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.

Thursday, 29 January 2015

Shale gas health studies from the USA: Are they relevant to the UK?

Public Health England has looked into the potential health impacts of shale gas extraction in the UK, and concluded that "the potential risks to public health from exposure to the emissions associated with shale gas extraction will be low if the operations are properly run and regulated".

Nevertheless, it is clear that concerns remain among the public at large, promoted in no small part by the claims of anti-fracking groups. Claims about the public health impacts of shale gas extraction seem to run amok, but there are precious few peer-reviewed publications that actually document actual public health impacts from the process.

Indeed, the only peer reviewed studies to document any such effect is that published by the Colorado School of Public Health, McKenzie et al. (2012) and McKenzie et al. (2014). These papers feature prominently in  anti-fracking literature. Indeed, they are a particular favourite of electrical engineer Mike Hill, who features prominently in the Lancashire anti-fracking movement (and recently gave evidence to the Lancashire County Council on Cuadrilla's current planning applications). In his much-vaunted letter to the Lancet, the McKenzie papers are the only cited papers that document any potential health impacts.

As an aside, note that the claims made by Mr Hill in his public presentations on the topic, as documented on the Drillordrop website, are not actually backed up in his Lancet letter. Mr Hill claims to cite peer-reviewed papers by MIT and Princeton, however no such papers are present in his Lancet letter. He claims that he "conclude[s] that there was a 30% increase in birth defects if you live within 10 miles of a fracking well [and] there was a 38% increase in cancers and congenital heart defects". However, a brief perusal of the Lancet letter itself will reveal that Mr Hill made no such conclusions.

The failings of the McKenzie papers have been discussed at length. In the 2012 paper, McKenzie et al. fail to account for the fact that her "drilling" samples were taken 1 mile downwind of a major interstate (motorway), while her baseline samples were taken 4 miles upwind of the motorway. It is hardly surprising therefore that they found an increase in air pollution in the "drilling" samples.  

Meanwhile, the 2014 paper was publicly disavowed by Dr. Larry Wolk, Chief Medical Officer and Executive Director of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. In his rebuttal, he noted that
"the authors did not consider the effect that other risk factors may have played (examples: smoking, drinking, mother’s folic acid intake during pregnancy, access to prenatal care, etc)" 
"the study showed decreased risk of pre-term birth with greater exposure. [...] Example: The study data showed that the nearer the mother lived to a well, the less likely the mother was to give birth prematurely or to have a low-birth-weight baby." 
"the statistical differences in birth defects were minuscule"
concluding that:
"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."
However, lets leave these criticisms and rebuttals to one side for a minute, and pretend that the McKenzie et al. findings are robust and genuine. Would they in that case be relevant to the current UK discussion?

No, they would not. The data collected by McKenzie et al. cover practices that are not allowed in the UK. Therefore the McKenzie data is meaningless for the UK context, and self-professed "experts" such as Mr Hill should desist from claiming otherwise.

From McKenzie et al. (2012) we learn about the activities being conducted at the well pads examined in their studies:
"The GCPH worked closely with the NGD operators to ensure these air samples were collected during the period while at least one well was on uncontrolled (emissions not controlled) flowback into collection tanks vented directly to the air." 
"Samples were collected over 24 to 27-hour intervals, and samples included emissions from both uncontrolled flowback and diesel engines." 
"Of the 12 wells on this pad, 8 were producing salable natural gas; 1 had been drilled but not completed; 2 were being hydraulically fractured during daytime hours, with ensuing uncontrolled flowback during nighttime hours; and 1 was on uncontrolled flowback during nighttime hours."
Uncontrolled flowback, where gases are vented directly to the atmosphere, is not allowed in the UK. Operators will be required by the Environment Agency to use green completions, where these emissions are captured. From the government response to the MacKay and Stone report:
"The Environment Agency considers that ‘green completions’ are BAT (Best Available Technology) for production facilities. Making green completions part of BAT will mean that producers will be required to use new technologies that will help limit or stop emissions"
To conclude, the McKenzie et al. papers are the only peer-reviewed documentation of shale gas public health impacts. The flaws in these papers are well established. Even so, the data they present are not relevant to a UK setting, because they are measuring processes that are not allowed in the UK. When commentators refer to important differences between USA and UK regulations, this is the kind of thing they are talking about. Self-appointed "experts" who reference these papers in a UK context without highlighting this important distinction are misleading the public.

Monday, 26 January 2015

Environmental Audit Committee on Shale Gas: A Foregone Conclusion?

Today's news is the release of the Parliamentary Environmental Audit Committee on the "Environmental Risks of Fracking".

The eagle-eyed among you will note that Professor Michael Kendall and I submitted written evidence to the inquiry. It's not the first time we have submitted evidence to such an inquiry, having done so for the Select Committee on Energy and Climate Change's report on CCS.

It's worth documenting the differences I noted between the two inquiries. The CCS inquiry received 38 written submissions. It called 18 witnesses to give oral evidence, over a period of 3 months, starting several months after the written submissions had been received. The final report was released more than 3 months after the final session of oral evidence.

In contrast, the EAC fracking report received 71 written submissions. Nevertheless, it only called 8 witnesses to give oral evidence, and did so only 2 weeks after the written evidence had been gathered. The final report has been released only 1 week after the evidence sessions.

The speed of this release suggests to me that the EAC went into this inquiry having already decided on their course of action - a call for a moratorium - and that they have not properly considered the evidence in front of them, nor sought a proper breadth of representation from their oral witnesses.

This suggestion is only furthered when one considers the content of the report.

With regards the climate change argument, the report totally fails to consider the prospect of CCS. Almost every study that outlines how the UK might reach its low-carbon electricity targets accepts that CCS will be required. Even Friends of the Earth's report on "Clean British Energy" finds that CCS is necessary. The use of CCS to capture CO2 emissions means that the EAC conclusions on shale gas and carbon budgets are blown completely out of the water.

The EAC report spends a lot of time considering whether shale gas might end up substituting for coal or for renewables. However, the question it asks misses the most obvious substitution: that shale gas might substitute for LNG imported from Qatar, and/or gas piped from Eastern Europe. The Committee on Climate Change concluded that domestic shale gas would likely have a lower greenhouse-gas footprint than such imports. While the EAC report does mention this fact, it is not accounted for in the EAC conclusions.

It also fails to consider the likely amount of gas we will be using in the future. This is surely the most important question to ask when considering whether shale gas might be compatible with future UK energy policy. Discussion of carbon targets is important, but it is equally important to consider the likely state of our energy system in 10 - 20 years time.

Ultimately, we need to estimate how much gas we will be using in the future (in all sectors, not just electricity). We also need to estimate how much gas we will still be producing from other sources (mainly the North Sea, but also biomass etc.). If the total we produce is lower than that we consume, we will have to import gas, in which case there is a clear argument for domestic shale gas production to substitute for imported gas, at it is more beneficial for our economy, and will have a lower GHG footprint. If we will produce more domestically than we are expected to consume, then there is no case for shale development. I am not aware of any study that thinks that in 20 years time we will be producing more natural gas than we consume. Ergo a clear case, both in terms of climate and economy, for domestic shale gas production.

Probably the most reliable and respected estimator of the future of our energy systems is the National Grid, in their Future Energy Scenarios documents. These reports have been completely neglected by the EAC, which is a poor omission. The NG come up with a range of scenarios for future energy systems, from the most optimistic (lots of renewables, lots of efficiency etc) to the most pessimistic (business as usual etc), to ensure that they cover all the bases.

The two low-carbon cases are the "Gone Green" and "Low-Carbon Life" scenarios. At present, our total gas demand is a shade under 800 TWh/yr. By 2035 (when UK shale gas production would be in full swing), under the Gone Green Scenario our total gas demand will be approximately 700TWh/yr, while under the Low-Carbon Life Scenario it actually increases slightly to over 800TWh/yr. Even the slight fall under the Gone Green Scenario is nowhere near enough to account for the expected drop off in North Sea gas production.

By failing to consider these scenarios, the EAC has left a gaping hole in its arguments. Perhaps to be expected from a report cobbled together in less than a week.

In terms of local environmental risks, the EAC report accepts that
"The evidence from a range of government bodies and institutions is generally in agreement that fracking can proceed in the UK safely and without harm to the environment provided proper environmental safeguards are introduced and adhered to." 
Given this consensus, it is not clear what a moratorium for further study, as recommended by the EAC, would hope to achieve. Should we just re-publish the same studies in a couple of years' time?

The EAC report goes on to consider risks in more detail. However, it consistently ignores evidence provided by experts, such as the Environment Agency, various academics etc., and relies instead on evidence from either activists, or people with no apparent qualification or experience.

A non-exhuastive list of examples follows:

1. The EAC report cites the "Frack Free Balcombe Residents Association":
"The Frack Free Balcombe Resident’s Association raised concerns that 'wells or fractures intersecting with natural faults could easily become conduits for leaking gases and liquids'"
but completely ignores the evidence provided by myself and Professor Kendall, which provides extensive documentation from peer-reviewed scientific literature that this is extremely unlikely to happen.

2. The Environment Agency state that
"the regulatory 'regime that we currently have is sufficient,' and sufficiently incorporates the precautionary principle."
However, the EAC seems to place more weight on the "Safety in Fossil Fuels Alliance" (an anti-fracking group):
"SaFE believed however that 'the Government is putting people and the environment at significant risk' because it is not applying the precautionary principle"
3. The Environment Agency confirmed that it will only allow "non-hazardous" substances to be used in fracking fluids. However, the EAC seems to prefer instead evidence from FFBRA, who claim, erroneously that:
"the access rights provision in the Infrastructure Bill (paragraph 7) effectively allows 'any substance to be injected into and left in the lateral wells ... drilled under our property.'"
(For an extended discussion of why this isn't true, see my post here).

4. The EAC report quotes prominently comments made by Frack Off Fife:
"It is without doubt that each of these [underground extraction] processes pose a threat to our water supplies. Why the Government need to re-query this is unnecessary as there’s an abundance of scientific evidence to support the facts that the chemicals used in the drilling and fracturing processes, are very dangerous in many aspects and once the water supply is contaminated, it cannot be un-contaminated. Water’s natural ability to permeate rock means the contaminated waters will eventually find clean/natural/ground waters and thus, contaminate them ... and put at risk the environment around it."
This ignores the Environment Agency requirement that only non-hazardous chemicals are used in the fracking fluid. It ignores the evidence provided by Prof. Kendall and myself that fracking fluids are extremely unlikely to "permeate rock" to contaminate groundwater. This comment shows zero understanding of geology/hydrology, and is made by a group that has precious little expertise in this regard, yet the EAC see fit to quote it prominently and uncritically.

5. The EAC appear to rely on Friends of the Earth for data on well integrity:
"Friends of the Earth directed us to evidence from the United States that 'found failure rates in newly-drilled shale gas wells in Pennsylvania to be between 6.9% and 8.9%'"
Are FoE really the best data source for information on well integrity? Why does the EAC not use instead the paper by Davies et al. on the subject, for example. The EAC statement is in error. Well failure, implying total loss of well control and release of hydrocarbons to the environment, is a very different thing to individual barrier issues (containment maintained and no pollution indicated). Well failure rates occur at rates that are "two to three orders of magnitude lower" than the rates cited by the EAC. For more discussion on this, see my post here.

6. The EAC cites evidence provided by Caroline Raffan:
"her 'greatest worry is that water contamination will get worse over time as wells develop concrete failures, and the methane escapes into the water table and also into the environment.'"
Ms Raffan's full statement is available here. I will leave it to the reader to decide whether this is the sort of robust, well referenced expert evidence that should be quoted prominently in a Select Committee report.

7. Public Health England have concluded that the risks posed by shale gas extraction in the UK are low. However, the EAC counter this conclusion with evidence from a local doctor and "UK Green MEPs". It is worth noting that the PHE report covers and examines in detail almost all of the references cited by Dr Rugman. Public Health England are the national authority on this matter. It is therefore surprising indeed that the EAC would place more weight on the conclusions of a local resident (even if he is a doctor), rather than PHE, given that both appear to have studied the same literature sources!

Staying on this subject, the EAC cites "local surveys" conducted by Philip Mitchell, who appears to be a local resident, with no apparent relevant expertise. His submitted evidence is available here. You will note that the evidence provides no actual data, nor even details of how his "survey" was carried out. This is not exactly science here, just a few anecdotes of people claiming that their asthma has been made worse by Cuadrilla's activities at Preese Hall in 2011. As an aside, I am an asthma sufferer myself, and I know that my symptoms are often varying, sometimes very light, sometimes quite bad. Were I of a more suggestive mindset, I am sure I could find all manner of potential "causes" that might happen to correlate with changes in my symptoms. Yet this is deemed worthy of consideration in a Commons Select Committee report!

My assessment is that the EAC went into this process knowing already what it wanted to find. This is apparent from the very short length of time taken to produce the report (less than 6 working days from the oral evidence session). In order to reach the "desired" conclusion, it ignored evidence submitted by those who would be considered by most to be experts in the relevant fields, and instead relies heavily on evidence provided by anti-fracking activist groups. In my opinion, this is not an impressive piece of work. It would appear that my opinion is shared in a number of other comments on the report (link, linklink). It will be interesting to read the government response to the report.

Update (28.1.2015):
Courtesy of @CSWnews, via my brother, this seems relevant:

Wednesday, 7 January 2015

More misleading leaflets from anti-fracking groups

In the news today, another anti-fracking group, Resident's Action on Fylde Fracking, has been forced to withdraw its literature due to inaccuracies, misleading comments and unsubstantiated statements. This follows a similar ASA ruling last year in Somerset, and from the equivalent body in Australia. This incident has been reported in The Times (£) and Independent.

Full details of the complaint and the ASA's draft judgement are not available. This is because, rather than face a final judgement, RAFF agreed to withdraw the offending leaflet. In such cases, where the advertiser withdraws the material, the ASA will cease it's investigation, since the likely decision would be to force the advertiser to take these actions anyway.

Most amusing is RAFF's attempts to put a positive spin on the decision. They appear to make the claim that the leaflet "was therefore NOT withdrawn as a result of Mr Roberts’ complaint". However, comments from the ASA make clear that that's exactly what has happened: ASA comments are reported as: "The ASA was carefully assessing evidence from both sides. They had not come to any conclusion… They (RAFF) withdrew the leaflet before a final decision was made." Further, it appears that RAFF were required to provide assurance to the ASA that the leaflet would not be repeated or re-distributed.

Friday, 21 November 2014

Statement from the European Academies Science Advisory Council

This week the European Academies Science Advisory Council released a statement on shale gas in Europe. EASAC is formed from the national science academies of EU member states. You can read the full statement here, and an executive summary here

A spokesman for EASAC stated:
"While there is no scientific or technical reason to ban hydraulic fracturing, there are clear rules to be followed: Companies must work harder to obtain societal approval to operate, by engaging stakeholders in constructive dialogue and working towards agreed outcomes. Trust is critically important for public acceptance; requiring openness, a credible regulatory system and effective monitoring. Data on additives used and the results of monitoring to detect any water contamination or leakages of gas before, during and after shale gas operations should be submitted to the appropriate regulator and be accessible for the affected communities. The same openness to discuss on the basis of factual evidence must, however, also be expected from the other stakeholders." 
Key passages in the statement include the following:

  • This EASAC analysis provides no basis for a ban on shale gas exploration or extraction using hydraulic fracturing on scientific and technical grounds, although EASAC supports calls for effective regulations in the health, safety and environment fields highlighted by other science and engineering academies and in this statement. In particular, EASAC notes that many of the conflicts with communities and land use encountered in earlier drilling and hydraulic fracturing operations based on many single-hole wells have been substantially reduced by more modern technologies based on multiple well pads, which can drain up to 10 km2 or more of gas-bearing shale from a single pad. Other best practices, such as recycling of flow-back fluid and replacement of potentially harmful additives, have greatly reduced the environmental footprint of ‘fracking’. Europe’s regulatory systems and experience of conventional gas extraction already provide an appropriate framework for minimising disturbance and impacts on health, safety and the environment.
  • Overall, in Europe more than 1000 horizontal wells and several thousand hydraulic fracturing jobs have been executed in recent decades. None of these operations are known to have resulted in safety or environmental problems.
  • Regulations intended to ensure safe and environmentally sensitive drilling activities are already in force in those European countries with their own oil and gas industry.
  • The reservoir volume accessed from a single site has increased substantially through such multi-well pads and longer horizontal laterals, offering a potential extraction area of 10 km2 or more from one pad and reducing surface land use area accordingly. Unconventional gas fields thus no longer have significantly higher well pad densities than conventional fields. Technically, horizontal wells with a reach of up to 12 km are possible (although such wells would at present be uneconomic), but even with clusters of only 3 km radius, it becomes viable
  • to produce unconventional gas in heavily populated areas.
  • A recent meta-analysis (Heath et al. 2014) of the scientific publications on this issue [shale gas and CO2 emissions] came to two conclusions: (1) that emissions from shale gas extraction are similar to those from conventional gas extraction and (2) that both when used in power generation would probably emit less than half the CO2 emissions of coal.
  • Regarding potential sources of emissions from shale gas extraction, flaring and venting in conventional exploitation in Europe ceased during the 1990s (with the exception of initial flow tests in successful exploratory drilling); industry therefore possesses the necessary expertise to avoid this problem. ‘Green’ completion technologies are also widely used to capture and then sell (rather than vent or flare) methane and other gases emitted from flow-back water (they can be recovered at low cost by taking out the gas within a confined separator). This will be mandatory for hydraulic fracturing of all gas wells in the USA from 2015 onwards. Ensuring ‘green completion’ is fully applied in Europe is thus an essential prerequisite for maximising benefits from shale gas to climate change policies.
  • General industry practice in conventional wells (which typically have higher pressures and gas flow rates and longer lifetimes than shale gas wells) has solved the problems of gas migration. By pressure testing, the tightness of the well can be verified. Hydraulic fracturing also uses external casing packers to separate individual fracked zones from each other, creating mechanical barriers in the lowermost part of the well against gas migration outside of the casing.
Finally, I can only conclude that the EASAC are avid readers of Frackland, as they illustrate how lateral well drilling allows a substantial reduction of the surface footprint, as I have done numerous times on this blog. 
Figure 2 Innovation in well design and operation (source: Range Resources Ltd.). Left: old single well spacing (Texas); right: modern multi-well cluster configuration accessing gas from an area of up to 10 km2 (Pennsylvania).

Saturday, 1 November 2014

Image of the Day: Reclaimed Well Pads

A question I am often asked is what does a shale gas well pad look like. The answer can depend, because a pad will change over time. During operations, there will be lots of equipment on the pad, and it won't look particularly nice. However, well construction typically takes a few months, and once complete most of the infrastructure can be removed. Once this is done, much of the pad can be reclaimed and restored.

Of course, the pad in full action is the most dramatic, so this is what the media likes to show. This leaves people with the impression that a shale gas pad will always look that way, not that it's like this for a few months before being restored. 

To address this balance, here are a couple of images of well pads during construction, and then what they look like when finished. 

Firstly, this under-over image shows a pad with a single well being flow-tested, with the gas being flared, and then the same well once the pad has been reclaimed and restored. 

This next image shows a multi-well pad with a drilling rig on site. You can also see open flowback ponds storing water. It's not clear whether this is fresh water yet to be used, or waste flowback water. In the UK flowback water cannot be stored like this.

Underneath shows the same site once it has been completed. Most of the pad is grassed over, with only a small amount of infrastructure left on the pad.

Friday, 24 October 2014

Sigmas and Sharpshooters

Today's paper is a recent report published in the journal "Earth's Future" looking at methane emissions from shale gas operations in the USA. As you'd expect from a paper that is critical about shale gas exploration, it has received extensive media coverage.

However, the paper falls short in a couple of really important ways, which I'll discuss below. Sadly, it provides a few handy lessons about how not to go about doing science. The first issue is falling foul of the Texas Sharpshooter Fallacy, the second is failing to use the proper measures to ensure the result is statistically significant.

Firstly, the Texas Sharpshooter Fallacy. The parable is of a hopeless Texan gunman looking to prove to the world his martial prowess. So he takes aim with his pistol at the side of a barn, and blasts away. Once he has done shooting, he notices that by chance some of his shots happen to have hit close together. He then paints on a target with its bullseye at that point, before inviting the neighbours over to admire the results of his sharpshooting skills.

More technically, this fallacy describes a situation where certain clusters of data are cherry picked from a larger population because they happen to fit your hypothesis, ignoring all the cases that would disprove the hypothesis.

So how does this fallacy apply to the paper in question? The image below shows the methane measurements for 2006-2008 (the "before" case) and 2009-2011 (the "after" case) presented in the paper:

It's clear that methane has gone up substantially all across the USA in this period. There are many sources of methane emissions, both naturally occurring (bogs, swamps etc) and man made (farms, coal mines, conventional gas wells, and shale wells). What is noticeable is that while there are places where there is shale gas activity and high methane concentrations, there are plenty of places with no oil and gas activity that have seen methane levels rise, while in other places there is shale gas activity but methane levels that are not particularly relevant.

For example, Nebraska saw substantial increases in methane, yet in 2010 there were only 2 drilling rigs in the entire state. It's a similar story in, for example, Iowa (0 drilling rigs), Illinois (2 drilling rigs) and Indiana (3 drilling rigs). In contrast, Arkansas, home of the Fayetteville shale with 39 active rigs in 2010, and Northwestern Louisiana, home of the Haynesville shale with 135 active rigs in 2010, have noticeably low methane concentrations.

There are many different shale gas/oil plays across the USA. It is apparent that methane concentrations also vary across the USA. It is therefore inevitable that, just by chance, some areas of high methane will correlate with areas of shale production. Our sharpshooters have drawn their targets around 3 such areas (the black boxes in the above image) and declared themselves to be expert marksmen. Not good science.

We can see the same effect within the individual study areas as well. The following image shows the change in methane levels for Texas from 2006-2008 to 2009-2011:

During this time, there was active drilling and unconventional hydrocarbon production from the West Texas Permian Basin, the Haynesville Shale and the Eagle Ford Shale. Neither the Permian nor the Haynesville show anything out of the ordinary, while there are other areas with no active drilling that have seen substantial methane increases. It's a similar story for the Marcellus in Pennslyvania, shown below: there are places with drilling that have high methane levels, but also places with drilling that have low measurements, and places with high measurements that do not have drilling.

The second issue is one of error bars and confidence intervals. With any scientific measurement, there is an error bar marking the interval over which we can be confident the result is accurate. Typically, confidence limits of 95% are used - if it is said that a measurement is 5 ± 1.5 at a 95% level, then we can be 95% confident that the true value lies somewhere between 3.5 and 6.5.

The authors of this paper complete their analysis for the Bakken and Eagle Ford shales, concluding that methane emissions have increased by 990 ± 650 ktCH4/yr and 530 ± 330 ktCH4/yr in each case.

What is unusual, however, is the limits they have chosen for their error bars. These are set to the 1-σ level, or one standard deviation. This corresponds to a confidence interval of only 68%, meaning there is a 1-in-3 chance that the computed value was arrived at by chance.

Scientists generally use the 2-sigma level as an error bound - corresponding to a 95% confidence level in the result (which still means that the measured observations could have occurred by pure chance 1 time in 20). For really important experiments, scientists will require even higher confidence bounds, like the 5-sigma bound for the Higgs Boson discovery, which means a 1 in 3,500,000 chance of a spurious result.

I've not often seen a confidence level of 1-sigma being used in peer reviewed science, given the implication of a 1-in-3 chance of being a spurious result. Instead, let us double their confidence levels to the 2-sigma limit (95%) more normally expected as a minimum for scientific findings. We then find the results have become 990 ± 1300 ktCH4/yr and 530 ± 660 ktCH4/yr. In both cases the error bars have become larger than the values themselves. We cannot even be sure whether rates of methane emissions have increased or decreased, since the lower error bars at the 95% level fall below zero.

In short, even with the Texas-Sharpshooting described above, the authors have not managed to produce statistically robust evidence to back up their claims. However, it's given me a chance to discuss both the Texas Sharpshooter Fallacy (which is also a common problem in attempts to forecast earthquakes) and the importance of error bars, which I am sure both scientific and non-scientific readers alike will have enjoyed.