The dash for unconventional gas deals by the oil majors signals a shift in strategy in the hunt for new sources of energy. FT Reporters assess the prospects for the main sources of these forms of oil and gas

All across Europe big oil companies are scouring millions of acres of countryside and buying up rights to tap the natural gas trapped in prehistoric shale beds thousands of metres below its surface.

The shale gas rush has made its way over from the US, where breakthroughs in technology have allowed companies to extract gas from reservoirs previously seen as untouchable.

The newly accessible US shale deposits are so big that executives now believe the country has enough gas to last it for a century. This extra supply and the US’s new found self-sufficiency has created a worldwide gas glut that has driven down prices.

It is a remarkable turnround. Just three years ago, most US energy executives were working out how the US could import enough gas from places as far away as Nigeria, Russia and Qatar, while competing with the demands from China and other energy-hungry developing countries.

Now the world’s biggest, richest and most sophisticated energy companies believe that they may be able to repeat the American shale gas revolution in Europe, potentially undermining the power of Russia, the region’s biggest gas supplier.

For companies such as ExxonMobil, Royal Dutch Shell and BP, tapping Europe’s shale gas deposits is a way to catch up with what they missed out on in the US.

“For a long time the big boys thought the US shale gas resource was not big enough, the wells were too small,” says Vello Kuuskraa, president of Advanced Resources International, a consultant on unconventional oil and gas resources. These are loosely defined as those that need more energy, money and different technology to develop.

While smaller American independents spent the past decade figuring out a way to tease gas from seemingly impermeable shale, the world’s largest oil companies focused their multi-billion dollar exploration budgets on trying to find the world’s next super-sized oil field.

As the big companies’ exploration attempts failed to turn up any giant finds, they ended up competing against each other for the rights to the messy and environmentally unfriendly development of Canada’s oil sands.

High oil prices made their transition to the oil sands easier because profit margins widened and more of it became commercial.

But the global recession put an abrupt stop to seven years of rising oil prices. Oil now trades at about $70 a barrel, less than half the $147 it reached in mid-2008, making developments in Canada less attractive.

Unlike unconventional oil, some unconventional gas can now be developed more cheaply than its conventional counterpart. This is one reason why ExxonMobil spent $41bn acquiring XTO, the shale gas specialist, last December, despite the collapse in the price of gas.

The deal is the biggest the industry has seen in almost a decade and is the clearest sign yet that big oil companies see shale as the next big thing.

ExxonMobil is counting on the XTO deal to allow it to lead the charge into European shale.

BP, Statoil and Total, for similar reasons, each struck smaller deals with Chesapeake Energy, which has big positions in the US’s best-understood deposits of shale.

Helge Lund, chief executive of Statoil of Norway, says his geologists evaluated hundreds of basins before focusing on 10 to 15 areas worthy of closer examination.

“It is far too early to conclude whether shale will make as much of an impact outside the US as it has done inside the US,” he says.

Like his competitors, who have secured positions in Austria, France, Sweden, Hungary and Poland, Mr Lund is being secretive about which basins Statoil has identified.

Shale bed reservoirs are widespread geographically. The International Energy Agency estimates unconventional gas resources at 32,511 trillion cubic feet, with half comprising shale gas and the other half made up of gas stuck in tight sandstone formations and in coal beds.

But Edward Kott, an analyst at LCM, the broker, warns that extracting gas from shale is a complicated process.

“No two shales are identical. Truly optimising production emerges only through experimentation and experience in each individual play,” he says.

This requires the support of local residents who have to put up with dozens of rigs, kilometres of pipelines and hundreds of heavy trucks rattling down village lanes transporting equipment that will eventually pump thousands of litres of water and chemicals into the ground in an increasingly controversial extraction method known as fracking.

Analysts believe the hurdles that the industry has encountered in the US could prove even more daunting in Europe.

Equipment shortages represent one headache. The US has up to 2,000 onshore gas-drilling rigs operating at any one time, dwarfing the 50 or so that usually operate in Europe. This big discrepancy could prove crucial as shale needs continuous drilling to maintain production flows because each individual well tends to start with a gush and then loses 70 to 90 per cent of its volume within one to two years.

Local opposition to the technique could also prove a show-stopper. In the US, landowners generally do not mind the influx of trucks and workers as they stand to make money from the minerals rights they own. In almost every other country the state owns those rights, increasing the problem of opposition from locals who will feel the downside of such industrial development, but fewer of the benefits.

Moreover, warnings by environmentalists in the US that the techniques could contaminate the ground water has got lawmakers worried. Europeans tend to take environmental issues more seriously than their US counterparts.

These hurdles have made even shale’s biggest backers cautious. One stark illustration of such caution became apparent late last year in Poland, which has become a hub of shale gas activity after four of the biggest US oil companies snapped up exploration rights to more than a million acres of its shale beds.

The historical antipathy between Poland and Russia means that Warsaw would like nothing more than to become self-sufficient in gas, allowing it to extricate itself from the influence of Moscow. But despite the prospect of controlling large shale gas deposits, the Polish government clearly still needs convincing of their potential. Last December, it took the decision to extend its gas supply contract with Gazprom, Russia’s powerful state-controlled gas company, for another 37 years.

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