The French energy company Total will become the first major international oil company to join the exploration for UK shale gas when it announces an investment package on Monday.
Total is to join a shale gas exploration project in Gainsborough Trough in Lincolnshire currently operated by Ecorp of the US, according to the Financial Times. The other partners in the project are Dart Energy and UK-listed Igas and Egdon Resources.
The coalition government has made the exploitation of Britain’s unconventional gas reserves a priority, offering tax breaks to shale developers and promising big benefits. This is in contrast to France where hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, the process by which shale gas is released, is banned.
George Osborne, the chancellor, has argued that shale has the potential to reduce Britain’s reliance on increasing expensive gas imports and create thousands of jobs.
Exploration for shale gas and other unconventional hydrocarbons is taking place or is planned in Wales, Scotland, the south of England and the Midlands and the north.
Opposition from environmentalists has hindered the work. Protesters say the fracking process – injecting water, sand and chemicals underground at high pressure into shale rock to release the oil and gas trapped inside – can contaminate groundwater and cause earthquakes. The operation of rigs and attendant noise and truck movements can disrupt the local area.
Last summer Cuadrilla Resources faced protests in the Sussex village of Balcombe, and protesters are currently camped outside a drilling pad at Barton Moss in Salford where Igas plans to drill an exploratory well.
Geologists estimate there could be as much as 1,300tn cubic feet of shale gas lying under parts of the north and Midlands. One-tenth of that would equal around 51 years’ gas supply for the UK.