Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Does the infrastructure bill give carte blanche to inject any substance an operator chooses?


Today's fuss is over the infrastructure bill currently going through parliament. The purpose of this bill is to reduce the amount of time spent in court arguing over subsurface access rights and trespass issues.

However, anti-fracking activists have today tried to claim that the bill is an attempt to subvert existing regulation, allowing operators to inject whatever fluid they want without any safeguards. The Guardian has some typically scaremongering coverage here.

Greenpeace are claiming that
"Ministers are effectively trying to absolve fracking firms from responsibility for whatever mess they’ll end up leaving underground"
while Friends of the Earth claim that
"The government appears to be trying to sneak through an amendment which would allow fracking firms to reinject their waste under people’s homes and businesses" 
Are they right? Of course not.

Saturday, 11 October 2014

Advertising Complaints in Australia

A few months ago I blogged about Frack Free Somerset (FFS)'s decision not to challenge a complaint about their promotional material made to the Advertising Standards Agency (ASA). Their leaflet contained numerous errors and misleading statements. Because FFS agreed to remove their material and cease using it, rather than to attempt to offer a rebuttal, the ASA never carried out an investigation.

There are obvious parallels to the complaint made to the ASA over Cuadrilla's publicity material, and over an advert placed by the self-styled "Frack-Master" Chris Faulkner.

We in the UK are not the only country to provide an advertising regulator, and in this post I will report on a decision reached by the Publishing Advertisers Bureau in Australia.

Before I do so, however, I want to comment on the situation we now find ourselves in, where advertising standards agencies are finding themselves having to make judgements on what are, in some cases, quite complicated and technical issues, with very little understanding of the subject matter. I very much doubt that anyone at the ASA has any familiarity with oil and gas operations and/or regulation.

While I am sure that the ASA are used to dealing with complaints in subject areas they are not familiar with, I would suggest that this debate is very different to determining whether or not a new brand of shampoo really makes your hair feel 10 times silkier. Yet as an authoritative body it is inevitable that their pronouncements are taken very seriously indeed, when the more I think about it, the less reason I see to do so. Frack-Master Chris Faulkner summed the situation up: "the ASA has been both judge and jury in this case. They appear to have become unqualified experts in fracking and interpreting the complex issues surrounding fracking in the UK".

However, today's blog is about a decision in Australia. The opposition group Frack Free Geraldton (FFG), with support of the Conservation Council of Western Australia (CCWA), published an advert in the local rag, the Geraldton Guardian. The Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association (APPEA) submitted a compliant regarding the advert, which appears to have been upheld. In each case, the statements made by FFG and CCWA were found to be misleading and deceptive.

The statements, and the reasons for the findings, are discussed below.

"Shale fracking, the process of extracting gas by using toxic chemicals to crack deep rocks, can turn our water into a dangerous chemical cocktail"

It was found that this statement gives a misleading impression of the fracturing process, because it gives the impression that most of the fracking fluid is composed of toxic chemicals. It was found that "The statement that 'toxic chemicals' are used to crack deep rocks creates the impression that toxic chemicals 'alone', certainly not in such small percentage quantities are used to frack", which is not the case: frack fluid is 99% water, with only a small amount of additive, most or all of which is not toxic.

The statement finds that "to an ordinary reasonable reader the words of the advertisement and the accompanying illustration together create the impression that the amount of 'toxic chemical' used is a much greater concentration that is in fact the case", which is a misleading and deceptive exaggeration.

With regards to turning water into "a dangerous chemical cocktail", it was found that while there are risks posed by hydraulic fracturing, "the consensus of scientific data suggests that there have been no cases internationally of hydraulic shale gas fracturing inadvertently breaching a water source and thereby causing contamination", and that "a combination of research from around the world shows us that the risks are low".

Moreover, in their response to the complaint, CCWA "have not produced any evidence that hydraulic fracking fluid has in the course of any hydraulic shale gas fracking process permeated a fresh water aquifer. Its contentions are against the scientific literature".

"Research in the US has found that 6% of fracking wells leak into ground water in the first year"

Anyone who is familiar with this blog will already know why this statement is misleading. It is a topic I have discussed extensively. The 6% statistics refer to the number of wells that have some kind of casing or cement issue in one of the casing strings. However, wells have several casing strings to separate the production zone from any sensitive groundwater supplies. This means that a well with an issue in one casing string will not be spewing hydrocarbons into the environment. It's a belt-and-braces type approach.

A paper by King and King in 2013 (SPE) is instructive in this regard:
For US wells, while individual barrier failures (containment maintained and no pollution indicated) in a specific well group may range from very low to several percent (depending on geographical area, operator, era, well type and maintenance quality), actual well integrity failures are very rare. Well integrity failure is where all barriers fail and a leak is possible. True well integrity failure rates are two to three orders of magnitude lower than single barrier failure rates.
In their response, the CCWA admit that their statement "is not materially correct", and it is therefore found to be "misleading and deceptive".

This is a point I've been making for some time, so it's good to see that even environmental bodies know that it is not correct to say that 6% (or 30% or 50% or whatever) of wells are leaking, even if they do still insist on claiming this in their promotional material.



"Once our water is contaminated, it will be forever" 

This statement ignores the abundant evidence that while any contamination incident is bad, the damage is rarely permanent: wells that do leak can be repaired, spills can be remediated. For example, Considine et al. (2013) examine the environmental impacts from drilling in Pennsylvania, and find 25 incidents that they deem to be "serious". However, they find that in all but 6 cases the impacts had already been remediated satisfactorily. The APPEA provided similar examples of remediation in their supporting evidence for their complaint.

In contrast, "the contentions put forward by CCWA in support of this statement in its submission dated 22 August 2014 are without any independent scientific support. They are unsupported assertions." 

As a result, it was found that "the statement that once contaminated water will forever be contaminated is not supported by contemporary scientific views and is misleading and deceptive." 


For anyone interested in the original complaint, the CCWA rebuttal and the final decision, the documents are available below.

The original APPEA complaint is here.
The CCWA response is here.
Further APPEA comments are here.
The final decision is here.



Monday, 6 October 2014

The CIEH and me: full discussion


A few months ago, the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health (CIEH) released a report into the impacts of hydraulic fracturing and shale gas extraction in the UK. You can read the original report here. Of particular concern was that the report's lead author had already taken a leading role in protests outside of unconventional gas drilling sites in the UK: hardly the best place to start if you are looking for a balanced report.

In my opinion, the quality of the report was very very poor, ranking as little more than scaremongering and with little understanding of the oil/gas extraction process. I was infuriated enough to write a rather outspoken blog post criticising the report, which some readers might remember.

In the days following the report's publication, I ordered my thoughts a little from my original post, and sent a more moderate and thoughtful criticism to the CIEH. The CIEH provided an initial response to my criticisms.

Incidentally, the CIEH made their response public, without actually stating my criticisms alongside their response (or informing me that they had done so). I can only assume that they weren't comfortable seeing their response alongside my original criticisms.

This wouldn't surprise me given the weakness of the response. In some places their is direct and/or tacit admission of error, while in others the authors manage to contradict themselves. I was originally prepared to let sleeping dogs lie and "agree to disagree", especially since I had a busy fieldwork schedule over the summer. However, the quality of the response was so poor that I couldn't help but write a further comment to the CIEH. I have not now received a response to those comments (nor do I expect to, if I'm honest), so I have decided to make public the full extent of our discussion for all to see.

I should add a warning, these are fairly lengthly documents, but hopefully make for an interesting read if you have a few minutes to spare and a cup of tea to hand.

My first critique of the CIEH report is here.

The CIEH response to my critique is here.

My comments on the CIEH response is here.








Sunday, 28 September 2014

Image of the Day: Zombie Images


This image of the day showcases what I sometimes refer to as "zombie" images. No matter how many times they are debunked, these zombies keep rising from the dead to stumble forwards once more, leaving a trail of mis-information in their wake.

This first image, or variants thereof, is an aerial shot of the Jonah gas field, Wyoming. This zombie is usually summoned to show the potential cumulative impact of shale gas development, the sheer number of wells, pads and roads required. 

The only problem is, this isn't a shale gas field - this is a conventional gas field. It was drilled in the early 1990s, before the widespread use of horizontal drilling. Without horizontal wells, lots of vertical wells, closely spaced together, are required, as we can see at Jonah. Horizontal drills allow an operator to reach a much larger area from a single pad. 

With horizontal drilling, only one pad would be required for the whole area shown in the photo. A modern shale gas development would look nothing like this image. Any time you see this image being used, you can be sure that the user either doesn't know what a shale gas development looks like, or knows but is wilfully scaremongering.


The next zombie is a very common one: this image can even be found on the BBC's website, although similar ones can be found everywhere. You'll note that the depth of the well is approximately twice that of the drilling rig. This implies that the well extends to a depth of about 50-60m, when in fact most shale gas wells will extend to depths of more than 2,000m. This is an error in scale of 4000%.



In a way I sympathise with the makers of such infographic, because these wells are so deep that drawing them to scale is actually quite challenging - you need a long piece of paper. However, at the very least this zombie should come with a nice clear health warning - the vertical scale is extremely misleading.

For a better idea of the true scale, this image by Ground-Gas Solutions does a reasonable job:



Update (29.9.2014): I should add that this second zombie is a pervasive zombie indeed. He even appears on UKOOG's website.

Carbon capture and storage faces the same issue - it can be difficult to demonstrate in true scale the depths at which CO2 is buried for storage. Again, opponents can easily make out-of-scale images showing the gas a few metres below the surface ready to burst out at a moments notice. Another good true-scale image was put together by the operators of the Aquistore CCS project, Canada:





Thursday, 25 September 2014

Landmark shale gas study shows no groundwater problems


One of the difficulties in the current shale gas debate is that good data is hard to come by. Operators collect lots of data from around their sites, including water sampling to test for pollution, and geophysical monitoring to track where the fractures went during stimulation. However, this data is often considered commercially sensitive, so it rarely sees the light of day.

A government-sponsored project would be very useful, because it would provide a test-bed for an extensive monitoring program. All data could then be made public, and the claims of all those involved in the shale gas debate openly tested.

This is exactly what has been happened in the USA, with the final report released this week. The US National Energy Technology Lab (NETL) sponsored a monitoring program at a hydraulic fracking operation in Greene County, Pennsylvania. The monitoring program consisted of 2 parts: microseismic monitoring to track the fractures created by the stimulation, and geochemical sampling in overlying layers to test whether any contamination has occurred. Most importantly, because the data is publicly available, it's a great opportunity to talk through the anatomy of hydraulic stimulation.

The first stage of shale gas extraction is to drill horizontal wells through which the fracking will be done. The figure below shows a map of the lateral wells drilled. Those in the yellow box were the 6 wells that made up the NETL study.



Sunday, 21 September 2014

New study shows leaky wells, not fracking, is causing methane leakage


This week's most newsworthy study examines methane contamination in wells in Pennsylvania and Texas, linking them with drilling activities. It is authored by the same Duke group who have published on this topic a number of times now.

In the new study, the authors analyse the geochemistry of methane and groundwater around shale gas wells. As well as measuring the geochemistry of the methane, they measure other geochemical variables such as noble gas isotope ratios and salinities, in order to get a better handle of what might be leading to the elevated methane levels.

They find that in some cases the evidence points to a deep source of methane that has migrated relatively rapidly, with little contact with the rock layers that lie in between shallow aquifers and the deep layers in which fracking is conducted. The most obvious conclusion to make is that methane is not getting into shallow layers through cracks and fractures in the rock, but that methane migration through faulty well bores to the surface is a possibility.

The study has, for obvious reasons, garnered a lot of publicity. However, the more I thought about it, the less newsworthy the study becomes. In actual fact, I think it tells us little that we didn't already know.

We already know that faulty cement and/or casing can allow methane migration from depth. We already know that in a handful of cases in Pennsylvania, poor working practice from certain operators has lead to cement/casing problems - these companies have been prosecuted and fined by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection. So it's hardly surprising that the authors of the study were able to find cases where the geochemical evidence pointed to this issue.

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

New Life-Cycle Assessment for UK Shale Gas


A new life cycle assessment for UK shale gas has been released by researchers from the University of Manchester. This study considers a range of potential environmental impacts. Most significantly, it compares shale gas extraction against a host of other energy technologies, including conventional gas, coal, nuclear power and renewables. 

This sort of comparison is very important, because when it comes to energy sources, we have to choose how our energy mix should be balanced. All sources of energy have impacts, and we can't say no to all of them. 

Equally significant is the fact that the study doesn't just consider the global warming impact of the various technologies (the global warming potential, or GWP), but a whole host of environmental factors , including the use of abiotic resources (rare earth elements etc), acidification, eutrophication, freshwater, marine, terrestrial and human toxicity, and ozone depletion. 

Before I get into the details of the study, the first figure I'll borrow is the one that compares the global warming potential (GWP), according to the various previous studies: 


Sunday, 14 September 2014

My Fracking Answers

Update 21.9.2014: I thought it unlikely that DECC would provide a response to MyFrackingQuestions, which is why I wrote this post. It seems that I was wrong, DECC have now provided an official response.

The latest shale gas publicity stunt, which follows on from the damp squib that was TalkFracking, is MyFrackingQuestions, a website that allows users to put together a customised email to be sent to Matthew Hancock, the new Minister of State for Energy.

Sadly, I suspect that Mr Hancock will be too busy to get round to providing detailed answers. To make up for this, I have provided some My Fracking Answers. The MFQ questions, divided in a topic-by-topic basis, are in italics, followed by My Fracking Answers:

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.

Tuesday, 29 July 2014

Image of the Day: Latest Onshore Licensing Round

This week sees the release of DECC's 14th onshore licensing round. Potential operators can bid for licences that give them the exclusive right to explore for oil and gas, and indeed shale gas, within their licence block.

Note that having a licence doesn't automatically grant a right to drill or to do hydraulic fracturing. Operators must still get planning permission, and the relevant permits from the EA, DECC, HSE etc before they are allowed to do anything.

Below is a map showing the current state of play onshore in the UK. The map shows existing wells, fields and licence blocks, and the new blocks made available for licensing are shown in purple.


I have also created a google earth .kml file so you can look at this data in more detail. You can download it here.