Monday, 11 May 2015

The truth and it's boots: publication bias and shale gas


"A lie can get halfway around the world while the truth is still getting it's boots on". While the origins of this quote are disputed, there can be little doubting of the sentiment behind it.

This can even be true in the peer-reviewed scientific literature: often a "high-impact" finding gets substantial publicity, and is then cited extensively in the literature, while subsequent studies that rebut these findings are, relatively-speaking, ignored.

To be clear, there is no "lying" involved here, in the sense of deliberate misconduct or anything like that. However studies with small sample sizes or especially studies that are poorly designed, are more likely to throw up anomalous results. Once larger studies are performed that are more statistically robust, the anomalous effect, which could have just been a fluke (after all, 95% confidence levels means a 1 in 20 chance of being incorrect), goes away.

This is an important part of science. Smaller preliminary studies may give way to larger studies that produce a more robust result. However, what is important is that the more robust studies are cited as often, or more so, than the one that produced the "sexy" result.

I bring this issue up after reading an interesting blog post here, which considers this issue with respect to educational psychology. An early paper suggested that by making questions on an exam paper harder to read, students would read them more carefully and therefore achieve higher marks.
The study sampled only 40 students. Subsequently, other researchers repeated the study with thousands of candidates, but were not able to repeat the results, finding no difference between test scores regardless of how the question was written.

All well and good, and this is how science should proceed. However the original study, with the result subsequently shown to be incorrect, has been cited hundreds of times and received extensive publicity: it's got halfway around the world - while the subsequent paper, which was much more robust but with a much more prosaic finding - has been cited much less: it's barely got its boots on!


This is analogous to certain papers on shale gas. Papers that claim to find links between shale gas and pollution are far more interesting and scientifically "sexy". Therefore they get widely publicised and cited. Papers that find no links between shale gas and pollution are far more boring, and they fail to get attention. This can be seen in a comparison between several recent papers.

In 2011 a team from Duke University published a paper in PNAS linking shale gas production in the Marcellus to elevated methane levels in groundwater, based on 60 water samples. This paper has been cited over 530 times (Google Scholar). The same team covered the Fayetteville shale in Arkansas in a similar study, but did not find any link between shale gas and groundwater methane. The less-interesting finding was only published in Applied Geochemistry, far less prestigious than PNAS, and has received only 30 subsequent citations.

In 2013 the Duke team published another paper (again in PNAS) again linking methane to drilling in the Marcellus, extending the 2011 study to a total of 140 water samples. Again, the "sexy" result generated substantial interest, and the 2013 paper has been cited almost 150 times. However, also in 2013 a study by Molofsky et al. used almost 2,000 water samples, but did not find any link between groundwater methane and shale gas drilling. Again, this "unsexy" study found it's way into a much lower impact journal ("Groundwater"). With nearly 2,000 water samples vs 140 samples, the Molofsky paper is far more statistically robust than the PNAS papers, yet it has only been cited 50 times.

The impact of this imbalance in publicity has implications for policy-relevant subjects such as shale gas. It is noticeable that recent reports studying the public health impacts of shale gas development, such as the CIEH and Medact reports for example, cite the "sexy" PNAS studies, but fail to cite the more robust Molofsky paper.

To wrap up, publication bias is an acknowledged issue in the academic literature, albeit more so in biological sciences. It is interesting to see it creeping into the geological world. However, I don't really have an easy remedy to conclude with (so suggestions in the comments I suppose).




Sunday, 5 April 2015

Forget Easter, Happy Geologist Day


To all my geological readers: Happy Geologists Day.

Geologists Day was created in the USSR to honour Soviet geologists for their role in finding the minerals and oil that built and fuelled the soviet state. It falls on the first Sunday of April, as this would be when the summer field season began.


Having lived in Russia for several years, and being a geologist of course, this day has particular resonance for me. Courtesy of "Dr Geophysics" a poem and a toast:
To all geologists, loving and gentle,
Whose clothes are baggy and who dressed very neatly.
To all very young ones and very mature,
Who are hiking peninsulas, mountains, and islands,
Avoiding tsunami and looking for landslides.
Geologists very romantic (there are no others).
(Translation from the Russian poem)
Я предлагаю тост (Ya predlagau tost - I propose a toast*):
“Dear friends, let us drink a few drops.
May the geologists, working far from home,
in the wildernesses and the most remote regions of our restless planet,
soaked by rain, frozen by snow, yet warmed with friendship,
safely return home to their loved ones”
*Toasting is a big part of any Russian meal. At a meal, each guest is expected to propose a toast, which is accompanied by a slug of vodka - if you have a lot of guests it can end up being a lot of vodka! Since I mainly hung out with other ex-pats, I never learned a lot of Russian, but Я предлагаю тост is definitely one phrase that stuck!

Something I've learned while writing this post is that when Geologists Day was inaugurated in 1966, geology was a very romantic subject in Russia, as field parties explored and mapped the uncharted corners of vast Siberia. It seems like a good escape from the oppressive soviet authorities of the time. Indeed, the field of geology even produced a recognised school of poetry in 1950/60s Leningrad (St Petersburg). Sadly my Russian isn't good enough to translate any of this work, but I would be interested in finding translations.




Tuesday, 31 March 2015

Medact vs British Columbia


The latest fracking-related media ripple comes to us courtesy of Medact, a health-campaigining organisation, who have written a report on the potential health impacts of fracking. I say ripple because it seems that even the media appear to be tiring of these endless reports.

In fact, some reporting has focussed on the fact that Medact's director appears to have been unaware that the "independent expert" who contributed large sections of the report was also standing for parliament in the Fylde on an anti-fracking platform (the same Mike Hill who has featured previously on this blog).

The report brings up the usual talking points about well integrity, water contamination and air pollution, concluding that we should have a fracking moratorium.

I'm currently busy with other work, so I'm not going to post a detailed discussion of the report as I have done with similar reports in the past.

Instead, I am going to leave it to the reader to compare the Medact report, supposedly written by public health professionals, with another shale-gas-public-health report also recently released by the British Columbia Ministry of Health. Update 1.4.2015: Some of the links appear to be broken at present. The home page for the B.C. study is here, a brief summary is available here, and a ppt is available here, but as you'll note the links to the report itself don't seem to work at present.

The B.C. report comes to very different conclusions to Medact - generally speaking health risks are considered to be low, and while recommendations to improve regulations are suggested as you would expect, they do not see the need for a moratorium or ban. The level of detail and the amount of work in the B.C. report is impressive - when reading the Medact report after reading this, I am left feeling how amateurish the Medact study looks.

Update 1.4.2015: UKOOG have issued a detailed rebuttal, showing how the Medact report has failed to understand how the UK regulatory system works.

Thursday, 26 March 2015

Anti-fracking parliamentary candidate's embarrassing email


Mike Hill is a prominent anti-fracking activist in Lancashire, who is currently running for parliament on an anti-fracking ticket. Mr Hill is an engineer by training, so he's somewhat more effective than most of the anti-fracking groups, who as we have seen tend to take a strongly anti-scientific bent.

Mr Hill featured on this blog when I discussed the relevance of certain US studies for the UK context: he often cites these papers as evidence for what might be expected in the UK, but actually they describe practices (uncontrolled venting of flowback gases with no capture and/or no flaring) that are not allowed in the UK, and so the studies are of very limited relevance.

Anyway, I mention him now because emails have come to light showing that only 2 years ago Mr Hill was writing to Cuadrilla asking them for work. This is presumably very embarrassing for a candidate running on an anti-fracking platform, particularly given some of the comments about other activist groups in his email:
"Just being anti-fracking is nonsense to me and always has been. It's purely a reaction and not a positive one. Often in response to utter gibberish news stories or propaganda set off by Frack-Off and co. I am up to the eyeballs with it. They want me to add professional credence to this utter nonsense." 
Can't say I disagree with much here (which makes a nice change for me, grumpy-guts that I usually am).

Monday, 23 March 2015

Further comments on the Talk Fracking "Frackademics" report

After my original comments on Talk Fracking's "Frackademics" report, it seems my critique has garnered a response. Which was nice. Quotes from the response are in bold, and my further comments follow.

"Here follows a quick rebuttal. It is not comprehensive and we do not intend to embark on a lengthy program of tit for tat social media discussions."
Well, at least they got something right with regard to the uncomprehensive nature of the response! With regards social media, I would suggest that if you want to avoid a lengthy tit for tat then don't smother your social media feeds with images that appear to incite physical assault against academics. Also, don't write letters to the Heads of Departments and funding bodies of the academics you've taken a dislike to asking that they "take appropriate actions to protect the reputation of your institution".

As an aside, I'd be very interested to find out what TF believe would count as "appropriate actions". Should we be muzzled to prevent us from speaking to the public? Should we be fired?

Talk Fracking have clearly gone to considerable effort to produce this report, and to mount a social media campaign associated with the report, and even to write letters to university departments, individual academics, science funding councils, science engagement charities, and government ministers. If you're prepared to do this, you should be prepared to offer a fully comprehensive response when the targets of your attack point out the gaping flaws in your original report. If you can't, please write further letters to all of the above explaining that you were wrong and rescinding your accusations.

Moving on to the more specific points:
"His point doesn’t address the scale of ‘known’ and ‘producible’ fossil fuel reserves – and the fact that this scale is far greater than it will ever be safe to produce" 
Here's a couple of images the show (above) where our unburnable fossil fuel reserves are held, and (below) where our emissions are coming from.


You can see that the majority of our CO2 emissions, and the majority of the CO2 embedded in reserves, are in coal. Quickly phasing out coal is by far the most important thing we can do with respect to CO2 emissions. Meanwhile, we really don't want the oil and gas industries to stop producing immediately tomorrow - if they were to do so, civilisation as we know it would collapse. Therefore it is appropriate to conduct research into extracting oil and gas as efficiently as we can, while at the same time accepting that we cannot continue to burn it at the rates we presently do. These are not mutually exclusive positions, and nothing in the original report or Mr Mobbs' further comments actually challenge this position.
"The only viable model for efficient CCS would be for power generation. You can’t fit CCS to a road vehicle or a home heating boiler! [...] Most of the world’s carbon emissions do not come from power generation."
At no point do I argue that CCS is a silver bullet that can resolve all our problems. Mr Mobbs is attacking a straw-man. However, I will add a few comments anyway. My research is funded by the UK taxpayer, so I tend to focus on solutions applicable to the UK. The following image (from the CCC) breaks up the UK's emission by sector. CCS can feasibly be applied both to the power sector and to major industrial emitters. In the UK these account for 265 MT of CO2 out of our total emissions of just over 600MT, or about 40%. CCS cannot provide the whole solution, and I've never said it can. It can play an important role, however, so it is important that we continue to develop it. Therefore, as per my original comments, paying academics to conduct research in this area is completely appropriate, and nothing in Mr Mobbs' comments actually challenges this assertion.


Moreover, the only viable model for a near-zero emission civilisation is to decarbonise electricity generation, and then electrify almost everything. It's all very well pointing out that it'd be better if more people used public transport, but the tricky part is actually getting people to do so while living in a society where people are free to make their own choices.

I have no doubt that electrification of home heating, transport and the like will "create its own ecological/resource depletion impacts", but that is why climate change is such a tricky problem to solve! I think it is incorrect to say that "no mainstream agency wants to discuss [this] because it involves significant lifestyle change": most mainstream organisations would love for people to make low-carbon lifestyle changes all on their own accord, but they also need to assume when they plan for the future that most people will be extremely reluctant to do so.

For what it's worth, over the course of my 10 years in academia I have been involved in 3 CCS projects around the world: Weyburn, In Salah, and Sleipner (read my PNAS paper here). Between them, these projects have successfully sequestered tens of millions of tonnes of CO2. The average EU citizen emits 8.5 tonnes of CO2 per year. Obviously I played only a small role in these significant projects, but I am proud of the fact that during the period of my involvement the equivalent emissions of millions of people were prevented from reaching the atmosphere, while the scientific understanding to facilitate the capturing of millions of tons more was also advanced, and that I made a small contribution to helping this happen.

"“If the RS is so corrupted by industry, as is claimed by TalkFracking” *No such claim is made*". 
The flowcharts published alongside the TF report are certainly intended to give the impression that industry has wielded an undue influence on this report. I am glad to learn that Mr Mobbs has clarified that he does not actually believe this to be the case.

In the promotional material released alongside this report, it is claimed that the TF paper "undermines the foundations of the [RS/RAE Report]". Yet it seems the only alleged criticism is that it is "premature". No actual criticism of its content is put forward. Hardly much of a basis for the RS/RAE report's conclusions to be dismissed in any way whatsoever - the foundations look to be in good condition to me.

"He seems unwilling to discuss the prematurity of their conclusions"
No, I'm still waiting for actual specific criticism to be provided - which of the RS/RAE conclusions and recommendations cannot now be supported?

"Classic! Is he saying that it’s not necessary to have the ability to measure the impacts of unconventional gas extraction in order to regulate them? He can’t seriously mean that. That’s not science, that’s numerology."
No, I'm pointing out that we do have the ability to measure the impacts of unconventional gas extraction, and therefore it is possible to regulate them. This is basic primary school reading comprehension now! Are the impacts always monitored in the USA? No, they aren't, regulations vary state-by-state, with some doing better than others. However, in the UK the new rules passed in the Infrastructure Bill require the impacts on air quality, groundwater quality, seismicity, noise, climate change (via fugitive emissions), etc to be monitored at every site (and the EA would likely require such monitoring anyway without the IB).

"He resorts to talking about well integrity, and fails to acknowledge the problems of traffic generation, air pollution, and the generation of – compared to conventional gas and oil – large quantities of contaminated effluent which has to be disposed of."
I talk about well integrity because it is acknowledged that in the handful of cases where elevated groundwater methane levels have been observed and robustly linked to gas extraction, it is well bore integrity issues that have been the culprit.

Yes, we can discuss traffic movements, but then you can extend that same accusation to any kind of energy development. For some perspective, at peak levels Cuadrilla anticipate a maximum of something like 40-50 truck movements per day for their proposed Lancashire site, or 4 trucks going past per hour during the working day, and most days it'll be much less than this (one truck an hour or less). The expected traffic levels over the life of the site are depicted below:

Yes, it's important to choose sites with appropriate access roads - that's what the planning system is there to do (for example I had no issue with WSCC rejecting Celtique's proposed site for traffic reasons). But do 4 trucks an hour during working hours for a couple of weeks, on a well planned and sited pad, vastly alter the risk profile of shale gas extraction to the point where the risks are substantially different to a conventional well pad?

With regards the disposal of large volumes of waste water, Mr Mobbs clearly hasn't "look[ed] at the whole development/production system", or he'd be aware that the existing onshore conventional industry in the UK deals with over 70 million barrels of produced water every year, equivalent to the expected flowback water from approximately 7,000 fracked wells per year, which is 17 times more than the IoD estimate of a maximum of 400 wells fracked per year.

"“The TF report relies heavily on the well-known papers written by Howarth et al.”
No it doesn’t."
I'm glad to hear that the TF report is not relying on the Howarth papers. The trouble is, if you take away the Howarth papers, the remaining arguments are flimsy. I noted 6 peer-reviewed studies, a study for the European Commission and a study for the US National Renewable Energy Laboratory that all support the conclusions made in the MacKay and Stone report. Without the Howarth papers, the TF report has only the unsupported, un-peer-reviewed assertions of a member of the public who doesn't appear to have any relevant qualifications, nor be a member of any relevant professional organisation. Yet on this basis, and this alone, TF claim to have undermined the very foundations of these reports.

"I refer to data based upon instrumental analysis from the NOAA’s ‘SONGNEX’ programme – not the assumed ‘inventory-based’ studies Verdon alludes to"
I can also cite NOAA data if it is preferred: their latest paper shows overflight measurements that match inventory data for the Haynesville, Fayetteville and Marcellus shales.

Returning to the TF report, the only study cited is a Nature commentary on the Petron et al. (2014) study over the Denver-Julesberg basin. This study is based on only 6 hours of measurements over one field. Again, TF criticise Allen et al. (2013) for being unrepresentative, but base their own conclusions on only 6 hours of data collection. These caveats are clearly stated in the Petron paper: "It is beyond the scope of this paper to derive an emission inventory for the same time period represented by our measurements, i.e., a midday snapshot on 2 days in May 2012."

More importantly, the D-Jb basin produces associated gas, which means that the wells are mainly producing oil and/or condensate, with associated gas. This is a very different situation to many other shales in the USA, and to the Bowland shale in the UK. Although the oil price has now come down, at the time of the study oil was dear but gas was cheap, so without regulations saying they can't (and it seems like Colorado did not have regulations about methane venting and emissions capturing) operators may have vented methane associated with the produced oil. This is described in the Petron paper: "In Weld County, according to the state inventory, the bulk of total O&G VOC emissions come from uncaptured or unburned flashing emissions at oil and liquid condensate storage tanks" (my emphasis).

This process is not allowed in the UK: any emissions must be captured, and either passed into a production line or flared, burning the methane so that it is not emitted. Therefore TF are citing data that is completely irrelevant for the UK situation.

To conclude, the overarching point for the UK is that fugitive methane emissions can be measured on site, and indeed such measurements are required to be made and reported to the EA. Therefore, whatever the case may be in the USA, and I agree that more data should be collected combining both overflight and on-the-ground measurements into one study, we have the mechanisms in place to ensure that fugitive emissions in the UK are reduced to a minimum.

"The 1,329tcf figure represents the 50% probability from BGS’ report. The 822tcf figure I use in my work represents the 90% probability. Therefore, to quote Verdon, using a probabilistic analysis which is the “most probable” figure of gas to be produced? – it’s not the 50%!"
Mr Mobbs doubles down on his demonstration that he doesn't understand statistics. To make matters a little clearer, the following figures show probability histograms from the BGS Bowland report for the upper and lower Bowland shale units.


Each bar represents the probability that the true volume of gas resource lies within the given window. The larger the bar, the greater the probability that the given value represents the true amount of gas in the ground. Pretty clear that the most probable gas volume is at or around 1,200-1,300tcf when both units are considered jointly, and that 800tcf is not particularly probable.

"We would now like to formally invite / challenge James Verdon to a public head to head debate with Paul Mobbs".
Publicity material posted on social media by Talk Fracking and linked to the Frackademics report appears to incite and threaten physical assault on academic scientists. I will not share a stage with people who think that this is an acceptable way to behave. Mr Mobbs claims that "[he] do[es] not “deny science”. Science is the basis of what [he does]". I therefore ask him to state categorically whether he believes that posting images that appear to threaten and incite assault against scientists is acceptable, and if not, why he allowed such material to be published in association with his report.

Talk Fracking also wrote to my Head of Department, suggesting that he take "appropriate actions to protect the reputation of your institution". As above, TF do not state what they consider the "appropriate actions" might be, but it seems probably that they'd either like us to be fired or at the least prevent from expressing ourselves in public. Again, I ask: does Mr Mobbs feel that threatening the freedom of academics to say and publish what they wish is an acceptable way to behave?

So I have no interest in sharing a stage with those who appear to incite physical assault against myself and my colleagues, and who write to senior members of my institution in the hope that they act to curtail academic freedom.  

I should make some more general statements about the issue of public debates. I have been involved in numerous public discussions about fracking, including on local and national radio, as well as at public events. "Against*" me in such debates presenting a more negative view of fracking have included senior members of Friends of the Earth, senior members of CPRE, and members of the Tyndall Centre, for example.

*I hesitate to use the word "against". We came at the problem from different viewpoints for sure, but in most cases I feel that these were fruitful discussions, rather than adversarial debates.

So clearly I am not "unwilling to debate the subject in public". However, I do have some limits when it comes to public events. Generally speaking, I have no issue debating fellow scientists, and/or members of professional organisations who have the relevant expertise. The situation with NGOs can vary: as above I've had fruitful debates with senior members of Friends of the Earth, but I don't really ever expect to be able to have a sensible discussion with Greenpeace.

I think Richard Dawkins puts it best when discussing the risk one takes when debating non-experts:
"When the debate is with someone like a Young Earth creationist, as the late Stephen Gould pointed out – they've won the moment you agree to have a debate at all. Because what they want is the oxygen of respectability. They want to be seen on a platform with a real scientist, because that conveys the idea that here is a genuine argument between scientists. They may not win the argument – in fact, they will not win the argument, but it makes it look like there really is an argument to be had. Just as I wouldn't expect a gynecologist to have a debate with somebody who believes in the Stork-theory of reproduction, I won't do debates with Young Earth creationists." 
I have no interest in given Mr Mobbs the oxygen of respectability by appearing on the stage with him. If he believes that the various reports pertaining to UK shale are in error, he is welcome to submit his objections to the peer-reviewed scientific literature, where they can be assessed and validated, or rejected, by independent experts. If Mr Mobbs craves a debate with scientists on equal terms, he can do so in the accepted medium for such debates, namely the peer reviewed literature. Put up or shut up indeed.

Update (23.3.2015): The images inciting physical assault on academics appear to have been removed from the Talk Fracking social media feeds. It seems that they have belatedly realised that such behaviour is completely inappropriate.

I've also noticed that my academic title appears to change throughout the response. At the start I seem to have been promoted to Professor Verdon (I am not a professor), but at the end I have had my PhD stripped from me and I become just Mr Verdon. I'm genuinely not bothered, but it does give me the chance to link to this, which seemed appropriate.



Thursday, 19 March 2015

TalkFracking appear to be encouraging their followers to assault academics


Associated with the "Frackademics" report I discussed in my previous post, the following image has been posted by TalkFracking on their Facebook page:


I'm fairly certain that throwing oil on someone is an assault. I'm not a lawyer, but posting "We hope you get exactly what you deserve" alongside a mock-up of an academic being assaulted could well be considered incitement.

So TalkFracking now seem to be encouraging their followers to physically assault academics! Charming bunch...

Tuesday, 17 March 2015

Frackademics: Anti-fracking groups reveal their anti-science credentials


Recently I discussed the increasing antipathy towards and mistrust of academic scientists, particularly in the more controversial subject areas. This anti-science views of the anti-fracking lobby have just been made clear in a recent "exposé" by anti-fracking group TalkFracking (TF).

In this report, the motives and expertise of pretty-much every university geoscience department in the country is impugned. The implication is that almost every academic with knowledge and understanding of the topic is prepared to put out misleading propaganda to promote UK shale gas. The geoscientific consensus about the safety of shale gas extraction, so long as it is regulated properly, is nothing more than a sham resulting from academics being bought off by industry. Or so it is claimed.

I'll begin with a few general points, before critiquing the report section by section. Firstly, I find it hugely ironic that this report appears to have been paid for directly by an anti-fracking group, yet has the chutzpah to claim that others might be reaching their conclusions solely for financial gain and/or influence. TalkFracking are funded mainly by fashion designer Dame Vivienne Westwood, well known for her anti-fracking views (as well as, recently, some questionable tax arrangements). So any claims made about partiality quickly begin to look like nothing more than hypocrisy. Also, the "revealed" links are all already in the public domain, so it's not like this is an expose of any underhand secrets.

Moreover, I always find it amusing to read claims that academics are only in it for the money (whether it is on this issue or any other). A career as an academic is not a well paid one. Long years as a Ph.D. researcher on a tiny stipend (£12,000 per year in my day), followed by similarly low pay and job insecurity as a postdoctoral researcher. The reason academics put up with these arrangements is, generally speaking, a love of the job - the opportunity to find out new things about the world that no one has every known about before.

However, the academics criticised in the report are all experts in what is (applied geoscience of any kind) a hugely economically valuable field. If any of these academics wanted to make a lot more money, I expect that they could stroll into a senior position in an oil or mining company and do so. The fact that they don't indicates than money is not their primary motivating factor.

The reason they speak up in favour of shale gas is more likely to be because a lot of the "information" being used in the debate is either misleading or completely incorrect, and nothing irks a scientist more than non-experts spouting incorrect things about scientific subjects without being corrected. For example, I started this blog because I kept throwing my crockery at the TV because I was so fed up with the sheer volume of BS being touted around the media on the subject. More recently, geoscientists from across Europe, even from states that have banned fracking (and so presumably have no government pressure to promote shale gas), have come together to criticise the scaremongering tactics used by anti-fracking groups.


The TF report consists of a series of "Case Studies", which I will now address in turn.

Case Study 1: Case Study 1 addresses the NERC Centre for Doctoral Training in Oil and Gas, a collaboration between several universities, NERC and industrial partners to train PhD students.

The first thing to note here is that the purpose of the CDT is to fund PhD students. Academics at the various universities do not benefit financially in any way from this arrangement, while the PhD students on the CDT are under no obligation to join the oil industry upon completion of their studies (which might not be the case if they were funded directly by industry). So they could even go and join TalkFracking if they felt like it! That the TF report seeks to impugn the motives of academics, without making the lack of actual tangible financial benefits for the academics speaking about shale gas absolutely clear, is a worrying indication of the approach taken.

A small point of error to be corrected is the claim that Cluff Geothermal is part of the Cluff Natural Resources Group and therefore linked to Halliburton. In fact, while the two companies were originally set up by the same person (Algy Cluff), they are completely separate entities and share no directors in common. Again, a worrying lack of attention to detail here.

Another problem with the TF report is the treatment of "industry" as a single monolithic bloc, a common fallacy among those not particularly familiar with the oil and gas business. In fact, there are many different players who make up "the industry", and they often have very different business models, attitudes, risk profiles, etc.. For many operators in the "conventional" industry, the "shale revolution" has not been a good thing. The unconventional oil/gas boom in the USA has contributed to the global reduction in oil prices we have seen in the last 6 months, which in turn has posed a substantial problem for operators with substantial interests in the more challenging North Sea fields, or further abroad in places like Russia.

The CDT partners are British Gas, BP, ConocoPhilips, E.On, Maersk Oil, OMV, Shell, Statoil and Total. Of these, only British Gas (via Centrica) and Total have any interest in UK shale gas, and therefore any motivation to encourage academia to promote shale gas. In contrast, most of the above have substantial assets in the North Sea, and so may not actually be keen at all to see European shale gas develop. Both BP and Shell in particular have been particularly critical of the potential for European shale gas. Why would these North Sea operators be pressurising academics to make positive statements about a source of oil/gas in which they have no financial interest, and which would in fact stand in direct competition to their current business interests? Yet the TF report is not even aware of this inconsistency.

Finally, it is worth addressing the more general point about fossil fuel research in academia, despite the issue of climate change, which means we need to substantially reduce fossil fuel burning in the next 50 years. As geoscientists, we usually work cheek-by-jowl with the climate science groups, so we're fully aware of the issues of climate change. You'll struggle to find many climate change "deniers" in geoscience departments. (yes, some of my best friends are climate scientists etc etc). Despite this, and despite the fact that the report does not mention anything about "climate change denial", the promotional material hosted on TalkFracking's carries the headline "Frackademics: End Climate Change Denial". In science, we would describe this as conclusions not supported by evidence.

Much of current research in academia is not necessarily about "discover[ing] [...] yet more fossil fuels" as claimed, it is about producing them more efficiently and minimising environmental impacts. No one is seriously arguing that we should stop all fossil fuel development immediately - they must be gradually phased out over an extended period. While they are being phased out, it is entirely reasonable to research and develop ways of extracting what fossil fuels we do produce in an environmentally friendly manner as possible.

Most academics are also very aware of the realities of our current energy system. Complete decarbonisation of modern, western economies will be very difficult: it is in no way clear that renewables and nuclear alone will be able to do the job in the necessary amount of time. This means that if we're to reach a near-zero-emission energy system, carbon capture and storage (CCS) must be deployed to capture emissions from fossil fuel burning. It is therefore not surprising that a substantial amount of "fossil fuel" funded research conducted at UK universities is actually on developing this "novel" CCS technology.

Furthermore, CO2 reductions are best achieved by phasing out the most polluting technology first, namely coal. Gas, the least CO2 intensive fossil fuel, should be phased out last. In my experience, fossil fuel research at UK universities reflects this, being skewed towards gas extraction and away from coal: I'm not aware of many academics (indeed, any at all) who are conducting research into finding or extracting more coal.

Finally, even if/when we reach a near-zero-emission energy system, oil and gas will continue to be extracted from the ground. A substantial portion of the oil and gas we produce is in fact used as feedstock for industrial chemical processes, making fertilisers, plastics, and other synthetic materials, for example. Indeed, there's a good argument to be made that oil and gas are simply too valuable as raw materials to be wasted by burning them. So it is completely appropriate to conduct research into producing these important materials while maximising efficiency and minimising environmental impacts.


Case Study 2: The second case study considers the well-known Royal Society/Royal Academy of Engineering report, the Public Health England report, and the report by DECC into shale gas and climate change (the MacKay and Stone report).

I'll begin by pointing out that in their criticism of the Royal Society, TF are making some interesting bedfellows in the form of the Global Warming Policy Foundation, who also recently released a report criticising the RS. If the RS is so corrupted by industry, as is claimed by TalkFracking, it's difficult to explain how they can also have drawn the ire of the GWPF, who are strongly in favour of fossil fuel usage. In reality, the fact that they have been so strongly criticised by both groups is probably a good sign that they are doing something right, as well as demonstrating that the anti-science agenda cuts across many issues, as described above.

I think my favourite paragraph in the report is this one, because it is simply such drivel:
"Practically we can only regulate that which can be managed; and we can only manage that which can be identified and measured. Without the ability to measure impacts effectively, there can be no regulatory process".
I suppose that this statement is facetiously true. However, it has no bearing on the issue of shale gas development. Can groundwater protection be measured and identified? Yes, it certainly can. Can air pollution be measured and identified? Yes, it can. Can induced seismicity be identified and measured? Yes, it can.

In fact, such measurements will be required under the new Infrastructure Bill, (and would likely have been required by the Environment Agency anyway). Moreover, the EA has the power to shut down any operator if air or groundwater measurements indicate that there has been contamination, or if an operator causes earthquakes. The levels at which the regulatory bodies will act are well below the levels that may cause a risk to human health.

So I suppose that the quoted paragraph tacitly supports shale gas extraction, because we can measure impacts, and therefore it would seem that we can regulate the process, which is good news I suppose!

Equally, the different risks posed by the various activities which take place on a drilling pad are well established. Therefore it is simple to develop regulations that prevent the more risky activities from being done. For example, it is more risky to store flowback fluid in open ponds. Therefore such ponds are not allowed in the UK, and fluids must be stored in double-lined steel tanks, placed on drip trays, while the who pad must be placed within an impermeable membrane, such that no fluids can ever escape the pad. A potential impact identified, a risk managed, and a process better regulated.

The claims that have been made about "best practice" and "appropriate regulation" are well evidenced. Most of the risks posed by fracking are little different to the risks posed by conventional oil extraction. Wellbore integrity is the same issue whether it's a shale or a conventional well. In both cases chemicals must be stored on site and transported around without being spilled. Contaminated water produced alongside the hydrocarbons must be treated and disposed of from conventional wells as well as shale ones.

Post Piper Alpha we have seen oil/gas regulations improve substantially in the UK, and concomitantly we have seen the number of accidents and environmental issues associated with the industry reduce. Similarly, elsewhere in the world, where regulations are weaker, we see continued accidents and impacts. Regulations do work in the oil and gas business. If the authors of the TF report find this evidence hard to find, I would suggest that that is because they don't want to see it. Even Caroline Lucas accepts that stringent regulations can minimise any local environmental risks - has she also been corrupted by the industry?

The TF report criticises the PHE report based on a single letter to the BMJ. However, this letter actually provides an excellent potted demonstration about the impact of regulations on the safety of shale gas, precisely as described by PHE. The BMJ letter (Law et al.) relies on two papers as the basis for claims about the health impacts of shale gas extraction. These are the McKenzie et al. papers that I have discussed here.

These papers studied an area where operators had been conducting uncontrolled venting during flowback: the gases produced during flowback were vented directly into the atmosphere. This process is prohibited by regulations in the UK, gases must instead be captured during flowback, and cannot be vented. In attempting to claim that regulations cannot make a difference, the BMJ letter actually shows a fantastic example of how regulations can and will make a real difference in the UK. How do metal girders taste? (irony).

The TF report also makes much of the New York State decision to ban fracking in the state.  However unconventional gas extraction is carried out in about 30 US states. Many of these have also conducted reviews and reports about the process, and concluded that shale gas extraction is safe to proceed, as have the Australian Council of Learned Academies. Here is Michigan, for example, and here's Maryland, both coming to a different conclusion to NYS. Only one US state with appreciable shale potential has banned fracking - the TF report has cherry-picked the only study that suits their ideology.


Case Study 3: The next case study considers the greenhouse-gas emissions from shale gas extraction, and claims that MacKay and Stone have intentionally underplayed the impacts of fugitive methane emissions. The TF report relies heavily on the well-known papers written by Howarth et al., who have claimed that shale gas extraction produces more GHG emissions than coal. TF make no attempt to represent the scientific consensus on this issue. The figure below is taken from a study by Stamford et al.:
Every other study has the GWP of shale at around 500-700gCO2/MJ (and therefore substantially better than coal). Only the Howarth study finds values of 1,500gCO2/MJ. This shows how much of an outlier the Howarth study is in comparison to every other author on the subject. MacKay and Stone's estimate is in line with the majority of other studies as depicted above as well as that produced by the EU Commission. If MacKay and Stone have pulled a fast one, then so it would seem has every other scientist to have studied the issue except Howarth et al..

It is also notable that the Talk Fracking report criticises a report by Allen et al., which measured methane emissions at about 500 drilling sites 489 wells and found low levels of methane emissions, on the basis that the samples it takes are unrepresentative. However, the latest paper by the Howarth group relies on only 7 wells. If the report by Allen et al. only samples 0.1% of all wells, then Howarth et al. is based on only 0.0014% of wells. Yet somehow Allen et al. is flawed, while this isn't an issue for the Howarth group's paper!

In conclusion, MacKay and Stone's numbers broadly match numerous studies in the scientific literature. Whatever accusations of conflicts of interest may be levelled, they do not appear to be manifest in their report. The TalkFracking report simply isn't up to speed with the scientific literature, which leads it to make basic errors.

Update (17.3.2015): Perhaps also worth noting that the Howarth group have received research funding from anti-fracking groups for their research. If the source of funding prevents TF from trusting the results of scientific studies, clearly they need to address both sides of the coin.

Case Study 4: Case Study 4 addresses reports by the Science Media Centre, a charity dedicated to helping improve the public understanding of science. The fact that TalkFracking criticise a charity for the crime of being "a PR agency for science" indicates pretty clearly that TF have a strongly anti-scientific bent.

The roll call of "scientists" (quotation marks from the TF report) used in SMC reports includes the likes of Prof Kevin Anderson, Jim Watson, John Loughhead, and Stuart Haszeldine. None of these could be described as being cheerleaders for shale gas development (for climate budget reasons in the case of Prof Anderson, for more economic reasons in the case of Jim Watson, for example). I'd love to know their thoughts on being lumped in together as "frackademics", as TF do. This "Case Study" shows that they are lashing out indiscriminately in their antipathy towards scientists.


Case Study 5: Case study 5 criticises the letter in support of UK shale gas signed by 50 applied geoscientists and published in the Guardian. Apparently, the fact that the letter makes economic points as well as "geophysical" points is unacceptable to TalkFracking.

The TF report has a strange obsession with the geophysical, which to me demonstrates a lack of familiarity with the menagerie of sub-fields that fall within the general term geoscience: while I am proud to be a geophysicist, the majority of signatories are not. The criticism levelled by TF indicates a clear lack of familiarity with the range of expertise of the typical academic geoscientist, many of whom do have expertise in the economic impacts of energy development as well as the geoscience (economic considerations are an important component of applied geology).

It is also incorrect for TF to assert that domestic energy production has no impact on economic development. Yes, there are nations that produce substantial volumes of energy but struggle economically (usually due to corruption and mismanagement), and nations that import much of their energy can still have strong economic development. Nowhere in our letter to we claim otherwise - these are straw-man arguments. I doubt that any of the signatories to the Guardian letter would disagree that "the strength and security of an economy is based on more than just its sources of energy." However, this does not invalidate our claim that we have become more vulnerable and exposed to international energy markets as a result of our increasing reliance on imported energy, or that producing more energy domestically would provide an economic boost.

Our description of the BGS report is entirely accurate. It is clearly described by the BGS as a resource estimate, which implies that it is an estimate of the total volume of gas trapped in the Bowland shale, as we describe in our letter using layman's terms: "the Bowland Basin, which covers significant parts of north-west England, currently sits on top of 1,300 tcf of natural gas". The 1,300tcf figure is the most probable, most likely, scenario as described by the BGS report, and it is therefore entirely appropriate that we use it.

The TF report appears to have some difficulty understanding statistics. They claim that the P90 figure is "more reliable". However, there is only a 10% chance that there is this much gas or less in the ground, and a 90% chance there is more gas in the ground than the P10 value that TF use. Our 1,300tcf figure is the P50 figure: there is a 50% chance there is more than 1,300tcf in the ground, and a 50% chance there is less than 1,300tcf in the ground. It is clearly the most appropriate figure to use, unless one has an ideological reason for misrepresenting the resource. If we had used the upper P10 limit (2,281tcf, almost double the 1,300tcf figure we did use) then this criticism would be valid, but of course we did not.

It's also worth considering the implicit accusation regarding the "independence" of the BGS, namely that they might have overstated the figures under pressure from the industry. It doesn't take too much insight to realise that this is complete nonsense. The operators want to base their future investment on the most accurate figures, so that they can invest to the appropriate level. If the BGS overcook the numbers, and operators make investment decisions based on those over-egged numbers, then the operators will lose a lot of money when the gas promised by the BGS isn't actually there. The BGS is able to make its way in the world because its reports and estimates can be trusted. Deliberately overstating the resource due to external pressures would be a great way for the BGS to lose all of its future business.

It is also alleged that this letter was part of a "tit-for-tat" PR campaign following the publication of a letter earlier in the same week signed by various famous names from the entertainment industry. Sadly, this was indeed a coincidence, the majority of academics had put their names to this letter weeks and even months before it was published - we had no idea about the other letter until its publication.


Case Study 6: The final case study (thank you for staying with me for what I know is a long post) covers the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on shale gas. It is true that the APPG takes funding from the industry. However, it also offered free places on its Advisory Panel to environmental NGOs such as Greenpeace, WWF and Friends of the Earth. Perhaps a better way of characterising the situation is that industry groups have to pay a fee to join the APPG, while environmental organisations are allowed to join for free. Similarly, both the Frack Free Balcombe Residents Association (FFBRA) and No FiBS (No Fracking in Balcombe Society) are listed as Associate Members. Which sort-of drives a coach and horses through TalkFracking's claims.

The newly-created Shale Gas Task Force comes in for similar criticism. However, it is notable that the Environmental Audit Committee, who are no fans of fracking, are prepared to put their faith in this task force. Given that TF and the EAC have similar views on banning fracking, then perhaps TF can follow the EAC lead in accepting the task force's conclusions (I'm not holding my breath). Note also that if you feel you have some evidence that the Task Force must consider, you can submit it via the Task Force website.


Conclusions: TalkFracking make a number of accusations about the motives and impartiality of almost every academic who has spoken out on the topic of shale gas. However, the simple fact is that there is broad consensus among earth scientists that shale gas extraction can be done safely in the UK with appropriate regulation. This consensus extends beyond the UK to geoscientists across Europe, including those in countries whose governments have banned shale gas, and therefore have no interest in promoting shale gas. If TF's claims are to be taken seriously, they must explain how geoscientists across Europe have reached the same conclusions, even where the sorts of pressures they allege in their report may not be present. Indeed, this view stretches all the way to Australia as well.

As discussed in my previous post, there seems to be an increasing "lobby" of science-deniers, who see nefarious motives in the research and public pronouncements of academia. To them scientists are just mouthpieces for sale to the highest bidder. This science-denial stems from both sides of the political spectrum, whether it is the climate change "denial" or GMO scaremongering. Or the anti-vaxx lobby (I don't really know which side of the aisle that lobby sits) or even the homeopathy crowd, and presumably stems from ideological grounds. It's clear that TalkFracking can take their place in this dubious hall of fame.




Monday, 23 February 2015

Should academics be immune from losing their job


** Warning, non-shale gas-related post**

It's been a while since I last posted something not related to shale gas. Instead, in this post I want to discus some recent developments in the academic world.

There is uproar at Bristol University at the sacking of an academic (in the veterinary science department), apparently for failing to secure sufficient research funding. A campaign has been launched for her reinstatement, and it's been reported in local media as well as HuffPo.

This is not an isolated incident. Across the UK, universities are showing themselves willing to fire staff who are failing to bring in research grant money. For instance, staff at Warwick have been threatened with redundancy if they fail to bring in sufficient research income.

I've never been sacked or otherwise forced to leave a job in my life. Therefore I am aware that I am a position of privilege in this regard. I can only imagine the stress and hardship involved. On a personal level, I have every sympathy with Dr Hayman and any other academic threatened with the loss of their position.

However, I think it raises a few issues regarding my chosen profession that I'd like to discuss.

I am currently in a postdoctoral position at Bristol. Most post-docs move from short-term contract to short-term contract (and often from city to city, or even continent to continent to do so), with no job security. Being required to bring in a certain amount of research grant money may indeed put a tenured lecturer "under enormous pressure", as Dr Hayman describes. However, I sincerely doubt that the pressure is greater than that experienced by post-docs as they try to eke out a career in academia.

I speak on behalf of the vast majority of my friends and colleagues as they continuously hunt out new opportunities, with the distant hope of one day reaching that holy grail of a permanent job somewhere (anywhere). Incidentally, post-docs may also be "the sole breadwinner", even more so perhaps because the requirement to move continuously from place to place often makes it very difficult for their partners to build a career of their own.

According to a recent Royal Society report, 30% of people who complete a PhD go on to an "Early Career Research" position. However, of that 30%, only 3.5% go on to get a permanent academic position. This is a huge issue for academia at present.

From the Epigram article, Dr Hayman's last funding award appears to be for £5,000 in 2012. This is barely enough to attend a couple of conferences abroad. Peanuts, in other words. For context, <humblebrag>I have been involved in some way or other (either as PI, Co-I, or writing a grant for my boss to put his name on top of) in over £600,000 worth of grant money awarded during my brief academic career, more than 100 times as much </humblebrag>.

In fact, the biggest surprise to me in the Epigram article is that there are 387 other permanent staff members who also have not brought in any funding in recent years. The job description for a "Pathway 1 Role Profile Level c" position - i.e. lecturer - is listed here, and you can see it includes the requirement to "identify potential funding sources and write, or help to write, bids for research funding".

Anyway, in the last few years I've applied for several permanent academic positions, thus far without success. I have no sour grapes and bear no grudges: in every case the candidate who got the job was better than me. And, incidentally, in almost every case also had a track record of bringing in hundreds of thousands of pounds of funding.

As above, I have every personal sympathy with academics who face losing their jobs. However, as one of thousands of young academics scrabbling from short-term contract to short-term contract, even when bringing in hundreds of thousands of pounds of research money, it's difficult to have any professional sympathy whatsoever when someone loses their job having only brought in £5,000 of funding. Perhaps there are a couple of post-docs waiting in the wings to replace Dr Hayman, with plans for grand and important research programs with the potential to bring in substantial research income. Is it not fair that they should be given that chance, rather than forced out of academia as incumbent staff sit on the choice positions instead?


There are a couple of broader questions to address here:

Should academics be immune from losing their job?
An argument sometimes made is that, once an academic has been appointed to a permanent position, she or he should never by sacked unless they have committed serious misconduct - sexually harassing a student, for example (it does happen, sadly). The basis behind this argument is the importance of academic freedom. It is important that academics are free to pursue their intellectual inquiries wherever they may take them. Sometimes a line of research simply never produces fruitful results.

However, I don't believe that the need for academic freedom means that an academic should never have to justify their position ever again. Pro-active, high quality researchers should be generating research outputs, regardless of whether they do blue skies research or applied research, and regardless of whether individual projects happen to succeed or fail. In any other job, if you are not meeting the expectations of your employer, you will be sacked. I believe that academics have to live with the pressures of the real world, just like everyone else. Otherwise, there is in theory no reason for an academic, once in a permanent position, ever to turn up for work again!

Is research grant income the best metric of success?
The first question is obvious, even though we often don't act like it (it is still very rare for a an academic in a permanent position to be removed). However, I accept that there may be good arguments for other, better metrics to use.

One metric is definitely not considered relevant, and that is teaching ability. Despite what many undergraduates may think, the primary role of academics is to produce top quality research, not to teach undergraduates. Every post-doc knows that it is their research metrics that will land them that permanent job, not their teaching ability. You could be the worst teacher ever (and I've experienced a few contenders first-hand), but if you've got a good research profile, it doesn't matter.

There is a case to be made for a new system where research and teaching career paths are more clearly defined and separate (i.e. you have teaching staff who only teach, and research staff who only do research, and very few staff who mix the two). However, such a system would probably be more expensive, because you'd need twice the staff for the same overall output. Anyway, we don't have that system now, so we are where we are, and it is your research that counts.

Academic metrics in general are a tricky thing. Numerous options exist, from impact factors, H-indices, REF scores, and grant income, to name a few. Estimating the quality of academic output is something of an intangible judgement call. In general, I would expect people with experience in the field to be capable of differentiating high and low-quality research programs. However, coming up with quick and easy metrics to quantify that difference isn't easy.

However, these things tend to correlate. While REF scores aren't solely based on journal publications (academics can have impact in other ways, through government policy and through contributions to industry, for example), an academic with a stack of papers in high impact journals is unlikely to fare badly at REF, and will likely accumulate a decent H-index over time. A track record of high impact research publications is also likely to translate into research funding success as well: if the editors of Science and Nature think someone's research is really interesting, then those on funding panels are, generally speaking, likely to think so too.

Ultimately, when departments hire someone on the basis of one or many of these metrics (or the intangible judgement call that we might replace them by), it is because they hope that a successful researcher is likely to bring in future grant money. So really, as far as administration is concerned, going straight to the funding record cuts out the middle men, especially once employees have been in place for a number of years.

I don't deny that grant success rates are low for some funding councils. NERC grant success rates are typically around the 20% mark, for example. And, yes, funding body decisions can be capricious. However, there are a lot of funding sources out there if you know where to look. This doesn't even have to include industry sources. For example, in the last few years our group has pulled in funding from UK research councils, but also from various EU grant-making bodies, from charities, and even from both the Canadian government and the US government. Yes, it can be a hard slog as you drag your research idea from potential funder to potential funder. But capable researchers are able to find ways to get their work funded.

Why does the money matter? Employing a staff member costs money, and the administrators need to ensure that the department's income equals or exceeds the total cost of running it. If the cost of running a department, a significant chunk of which is staff costs, exceeds the revenue it generates, then over the long term it will likely be faced with closure (and then everyone loses their jobs, regardless of their research metrics).

I will use my own department as an example. Bristol Earth Sciences is a fairly typical, medium-sized science department. We usually have about 200 - 250 undergrads spread over 4 years, and 40 full time academic staff. These students will be paying £9,000 per year. Taking a mid-range value (let's say 222 students, because it rounds easily), this gives us an income of £2,000,000 from student fees. Divided between 40 staff, this is an income from teaching of £50,000 per staff member, which is in the ball-park for a typical academic salary.

So student fees appear to just about cover staff costs. But remember, we also need to pay for buildings, electricity, heating, the internet, a library (with expensive journal subscriptions), teaching labs (and materials and equipment to go in the labs), employer's national insurance contributions, pension contributions, administrative staff, cleaning staff, computing facilities, a contribution to the university's central administration, contributions to capital funds to build new buildings or renovate existing ones. The list goes on and on.

Now, most departments will also receive the HEFCE block grant, which will offset some of these costs. But the overall equation stays the same: for a medium-sized science department, unless millions of pounds of research funding are brought in every year, then things soon become financially unsustainable.

Assume a department needs £2 million per year of research income. Divided between our 40 staff members, that's an average of £50,000 per staff member, which interestingly is in the similar to the requirements reportedly placed on Warwick's academics, which demonstrates that I'm in the right ball-park with my numbers here.

Finally, if staff aren't bringing in research grants, then a department will be able to fund only a small number of Ph.D. places, and no post-doc staff whatsoever. I suppose that'd solve the issue of post-docs to permanent jobs issue, but realistically I don't think it's a direction we want to be going! A department unable to offer post-doc opportunities isn't really conceivable. Yet most post-doc positions (such as mine) are funded by external research income from funding bodies.

So I don't think department administrators are obsessed with money because they're a bastard children of Scrooge McDuck and the Wolf of Wall Street. I think they're trying to ensure that their departments are financially viable, so that they stay open.



Now, the simple solution here is to provide more funding to universities. Ideally we'd have unlimited funding, and that way we could give permanent jobs to all the post-docs while keeping all our current permanent staff in jobs as well, regardless of research output. However, we must play the hand we've been dealt.

I have been involved in campaigns to persuade the government to increase (or at least keep constant and not cut) academic funding, and I urge you to do so too: increased funding for science is incredibly important in what is increasingly becoming a knowledge-based economy. However, there are many worthy causes in need of the public money, and not enough of it to go around. So we're unlikely to see huge increases in academic funding anytime soon, even in the most optimistic scenarios.

In the meantime, we need to ensure that the system is fair both to those currently in permanent positions, as well as those seeking those permanent jobs. I'll happily accept that there may be better metrics out there than grant income, however it must be accepted that ultimately grant income is very important for the continued success of a department. A system where, once given a permanent job, an academic cannot be replaced even where there are more productive candidates (by whatever metric you prefer) stuck on short-term contracts to the extent where they are leaving the field by the thousands, is not a fair system.






Tuesday, 10 February 2015

Science and the Public


Science and technology are hugely important in our current society. Our quality of life, our health and the levels of wealth we now enjoy are all predicated on technological and scientific advances.

However, it seems that wherever science and society directly intersect, controversy is never far away. My particular expertise is in shale gas, but we see similar controversies with respect to GMO food, nuclear power, climate change and vaccines, for example. A recent Pew Society report documents substantial differences between the opinions of scientists and those of the general public.

In an article for the Washington Post, Mark Lynas documents a "new Age of Ignorance", noting "determined lobbies working to undermine public understanding of science."

We've seen the (ex) Science Advisor to the European Commission hit out at dishonesty from environmental NGOs who pressurised Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker to axe the position. According to wikipedia, the EU Commission:
"is the executive body of the European Union responsible for proposing legislation, implementing decisions, upholding the EU treaties and managing the day-to-day business of the EU." 
Why indeed would such an institution need someone to advise them on matters of science?

A recent article in Vox, on the anti-vax lobby, provided the original motivation for this post:
There's a broader point here. It can be easy to stereotype the vaccine debate as people who believe in scientific evidence versus people who don't. But that's an oversimplification. Vaccine skeptics do think they believe in scientific evidence. They can cite dozens of studies and cases. They see themselves as the side in this debate that's actually following the evidence, while the pro-vaccine side is blindly trusting in authority and ultimately getting taken in by a massive pharmaceutical scam. 
The problem is when you dig into the studies they cite, the evidence they're relying on doesn't hold up — it's misinterpreted, selectively reported, or refracted through conspiracy theories. But knock down one bad interpretation of a study and there's always another, and another, and another. And then there's the flood of wrenching anecdotes which can't be checked, but which are reported by people who are in pain and arouse our deepest sympathies. The result is that to someone primarily consuming anti-vaccine arguments, the evidence looks overwhelming, the media's dismissal of it looks corrupt, and the victims seem very real.
I couldn't help but notice that you could substitute any of the above controversial technologies into these two paragraphs. Read again but substitute "vaccines" for "GMO", for "nuclear power" or "shale gas" and I think this summary is equally valid.


Wednesday, 4 February 2015

Prof Smythe: "Well" out of date


It would appear that I have a new admirer. Imitation being the sincerest form of flattery, I consider myself very flattered that Professor Smythe has created a blog in my honour, going so far as to name it "Frackland" in reflection of my own small contribution to the national shale gas debate.

Prof Smythe has featured previously on this blog, firstly when I pointed out errors in his critique of Cuadrilla's Balcombe operations, and subsequently to document his contretemps with the Geol. Soc. and Glasgow University.

In his original critique of Cuadrilla's operations at Balcombe, Prof Smythe proved himself to be ignorant of modern drilling technologies. Sadly, it seems that Prof Smythe has doubled down on his errors in a new presentation, which, in a comment on his blog, he claims "show[s] that it is James Verdon, not I, who misunderstands the technology of drilling".

In his latest piece, Prof Smythe admits to learning about geosteering and LWD at the Dart Airth CBM planning inquiry, and grudgingly concedes that one of my principal criticisms was, in fact, accurate: "It is correct that I did not at that time know about the gamma-ray geosteering technique." I would add that listening to a submission at a planning inquiry does not make anyone an expert in anything.
 
It is interesting that Prof Smythe refers to a "gamma ray" geosteering technique. I don't actually refer specifically to gamma-ray logging at any point in my original comments. There is a reason for this: there is a huge range of LWD measurements that can be made to measure the properties of the rocks through which a well is being drilled.

The motivation for this is severalfold - in addition to the real-time aspect of LWD, in horizontal wells a "well tractor" is required to pull wireline logging tools (the traditional method of well logging, done once the well had been drilled) along the horizontal section of the well, which can be time consuming and expensive. LWD obviates this need, so as a result in the last 20 years much effort has been put into developing LWD tools that can match traditional wireline tools both in terms of the different petrophysical measurement techniques, and the quality of the measurements.

If Prof Smythe thinks that LWD is limited to a non-directional gamma-ray measurement then he is still spectacularly uninformed as to the state of modern drilling technology.

Almost every traditional wireline logging tool is now available as a LWD equivalent. This might include measuring the electrical resistivity (which is particularly sensitive to whether the rock is full of oil/gas (high resistivity) or salt water (low resistivity)), the porosity, the bulk density, and the acoustic properties of the formation, in addition to its gamma-ray levels. The latest technologies can even tell you the colour of the rock you are drilling through (organic-rich rocks tend to have a dark colour), and microimaging even takes images of the rock as you go!

Equally importantly, these measurements are not taken uni-directionally. Modern LWD tools take measurements at many angles to the well bore. This enables an operator to identify the dip of the beds through which he is drilling, as demonstrated in the image below, taken from a Schlumberger Oilfield Review paper. Note that this SOR is from 1996, which gives an indication of how out-of-date Prof Smythe's comments are. Prof Smythe (and the interested reader, of course) would do well to peruse the latest offerings from the various oilfield service providers, such as this from Weatherford or this from Schlumberger.

So, how does all this tech help an operator stay in zone while drilling a horizontal well. In most cases, an operator will have prior geological data from logs run in vertical wells (such as Cuadrilla will have had from Conoco's drilling of the first Balcombe well in 1986). They will have identified marker beds from this log data, characterising the petrophysical properties of each different layer (the resistivity, porosity, density, acoustic properties, the microimages etc.). These marker beds, along with the dip information, are then used to guide the horizontal wellbore and stay in formation. If a fault is intersected, the well will find itself in a different geological layer. The operator can determine which layer this is by comparing the LWD data with pre-existing logs and, in combination with the dip data, determine where the well must be steered in order to return to the formation.

Now, if a fault is encountered that has substantial offset, it may not be possible (or economic) to steer the well back to the target formation, and the well must be abandoned. And of course it's better if an operator has 3D seismic data to help plan their wells, and to ensure that their LWD matches the 3D seismic data. I make this point in my original post, and I expect that as operators move from exploratory to production phases, we will see more 3D seismic data collected. However, LWD data alone is usually sufficient to keep a well on target, even if faults are encountered.

Importantly, however, the proof is in the pudding.

One of Prof Smythe's principal conclusions was that keeping the well within the 30m thick target layer would be a "near impossibility", "all-but impossible", and "the drilling will therefore almost certainly transgress into the Kimmeridge Clay, either above and/or below the micrite (the target layer)." Indeed, Prof Smythe goes so far as to claim that Cuadrilla will intentionally drill out of formation in order to collect samples of Kimmeridge Clay with a mind to future fracking at Balcombe, and makes the claim that Cuadrilla's activities at Balcombe were little more than a "cover story" for future unconventional work.

Prof Smythe maintains that "[his] criticism of Cuadrilla in 2013 was and remains substantially correct". However, in September 2013, Cuadrilla announced the results of their Balcombe well, and that "using geo-steering technology, the entire 1700ft was successfully drilled within the target limestone".

Now, Prof Smythe might claim that Cuadrilla are still deceiving us. If they are, it would be a odd thing to do, given that all well log data becomes publicly available after a short confidentiality period, so they'd know that they'd soon be found out.

He also makes the unsubstantiated accusation that Cuadrilla may actually have encountered a fault, and that they had been forced to stop drilling as a result:
"We do not know why the horizontal well stopped at 518 m (1700 ft). For all we know, Cuadrilla may have encountered a fault."   
This seems very unlikely. If Prof Smythe were more familiar with the full history of the Balcombe site, he would have been aware that Cuadrilla's planning consent for the site expired on the 30th September 2013. By this date they were required to have removed all of their drilling and other kit from the site. The two images below show the drilling equipment on site, and the condition to which Cuadrilla had to return the site by the 30th September.


Cuadrilla completed their drilling on the 23rd September. Prof Smythe claims that Cuadrilla stopped drilling because they had encountered a fault. I would suggest that the far more likely explanation is that they only had 7 days left before their planning consent expired, and wanted to give themselves enough time to run whatever tests they wanted to do, before removing all their kit from the site, and probably leaving a bit of spare time as well in case protestor activities caused further delays (as happened earlier in their operations).

In his original criticism, Prof Smythe made strong conclusions ("near-impossibility", "all-but impossible") , and accused an operator of intentional deceit, which should not be done lightly. I would suggest that when an "expert" claims that something is a "near-impossibility" and "all-but impossible", but then that thing happens, then those claims do not "remain substantially correct", as Prof Smythe claims. In fact, I'd think it would be considered rather embarrassing, and would draw the status of said "expert" into question. Perhaps this is why the Geol Soc asked Prof Smythe to cease referring to himself as a Chartered Geologist.