BBC's Countryfile meets Chief Scientist, Prof. John Underhill



On Sunday night’s show, BBC Countryfile presenter Charlotte Smith travelled to Yorkshire to meet Heriot-Watt University’s Chief Scientist, Professor John Underhill, as part of an investigation into the future demands on the UK’s energy supplies.

At present, the UK imports approximately 55% of its energy needs, a situation which, the programme discussed, could become more challenging as the use of electric cars increase.

One possible solution for the extra electricity needed is increased gas generation (gas currently provides 25% of the UK demand), fed by shale gas extraction from hydraulic fracturing. However, as expert analysis released by Heriot-Watt in August demonstrated, the UK's geology is unlikely to be suitable for this type of energy extraction on a large scale.

Professor John Underhill outlined the inherent geological complexity of the sedimentary basins that are believed to contain shale gas and highlighted that these challenges have not been fully appreciated or articulated.

Professor Underhill explains, “Both sides of the hydraulic fracturing debate assume that the geology is a ‘slam dunk' and it will work if exploration drilling goes ahead.

“In locations where the geology has led to large potential deposits, uplift and the faulted structure of the basins are detrimental to its ultimate recovery. Yet, the only question that has been addressed to date is how large the shale resource is in the UK.”

A significant tilt affects the UK, which was initiated by active plate margin forces over 55 million years ago, due to an upward surge of magma under Iceland and the subsequent formation of the Atlantic Ocean. The latter led to buckling of precursor sedimentary basins against the stable tectonic interior of continental Europe, including those considered to contain large shale resources.

Areas that were once buried to depths and at temperatures where oil and gas maturation occurs, have been uplifted to levels where they are no longer actively generating petroleum. They have also been highly deformed by folds and faults that cause the shales to be offset and broken up into compartments. This has created pathways that have allowed some of the oil and gas to escape.

Professor Underhill said, “There is a need to factor this considerable and fundamental geological uncertainty into the economic equation. It would be extremely unwise to rely on shale gas to ride to the rescue of the UK's gas needs only to discover that we're 55 million years too late.

“Countryfile posed the question: ‘If not shale gas, then what alternative sources could meet the increased demand for electricity?’ This is a key question that our country needs to address and we hope that geology and geoscientists will be front and centre of the proposed solutions.

“We need to consider a combination of sources including tidal, wind, wave, geothermal, nuclear and biomass in addition to traditional fossil fuels. All energy sources come with a set of inherent environmental challenges and we need to balance these against the potential impact they will have on the countryside.”

Read more about Professor Underhill’s research.

BBC’s Countryfile featuring Professor John Underhill is available to watch online.