Thursday, 23 February 2012

More on the U of T shale gas study: public and media perceptions

Given how long I'd rambled on, I decided to split my analysis of the University of Texas hydraulic fracturing study into two posts. Another issue that I found particularly relevant was the UoT analysis of media output and public perception of shale gas. The findings were overwhelmingly negative - for the majority of the public shale gas is connected mainly with water contamination issues. I'm not sure which way round these things work (does the media inform public debate or merely follow it?) but it's not a coincidence that media reporting of the shale gas issue is generally strongly negative. The UoT study found that between 63-70% of media reports were negative about shale gas, 19% to 30% were neutral and balanced, and 3-18% were positive. Perhaps equally non-coincidental, only 15-33% of these reports contained any reference to scientific research and reports on fracking. Which is very worrying. I clearly need to be getting a lot more vocal and putting myself out there. It was the lack of any scientific basis to most of the shale gas debate in this country that got me angry enough to get up and write this whole blog (and believe me, you have to get me pretty angry to get me off the sofa and onto the laptop when I could be watching Spurs draw 0-0 with Stevenage).

An example of fairly unabashed negative reporting of shale gas comes from the Guardian. For me, this report says that there's nothing inherently problematic about hydraulic fracturing, so long as companies stick to the rules and don't do anything stupid - i.e. that, just like in conventional oil and gas reservoirs around the world, they ensure their casings are intact and that they don't dump anything at the surface - then shale gas is unlikely to cause environmental problems. You'd have thought a report like that would be good news all round - so long as gas companies play it straight and don't cut corners, we can have the shale gas without polluting the environment. However, I can't help feel like this Guardian article manages to make things look extremely negative. My feeling is that the Erin Brockovich-style story the little guys from the country versus the monolithic industrial empires, is the kind of story that the media likes to write. It's a very powerful and pervasive cultural meme.

The 'memetic' nature of the debate has been revealed recently in a Texas court case. A couple living attempted to sue a gas company for contaminating their water supply with methane. As part of their case, they posted videos on YouTube of their garden hose spouting flame as a result of gas-contamination of the water supply. However, it has since transpired that their hose was in fact connected to the gas, not the water supply, making their case a complete fraud. The couple are now being counter-sued by the operators for defamation. What is interesting is that the flaming tap phenomenon has become such a cultural meme associated with shale gas that the public is now ready to believe such things with little evaluation of the evidence. Mainly because it appears that 85% of media reports on shale gas do not contain any scientific evidence.

I'll leave with what might be considered to be a snide little remark (sometimes I just can't help myself): in my experience so far, the main opponents to shale gas and fracturing are wealthy Tory councillors, and millionaire Hollywood actors. Hardly surprising: if you're actually a 'little guy' from a rural backwater (rather than a relatively well-off journalist from a large city), then a natural resource capable of turning around your struggling local economy is not something to be sniffed at or dismissed casually.

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Post-script to my last post...

A small postscript to my last post, but interesting enough to be worth it's own post. I was chatting to someone familiar with the regulatory environments in the US the other day, and he raised an interesting point. US legislation is such that, once a drilling lease has been purchased (often at great expense), the operators must drill within 3 years or the lease is returned and made available for sale. What's happened in the US is that many companies have seen the potential of shale gas and bought up huge acreages. However, now they have to put wells in each leasehold to avoid forfeiting the lease. This is putting pressure on them to drill vast numbers of wells in double-quick time, which in turn has an inevitable impact on the quality of the wells, and subsequently for environmental contamination.

This is a classic example of bad legislation leading to an unfavourable results all round: the companies don't want to be drilling as fast as they are, as the resulting gas glut on the market is driving down prices and eating away their profits, while anyone interested in the environment would want companies to be putting proper care and effort into every well, rather than being forced by regulations to drill as fast as they can.

Luckily, as far as I'm aware the UK has a much more sensible regulatory environment in comparison to the US, so this sort of scenario can be avoided.

Fracking report from the University of Texas

An interesting report coming from the University of Texas on the environmental impacts of shale gas development:


The full report is over 400 pages long, so I'm not going to claim I've read it cover-to-cover. In fact, I've only read the summary (which is still 50 pages long). However, based on what I've seen of it so far, and what the twitter-sphere is saying, there are a couple of points that I feel like talking about.

The principal conclusions are that there have been water contamination issues related to shale gas. However, there has been no evidence whatsoever that these issues have been caused by the hydraulic fracturing process in itself. We can track the formation of fractures and the migration of fluid during fracking (see the video I posted here), and on no occasion has there been evidence that fractures have migrated out of zone to impact on freshwater aquifers sited 1000s of feet above the fracturing zone, nor intersection with pre-existing natural faults/fractures that would permit upward fluid migration. Crucially, there has been no evidence of fracturing fluid additives being found in drinking water aquifers. If fluid has been migrating from fractures into freshwater aquifers, I'd expect to see fairly distinctive evidence of the chemical additives used in fracturing, and we haven't.

That's not to say that there haven't been problems, however. Once the well has been fracked, some of the fracturing fluid flows back up the well to the surface. This flow-back water must be collected and disposed of accordingly (either at treatment plants, reinjected into deep lying saline formations, or recycled for use in future frack stimulations. This is little different to many conventional oil and gas gas fields, where the produced hydrocarbon comes up the well mixed with a certain percentage of water. This water is usually saline, and may contain certain undesirable elements, such as arsenic or barium, and so must be disposed of appropriately. This is nothing new for the oil and gas industry.

Furthermore, once the flow-back fluid has been produced, the gas begins to flow. If the steel casing that lines the well is not cemented in properly, there may be gaps through which gas can flow up the side of the well, and then into overlying formations. Equally, if the casing is damaged, any holes with allow gas to flow out and into overlying formations. Again, this is a common problem in the oil and gas industry (as far as I'm aware, the Deepwater Horizon explosion was caused by so-called annular flow up a poorly cemented well).

It is in dealing with casing and cement to prevent blow-outs, casing damage and annular flow, and in treating and disposing of flow-back fluid properly, that the shale gas industry appears to have fallen short. It doesn't surprise me to hear that in some cases flowback water left in pits on the surface may have begun to leak, causing water contamination problems.

So the overlying moral to this story is that there's nothing inherently bad with hydraulic fracturing as a process. There are the usual issues common to all oil and gas extraction. We know how to deal with them, but to do so costs time and money. The key is that we put appropriate regulations in place that force operators to spend the time and the money. The underlying cause, I suspect, is that many of the shale gas developers are relatively new on the scene, and may not have the expertise of a BP, Shell, or Schlumberger, nor the man-power and finances to avoid the temptation to cut a corner or two. With the right regulation in this country, (and we have a good track record for this post Piper-Alpha), we can ensure that shale gas development in the UK does not experience the same problems we've seen
in the US.