<colossal name drop> I've been fortunate enough to chat to Britain's favourite geo-celebrity before on this topic </colossal name drop>, so I knew that this was in the works, although I wasn't expecting it to hit our screens so soon.
I'm also pretty sure, unlike the author of this blog, that the views expressed genuinely represent how Iain sees the subject. I don't think, to quote, that
that Prof. Stewart was ready to burst, he was holding back so much. It was the uncomfortable way he spoke to camera, I could almost sense the person behind the camera giving him a stern look. Be balanced, be careful, this is dangerous stuff. Hang on, let’s cut to you saying nothing and driving, that’s safer.To be fair, there WERE a lot of driving shots. It seems to be the done thing for documentaries these days. Perhaps it is assumed that unless we see shots of the presenter travelling between locations we might get confused and think they're still in the same place.
However, I don't quite understand the surprise felt by many commentators over Iain's take on the topic. The view of pretty much every professional organisation that has addressed the topic, be it the British Geological Survey, the Royal Society, the Royal Academy of Engineers, is that shale gas extraction can be conducted safely, and that risks posed are not much different to conventional hydrocarbon extraction. That's not to say that there are no risks (everything we do carries a risk), but that those risks can be managed within the UK's already robust oil and gas regulatory regime. I'm not sure why Prof Stewart, a professional geologist, would be desperate to (and I quote again)
blown his top and started ranting at the camera. ‘For pities sake, wake up, this isn’t the solution, this is shortsighted madness! We drill and pump and waste billions of gallons of fresh water extracting this stuff, we burn it, we increase carbon in the atmosphere and then it runs out. Remember ‘North Sea Gas?’ Yes it’s easy and a stopgap and a final, last ditch frenzied attempt at keeping the crumbling edifice of the fossil fuel corporations going, but it’s insane.’I think if you only read, say, the Guardian, on shale gas, you'd be fairly convinced that fracking is completely awful, and that no-one in their right mind could support it, unless you are a greedy Texan oil baron. It must then come as a bit of shock when someone like Iain Stewart, supposedly one of the good guys, the cuddly face of geology, takes the view (as the majority of geologists do) that the risks of shale gas extraction should be entirely manageable. Hence the rather nasty comments suggesting that either Iain, or the producers, must surely have been in the pockets of big oil to commit such an outrage.
In all I feel it was a very balanced program. The best evidence for this is that after the show, @ProfIainStewart's twitter feed was bombarded with angry commentators from both sides of the debate castigating him for making such a biased program. If you're pissing off both sides, you're probably doing a reasonable job.
The first half of the show was dedicated to the benefits of shale gas extraction. This included a visit to a Louisiana 'shale-ionaire', a man who received a $430,000 one-off payment, plus regular monthly royalties, for drilling rights on his farmland. It also showed the scale of shale gas extraction in the US: it's not limited to Pennsylvania and Texas (although these are two hotspots). There are over 1 million wells in over 30 states. Some people believe that there is more gas in the US than there is oil in Saudi Arabia. The effects the shale gas revolution on the economy, and in particular the attraction of cheap energy to manufacturing and chemical industries that are 're-shoring' to the US was mentioned.
Particularly interesting was the visit to the National Grid control center, during the Strictly Come Dancing finale. As the show ends and everyone in the UK makes a cup of tea, the demand spikes and the Grid brings on extra power to meet this demand. I'd heard of the so-called 'TV Pickup' effect before, but it was still fascinating to see it in action. We are all so accustomed to receiving electricity quite literally at the flick of a switch, and we so rarely think about the sheer complexity of infrastructure needed to deliver it too us! It really is mind-blowing when you step back to look at it.
The scale of this infrastructure was further demonstrated by the visit to the Isle of Grain LNG terminal, where gas from Qatar is landed. The scale of the holding tanks and the size of the tankers were quite astounding - quite literally like a wall of steel as Iain describes it. The tanker is 1/4 of a mile long, and carries enough gas to power 70,000 homes for a year. Which is just as well, because 40% of our electricity comes from gas, and more than 50% of our gas is imported. This highlights the often underestimated issue of energy security - gas tankers are highly flexible, so if the Qataris ever decide to sell their gas to someone else, or someone else decides to pay a higher price for it, we'd begin to run out of gas pretty quickly. Hence the geo-political importance of 'home-grown' energy to buffer us from these consequences.
Having looked at the potential benefits, the second half of the program heads to Pennsylvania to examine some of the potential issues. Iain meets with a family, the McIntyres, who list a series of health problems that they associate with contaminated water caused by nearby gas drilling. It seems the whole community is scared of their water, and now only drink from delivered bottles. The McIntyres admit that it has been difficult to prove this link scientifically, and this comes across in the program: lots of complaints, not a lot science to back them up.
The confidential make up of drilling fluids was also mentioned. There's little doubt that drilling companies made a strategic blunder in trying to keep this information secret. There reason for doing so - the desire to keep commercial secrets from their competitors - is technically a valid one, but only if you are thinking mainly of your competitors, not the general public. Because if the public see you are keeping secrets, they will assume you have something to hide. The industry is starting to come around to this fact, and more and more wells are registered on FracFocus, but from a PR point of view this horse (and trust in the industry) has long bolted.
One of the few scientific studies that has found any kind of link between methane contamination and drilling is the famous Duke study, which receives some air time at the end of the show. It's worth bearing in mind that this study hasn't gone without substantial criticism (see here, here and here (last link is industry funded and not peer reviewed, but worth including)). This included Iain performing the now famous lighting of the water due to methane content, and the debate continues as to what extend groundwater methane is naturally occurring, and to what extent it has been exacerbated by drilling.
Overall, I think the final point is right on the money: UK shale gas operations will likely look very different to the US shale gas experience - the operating culture, the regulatory system, and the mineral rights systems are all completely different. However, it is up to British scientists and engineers to prove that they know the risks, and that they can manage the risks safely.
The thing that impressed me most about the program however, wasn't any information about shale gas. Having been involved in the topic for some time now, there wasn't a lot to surprise me. What I really enjoyed was that, perhaps unintentionally, it showcased real geoscientists doing what real geoscientists actually do.
We're not short of popular outreach in the geosciences (especially thanks to the work of Prof Stewart et al.). However, geoscience in the media tends to revolve around dinosaurs and disasters. Super-volcanoes and Stegosaurus. Tsunamis and T-Rex. In fact, only a small portion of geoscientists are palaeontologists or vulcanologists, especially in the commercial world outside of academia. This is leading to public misunderstanding of the work geoscientists do, perhaps exemplified by the incident of Iain Duncan Smith, the geologists and the shelf-stacker.
During this program, we got to see drilling engineers alongside the incredibly complex surface operations - that spaghetti-like tangle of hydraulic lines - needed to conduct a well stimulation. Such incredibly complex engineering that we rely on completely just to go about our daily lives!
We saw a geophysicist using 3D seismic data to work out where the shale rocks were, 3 to 4km beneath us, and using microseismic event locations - pops and cracks that carry no more energy than a dropped bottle of milk, detected and located with pin-point accuracy on arrays of geophones kilometers away - to map exactly how far and in what directions the stimulated fractures went. The geophysicist points out that, as the first person to look at the 3D seismic data, he really is the first living thing to 'see' these rocks since those dying organisms, whose organic matter eventually transformed into methane, were buried 350 million years ago. Astounding!
We saw Iain himself go in for a bit of palaeofacies reconstruction in some Peak District caves, using information from sedimentary structures and fossilised corals and plant matter to reconstruct the enivronmental conditions hundreds of millions of years ago, to work out where the coastline would once have been, and therefore where the best places to drill might be. What to the untrained eye might be a boring-looking grey rock, actually contains a wealth of information about what the world was like 350 million years ago!
We saw inside the BGS core store, where 250km of core samples from across the UK, logging the depths beneath our feet, are stored. We saw how electron microscopes are used to see the tiny, tiny pores within shale rocks, which may only be 5 nanometers across. These tiny pores may be pretty-much invisible to the naked eye, yet in sufficient number they allow apparently rock solid, dense shales to trap trillions of cubic meters of natural gas!
Finally, we saw hydrologists conducting water sampling across Pennsylvania. Not glamorous, perhaps, but vital work to guarantee the health and livelihoods of people who rely on that water!
There's so much more to geoscience than the big box-office sellers: dinosaurs and natural disasters. I'm glad that, perhaps unintentionally, this program was able to show that.