Is Rathlin Energy Ltd exploring for shale gas, or not?

Rathlin Energy director David Montagu-Smith has tried to allay the concerns of people in East Yorkshire, by saying that Rathlin Energy are not ‘Sneaky frackers’ (

We wonder if their plans for Yorkshire are different from their plans for the North Coast of Northern Ireland. When called upon at various public meetings to rule out fracking for shale gas in Counties Antrim and Derry/Londonderry, the company’s executives (including Mr Montagu-Smith) repeatedly refused to rule it out, saying that they had to explore all of the options for the licenced area (from Magilligan in the west, to Ballycastle in the east and as far south as Garvagh).

The company has applied to drill an exploratory well into the shale layer at Ballinlea in North Antrim under licence PL3/10. The original licences (click CE1-04 and CE2-04) under which their first well was drilled at Ballinlea in 2008, were specifically for the exploration of commercial Coalbed Methane and Shale Gas potential in the Rathlin Basin. (The licences were held originally by Rathlin Energy Ltd’s Canadian owner, Connaught Energy Ltd, and were transferred to Rathlin Energy Ltd in 2007.)

Those licences say:

“This Licence CE1/04 and licence CE2/04 form part of a single integrated exploration programme over the Rathlin Basin. The core elements of this programme are:

  • the development of a hydrocarbon system for the basin,
  • the drilling of one shallow well to provide core, from the Ballycastle Carboniferous coal and organic-rich shale section, that will be analysed for CBM [Coalbed Methane] potential,
  • the drilling of one exploration well, in the Rathlin Basin, to evaluate the Carboniferous section for commercial coalbed methane and gas shale potential,
  • the evaluation of the results from the above to produce a final prospectivity assessment of the licence areas.”

Minister Arlene Foster wrote in a letter responding to queries of local residents (via local MLAs) in November 2011: There may be some additional potential for ‘unconventional’ gas resources including shale gas in the onshore Rathlin Basin, and the Department would expect Rathlin Energy Ltd  to review this in their evaluation of the overall prospectivity of the licence. 

Despite their stated target being conventional oil and gas, Rathlin Energy Ltd’s proposed operational plan for Ballinlea includes drilling down into the shale layer (past the layers expected to contain conventional oil and gas deposits), and undertaking extended well testing using a variety of well stimulation techniques, including (if deemed necessary) dissolving the rock with hydrochloric acid (‘acid wash’ and ‘acid squeeze’), a mini fall-off test to check permeability of the rock, and conventional hydraulic fracturing, using sand, water, and ‘stimulation fluid’. These processes could be repeated at multiple intervals within the reservoir. This would provide information to the company on the viability of commercial extraction of the different types of gas or oil (conventional and unconventional) contained within different intervals or types of source rock (shale, sandstone, coal seams, etc.)

Even if Rathlin Energy Ltd IS exploring for conventional oil and gas, does this not ALSO sound like exploratory drilling for shale gas…the type of exploratory drilling which is necessary in advance of (high-volume) hydraulic fracturing? We think so.

Could, or would, you explore for shale gas without undertaking this type of exploration first? Not likely.

If your target was only conventional oil and gas, would you spend more money drilling deeper than necessary? Not likely.

Is Rathlin Energy Ltd exploring for shale gas? Can you really look at the evidence and say ‘no’?