Monday 25 January 2016

Disposal of produced water during conventional oil extraction, and flowback fluid from fracking

The recent article “UK failing to learn U.S. lessons on fracking waste water” by O’Donnell, Gilfillan and Haszeldine (ODGH hereafter) is misleading, both in the way it describes events associated with fluid re-injection in the United States, and how it characterises the Environment Agency’s position with regards to the practice.  

ODGH describes at length the difference between produced water from conventional operations, and flowback fluid from shale gas hydraulic fracturing, and are correct to do so. However, under the terms of their own descriptions, the statements they then make using these definitions are false.

It is claimed that the increases in seismicity observed in Oklahoma are “linked to the subsurface re-injection of vast quantities of waste water from shale gas operations” (my emphasis added). This is not correct, and the USGS have been very clear in stating that this is a myth, propagated in the main by anti-fracking activists. In reality, the vast preponderance of wastewater being disposed of by deep injection in Oklahoma is produced water from conventional oilfields, and not hydraulic fracturing flowback fluids [1]. 

The same is true in California, where ODGH make claims of “environmental contamination due to leaks caused by poor borehole construction.” Firstly, we note that, as is the case in Oklahoma, the vast majority of such wells are disposing produced water from conventional oilfield operations, not flowback water from hydraulic fracturing of shale rocks. I also note in passing that the concerns raised regarding these wells were of an administrative nature, regarding how licenses were awarded and which formations did or did not qualify as protected aquifers. No actual environmental contamination is thought to have occurred: the State Water Resources Control Board found that “the injection wells have not degraded groundwater quality”[2], while CalEPA stated that: “To date, preliminary water sampling of select, high-risk groundwater supply wells has not detected any contamination from oil production wastewater.”[3] 

More importantly, I believe that through their selective quotation, ODGH have seriously misrepresented the position of the Environment Agency. Their full position on re-injection of flowback water in the document in question is quoted below [4]: 
Flowback fluid that cannot feasibly be re-used, is considered by us to be an extractive waste and may contain a concentration of NORM waste above the out of scope values. It will then require a radioactive substances activity permit for its disposal. You must send this to an appropriate permitted waste facility for treatment or disposal.  
The Environment Agency will generally not permit the re-injection of flowback fluid for disposal into any formation, whether or not it contains a concentration of NORM waste above the out of scope values. The re-injection of flowback fluid for disposal is not necessarily prohibited and may be permissible where, for example, it is injected back into formations from which hydrocarbons have been extracted and will have no impact on the status of water bodies or pose any risk to groundwater.  
The Environment Agency takes a precautionary approach to this activity and we do not consider it has been demonstrated that re-injection in these circumstances is BAT.
At present and in the absence of BAT being demonstrated we have determined that overall the long-term objective of ensuring good status of water bodies takes precedence over arguments in favour of the disposal of flowback fluid to underground formations.   
This is reinforced by our view that there are available and viable alternatives, namely disposal at permitted waste disposal facilities or by using onsite waste water treatment facilities. We consider that these techniques are a better environmental option.  
We will review this position in light of increased evidence from hydraulic fracturing operations and from the monitoring of underground waste facilities. 
The following image is also used to outline the EA position regarding flowback re-injection:


By neglecting to provide the full EA position, the ODGF give the impression that the EA are considering allowing “large volumes” of flowback re-injection in the UK. In fact, such disposal is very unlikely. However, the EA take the eminently sensible position that there may be exceptional circumstances under which disposal by re-injection does really present the optimum solution with respect to minimizing the risk of environmental contamination. I can’t think of any such conditions at present, but I think that it’s a wise position for a regulator to consider every individual case on its merits, and to then take the best available route to ensure environmental protection, rather than imposing an arbitrary blanket ban. Regardless, disposal of flowback at treatment facilities is considered BAT under usual circumstances, and subsurface re-injection is not, and therefore it is very unlikely to be allowed in the majority of cases. 

Importantly, even given the above position, the EA statement suggests that flowback is to be “injected back into formations from which hydrocarbons have been extracted”. ODGH appear to have missed the significance of this statement, because it renders most of their remaining arguments invalid. If re-injection is limited to formations from which hydrocarbons have already been extracted, then formation pressures will have been reduced. While their analogy with a clay-covered balloon is an interesting metaphor, it is not relevant to the situation at hand, if, as stated, flowback disposal were only allowed into formations that had already seen hydrocarbon production and pressure drawdown (if flowback re-injection is ever allowed, which as discussed above, is unlikely).

It is also worth considering the volumes involved. The existing onshore conventional industry in the UK disposes of approximately 12 million cubic metres of produced water every year. The Institute of Directors forecasts a UK shale industry developing, between now and 2030, 100 pads with 40 multilateral wells each, with each pad using 0.5 million cubic metres of water[5]. Assuming that 50% of this fracturing fluid flows back, a total of 27 million cubic metres of flowback will need to be disposed of during this period. In comparison, as stated above, the conventional industry will dispose of as much produced water every two-and-a-bit years. 

ODGH have mischaracterized hazard with risk. Hazard is the potential impact of a pollutant, while risk is the hazard posed multiplied by the probability of exposure. It may be true that flowback fluids have different chemical signatures to conventional produced waters that may make them more hazardous (although in reality the chemical signature of every fluid, whether flowback or conventional, will be specific to its geographic locality and rock formation, so the comparison provided by the authors is likely to be an oversimplification). 

However, no evidence is provided to suggest that groundwater contamination is more probable during flowback re-injection (nor have they provided evidence of such contamination from the USA). In fact, given that the volumes of flowback disposal are likely to be far lower, the likelihood of contamination from conventional produced water might be considered higher simply from a volumetric argument. 

With or without NORM, produced water from conventional oil production is usually hypersaline, and its spillage into freshwater sources would represent, I would expect, a significant environmental incident. The public can and should take reassurance from the fact that the existing onshore industry has been able to dispose of very large volumes of such fluid without causing environmental impacts. The risk of contamination, by either produced water or flowback fluid, would appear therefore to be low.  

I will close by pointing out that the authors of this piece are keen promotors of carbon capture and storage (CCS) for greenhouse gas emissions mitigation. I share their belief in the potential this technology; I believe that without it, the UK will not be able to meet its emissions targets; and I share their dismay at recent government decisions to shelve the proposed demonstration projects. However, many of the issues raised here by ODGH are in fact far more applicable to CO2 storage than they are to flowback disposal for re-injection: the injected fluid is in chemical dis-equilibrium with the in situ geological formation – indeed CO2 will dissolve into formation waters to create a mildly corrosive acid, which is not a problem for flowback or produced water re-injection; the CO2 will likely be stored in saline aquifers that have not been depleted, leading to the same issues with pressure increases and potential seismicity described by ODGH (the clay-covered balloon), only the volumes of CO2 to be stored far exceed the volumes of flowback typically re-injected[6], which will exacerbate the risk of larger seismic events. I would appreciate it if the authors could outline in more detail how it is that they can be fully supportive of CCS development, and yet believe these same issues pose a major issue with respect to the re-injection of other waste fluids.  

[1] Rubinstein et al., 2015. Myths and facts on Wastewater Injection, Hydraulic Fracturing, Enhanced Oil Recovery, and Induced Seismicity. Seis. Res. Letts.. 
[2] State Water Resources Control Board September 23, 2014, Item 13 - Executive Director’s Report. 
[3] CalEPA Memorandum, 2015. CalEPA Review of UIC Program. 
[4] Environment Agency, 2015. Onshore Oil & Gas Sector Guidance Consultation Draft, November 2015. 
[5] Institute of Directors, 2013. Getting shale gas working.
[6] Verdon et al., 2014. Significance for secure CO2 storage of earthquakes induced by fluid injection: Env. Res. Letts..

Tuesday 3 November 2015

PhD Opportunities with Bristol and the BGS

A number of PhD positions are now available to study applied geophysics, working jointly between myself (and colleagues) at Bristol University and the British Geological Survey.

We have 4 projects advertised. Click the links to see more information about each project:

Use this page to apply for any of these projects. The "slope stability" and "characterising fractures" projects will be hosted by the BGS. For more information about BGS-hosted projects, please see here, and note that in addition to the application process above, they must also send their application (CV, references, personal statement) to bufi "at"

We're really excited about these projects, so please forward on to anyone you know who will soon be finishing their undergrad or masters degree in subjects such as geoscience, physics, computer science or mathematics. 

* Please note the following regarding eligibility for DTP funding:

Applicants should have obtained, or be about to obtain, a First or Upper Second Class UK Honours degree, or the equivalent qualifications gained outside the UK. Applicants with a Lower Second Class degree will be considered if they also have a Master’s degree. Applicants with a minimum Upper Second Class degree and significant relevant non-academic experience are encouraged to apply.  All applicants need to comply with the registered University’s English language requirements.  The majority of the studentships are available for applicants who are ordinarily resident in the UK and are classed as UK/EU for tuition fee purposes, however, up to 9 fully funded studentships across the DTP are available for EU/EEA applicants not ordinarily resident in the UK.  Applicants who are classed as International for tuition fee purposes are not eligible for funding.

Wednesday 16 September 2015

Task Force on Shale Gas: Assessing the Impact of Shale Gas on Climate Change

The Task Force on Shale Gas has released its latest report, this time covering issues of climate change. It's available here, and commentary is available from the Times and the Guardian.

The report's conclusions are:

  • That, under even the most optimistic scenarios, natural gas will continue to play a role in our electricity, heating and industrial sectors for some time to come. 
  • Using green completion technology (required by regulations in the UK), CO2 emissions from domestic shale gas will be comparable to emissions from domestic conventional natural gas, and lower than emissions from Qatari LNG (which has to be compressed and then shipped around the world) and from Russian gas (which has to be transported across Siberia and then Eastern Europe in leaky pipelines). 
  • Therefore, it is better from an emissions perspective to develop domestic shale gas than it is to import gas from abroad (obviously it is better from an economics and geopolitical perspective too, but that's not the subject of this report).
  • While it has been suggested that shale gas development may stymie investment in low carbon technologies (renewables, energy efficiency). However, this has not been the case in the USA, where renewables development has continued apace, even as the shale gas revolution has turned energy markets on their heads. This is mainly because government policies have continued to support renewables with a mix of grants, loans, tax credits and other measures. 
  • Such an approach should also be used in the UK. The report recommends that taxes levied on shale gas development should be ring-fenced and re-invested in low-carbon technologies. 
All of this will come to no surprise to Frackland readers. In this post I point out that shale development in the USA has actually helped renewables development, not hindered it, while I have been calling for the government to commit to re-investing shale gas revenues in low-carbon tech for a number of years now - here's me on the subject almost exactly two years ago. I can only conclude that Lord Smith and his task force must also be avid readers of this blog!

Friday 4 September 2015

Labour, fracking and "the desolate north"

The political news at present is saturated with the popcorn-fest that is the Labour leadership contest. In a recent post I criticised Andy Burhnam, the front-runner at the time. Mr Burnham was upset with the way that fracking licences had apparently been "thrown about like confetti". He was, it seemed, blissfully unaware that the licences he was upset about had actually been awarded in 2008, when Labour were in government and he himself was a cabinet member.

Today's post is about more non-joined-up thinking from senior Labour figures. In a for-and-against debate with Energy Secretary Andrea Leadsom in the Yorkshire Post, Shadow Cabinet member Michael Dugher (Shadow Transport Secretary) argues that the Tories see the North of England as "a soft touch" for fracking. He states that "Given that not one of the fracking licences covers anywhere south of Leicester, alarm bells should be ringing here".

This statement is not entirely true. Some of the 14th round licences have been awarded outright already, but many more will be awarded subject to further consultation, because there is overlap between the license areas and special habitats protected by the Conservation of Habitats and Species Regulations (2010). Below is a map showing these licences - light green is licences awarded in the 14th round, dark green is licences to be awarded subject to this consultation, and the light beige is existing licences (where fracking could also be conducted). So there are plenty of places south of Leicester where fracking could be allowed (subject to the usual environmental permits, planning permission etc.).

However, it's worth considering in a little more detail where fracking is likely to take place, especially in light of the recent Infratructure Act, which included provisions for shale gas extraction. Of particular note is the amendment pushed through by the Labour party. Included in this is a stipulation that:
"The Secretary of State must not issue a well consent that is required by an onshore licence for England or Wales unless the well consent imposes a condition which prohibits associated hydraulic fracturing from taking place in land at a depth of less than 1000 metres"
So fracking cannot be used in shale deposits at depths of 1000m. As far as I'm concerned, this is a silly rule - far better to assess the geological conditions at any individual site, perform risk assessments, and make a decision about whether it is or is not safe to conduct a frack at a given depth. Such an assessment would consider whether there are sensitive aquifers present, the depths to which these aquifers extend, whether the geomechanical conditions are such that they are likely to promote significant upward fracture growth, whether the hydrological conditions are such that upward fluid migration would be encouraged, and the presence of low-permeability layers between the shale and aquifers that would prevent such upward fluid migration.

However, Labour insisted that we should instead have a blanket 1000m ban, so a 1000m ban is what we have. While there are potential shale deposits in the South of England, many of the most prospective of them are shallower than 1000m depth. Therefore, with the new Infrastructure Bill in place, operators are no longer as interested in them.

In short, Mr Dugher is trying to claim that, for political reasons, the Conservatives are giving out licences in the North, but not in the South. In fact, the reality is that, for geological reasons, Mr Dugher and his Labour party colleagues have made sure that fracking operations will be focussed in the North, and essentially issued a de facto ban on fracking in the South. Much like Mr Burnham, without realising it he is criticising his own policy decisions.

Any discussion involving Labour politics at present of course cannot ignore the rise of Jeremy Corbyn. Mr Corbyn is strongly opposed to fracking, having recently sponsored an early day motion calling for a moratorium. However, he is in favour of re-opening coal mines in the UK. These positions are spectacularly condradictory. By whatever measure you choose, coal mining is worse than shale gas:

  • Burning coal produces twice as much CO2 as burning natural gas
  • Burning coal produces a lot of air pollutants and particulate matter that results in significant health issues. The American Lung Association estimates that air pollution from coal-fired power stations is responsible for 13,000 deaths a year. Natural gas is clean-burning, so does not face these issues. 
  • Burning coal also leaves behind the solid residue "fly ash", which is troublesome to dispose of, and can cause devastation if spilled. Again, natural gas produces no such waste product. 
  • Coal mining is a dangerous process. Cave-ins and explosions have killed and are killing thousands of miners around the world. Working on a gas drilling rig is a far safer occupation. The image below shows the number of deaths per TWh of energy generated for a variety of sources. You can see how poorly coal performs compared to any other energy source. 

  • Coal mining can produce substantial amounts of induced seismicity. It also leads to ground subsidence, which is usually more damaging. While shale gas extraction can also cause earthquakes, these are far less common, and shale gas extraction does not cause subsidence. The image below (from this paper) shows the number of quakes, and their magnitudes, induced by different activities. Shale gas is a minor source compared to coal mining. 

  •  Coal mining leads to Acid Mine Drainage, a common form of water pollution (far more extensive than any water-pollution issues related to shale gas extraction).

Given the above, I'd love for Mr Corbyn to explain why and how these contradictions can be resolved such that fracking should be the subject of a ban, but that coal mines should be re-opened?

Thursday 2 July 2015

Simulating induced seismicity using geomechanics

The best possible words in the life of an academic are undoubtably "paper accepted". Since I've recently had a paper accepted in EPSL. I thought I would add a layman's summary of it here. 

The paper is available here, and is "open access", so you shouldn't need a subscription to read it. 

Our motivation is to try to understand and model why subsurface processes cause induced earthquakes. Induced seismicity has become a controversial issue in relation to fracking, but in fact the risk of inducing an earthquake during fracking are much lower than the risk of inducing an earthquake by other subsurface activities, such as geothermal energy, waste water injection and carbon capture and storage. 

The main reason for this is simply a matter of volume - the more volume you inject, the more likely you are to trigger an earthquake. While much has been made of the water volumes used for fracking, they are actually quite small in the grand scheme of things. The volumes injected for waste-water disposal and for CCS are much larger than the volumes used for fracking. This is why we've seen such increases in seismicity in places like Oklahoma in recent years (it's got very little to do with fracking). 

We've also seen induced seismicity - albeit of small magnitude, less than mag 3 - at two pilot CCS projects, the Decatur project in Illinois, and at the In Salah project in Algeria, which is the subject of our study. 

Firstly, a brief introduction to the In Salah site. It's a gas field in the middle of the Sahara desert. 

Due to natural geological processes, the natural gas that is produced contains a relatively high percentage of CO2. This must be stripped off before the gas can be sold - there are minimum CO2 content requirements. Usually, the CO2 would just be vented to the atmosphere. However, the operators of the site, BP, Statoil and Sonatrach, decided to use the site as a pilot project for CO2. So they instead re-injected the CO2 into the water-leg of the reservoir (part of the reservoir unit that is filled with water rather than gas). The image below shows the basic principles in cartoon form.  

In total nearly 4 million tonnes of CO2 were injected between 2004 - 2011. The average car emits about 4 tonnes of CO2 per year, so that's the equivalent of the annual emissions of 1 million cars.

The site was monitored using a number of methods, but it was clear from relatively early on than the CO2 injection was producing geomechanical deformation. As a result, microseismic monitoring was used to image any small earthquakes. You can read more about the results of the microseismic monitoring here, but the main conclusions were that thousands of small-magnitude (mostly around magnitude 0.0) events had been induced. The largest event was magnitude 1.7, which is probably too small to be felt by humans at the surface (we can detect them with seismometers though of course), and definitely too small to cause damage. Fortunately, all the events were confined to the reservoir unit, so there was no evidence that the seismicity was providing a pathway for CO2 to escape.  

So, what's this latest paper all about?

The basic premise of our study was that induced events occur on pre-existing fractures. They occur because industrial activities change the state of stress in the subsurface, moving a fault from a stable to an unstable state, which allows it to move, triggering an earthquake. So in theory, if we can predict or model where the faults and fractures are, and we can predict or model the changes in stress generated by our activities, we can resolve the stress changes onto the faults, and work out when and where faults might trigger seismicity. The purpose of our paper was to assess how well this approach works in practice. 

To model the size, orientation and positions of faults and fractures I am indebted to my colleague Dr. Clare Bond at Aberdeen, who build a structural model of the reservoir, which simulates how the reservoir geometry we observe today could have formed from the originally-flat sedimentary layers. This produces a strain map, which is then converted into a discrete fracture network to account for how fractures would have accommodated the modelled strain. The resulting fracture map is shown below: you can see that fractures are not uniformly distributed across the reservoir, but there are bands of intense fracturing running through the reservoir, and zones with much fewer fractures. 
In order to simulate the stress changes induced by injection, I am indebted to another colleague, Rob Bissell, from Carbon Fluids Ltd., who built a geomechanical simulation of the injection process. More details about this model are available here. The model provides a map of stress and pore-pressure changes at monthly intervals through the injection period. 

In order to work out whether the modelled stress changes would be sufficient to induce seismicity, for each modelled fracture we resolved the modelled stress from the nearest node of the geomechanical model into normal and shear stresses on the fracture face. If the shear stress exceeded the Mohr-Couloumb criteria, then an event will occur. The size of the event will be determined by the stress drop generated by the event, which will be a function of the shear stress, and the size of the fracture, which is pre-determined in the model provided by Dr Bond. 

Therefore we have a method to simulate when and where an earthquake may occur, and how big it will be. We tested our model simulation results against the microseismic observations made by my colleague Dr. Anna Stork in this paper

The figure below shows that the relative rates of seismicity predicted by the model matches that observed at In Salah. CO2 injection re-starts in late 2009. However, only a small amount of seismicity is observed. Injection rates increase in summer 2010, and for 4 months the rate of induced seismicity also increases. Once injection rates are reduced, the number of events decays away as well. This behaviour is well captured by our model. 

In terms of magnitudes, our modelled largest event matched very well the observed largest magnitude of M=1.7. Magnitudes are determined by the size of the fault and the stress drop, so this indicates that Dr Bond's model did a good job of simulating the fault/fracture sizes, and that Rob Bissell's model did a good job of simulating the stress changes induced by injection. 

Overall, our model does a good job of simulating induced events at In Salah, which is encouraging in terms of our future ability to mitigate induced seismicity at future projects. We have outlined a workflow that can be followed at sensitive sites where induced seismicity may be an issue. For example, the modelling approach can be used to assess whether alternative injection strategies may lower the risk of inducing an event. 

Thursday 18 June 2015

Medact Report Gets the Treatment it Deserves

A few months ago I didn't discuss a report by the charity Medact on the public health implications of shale gas - it simply wasn't of sufficient quality to be worth bothering with (although a detailed rebuttal from UKOOG is available here).

This report formed a major part of opposition group objections to Cuadrilla's proposed operations in Lancashire. The views of the Lancashire County Council Development Control Committee officers on the Medact report make for interesting reading (p311):
"The Medact report has not produced new epidemiological research but has reviewed published literature and has requested short papers from relevant experts in particular subject areas. It has also interviewed academics and experts."
"Unfortunately, one of the contributors (contributing to three of the report's six chapters – chapters 2, 4 and 5) has led a high profile campaign in the Fylde related to shale gas. Another contributor to the report (chapter 3) has previously expressed firm views on shale gas and has objected to this application. This has led to questions from some quarters about the report's objectivity."
"In light of these uncertainties it is not clear how much weight the County Council should attach to the report."
In other words, it's bunkum, and it's been given the treatment it deserves. More generally, on public health in general the Development Control Committee found that:
"While much research exists, and is growing in volume each year, it is difficult to gain an objective view of the veracity of the research. Anti-fracking campaigners frequently point to studies that indicate increased health risks (e.g. elevated risks of cancer or birth defects) as a result of shale gas activity in North America. Conversely, pro-fracking campaigners point to numerous methodological flaws in the research. It is also difficult to translate the findings of research from North America into the UK environment. Operating and regulatory practices are very different."
"PHE highlight significant methodological flaws in the research that has been cited to the County Council."
"Moreover, one study frequently cited by objectors (McKenzie, 2014) has been publically criticised by the Chief Medical Officer and Executive Director of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment in the USA as follows: "we disagree with many of the specific associations with the occurrence of birth defects noted within the study. Therefore, a reader of the study could easily be misled to become overly concerned.”"
"PHE state that direct application of the North American research to the UK situation is impossible because of the wide differences between the two countries."

And they conclude that (my emphases):
"Nevertheless, from the modelling, audit checks and sensitivity analysis conducted by the Environment Agency it is expected there will be no exceedance of standards that protect public health. Public Health England is satisfied the currently available evidence indicates that the potential risks to public health from exposure to the emissions associated with such extraction are low if the operations are properly run and regulated."



Wednesday 17 June 2015

Scotland's Got Gas: Royal Society of Edinburgh Report

The Royal Society of Edinburgh have released a new report into Scotland's future gas use and supply today.

It outlines the importance of natural gas to Scotland's economy. Compared to the rest of the UK (rUK), gas isn't much used for electricity generation - only 10%, but it is vital for domestic heating and as an industrial feedstock. Even in the best-case scenario, Scotland will need 39,400GWh of gas per year in 2035. This demand can either be met by increasing offshore production, extracting unconventional gas from onshore, or by importing gas from abroad. Each poses its own technical, economic and social challenges.

Focussing on onshore unconventional gas, the report concludes (my emphases):
"Onshore production of unconventional gas would allow Scotland control over all regulation surrounding extraction and production. The impact of unconventional gas production on the environment is considered to be comparable to conventional gas. The areas of health, wellbeing and safety surrounding an onshore industry do not appear to present significant risks, although a degree of uncertainty is present. Domestic production onshore could improve energy security, create jobs and ensure Scotland takes responsibility for its energy consumption."
"Public opinion relating to onshore unconventional gas development, particularly surrounding safety, in Scotland is often negative and this could make developing an industry difficult. The characteristics of onshore production are notably different from the offshore industry with which the country is familiar. Increased traffic and noise and light pollution occur during early stages of development." 
Meanwhile, it is critical of the alternative option of relying more and more on gas imports from abroad:
"Relying on imported gas from abroad appears inconsistent with Scotland taking responsibility for its energy use. While such reliance may serve to decrease the recorded carbon emissions attributed to Scotland and respond to public desire not to develop gas onshore, it would do so at a cost. Health and safety regulations and environmental regulations in supplying countries may not be at the standard they would be in Scotland, with a higher risk of injury and death to workers and a higher risk of environmental impacts local to production
"The transport of gas via pipeline or tanker across the globe also results in fugitive emissions, leaks and a considerable use of energy which add to the global carbon footprint. Hence, the global carbon footprint of the gas that Scotland consumes, and the impacts at the point of production, are likely to be far higher for imported gas than for Scottish onshore or offshore production."

There is one section, however, where I think this report gets things wrong, and that is in conflating, taxes, subsidies and investment. The report concludes that:
"Considerable uncertainty exists over potential reserves of unconventional gas, meaning the significant government expenditure that would be required to kick-start a fledgling industry could be for nought."
Which is surprising to me, because governments (either Scottish or rUK) are not making any significant expenditure to develop this industry. Sure, they have funded a few reports and a few research projects, but this could hardly be described as remotely "significant".

The investment for shale gas development - the geophysical surveys, the exploratory boreholes, the nursing of project applications through the planning system - is all being paid for by the operators themselves, funded either by private capital or their shareholders. This is as it should be, and I'm not aware of any operators saying anything different. This is an important difference between domestic shale gas and other options like offshore wind and/or nuclear, in that shale gas development doesn't really need any government subsidies or investments.

Digging into the detail of the report, it says the following:
"Like most fledgling industries, unconventional gas would require substantial government support, most likely in the form of tax incentives, in order to develop.  Even with investment from the government, the geological risk (i.e. the size of resource and/or the cost of extraction) is significant and an unconventional gas industry may simply fail to take off, creating no jobs or return on that investment."
So the only "investment" from the government is a tax break. Firstly, it's worth noting that if an operator does successfully produce shale gas, it'll be paying tax at a rate of 32%. Most non-oil-and-gas companies pay corporation tax at 20%. The major producing fields of the North Sea pay tax at 62%. So although shale operators are getting a tax break relative to some North Sea producers, they'll still be paying more tax than most companies in most other sectors, so it's all relative.

More importantly, this only matters if operators are making significant profits. If it does turn out that the geological conditions aren't quite right and shale gas can't be extracted profitably in the UK, then the tax level set by the government is completely irrelevant, because you only pay tax on your profit, not your turnover. The government would receive no tax, regardless of whether the tax rate is 32% or 62%. From the government's perspective, it has nothing to lose, it can only gain. The only people who stand to lose if a UK shale industry is unsuccessful are the private investors with shares in the onshore operating companies, and I don't think the general public will be too worried about those "bankers".

So to conclude, the report is very strong on the science and technical aspects, and the environmental side of things. But probably needs to brush up a little on the economics side of things.


Saturday 6 June 2015

Andy Burnham gets it all wrong on fracking

If I were to write a blog post every time someone got things wrong about shale gas, I'd have little time for anything else. However, when that person is Andy Burnham, currently front-runner in the Labour leadership race, and therefore someone who could possibly be in charge of the country one day, I'm prepared to make an exception.

His comments on shale gas have been reported in the Guardian, and I thought I'd share my thoughts on what he's said.

"These things [fracking licences] just seem to be handed out like confetti"
Which is news to me, and most of the UK's operators I presume, because no licences to conduct fracking have been granted since the moratorium was lifted in 2012. Moreover Petroleum Exploration and Development Licences (PEDLs) were last awarded in the 13th licensing round, in 2008. At which time Andy Burnham was himself in the Cabinet under Gordon Brown's government. So if he has an issue with the number of PEDLs granted, it's the fault of a government of which he was himself a key member.

Moreover, crucially PEDLs do not grant a company the right to conduct fracking. They grant a company the right to explore for shale gas - to drill rock cores from exploratory boreholes, conduct seismic surveys, etc. However, a whole range of additional permissions, from the EA, DECC and others are required before an operator is allowed to perform hydraulic fracturing. No operator has sought such permissions since the moratorium was lifted in 2012*. So it seems that "handed out like confetti" actually means "not handed out at all".

*onshore, that is. There's still plenty of fracking going on in the North Sea.

"In my area, we are riddled with mine shafts as a former mining area"
Which would be why any operator working in an area where coal seams are present has to seek a permit from the Coal Authority before it undertakes any activities (see this guidance from DECC).

"Where is the evidence that it is safe to come and frack a place like this? No fracking should go ahead until we have much clearer evidence on the environmental impact."
Andy Burnham couldn't really have chosen worse timing to make this statement, coming as it does literally days after the release of a major report by the US's EPA showing no widespread pollution from shale extraction, and that fracking can be done safely and responsibly. In answer to your question Mr Burnham, the evidence is available on the EPA's website, as well as in the reports commissioned by the Royal Society and Public Health England.

"How can we justify in this day and age allowing a multinational to frack a local community without their say so? The next step, beyond the moratorium, would be to give local people a much bigger say in whether or not it can proceed."
Shale gas extraction is subject to the same planning rules as any other development activity. The local county council must grant planning permission for a well site to be constructed. So local people already do have a say in whether shale gas can proceed, via the planning system. Also note that I'm not aware of any multinationals planning to frack "a local community". They are planning to frack rocks, which are 2 - 3km underground. This sloppy use of language in order to inflame opinion is worrying.

"If we are going to carry on with fossil fuels we are basically sending a message that renewables aren’t where we want to be."
That, in a nutshell, is the essence of the problem. Renewables ARE NOT where we want them to be, regardless of the "message" that we choose to send. Hopefully at some point in the future, with technological improvements, they will get there. Yes, having the political willpower is important, but ultimately the reason we can't rely on renewables is a technological one, not political.

"The Guardian campaign has got quite a lot of traction and is quite powerful"
As per the last point, the Guardian campaign has no doubt been successful within its own remit - to develop a talking point, and to sell newspapers. It may indeed have got a lot of people talking, and it may have got a lot of political traction. However, it won't make much impact in the real world.

The issue at hand is to reduce the amount of fossil fuels we burn. Yet renewables are no more effective and efficient, and no less intermittent, than they were before the Guardian's campaign began. No improvements in energy storage have been made because of it. Only increased investment in R&D will achieve this. A far more effective policy would be one that allowed a shale industry to develop, and taxed it appropriately, ring-fencing these revenues to be spend on renewables/efficiency/nuclear R&D. 

"I am pitching this as part of a pro-business, new economy move"
Personally, I don't see investment in renewables as pro-business. Yes, investment in this sector will of course boost jobs in this sector. However, if this investment is derived from increased energy bill surcharges, then it poses a cost, and therefore an economic drag, on most other industry sectors. It's at best a re-arrangement of the economy, not an overall boost.


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.