Friday, 30 November 2012

Shale gas and opinion polls. Pt II: The UK

Having looked at recent USA opinion polls in my last post, now lets look at the most recent UK data. A recent opinion survey of residents of Fylde, Blackpool and Lancashire has been commissioned. Report is here, Cuadrilla's take is here, and a BBC report on the survey is here. The headline figures: 44% favour continued extraction, 23% oppose further extraction, and 35% don't know. Remarkably similar to the US numbers actually.

Now, I have to stop for a minute to take the BBC to task about their reporting of the issue. You'd think the headline for this story would be something like: 'New survey shows majority of residents support fracking' (or something catchy-er than that, I guess I'll never get a job at the Sun). Instead, we get 'Cuadrilla fracking survey is propaganda: Protest group'. Or as it should read: 'Crazy person with clear and obvious bias makes completely unsubstantiated claims'.

It really is laughably sad. The protagonist in this case is Gayzer Tarjanyi, who has changed his name by deed-poll to Mr Frackman to oppose shale gas. Probably not the kind of person to be relied upon to provide impartial analysis. Does anyone really think the Mr Frackman gives 'balanced presentations' as he claims?

The sole piece of evidence advanced to suggest that the survey is 'propaganda' is that 90% of the people who come to his meetings oppose fracking. Well, I'm fairly sure, much like my own experiences of Bristol's anti-fracking groups, is that the reason they are there is not because they want to find out more, but because they already oppose fracking and are looking for more information to support their view. The 45% of people who support fracking are unlikely to come to Mr Frackman's meetings.

Finally, unless there is another petition hidden away somewhere, his latest petition appears to only have about 300 signatures. Bear in mind that the population of the area in question is several hundred thouand. Of course, there doesn't appear to be a geographical limit to the petition, so maybe some of the signatories have been bussed in from elsewhere, much like the protesters who came all the way from Brighton to chain themselves to Cuadrilla's rig last year (and much like how much of the US shale gas opposition is bussed in from New York city).

Much like the US experience, it would appear that in the local areas affected by shale gas extraction, public support is running at 2-to-1 in favour (with a significant proportion of 'don't knows'), while anti-fracking sentiment is stronger in other areas that are more affected by Josh Fox's movie-making than any direct experience of fracking.

Shale gas and opinion polls. Pt I: The USA

Shale gas extraction in the US has been an environmental disaster of unmitigated proportions, leaving a blighted wasteland of drill rigs, dead animals and exploding water supplies. The locals are distraught about the damage caused to their areas, but are crushed beneath the power of big gas companies. Surely they'd take any chance to speak out against this appalling practice?

This begs the question: what do the people living in above shale gas plays in the US actually think? An opinion poll by the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Social and Urban Research provides an interesting insight. Newspaper report here, and more details here, including the actual data tables.

The survey divides the results into 4 geographical areas. If Pennsylvanian geography isn't your strong point (don't be ashamed, I had to look this up too), Pittsburgh City is the center of Pittsburgh, Alleghany County is basically the Pittsburgh Metropolitan area, the 6 Counties are the wider suburban commuter belts, while the remaining 25 Counties make up half of rural Pennsylvania (and parts of W Viginia and Ohio).

The first thing to notice is that in all areas, those in favour of shale gas far outweigh those opposed. Overall, 45% somewhat or strongly support shale gas production, 25% somewhat or strongly oppose, and 30% are ambivalent. This is hardly the groundswell of opposition that anti-fracking advocates like to suggest, hardly evidence that the US experience is one of small gains for huge environmental cost, as suggested by Frome Council as justification for their decision to ban fracking. It is recognised that shale gas can have environmental issues, but that regulation can be improved (58% favour increased government oversight) but that the benefits have far outweighed any problems. Clearly, the US experience shows that shale gas extraction can produce significant benefit, but that appropriate regulatory oversight is necessary. I think that is a view that would resonate with most UK geologists.

It's also interesting to compare the responses by geography. Before doing so, note that the vast majority of shale gas extraction is done in rural PA: the 25 Counties. For obvious reasons, there's not a lot of drilling going on in the middle of Pittsburgh. With that in mind, notice that across the board, the most favourable views on shale gas are found from the residents of the 25 Counties, while the least favourable are found from people in Pittsburgh. For example, 29% of Pittsburghians somewhat or strongly oppose shale gas, while only 18% of those from the 25 Counties share these views.

There may well be demographic or political reasons for these differences, but the story this seems to paint to me is that the people in the countryside who are actually at 'ground-zero' for the drilling are in fact finding that the economic benefits to their small rural communities are far outweighing any negative impacts. Meanwhile, people in the city, who perhaps aren't exposed to shale gas extraction on a day-to-day, week-to-week basis, but are simply picking up on the sensationalist media stories (who always refer to shale gas as 'controversial'), as well as the scare stories of Josh Fox et al, and this is producing a less favourable view of shale gas than those who are actually on the ground and experiencing the effects first hand.

If opinion polls aren't your bag, you may have been aware of a small election or two in the US a month or so ago. As well as presidential elections, many local positions were up for grabs, many of them contested by candidates on 'anti-fracking' platforms. What happened? Across the board, candidates on anti-fracking platforms were defeated. Much like Pittsburgh, it appears that the majority of those opposed to fracking are those living in cities like New York, whose sole experience of shale gas is the videos shown in the media. Meanwhile, upstate in the Southern Tier counties, the locals are voting in candidates in favour of bringing in drilling, and voting out those in favour of a ban.

Monday, 19 November 2012

Schrag on shale gas and Exxon in favour of a CO2 tax

Daniel Schrag is a geology professor at Harvard, currently working on ways to mitigate future climate change on President Obama's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. His latest paper, available here, on shale gas and climate change, is well worth reading. I'll begin by quoting the abstract:
Abstract: Shale gas is a new energy resource that has shifted the dominant paradigm on U.S. hydrocarbon resources. Some have argued that shale gas will play an important role in reducing greenhouse gas emissions by displacing coal used for electricity, serving as a moderate-carbon “bridge fuel.” Others have questioned whether methane emissions from shale gas extraction lead to higher greenhouse gas emissions overall. I argue that the main impact of shale gas on climate change is neither the reduced emissions from fuel substitution nor the greenhouse gas footprint of natural gas itself, but rather the competition between abundant, low-cost gas and low-carbon technologies, including renewables and carbon capture and storage. This might be remedied if the gas industry joins forces with environmental groups, providing a counterbalance to the coal lobby, and ultimately eliminating the conventional use of coal in the United States.
The only point I'd have any disagreement with here is whether shale gas is forcing out renewables. During the US shale gas boom, we've also seen record penetration of renewable energy. Renewable energy is mainly dependent on political willpower to maintain subsidy. Even with no gas, renewables can't directly compete with coal without some sort of subsidy, or a carbon tax on coal. Some more selective quotes:
Are greenhouse gas emissions from natural gas better than those from coal? The answer would seem obvious. Natural gas has roughly half the carbon content of the average coal per unit energy, thus producing half as much carbon dioxide when combusted for heat or electricity. Moreover, a combined-cycle natural gas plant that generates base-load electricity has a thermal efficiency of roughly 50 percent, which is higher than the newest ultra-super critical coal plants (40 to 45 percent) and much higher than the average coal plant (33 percent) in the United States. Thus, burning natural gas for electricity, when displacing an average U.S. coal plant, results in a reduction in carbon dioxide emissions of nearly a factor of three.
He goes on the shred the Howarth/Ingraffea paper, both on their leakage rate estimates, and on their choice of global warming potential factor. If the more appropriate Global Temperature Potential (GTP, which measures the actual temperature rise due to a greenhouse gas, rather than the radiative forcing, as per GWP) is used, methane emissions are only 7 times as bad as the equivalent amount of CO2 - this is because methane has a much lower residence time in the atmosphere. The GTP of 7 is 15 times lower than that used by Howarth/Ingraffea, meaning that they are out be more than a whole order of magnitude! 

The only problem that Schrag identifies is that the economic boom from shale gas extraction will be sufficient to encourage significant economic growth, creating more CO2 emissions. Of course, many that oppose shale gas want to have their cake and eat it, opposing shale gas on the grounds of CO2 emissions while claiming it won't make a significant economic difference anyway.

More interesting, however, is Schrag's solution to our current problems. Putting a price (or a tax) on carbon would benefit the renewables industry for obvious reasons, but would also benefit the natural gas industry as it would it coal harder than gas, allowing gas to take coal's share of the market. This would be good for the gas companies, and good for the climate. Such a coalition would not be easy to maintain:
Building a coalition between the natural gas industry and the environmental community to support a comprehensive climate policy will not be easy. The oil and gas industries have long had a combative and distrustful relationship with the environmental movement.
However, it seems pretty clear that the environmental lobby has failed to prevent big coal's stranglehold on US energy policy. Perhaps a clash of the titans: big gas vs big coal is what is needed to shift the balance:
By leveraging the finnancial self-interest of the natural gas industry to broaden political support for anti-coal policies, environmental groups can simultaneously use a grassroots campaign to pressure existing coal-fired power plants to shut down. The success of this strategy will determine whether shale gas is indeed good for climate change.
Funnily enough, it looks like Exxon must have been reading this, as they have just come out cautiously in favour of implementing a carbon tax in the US.

Sunday, 18 November 2012

David Miliband on the energy crisis

On a recent BBC Question Time panel, David Miliband (ex foreign minister, one time competitor for the leadership of the Labour party) addressed the issue of the energy crisis. He did a wonderful job summarizing the inanity of much of the debate surrounding energy issues. I've linked to the iPlayer video before, but as non-UK readers won't be able to watch, and as the video has probably expired by now, I thought I'd post the transcript, because it really is a great comment that cuts right to the heart of the issue:
Look, we've got an environmental crisis of absolutely overwhelming proportions, we are going to need every conceivable source of low-carbon energy we can find. As it happens, this country is a leader in offshore wind, a world leader in offshore wind. We're going to need some onshore wind as well, but honestly, you've got the Lib Dem Secretary of State arguing with the Conservative Energy Minister about 1% of our energy.

The truth is if you care about the energy mix, and you care about low carbon, 30% of our energy comes from coal at the moment, and it comes from coal that isn't dug in this country, it's imported from Russia. The biggest thing that we can do to actually contribute to a global environmental challenge as well as to ensure our own reliability and decent cost of supply is to switch from having 30% coal to putting that 30% into gas. Gas is actually being discovered all around the world, including in America, shale gas, unconventional gas.

We're going to need the wind, but the truth is to debate 1%, when you've got 30% coal, we're not doing justice to the environmental challenge never mind the energy challenge.

I'm not a natural labour voter, but based on this, it's a shame his brother Ed was made leader instead of him....

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

The hornet's nest keeps on giving

Ragamala has been good enough to respond once again in our conversation in the comments section of my letter to the Somerset Standard.

He comments:
You have a penchant for facts, Dr Verdon. Can you please say what percentage of the Wytch Field oil reservoirs tapped is onshore? Yes it is called an onshore resource. For the reason that it suits the pro-fracking argument to call it that, and this misrepresentation should be continually challenged as it used, erroneously, to imply support for onshore fracking.
Regarding fugitive methane emissions I stand by my statement that there is no certainty whatsoever about the levels of methane fugitive emissions from shale gas fracking. In the EU report you refer to we have indeed some tables of figures produced, but these are estimate drawn from various widely varying US sources, some now dated, rather than hard fact. And the report makes it clear that the European experience will not necessarily be the same as the US. In other words, there is NO reliable estimate of methane emissions. I am grateful to Dr Vedon for conceding that CO2 emission is a very different thing from greenhouse gas emission or CO2 equivalent emissions, this is a factor which is hidden by much pro-fracking propaganda.
Regarding Cuadrilla's wilful breach of their planning permnission your statement is demonstrably wrong.And the Guardian article you refer to makes no reference to migration at all. What it does say is that Cuadrilla wanted to exceed their planning deadline FOR THEIR OWN REASONS, and decided to go ahead WITHOUT CONSULTING LCC because they had the nod from an employed consultant. This was wilful breach of planning which had no link with migration patterns at all, and I would ask you for a retraction on that.

Frankly I can not see how if Cuadrilla mislead about economic benefit this is any better whatsoever than them being misleading about geological "data". This would only be true from your blinkered perspective. The people of the Fylde are being encouraged to accept fracking turning their land into an industrial area by use of misleading figures on economic benefit. Earlier Cuadrilla issued figures on the likely shale gas available which were wild guesses and even their Australian part parent company is sceptical about these and the resulting viability of Cuadrilla's operation.

Regarding shale gas estimates, can we agree to wait until the new BGS report - expected shortly - is out?
I've never been accused of having a penchant for facts before. My sarcasm detector is off the chart. In science, having a penchant for facts is usually considered a good thing. Anyway, my response as follows:
I guess I should take the backhanded compliment of having "a penchant for facts". Better at least than being accused of "overlooking" or even "blissfully ignoring" facts, as your other comments have alleged. Similarly, this conversation began with me apparently 'totally ignoring' the EU Committee reports, but now you yourself want to argue that the information in the report should be discounted. I can only assume that you've had this change of heart because the data in the report does not support the story you want to tell.

Of course they can only be estimates, but they are made with the best evidence available, so they shouldn't be discounted just because you don't like them. If anything given the more stringent EU regulations, estimated based on the US are likely to be an overestimate. Several different reports and papers have come to similar conclusions, the only one that hasn't, by Howarth and Ingraffea, has been widely criticised even by their colleagues at Cornell as using out of date data and poor assumptions.

Unfortunately, one fact I do not have is the proportion of Wytch Farm that is under Poole Harbour, and what under land. However, this is irrelevant to the issue: For drillers, once the drill is under the ground the process is the same, whether on land or under water. When working at 2km depth, the presence or absence of 10m of water really doesn't matter. What does matter is whether the drill has to be sited on land, or on a rig, and therefore whether it will have to go through the water before drilling into rock. In fact, drilling offshore is far harder than onshore. From all technical perspectives, however, drilling at Wytch Farm, where wells start on land but bend out through rocks that are under the coast at depth, is absolutely no different to drilling on land anywhere else. This isn't some invention for pro-shale-gas opportunism, this is how fields are always defined, and with good reason. I'm not sure why you feel that the fact that part of Wytch Farm is under Poole Harbour means that the safety record there can be discounted - if they'd polluted Poole Harbour that would be a major incident!

Regardless of this, I wasn't aware that Wytch Farm was being used for propaganda purposes. If you really don't like this particular example, which of the other 30 or so onshore UK oil fields (that have produced a combined 66 millions tonnes of oil since 1975) would you prefer to use as an example? I think Wytch Farm is mainly talked about because it is the largest and most well known. I grew up 5 minutes down the road from the Humbly Grove Field (Hampshire), but wasn't even aware of it until I studied to become a geologist. You can see where they all are via this map:

The planning permission time limit breached by Cuadrilla was there because to protect bird life. Apologies for stating migrating, when I should have said over-wintering, birds aren't a strong point of mine. And I've already stated that from a public relations perspective it was a very silly thing to do, and if I were LCC I'd want to know it wouldn't happen again. But to jump from that to banning all shale gas anywhere forever is quite a leap to make.

I've not seen any data on the economic benefits of the geophys survey - either those claimed by Cuadrilla or actually measured (I'm not an economist, so I wouldn't know how you'd go about measuring that). Typically these things cost several million at least, though obviously much of that would go to the specialist companies involved rather than local people. It will indeed be interesting to see the latest numbers from the BGS. The current number being bandied about is in the region of £1.5 trillion, although until that's made official we shall, of course, have to wait.
I really should stop feeding the trolls and get back to my day job.......

Monday, 12 November 2012

I may have stirred up a hornet's nest in Frome. Part II

My letter to the Somerset Standard got such a response that I thought I'd better break it up into two more manageable sized chunks. My original letter is here, you can see some of the comments it received directly here, and a finally a whole new letters page was devoted to it here. Part I of my response is here, and now I shall continue with Part II, my response to the letters by Helen Moore and John Boxall.

Firstly, here is Helen Moore's response to my letter:

How disappointing that Dr James Verdon, a geophysicist at Bristol University, has to resort to labelling those who oppose fracking as disseminating "biased propaganda", when his own credentials and research interests surely make him seriously biased in favour of hydraulic fracturing (fracking)?

Having completed an internship for Shell, he was clearly influenced in the direction of drilling for and burning hydrocarbons at an early stage in his career. He now describes his principal research interests as lying "in imaging and modelling fractured rocks… monitoring hydro-fracture stimulations for tight and shale gas, and understanding the geomechanical response of producing oil reservoirs".
As a so-called "Earth scientist", Dr Verdon would do well to read the work of Dr Stephan Harding, author of Animate Earth, who points to the ways in which much of modern science and technology is based on the vision of our planet as "a vast dead machine full of 'resources' that have value only when they are converted into money", a world view which is causing untold damage to ecosystems and people around the globe.
Dr Verdon's own response to the perspective that our Earth is alive and animate, a self-regulating super-organism currently reacting to the vast amounts of greenhouse gases being pumped into the atmosphere (ie melting polar caps, increased global temperatures, increased rates of hurricanes, droughts and flooding etc) might then prove his own prejudices.
At a time when any sane person should be rejecting the use of fossil fuels (coal, gas and oil), a UK-wide "dash for gas" makes no sense whatsoever. Moreover, Dr Verdon's argument "that in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, locally produced shale gas has no worse a climate change impact than liquefied natural gas imported from Russia or the Middle East" seems utterly spurious.
And the evidence is clear – if we want energy security in the UK, so that we're no longer reliant on foreign regimes with appalling human rights records, we don't need to put up with a technology that creates water contamination levels, even if "below acceptable minima" in places. Instead we could adopt the Centre for Alternative Technology's impressive framework for a Zero Carbon Britain by 2030, which includes substantial job creation for British workers.
But due to his own biases, Dr Verdon is unlikely to be interested in this. Instead he will probably be backing the activities of our supposedly "greenest Government ever", where all kinds of vested interests in oil and gas companies have recently been exposed – visit uk/gas-mafia-infilitrates- greenest-government-ever/
I, however, am proud to live in a town where our Independent councillors have sufficient vision to recognise and to reject the wildly inappropriate technology that is "fracking".
While John Boxall said:   

Unlike Dr James Verdon ("Energy firms will not be selling shale gas to customers cheaply", November 1) my last brush with the academic world was a Department of Transport Basic Sea Survival Course so I could serve as a relief stoker in the Merchant Navy. I have, however, devoted a lot of time to the study of the blindingly obvious.

In my copy of Modern Engines and Power Generators – published in 1905 – the author, Professor Kennedy, expresses concern that the UK would run out of coal. Well, that is basically what has happened to natural gas supplies in the USA and Canada, and is happening to our own reserves.
Unlike the UK, however, North America does not have access to imported supplies, which resulted in a significant rise in gas prices and a drive to find alternative sources – hence fracking. As their market is insulated from world gas prices, unlike the UK, fracking has resulted in a drop in prices.
Now, where I do agree with Dr Verdon is that we are increasingly likely to have to import gas from nations that are "unstable" or have unpleasant governments, however firstly it is estimated that at best fracking will provide about 25 per cent of UK gas requirements and secondly what happens when the frack gas – and the rest of our supplies – run out?
A report by National Grid suggested that gas produced from waste and sewage could provide about 18 per cent of the UK's gas requirements – or about 48 per cent of our domestic consumption by 2020 – something coincidentally Nick Cater from Somerset Waste Partnership talked about in his article also on November 1, "Burping bacteria ready to enjoy an electrifying feast". More importantly, unlike frack gas, it's not a resource we will run out of.
Secondly, a lot of our gas is wasted in inefficient appliances and buildings, while I do not have a figure for the savings from more efficient use of gas, given that the figure for potential electricity savings is about 70 per cent – and about 40 per cent of our electricity is generated from gas, clearly we can significantly reduce consumption while keeping our homes warm and lights on. Again, once we install the efficiency measures they stay in place, unlike frack gas.
Unlike the UK and the USA, most other industrialised nations have not had abundant domestic energy supplies, so have had to use energy much more wisely, best summed up by the situation in Germany where energy prices are higher, but bills are lower.

There may be a case for keeping fracking as a reserve technology should we ever find ourselves in serious difficulty, there is however no reason why we should be using it when 35 per cent of UK lofts and 32 per cent of cavity walls are still not insulated. Sadly, however, it seems unlikely that Labour, Conservative or Liberal Democrat politicians will not take the security of our energy supplies seriously until it is too late. 
Again, I couldn't resist leaving a comment or two, so I initially went for this:
Despite having completed an internship at Shell, my views on shale gas are not a result of ignoring global warming, but because of it. We currently generate 30% of our electricity from coal, which produces twice as much CO2 as from gas. I agree with John Boxall that we should be doing everything we can to improve energy efficiency, and I also agree that bio-gas from waste seems like a no-brainer to me. However, we've known all this for years, yet we've made little headway: are we really likely to see sudden efficiency changes in the next 10-20 years? I'd like it to be so, but knowing human nature I'm not getting my hopes up. With that in mind, shale gas production perhaps holds the key to quickly reducing the CO2 content of our electricity generation mix.

That domestic shale gas has a lower CO2 footprint than imported LNG is not spurious, it was the finding of a recent EU Commission report into the matter (which also came to the conclusion that, with appropriate regulatory regimes in place, shale gas production should be considered).

More importantly, however, is to consider the global context. We could become the greenest country in the world, but it wouldn't matter in the slightest to global warming if China continue to burn coal at the rate they are doing. China has huge shale gas potential: if they can access this gas readily and cheaply, and switch coal for gas in their power stations, this would be the fastest and most dramatic manner of reducing CO2 emissions. The experience from the US is telling in this regard where, as cheap gas has replaced coal in electricity generation, CO2 emissions have plummeted far faster than in Europe, despite our focus on increasing renewable energy (which, incidentally I am also in favour of).
Followed by this:
In reply to Helen Moore, I should add that as a "so-called Earth Scientist", I am familiar with the various dynamic systems that affect earth system processes. While most scientists recoil at the description of the earth as a living being, and the more esoterical and spiritual aspects of his ideas, many of the scientific principles regarding feedback loops in dynamic systems that underpin James Lovelock's Gaia hypothesis are widely accepted in the scientific community. 
However, if Helen Moore is so keen on Gaia theory, she should perhaps give due consideration to the recent comments of its original protagonist James Lovelock (with whom Dr Harding has collaborated with extensively), who in a recent Guardian interview came out strongly in favour of shale gas development because of the potential rapid benefits in CO2 emissions reductions they could confer in replacing coal-fired generation. The link is below: 
Again, as per my last post, I'd love to have feedback as to whether I'm coming across as reasoned and relatively impartial, or a crazed planet-destroyer? Or whether Helen Moore sounds reasonable, or a crazy eco-loon? Feel free to hide behind internet anonymity and be as mean as you'd like.

I find these responses saddening because they represent an increasing separation between science and the environmental or 'green' movement. Once upon a time science and green movements were pretty close bedfellows. After all, it was science that first identified the risks presented by the shrinking ozone layer. Science that first identified that our CO2 emissions were causing the planet to warm. The green movement has taken that information and made it their own. Which is fine. However, they didn't stop there. They have now taken things much further, and to place where science cannot follow. We see this in a range of issues, from nuclear to GM crops, where scientists and greens are increasingly found on opposite sides of the debate.

I think it's particularly ironic that Helen Moore outlines what I would call 'Lovelock-ian' (i.e. Gaia hypothesis) worldview while making her accusations. In a recent Guardian interview, Lovelock described how the Green movement is becoming closer and closer to a religion or cult:
One thing being a scientist has taught me is that you can never be certain about anything. You never know the truth. You can only approach it and hope you get a bit nearer to it each time. You iterate towards the truth. You don't know it. It's just the way the humans go that if there's a cause of some sort, a religion starts forming around it. It just so happens that the green religion is now taking over from the Christian religion. I don't think people have noticed that, but it's got all the sort of terms that religions use.
And of course, when something becomes a religion, anyone with dissenting views must be cast out as heretic. I think that's what just happened to me. In the culture that is being created, dissent becomes intolerable, and anyone expressing a different view must immediately be discredited as a stooge for big oil/big nuclear/big agro.

Compare Helen Moore's letter with John Boxall. I'd describe John's letter as that of a sensible, considered environmentalist. Prepared to consider alternatives, aware of the situation in which we find ourselves. John's letter is the basis for the start of a debate.

Helen only wants to shut debate down. She knows that she is right, she has her solution, and if science disagrees, then science must be wrong. As the green movement goes down this route, all they do is shut down the debate whilst providing ammunition for the Clarksons and Delingpoles of this world to dismiss them as irrelevant hippies. This will be damaging because we need a strong, science based environmental movement to protect our planet. Science shows very clearly that the biggest, quickest and most effective thing we can do to reduce global warming is to get the Chinese to burn gas instead of coal, and China has huge shale gas reserves.

I'll end with a sad but illuminating fact: in the UK recent increases in coal-fired generation (switched from gas) have outweighed all of the savings made from all of the wind farms in the UK.

I may have stirred up a hornet's nest in Frome. Part I

I've had some responses to my letter to the Somerset Standard criticising the manner in which Frome Council took the decision to declare themselves 'Frack Free'. My original letter is here. These letters are also available on the This is Somerset webpage. First of all, my initial letter received a few comments:

From 'ragamala':
Frankly, I am amazed that someone parading his qualifications (Dr Verdon) should pitch into the debate committing the crimes he accuses "environmentalists" of committing. He stresses the need for "rational, evidence-driven debate" yet in his opposition to buying foreign gas he dredges up the emotive question of human rights records. Where is the rationality of that? He totally ignores all the reports emerging, for example the three reports for the EU environment Committee in September, which consider that in the UK and Europe shale gas is not a solution to perceived energy problems and is unlikely ever to provide cheap gas. At least Verdon concedes that there have been instances in the US of water contamination, unlike some or the pro-frackers. Regarding Cuadrilla, I suggest Dr Verdon checks his statements about openness. Has Cuadrilla released any details of its geological survey work this year? No. Did they breach their planning conditions and continue working for two months beyond their planning permission time? Yes. Did they broadcast the fact they were using radioactive sources in wirline testing? No. Have they been honest about the benefit to the local Fylde economy of their geo survey work? No. Did they manipulate data? Yes. I'm sorry, Dr Vernon, but it seems from my perspective that you are the one polarising debate and overlooking facts.
And from 'GreyWolf':
And if you read Cuadrilla's applications you will see they indicate that will not use any radioactive sources on site, although if you ask the they will tell you that they will. Not that that should worry local residents of course, should it?  
As to Dr Verdon's arguments, he seems to a victim of Hume's problem of induction. Suggesting that the UK economic and environmental experience of fracking will mirror what has happened in the USA when local economic, physical and demographic environments are so different is either incredibly naive or deliberately misleading. 
He really should know and do better. 
Obviously, I couldn't let this go unchallenged, so my response was:
Ragamala has a point, the reference to 'the emotive question of human rights records' is indeed irrelevant to the debate, so I'm happy to apologise for that. What's less open to question is the economic benefit of domestic gas production over importing LNG.

I am indeed aware of the EU Commission reports, which come to the conclusion that, with appropriate regulatory regimes in place, shale gas extraction should be considered, in addition to the fact that the CO2 footprint of domestic shale gas can be lower than imported LNG. It's true that the likely market benefits of shale gas are less well understood and difficult to predict (and I'll admit that as a geologist, this is not my strong point). However, it's clear that the companies involved believe there is significant economic potential there. If they are wrong then they are free to lose money and go out of business.

As for the US experience - my comments on this were motivated by Frome Council's statement that their decision to go 'frack-free' was based on the US experience. So am I a victim of Hume's induction, or is Frome Council? I agree that experiences on either side of the Atlantic may be different. That doesn't mean we shouldn't take the evidence we have and extrapolate the best we can. For instance, it's worth bearing in mind that drilling and environmental regs in this country are significantly tighter (and rightly so) than those in the US.

As for Cuadrilla, it is true that they exceeded the length of their planning regs, which was a silly thing to do from a PR perspective. Those regs were there mainly due to issues with a bird migratory route. They did at least hire a bird-expert to assess the risks posed by their operations, but I agree, not a great start.

I'm not sure what details you would like about their geological survey? As far as I'm aware, local residents were informed in advance, although as I am not a resident in the area, I am happy to stand corrected. It's a fairly common procedure though, you can see on the following website a history of all such onshore surveys conducted in the UK (where the Cuadrilla survey will eventually end up):

If you have other evidence that they have manipulated data of some kind then I would be very interested to see it. My experience was that all of the tremor data was immediately released to the BGS, where it has been available for study by the UK academic community. At the same time, they were very fast to take responsibility for the tremors, and to take actions to reduce the probability of them happening again.

It is interesting that much of the opposition to shale gas is not based on the methods unique to shale gas production (the high-volume hydraulic fracturing), but often talks mainly about methods common to all oil extraction - as above, where the topics are well logging, geophysical surveys, and more generally with issues about well completion integrity. It must come as a surprise to learn that the UK produces something like 10,000 barrels a day from onshore wells. Wytch Farm is the largest onshore field in the EU, and it sits below an area of significant environmental importance (Poole Harbour) and some of the highest house prices in the land. Rarely (if ever) do we see any problems from such onshore fields, yet those opposed to shale gas appear sometimes to have greater issue with the techniques used at all these fields than the specific techniques needed for shale gas. This is why I feel that the environmental movement is missing something with respect to the way it has approached the issues surrounding shale gas.
Which garnered the following response from 'ragamala':
I am amazed that Dr Verdon can at the same time claim that the Wytch Farm is exploitation of an "onshore" field and admit that it is actually an offshore resource. This ignorance and spin characterised a recent House of Commons statement by a minister - Hayes - who expected us to be "surprised" but has some lessons to learn himself. It is even worse when Verdon himself knows that the three main fields exploited by the Wytch Farm are actually offshore under Poole Harbour and Poole Bay. The field consists of three separate reservoirs known as Bridport, Sherwood and Frome. Dr Verdon will also, no doubt, be very aware that there have been problems with Wytch Farm involving cessation of activities because of leaks and pipe corrosion. Dr Verdon should be aware that as far as I know Europe's largest onshore oilfield is actually in Albania. 
The issues with shale gas extraction are not restricted to "CO2 footprint" but involve unavoidable and unquantified by the industry releases of methane, a more potent greenhouse gas in the short and medium term. Regarding Cuadrilla's abuse of their planning permission this did not cover just a breach of their conditions regarding protection of an important natural resource, but by a second and separate breach exceeded their time limits. To suggest this was caused by "issues with a bird migratory route" is not only wrong but laughable. 
Regarding Cuadrilla's geo survey they in some instances indeed failed to inform residents, they caused significant concern and some damage, and if Dr Verdon wishes to query this he can take it up with Fylde MP Mark Menzies, who felt the need to intervene. Regarding data manipulation, I would rather say that Cuadrilla have rather been totally misleading. They have, in particular, issued figures for local economic benefit to the Fylde of their geo survey which have been shown to be totally deceptive. Sorry, Dr Verdon, we expect more from someone who claims to be a scientist relying on facts, and moreover educates our young. If this pro-fracking propaganda, blissfully ignoring facts, is an example of what they are taught in Bristol I really fear for the future. 
But if, at the end of the day, as Dr Verdon suggests the industry itself is not confident of shale gas's potential, why on earth should he expect local communities to abandon the precautionary principle? 
Again, I couldn't resist sticking my oar in with:
Dear ragamala,From a technical point of view, Wytch Farm is considered to be an onshore field because all of the drilling is conducted from the land - there is no offshore rig. Yes, parts of the field are below the sea, and parts below the land, but is this really basis enough for your scorn? Since you seem to be in the mood for cheap point scoring, I should mention that I described Wytch Farm as the largest in the EU, which Albania is not. It is true that production was stopped for about 2 months in 2011 as corrosion issues were dealt with. Production is now continuing, no oil leaked from the site. Is this example of a company identifying a problem and promptly acting on it really sufficient reason for a blanket ban on shale gas?  
You mention 'unavoidable and unquantified' methane emissions, having already criticised me for being unaware of recent EU Commission reports. Yet this EU report in fact does quantify methane leakage rates, factors them into the calculations regarding global warming, and finds that domestic shale gas still comes out with less of an impact than imported LNG. When referring to CO2 I was of course referring to CO2 equivalent, apologies for any confusion there. 
Cuadrilla's planning permission issue was in fact entirely related to issues of migrating birds. This has been widely reported by the national press. Laughable perhaps, but apparently true:
If Cuadrilla were less than diligent in informing local residents about their survey then that is indeed unfortunate. Your comments on data manipulation could easily be read as an accusation of manipulation of geological data rather than an over-egging of possible local economic benefits, which would be a far more serious accusation. But these surveys are a common procedure for many geological applications. Indeed our undergraduates are lucky enough to perform one across the Bristol Downs and in South Wales every year (albeit on a far smaller scale of course). You can see from my previous link the sheer number that have been conducted across the UK. The technique is exactly the same for each. Why is it that it is only the one related to shale gas that has attracted problems? 
I'm not sure I suggested that industry itself is not confident of success. The industry is, I believe, extremely confident, as are the British Geological Survey, about the amounts of shale gas that might be extracted both in the UK and around the world.
I'm not sure how I feel about this really. I know that I'm never going to change ragamala's mind, but I think it's important that anyone else reading this knows that there are two sides to every argument (one of which has a lot more facts available to it, while one is much more emotive). I hope I haven't appeared too reactionary. If there's anyone out there in the mood for commenting (unlikely I know) I'd love to know how this discussion comes across. Do I seem like an impartial professional making sensible, considered points, or do I appear to be a raging drill-baby-drill crazy-person in hock to Exxon? Equally, do ragamala's points seem like someone engaging in sensible debate or the rantings of an eco-loon? The comment ratings have me on +1 and +1, while ragamala is on -1 and -2, but I'd love some more detailed feedback. You are welcome to hide behind online anonymity and be as mean as you like......

Thursday, 8 November 2012

The opposition to shale gas

Hats off to the Guardian once again for this article by Mariel Hemingway on why she opposes fracking. It would be easy to mock this piece for it's flighty, right-on loony-ness, but I shan't, because I'm sure the author's beliefs are held strongly and genuinely. What I will take her to task for is her sheer narrow mindedness:
Here at the Willingway, our retreat center near Malibu, my partner Bobby and I have been growing our own food and putting solar to work on our roof. It feels great to watch the meter feeding energy into the grid, instead of just pulling it out. 
Which is all well and good, and to be saluted, but really only possible if you're a wealthy Hollywood (ex?)actress. I'd love to have a solar-powered retreat near Malibu, where I could grow my food, but for the majority of normal people this simply isn't an option. I'd love to feed solar power into the grid, but I can't afford solar panels, even if I owned a house on which to put them (and I don't consider myself poor - I get paid above the national average wage). I'm not sure how the system works in the US, but in this country the feed-back into the grid is funded by feed-in tariffs (public money), so seems to me to be a useful method for richer people (who can afford to invest in these things) to get money from the tax-payer. 

Once again it's worth noting the outright falsehoods:
The hydraulic fracturing process utilizes large amounts of toxic chemicals – 10,000-40,000 gallons per wellScience has shown that it ends up in the water we drink, the water that's used on our food, and the water that nourishes fish, animals, birds, and plants
I've added the emphasis on the 'science has shown' part, partly to highlight how silly it sounds (like the 'here comes the science' part of any hair product advert), but also to point out that there is no documented case where fracking chemicals have been found in water supplies. A couple of cases of methane contamination, yes, but not the fracking chemicals. They're not buoyant, you see, so there's no force to drive them from the shale beds at 2km depth to surface waters. It'd be like making a stream flow uphill. 'Science has shown', my arse. But what's happened is that enough people have said it, and loudly enough, that it's become accepted as fact. A good example of the big lie.

She does get one thing right though:
There's nothing worse than finger-pointing – when we walk in and turn on natural gas to cook our food, or heat our house.
Anyway, I'm talking about this article because it fits very well with my latest experience with the local anti-fracking community. A couple of months ago I saw an advertised screening of Gasland at a local community center, and I thought I'd pop along, see what the anti-fracking community looked like in the south-west.

Perhaps I've spent too long around scientists, but the biggest thing that I noticed was the lack of curiosity, the lack of hunger for details. We were shown an abridged version of the film, followed by a Q & A session. Now, Gasland is notably strong on emotive filming and short on actual facts. You get to see about 5 families claiming to have been affected by gas drilling. Without context, this is fairly meaningless. The questions that anyone watching Gasland should immediately be asking are:
  • what is the incidence rate of these contamination events, in comparison to the number of wells drilled?
  • are there any other possible sources of contamination (and what is the history of water quality in the area prior to drilling?)
  • have there been methane contamination incidences like this prior to drilling?
  • have governmental agencies (like the EPA) made any comment?
  • are local communities universally opposed to drilling?
  • how does the hydraulic fracturing process actually work? How deep are the target formations? How large are the expected fractures?
Gasland gives the impression that the answers to these questions are: really high percentage, not other possible contamination sources, no prior incidents, EPA bought by industry dollars, local communities universally opposed, and no info on the process itself. In fact, I think that it'd be better characterised as: something like 0.01% incidence rate, many potential contamination sources, both natural (natural methane seepage) plus nasty leftovers from things like coal mining, many incidences of flammable water dating back centuries, EPA have investigated many sites and found no evidence of contamination, opposition to drilling is a minority in most communities, and the target formations are typically 2km deep, and fractures are typically 100-200m.

Now, I'm fairly sure that if you were to show Gasland to a group of scientists, people would be asking these questions. Scientists are trained to be sceptical, to distinguish provable fact from opinion. One of the key scientific fallacies is confirmation bias, where you selectively believe things that already fit your worldview, accepting them with a lower threshold for credibility.

I'll admit to being a victim of this myself in my work - I recently had to modify one of my papers which heavily cited another paper (by different authors) which agreed with my results, until the authors had to retract and significantly amend their work as they'd made a number of technical errors. Clearly I'd been too willing to accept their results (which agreed with mine) without properly checking that their work was accurate (for the record, my paper is still right: I had a better and more robust method for making these measurements on fracture compliance than they had). 

But my thoughts at this local anti-fracking meeting were that it was a classic case of confirmation bias. The view of the average participant was clearly that oil companies are heartless cheating bastards who spend their whole time causing awful pollution (even though we use oil every day, and for example we've had oil production in our backyard across the South of the UK for decades without any problems or issues).

So when Gasland appears to show evidence for more of this nasty oil company behaviour, it is accepted without questioning because it already fits into their worldview. Also, there was no discussion of any potential benefits: no mention of the reductions in CO2 emissions as they swap coal for gas, no mention of the shale gas possibilities in China that would represent the biggest and fastest way to reduce global CO2 emissions.

Unfortunately, I think this view is becoming increasingly entrenched, the big lie has been told loudly enough and often enough, and I think shale gas production in the UK is in for a troubled time.

I'll finish by bringing my piece full circle to mention the demographics of the meeting: I think I was pretty much the only person there under the age of 30, and I get the distinct impression that most would fit in well with Mariel Hemingway's holistic greenery. I didn't get the impression (I may be wrong of course) that the majority of people there had financial worries, or worries for the future of the economy at least in the sense that it wouldn't affect them. There's a general lack of understanding that just because they have the time, space and money for a holistic Malibu retreat (or whatever the SW UK equivalent is), the average person will not be able to follow them in this even if they wanted to. Therefore any solution to the energy and climate issues we face has to accept that the average UK citizen does not have the money to put solar power and windmills on top of their house (if they even own one, and more and more of the younger generation will never get to own a house), nor can they afford the increases in energy bills to pay to subsidise a wealthy landowner to festoon his hills with wind turbines.

So what we need are energy sources that can actually deal with the problems we face right now. I think David Miliband summed up our energy problems pretty succinctly here (skip to 49:10) - we're fussing about with energy sources that supply about 1% of our needs, when 30% of our energy comes from coal imported from Russia. The first thing we should be doing is replacing coal with gas. And that's just about the UK, so multiply this problem several times to talk about the US and China!