A guest post here from Graham Dean of Reach Coal Seam Gas, who also chairs the UK Unconventional Gas Group, puts the old flaming faucet theory into historical perspective:
It’s not just in the US that gas comes out of water taps – it happens here in the UK too.
I was reminded of this when I went to collect the Christmas turkey from some farming friends. They live in Desford in Leicestershire and they told me how their water supply used to produce gas with their water. Their water used to be supplied from an electric pump at the bottom of an old hand-dug water well. To reduce the problem of gas in the water taps, the space above the water in the old well was used to catch the gas bubbles so that they were not pumped into the house. The disadvantage of this system was that when the pump broke down my friends had to leave the well uncapped for a day to allow the gas to escape before it was safe to go down the well.
Of course gas from water taps in the UK has nothing to do with fracking or shale gas drilling. The gas in my friends’ water taps was probably methane from coal seams that had been destressed by coal mining in the area. A lot of methane gas is released by coal mining – a tonne of mined UK coal typically contains about 5 cubic metres of methane gas, nearly all of which is released into the atmosphere. A lot of this gas is released into the mine itself and large amounts of air are circulated through the mines to keep the methane concentrations at safe low levels. In the good old Coal Board days some of this methane was captured and put to use. In South Wales the gas was used to heat local hospitals. In Scotland the priorities were different. There gas from the Cardowan Colliery was used to power a distillery.
Although coal mining finished long ago in most areas of the UK, there is still a serious legacy of methane leaks in areas that were formerly mined. Monkton Brae in Chryston North Lanarkshire is a very pleasant residential street. At first sight it seems to have a large number of lampposts but on closer inspection half the “lampposts” are pipes with cowls on top. These are to vent methane safely above head height. The methane in the ground is caused by old coal mining. The local mine closed down over fifty years ago when an explosion of firedamp (methane) killed 47 miners.
Methane escapes from the ground also occur naturally and the water companies have safety regulations to avoid accidents. The worst accident that has happened in recent times was at Abbeystead near Lancaster in 1984 when 16 people were killed when gas exploded in a water underground pumping station. The gas was naturally occurring methane from the Bowland shale.
Back in 1836 at Hawkhurst in East Sussex a navvy augering a water borehole heard a bubbling sound and lit a match to investigate - the gas explosion killed him. The enterprising Victorians later used the gas coming from the shale to light the local railway station.
Methane seeps occur in many places in the UK. At Grizedale Will O’ the wisp phenomena have been observed for centuries and near Wigan a gas seep was used to boil an egg in1637. Perhaps the earliest record of methane gas seeps in the UK dates back to 6th Century. When I was at school in Glasgow, we were taught the meaning of the Glasgow Coat of Arms. These consist of a tree with a fish, bell and ring all of which relate to events in the life of St Mungo, the founder of Glasgow. The story of the tree comes from the time when St Mungo was training in a monastry in Culross in Fife on the shores of the Firth of Forth. A tree was said to have burst into flames when St Mungo prayed and the tree kept burning in a similar way to the burning bush in the Old Testatment. In these more secular times, the ever-burning tree could be explained by a burning methane seep on fire in front of the tree and this naturally occurring phenomenon was attributed to St Mungo. I don’t know if this was what happened but today there are gas seeps close to Culross which may have been there since the 6th century.
So the US experience of gas in water taps is nothing new. We got there first.