Is a Shale-Sized Oil Boom Hiding in Britain’s Atlantic Bedrock?

  • Date: 23/11/18
  • Bloomberg

Maverick geologist Robert Trice believes there are billions of barrels of crude ready to drill from granite rock buried under the ocean floor

On a sunny October morning, members of the The Geological Society pack an ornate lecture theater at their imposing headquarters on London’s Piccadilly. One of their number introduces a scientist who “needs no introduction,” the man people had come to see.

Taking to the podium, Dr. Robert Trice, a lifelong rock obsessive who’s also chief executive officer of independent oil company Hurricane Energy Plc, adjusts his glasses and shakes his mop of pale hair. Then he explains his billion-dollar idea.

Robert Trice
Source: Hurricane Energy Plc

From inside a ship, sloshing around the 65-foot waves off the coast of the Scottish isles, he plans to poke a diamond-tipped drill-bit into the sea bed. He’ll take it past layers of once-oil-soaked sandstone rocks straight into a strata of solid granite — what geologists call the basement. Then the drill will turn sideways and hopefully intersect a bunch of naturally formed cracks. If his science is correct, there will be enough oil pooled in those cracks to make him a very rich man.

For more than a decade, people in the industry have excoriated his idea for being too expensive, too technically challenging and even geologically ridiculous.

“I’ve stopped arguing with them,” he said over lunch the day before his speech, sipping on a glass of red wine. “They’ll see.”

Trice, 57, a geology PhD who’s worked in the oil industry for three decades and founded Hurricane in his garden shed in 2005, likes to compare himself to another maverick who went from voice in the wilderness to billionaire prophet: George Mitchell, the father of shale drilling.

Mitchell started experimenting with the idea of hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” into shale rock in the 1980s. It took thousands of wells and 30 years for the American oil industry to widely adopt the practices he pioneered. When it did, the U.S. became the largest fossil fuel producer on the planet, permanently altering the global energy trade. Mitchell died in 2013 at 94 with a $2 billion fortune.

While the granite under under the Atlantic Ocean west of the Shetland island isn’t likely to be another Permian, if Trice is right about the geology it will prove billions barrels of undrilled oil. Success would be a significant shot in the arm for Britain’s beleaguered oil industry, where drilling is at its lowest level since the birth of the North Sea in the 1970s.

“Fractured basement isn’t a myth,” said John Browne, the former chief executive officer of BP Plc, who spent part of his early career working in the North Sea. “But it’s difficult to drill.”

We’re about to get a clearer picture of how well it will work. A floating production vessel specially modified for harsh conditions is now sailing through the English Channel to the North Sea. In the first half of 2019, Hurricane plans to use it to produce from two wells. The test of a good result? Hurricane needs the pressure underground to stay as high as Trice’s models predict, showing the cracks in the granite are interlinked and the pooled crude can flow freely to the surface for a sustained period.

A report commissioned by Hurricane concludes one of its fields, called Lancaster, likely has half a billion barrels of recoverable oil. That’s worth almost $33 billion at $65 a barrel Brent crude, much of which would go to the British government in taxes. Hurricane is also exploring another two fields thought to hold billions of barrels more.

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