Friday, 1 August 2014

Fracking scientist accused of lying about his credentials

Many readers familiar with the shale "debate" in the UK will be familiar with David Smythe, Emeritus Professor of Geology, retired (in 1998) from Glasgow University. It should be noted that the reason for his retirement was that Glasgow's Geology Department was closed in 1998. Bad luck perhaps, but hardly a ringing endorsement. On his website Prof. Smythe cites the closure of the Geology Dept as his reason for retiring. However, I've just been informed that the dept did not close - it merged with Geography to become the School of Geographical and Earth Sciences. This seems like another sleight of hand from the good professor.

Prof. Smythe has been a regular contributor at planning hearings related to unconventional gas developments, usually flown in at the expense of the various anti-fracking groups. In a post last year I critiqued his comments about Cuadrilla's drilling operations at Balcombe.

In those comments he revealed himself to be unaware of modern drilling techniques that allow operators to image the surrounding rocks from behind the drill bit, meaning that they can accurately steer the well into the rocks they want to target. Prof Smythe argued that Cuadrilla would not be able to accurately put the lateral part of the well in the 30m thick limestone target. Anyone familiar with modern drilling would know that this is a laughable statement: drillers aim for thinner targets every day. As one anonymous commenter put it after my original article, "a 33m corridor is a simple proposition".

In a report in the Times today, it appears that both the Geological Society and Glasgow University have become concerned about they way in which Prof. Smythe has been using his connections with these institutions to burnish his credentials.

The Geological Society has written to ask that Prof. Smythe cease describing himself as a Chartered Geologist, which he appears not to be. In particular, the Geol. Soc. state that this title requires proof of "continuous professional development", with the clear implication that they feel that Prof Smythe falls short of this requirement.

This isn't particularly surprising, given that Prof Smythe has made no scientific contribution to the field since 1998. In his own words (at the Dart Airth planning hearing), this appears to be because he does not have "slaves" to do the "donkey work" (p. 72) for him (a somewhat concerning attitude to Ph.D and postdoctoral researchers such as myself).

Glasgow University has written to make it clear that Prof. Smythe's views do not represent the views of the University's geologists:
“Notwithstanding our support for freedom of expression, we respectfully request that you make it clear in all of your future publications and broadcast media appearances that the views which you hold and express are your own and are not necessarily representative of the views held by the university’s researchers.”
Professor Paul Younger, current Professor of Energy Engineering at Glasgow put things more strongly:
"He has published nothing on [shale gas] in any proper scientific forum - no doubt because he knows he would never get past peer review with his pseudo-scientific scaremongering. He falsely claims to be a chartered geologist. That’s fraudulent. It’s wilful untruth. I am concerned about the damage to the reputation of the university by someone who never fails to use his university affiliation.”
The words used by both the Geol. Soc. and Glasgow University are fairly measured. However, to my knowledge this is a fairly drastic step. One wonders what impact this might have on his appearances at future planning hearings and the like.

In closing, I'd particularly recommend reading the closing submission made by Dart's lawyer at the Airth hearing regarding Prof. Smythe (pp72 - 76). For example, when asked to provide evidence of fugitive methane emissions from faults (his main contention regarding unconventional gas), Prof Smythe was unable to provide a single example.

Update 1.8.2014: To see how Prof Smythe's comments have been covered prior to today, this report makes for an interesting read. Prof. Smythe is variously described as a "top geologist", a "leading academic", and an "academic regarded by many of his peers as a world-class star of geological research". For contrast, Prof. Younger has added a comment at the end of the article:
"Long-retired Prof Smythe is not in any way associated with the current research team at the Univ of Glasgow, who regard his claims as false".


  1. "Prof. Smythe has been a regular contributor at planning hearings related to unconventional gas developments, usually flown in at the expense of the various anti-fracking groups."

    Now that he's been 'busted', all the 'evidence' & opinions he submitted to those historic enquiries can surely be called into doubt?

    Would companies who've lost-out financially be able to sue the organisations which funded his appearances?

    1. Hi Joe P,

      As far as I'm aware, Prof Smythe has appeared at 2 planning hearings. The review for Dart at Airth is still ongoing, so we'll have to wait and see on that one.

      The other is the recent Celtique decision in Sussex. Planning was rejected, but mainly for reasons of traffic and access to the site, rather than any geological factors. I'm not familiar with Celtique's site or the nearby area, but I would expect operators take care in choosing sites where access is sufficient to accommodate regular traffic of larger vehicles. Note that Celtique had no plans for fracking a the proposed site (it was just a conventional borehole).

  2. Treating the factual niceties as trivia is something of a habit with Professor Smythe. The April 2014 issue of the Geoscientist magazine contains an unprecedented editorial correction to an opinion piece that Smythe had written with his former colleague Stuart Haszeldine, containing a completely misleading narrative about the development of British government policy for the disposal of radioactive waste.

  3. I read the Dart Energy lawyer stuff. Powerful, and I also noted that Dr Mariann Smith Lloyd appeared again. She is the one that looked so authoritative on 'The Truth Behind the Dash for Gas', a false title if ever there was one! She seems to be incapable of completing a sentence without saying 'endocrine disruptor' or 'carcinogen', and was shown to have told lies. The lawyer had a field day, pointing out the oddness of someone who constantly refers to fracking and the host of terrible chemicals, when these processes were not even under discussion in the Dart Energy CBM scheme. They have sunk 20 wells there over 20 years without needing fracking and there has not been a complaint. Suddenly now, drilling/fracking is a technology that will kill us all, and the District Council seem to have rejected the application, based upon protests that involve fake science. Its good to see that the planning process does have an appeal system that precludes the consideration of fake science however. I hope it all goes well.

  4. It came as no surprise to read about Professor Smythe’s woes in the national press. I was an undergraduate student in the Department of Geology at Glasgow University in the late 1980s and early 1990s. His lectures were extremely poor, and most shocking of all were his geological map interpretation skills. I can categorically say that as a second year geology student I, and my classmates, had a better grasp of geological map interpretation than the good professor. His nickname among the undergraduate students was "Dave `I don't have a f*#king clue' Smythe". He may be an expert at theoretical geophysics, but he was certainly no expert in the finer (or even basic) points of map interpretation.

    Unless he subsequently audited a geology course (or ten), I cannot think of a least qualified individual to be represented as an “expert” in the field of hydraulic fracturing. In my professional opinion (I have BSc (Hons.), MSc, and PhD degrees and also PGeo and EurGeol accreditation), an expert in the field of the risk associated with hydraulic fracturing should be a reservoir engineer. A theoretical seismologist is poorly placed to comment on hydraulic fracturing.

    Professor (n.) – a person who professes to know more than they actually do. Professor David K. Smythe is a perfect example of this.

  5. It doesn't add up...13 September 2014 at 04:36

    This study looks like it will get wide citations: