Will the Brits Out-Frack Us?

I'm willing to wager that upward of 90% of the Foolish readers of this article are familiar with the Barnett, Haynesville, and Marcellus shale plays. And you needn't be a Tennessee Volunteer to know about the more obscure Chattanooga shale.

But unless fracking lore is one of your prime hobbies, you may not be able to readily spit out facts about the Bowland Shale. The formation's obscurity results from its location in Europe -- England, to be specific. Indeed, our friends across the pond have only recently begun to work their unconventional natural gas plays, using the same sort of progressively more controversial hydraulic fracturing -- aka fracking -- that's become the order of the day here in the Colonies.

Not just shells at this British beach
Some might call it beginner's luck. Near Blackpool -- a seaside resort town about 30 miles north of Liverpool, itself the home of George, Ringo, etc. -- Cuadrilla Resources, hardly a member of Big Oil, has fracked its way to what may be 200 trillion cubic feet of gas in the Bowland. By comparison, the Marcellus -- which underlies much of New York and Pennsylvania, along with portions of Ohio, West Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee -- appears to have about 84 trillion cubic feet of technically recoverable gas.

While "gas in place" and "technically recoverable gas" aren't synonymous, the Bowland likely will be able to substitute in a timely manner for the island nation's waning conventional plays. In fact, it initially appears likely that the new unconventional discovery just might contain enough gas to serve England's needs for up to 65 years.

Clearly, the Cuadrilla discovery is figuratively firing up Europeans before it has an opportunity to literally do so. As the company CEO Mark Miller has noted, Bowland has "as much gas per square mile ... as the successful North American shale plays." Once the gas from the Bowland flows in quantity, it'll begin to replace liquefied natural gas being transported from Qatar and gas that's piped in from Norway.

For England's sake, let's hope Miller's comparative assessment of the U.S. unconventional gas scene is accurate. In our country, shale gas supplies are steadily increasing to the point that they now account for about 20% of the nation's needs for the fuel and are expected to expand by a factor of about four times in the next few years.

Frackers vs. environmentalists
Cuadrilla's fracking-induced discovery hasn't been met with unfettered equanimity, a situation Americans are familiar with. A "climate-change policy officer" (whatever that is) for WWF, an environmental group operating in the U.K., has already called for a moratorium on fracking and shale gas production until additional research on climate changes and environmental effects from the process can be studied further.

This isn't the first environmental rub endured by Cuadrilla. In the spring, the company was forced to suspend fracking when a couple of small earthquakes in the Blackpool area were attributed to its operations. The company may again have been inadvertently following U.S. precedent: You may recall that Chesapeake Energy (NYS: CHK) was forced to discontinue use of a pair of Arkansas injection wells, given suspicions that they may have been the proximate causes of an increase in central Arkansas earthquakes. Chesapeake's culpability vanished, however, when the two wells were included among Fayetteville shale assets that were soon sold to BHP Billiton (NYS: BHP) .

Regardless of the degree to which fracking spreads around the globe, it's unlikely to escape the environmental spotlight that's determined to demonstrate its inherent dangers. Cuadrilla's Miller blames Halliburton (NYS: HAL) -- which developed fracking during efforts to drain more fuel from conventional wells six decades ago -- for failing to disclose the substances in its fracking fluids. A result, he maintains, was a besmirching of the reputations of the rest of the industry.

Miller adds, however, that water contamination from the practice is either yet to be proved or the result of carelessness. If so, it's a stretch to saddle Halliburton with culpability for a 60-year-old technique that's resulted in damages that are either the figment of someone's -- or some group's -- imagination, or otherwise of questionable authenticity. Nevertheless, as in the U.S., an accelerating cacophony from environmentalists opposed to fracking is likely to intensify in England and probably in other European locations.

Indeed, it's likely more than coincidence that the Tyndall Center for Climate Change Research at Manchester University earlier this year released a report that coincided with the release of the documentary film Gasland, which was produced in the United States and purported to demonstrate the ill effects of fracking across the U.S. Nevertheless, England's Department of Energy and Climate Change maintains that the "safety risks and hazards associated with drilling for shale gas should be no more onerous than those associated with drilling for any other hydrocarbons ... "

Halliburton CEO David Lesar noted just last month that demand for pressure pumping -- the prime element of fracking -- is far outstripping his company's and its peers' productive capacity in the U.S. At the same time, he said that Australia, Poland, and Argentina are potential hot spots for shale development. Australia appears to boast the most propitious geology for the process, while Halliburton has just completed South America's first shale well in Argentina under the auspices of Apache (NYS: APA) . Europe -- and especially Poland -- clearly is garnering the lion's share of the attention to new fracking.

Europe will fracture its way to life
Since some experts think Europe may contain up to 35 trillion cubic meters of unconventional gas, production by fracking is rapidly moving into the formative stages in the likes of Sweden, Ukraine, Denmark, the Netherlands, and the Czech Republic. For at least the time being, France (and possibly Germany) have chosen to sit on the sidelines.

Poland's primary objective is to reduce its dependence on gas from Russia, which currently fills about two-thirds of its former satellite's demand. To counter this, Poland during the past few years has granted dozens of concessions to outside energy companies, including ExxonMobil (NYS: XOM) , Chevron (NYS: CVX) , and Marathon (NYS: MRO) . Their targets will be up to 3 trillion cubic meters of Polish reserves.

With England's massive -- and surprising -- gas discovery leading the way, most of Europe is clearly on the verge of coming alive in pursuit of unconventional supplies. While all the companies mentioned above are alluring for their roles in spreading fracking around the globe, I'm intrigued by Chevron's combination of Polish concessions and its massive Gorgon and Wheatstone LNG projects in Australia.

At a minimum, I suggest Fools keep tabs on this active member of Big Oil. Add its name to your free, personalized watchlist by clicking here.

At the time thisarticle was published Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of Chevron and Chesapeake. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days.We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. Fool contributor David Lee Smith doesn't own shares in any of the companies named in this article. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

Copyright © 1995 - 2011 The Motley Fool, LLC. All rights reserved. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.