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.




Tuesday, 31 March 2015

Medact vs British Columbia


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 26 March 2015

Anti-fracking parliamentary candidate's embarrassing email


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

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

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

Monday, 23 March 2015

Further comments on the Talk Fracking "Frackademics" report

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Thursday, 19 March 2015

TalkFracking appear to be encouraging their followers to assault academics


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


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

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