,000–4,000 metres down.
In 2007 in North America, however, extraction of gas contained in impermeable rock, particularly in shale, but also in carbon deposits, began on a large scale.
Since then extraction of shale gas has experienced spectacular growth. Last year President Barack Obama announced that the US now has enough natural gas for at least a century.
The price of gas has hit a very low level in the US – not even a third of what it costs in Europe – and this has contributing to a relaunching of industrial production.end of infobox
The whole thing sends a shudder through environmentalists. In fracking, they say, cocktails of chemical products are used which spread in the phreatic layer, and some of which come back up to the surface.
“The risks of this technique, as it is being used at the moment, are unacceptable, both for the environment – in particular for phreatic water and drinking water – and in the end for man,” says Michael Casanova of the group Pro Natura.
Condemned by ecologists in the US, fracking is already dividing Europe. Some countries like France and Holland have banned it, whereas others, like Poland and the Ukraine, have decided to exploit it as a new technique for extracting gas. In Switzerland, the cabinet intends to study the experience around the world, while three cantons have already come out in favour of a ban or a moratorium.
“There have been accidents and cases of pollution, but recently various standards have been introduced to reduce the environmental impact,” claims Lahusen. “And now we have a new method of breaking up rock without water or chemicals. They are using liquid propane which, after the fracturing, comes to the surface as a gas, where it can be stored and used again.”
Although known for quite some time, the technique known as fracking (hydraulic fracturing) to extract gas and petroleum from shale was little used, because it costs more than the conventional approach to extraction.
In recent years, with the rise in petroleum prices around the world, the fracking technique has been perfected and used on a large scale in the US and Canada.
The use of enormous quantities of water and especially hundreds of chemical substances to break up the sedimentary rock has brought protests from environmentalists. Yet only in a few North American jurisdictions has this opposition stopped the trend to shale gas and petroleum.
Last year, the International Energy Agency published its “golden rules” for reducing environmental impact, in particular the risk of contamination of drinking water.end of infobox
This method has been used experimentally by eCorp International, which in January announced the opening of a European headquarters in Zurich to prospect in Switzerland and several other European countries. In the next few years, the American company intends to drill about 30 pilot wells in Swiss soil, in collaboration with Lahusen’s Swiss Petroleum Company which already has some cantonal drilling concessions.
“I was able to drill eight wells in 30 years, and now I can do about ten in just two years,” boasts Lahusen, who does not hide his optimism about the results of this exploration.
“In the wells we drilled so far, we have found shale every time. But we always went through it, not realising that we could get gas out of it.”
Applications for drilling concessions have been made recently by other companies too. This gas fever is worrying to environmentalists.
“In Switzerland, after Fukushima, we have entered a new energy era. If now we put effort into exploiting reserves of gas that are almost inaccessible, we will only be delaying the actions and investment needed to promote renewable energies and energy efficiency,” says Casanova.
(Translated from Italian by Terence MacNamee), swissinfo.ch