Friday, 1 August 2014

Fracking scientist accused of lying about his credentials

Many readers familiar with the shale "debate" in the UK will be familiar with David Smythe, Emeritus Professor of Geology, retired (in 1998) from Glasgow University. It should be noted that the reason for his retirement was that Glasgow's Geology Department was closed in 1998. Bad luck perhaps, but hardly a ringing endorsement. On his website Prof. Smythe cites the closure of the Geology Dept as his reason for retiring. However, I've just been informed that the dept did not close - it merged with Geography to become the School of Geographical and Earth Sciences. This seems like another sleight of hand from the good professor.

Prof. Smythe has been a regular contributor at planning hearings related to unconventional gas developments, usually flown in at the expense of the various anti-fracking groups. In a post last year I critiqued his comments about Cuadrilla's drilling operations at Balcombe.

In those comments he revealed himself to be unaware of modern drilling techniques that allow operators to image the surrounding rocks from behind the drill bit, meaning that they can accurately steer the well into the rocks they want to target. Prof Smythe argued that Cuadrilla would not be able to accurately put the lateral part of the well in the 30m thick limestone target. Anyone familiar with modern drilling would know that this is a laughable statement: drillers aim for thinner targets every day. As one anonymous commenter put it after my original article, "a 33m corridor is a simple proposition".

In a report in the Times today, it appears that both the Geological Society and Glasgow University have become concerned about they way in which Prof. Smythe has been using his connections with these institutions to burnish his credentials.

The Geological Society has written to ask that Prof. Smythe cease describing himself as a Chartered Geologist, which he appears not to be. In particular, the Geol. Soc. state that this title requires proof of "continuous professional development", with the clear implication that they feel that Prof Smythe falls short of this requirement.

This isn't particularly surprising, given that Prof Smythe has made no scientific contribution to the field since 1998. In his own words (at the Dart Airth planning hearing), this appears to be because he does not have "slaves" to do the "donkey work" (p. 72) for him (a somewhat concerning attitude to Ph.D and postdoctoral researchers such as myself).

Glasgow University has written to make it clear that Prof. Smythe's views do not represent the views of the University's geologists:
“Notwithstanding our support for freedom of expression, we respectfully request that you make it clear in all of your future publications and broadcast media appearances that the views which you hold and express are your own and are not necessarily representative of the views held by the university’s researchers.”
Professor Paul Younger, current Professor of Energy Engineering at Glasgow put things more strongly:
"He has published nothing on [shale gas] in any proper scientific forum - no doubt because he knows he would never get past peer review with his pseudo-scientific scaremongering. He falsely claims to be a chartered geologist. That’s fraudulent. It’s wilful untruth. I am concerned about the damage to the reputation of the university by someone who never fails to use his university affiliation.”
The words used by both the Geol. Soc. and Glasgow University are fairly measured. However, to my knowledge this is a fairly drastic step. One wonders what impact this might have on his appearances at future planning hearings and the like.

In closing, I'd particularly recommend reading the closing submission made by Dart's lawyer at the Airth hearing regarding Prof. Smythe (pp72 - 76). For example, when asked to provide evidence of fugitive methane emissions from faults (his main contention regarding unconventional gas), Prof Smythe was unable to provide a single example.

Update 1.8.2014: To see how Prof Smythe's comments have been covered prior to today, this report makes for an interesting read. Prof. Smythe is variously described as a "top geologist", a "leading academic", and an "academic regarded by many of his peers as a world-class star of geological research". For contrast, Prof. Younger has added a comment at the end of the article:
"Long-retired Prof Smythe is not in any way associated with the current research team at the Univ of Glasgow, who regard his claims as false".

Tuesday, 29 July 2014

Image of the Day: Latest Onshore Licensing Round

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 22 July 2014

Another day, another shale gas report

Update (23.7.2014): It transpires that Gwen Harrison, the report's lead author, was recently an election candidate for the Green Party, which has explicitly stated its opposition to fracking in all circumstance. Moreover, judging by recent tweets it seemed she was involved blockading trucks at IGas's Barton Moss site.

Of course, there's nothing wrong with joining political parties nor joining protests. However, it makes a mockery of the claim that the report is "impartial" and "evidence-based", and goes a long way to explaining the report's contents.

Original Article:
Another day, another shale gas report to dissect. Today's offering comes to you courtesy of Scientists for Global Responsibility and the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health. The report claims to take an "impartial, evidence based approach". It does anything but, so once again it falls to me to point out the more egregious errors.

The best place to start is on the very first page, which shows two schematic images of the fracking process. In both cases the scale of images is such that the depth of the well is smaller than the height of the drilling rig, implying that fracking is taking place at a depth of less than 100m, rather than the actual depth, typically 2 - 3km.

Similar images are provided on page 4, and nowhere are images with the correct scales shown. The images are so out of scale that the "impartial, evidence based" claim immediately cannot be taken seriously. The moment you see an image like this, you know what to expect.

To the non-expert, the degree of the error in these images might not be immediately apparent, so I did a little photoshopping to demonstrate. Imagine if you were reading a report on whether it was safe for commercial airliners to overfly cities at altitude, and on the first page of the report was the following image, I don't think it would be taken that seriously by air safety experts:

In the introductory section of the report, it is claimed that "unlike conventional wells, fracking in shale requires horizontal drilling [and] huge numbers of wells". This statement must come as a very great surprise to the very many operators of conventional fields who use lateral wells to access their reservoirs. Wytch Farm is the famous case study for horizontal drilling, and one of the pioneers in the early 1990s, but the process is now common in conventional fields.

Many conventional fields have also used very large numbers of wells, particularly older, onshore fields in the USA. Indeed, I am sometimes bombarded by shale gas opponents with images they claim show the terrible impacts of shale gas, but turn out to be old oil fields (like the Mexia-Groesbeck, for example). It is true that on average you would expect shale developments to require more wells. However, the statement as stands is laughable in it's attempt to differentiate conventional and shale. These kinds of rudimentary mistakes means that no-one familiar with the industry could take this report seriously.

The next section of the SGR/CIEH report considers induced seismicity, and makes the oft-repeated assertion that Britain's geology is simply too faulted in comparison with the USA. It is true that some parts of the USA are fairly flat and boring. But we are talking about numerous shale plays across an entire continent. Some are flat and boring, some are very faulted and complicated. Those who regularly work with microseismic data say that they see interaction between the hydraulic fractures and potential faults in about 30% of the stimulations they monitor. Put simply, faults are common in the USA as well - it's just that you have to be unlucky to hit a fault that is already very close to slipping, in which case you can trigger an earthquake. Most faults won't trigger an earthquake.

This section closes with claims about well integrity failure and casing deformation. For Cuadrilla's well at Preese Hall, the earthquake did lead to deformation of the casing. However, the zone of deformation was entirely within the production casing string - the bit of the steel tube that has holes punched into it to allow gas to flow from the rock into the well. It's somewhat disingenuous to talk about compromising the integrity of casing where holes have deliberately been made. The near surface groundwater is protected by a different, shallower casing string. There is no suggestion that this was affected by the induced earthquake, or therefore that any risk was posed to groundwater. Strangely for an "evidence-based" report, none of this is deemed worthy of mentioning, even though there are two reports covering this (here and here). Incidentally, Cuadrilla's "6-month delay" was because they had commissioned independent experts to produce these reports - a reasonable step to take in my opinion. Funnily enough, neither is referenced in the SGR/CIEH report.

More generally, we receive on average over 50 earthquakes per year of the same size as that induced by Cuadrilla's activities. On average every 1.5 years we get a magnitude 4 quake, which is 1,000 times the size of the Preese Hall event. We have over 2,000 onshore oil and gas wells in the UK, and over 10,000 offshore wells, so it is likely that many of these earthquake have occurred near to wells. However, there is no evidence of all of this seismicity leading to well integrity failures and groundwater pollution across the UK. Again, you'd think this would be something an "evidence-based" report would want to discuss.

The next section of the SGR/CIEH considers groundwater contamination. Like many reports, the Duke University Pennsylvania study is cherry-picked, while every other study looking into water quality and fracking is ignored. A reminder that the Duke study considered a total of 140 water wells, and has no baseline. Ignored are the following:

  • Molofsky et al., who sample over 1,700 water wells, finding that methane is naturally occurring and correlates with topography, and not the positions of shale gas wells.
  • A study of 230 water wells by the Centre for Rural Pennsylvania, which found no impact of shale gas drilling.
  • A baseline water quality study by the USGS in un-drilled parts of Sullivan Cnty, PA, which records similar methane levels to those reported by the Duke team.
  • Another USGS baseline survey across the PA-NY border, again finding natural methane levels similar to those reported by the Duke team.
  • A study by the same Duke team in Arkansas that found no evidence for methane contamination.  

With respect to the number of wells with a reported infringement: it should always be kept in mind that these reports do not mean that wells are leaking hydrocarbons into the environment. A more accurate picture is painted by Considine et al., who dug a little deeper into the infringement stats. Only 2 wells out of 3,500 drilled in PA have caused methane migration into groundwater. That's a rate of 0.05%. In both cases, the wells were subsequently repaired, the issues resolved, and water quality restored. The numbers found by Considine et al. match those seen by the Groundwater Protection Council, who studied hundreds of thousands of wells in Texas and Ohio.

The next claim is that it is not known what chemicals could be used during production in the UK. While this might be technically true, we also know what chemicals cannot be used. The Environment Agency have stated that
"Only substances that have been assessed as being non-hazardous within the specified situation can be used".
Because many of the components of frack fluid are sometimes found in cosmetics and processed foods, most vendors have now developed fluids that contain only food-grade ingredients. None of this is worth mentioning as far as the SGR/CIEH are concerned

The next section of the SGR/CIEH report covers water use, and begins with the erroneous claim that "wells are generally fracked several times over their lifetime". In fact, while "re-fracturing" can be done, it is very rarely performed, because it doesn't get a lot of extra gas out for the money spent. While I don't have any stats to hand, I'd be confident that less than 1% of wells are ever re-fractured. Which begs the question of where on earth the authors are getting their information from.

Hydraulic fracturing does use a lot of water, but nowhere near as much as other activities, including electricity generation from coal. Nicot and Scanlon examined water use in Texas, finding that shale gas extraction accounts for less than 1% of state-wide water use. Indeed the switch in electricity generation from coal to natural gas actually reduced water use during the recent droughts. Clark et al. sum up the issue best:
"The type of power plant where the natural gas is utilized is far more important than the source of the natural gas".
Again, one is left wondering why such key papers are missing from an "evidence-based" report?

The flowback from Cuadrilla's Preese Hall operation contained low levels of naturally occurring radioactive material (NORM), enough for it to be classed as low level radioactive material. However, the NORM concentrations were actually not substantially different to levels sometimes found in groundwater, or even in some bottled mineral waters. The only assessment of UK flowback waters so far was performed by the Durham ReFINE group, which found:

"In no scenario was the 1% exceedence exposure greater than 1mSv – the allowable annual exposure allowed for in the UK".
and that:

"The radioactive flux of per energy produced was lower for shale gas than for conventional oil and gas production, nuclear power production and electricity generated through burning coal".
Again and again, why are such key papers missing from an "evidence-based" report?

The next section of the SGR/CIEH report covers air pollution. Sadly, this "evidence-based" report doesn't cite a single piece of data pertaining to shale gas and air quality. Which is a surprise, because there's data available that isn't that hard to find. For example, Bunch et al. record air quality measurements across a wide portion of Texas. Here are the results they found, comparing benzene levels with the number of wells drilled:
Similar surveys in Pennsylvania "did not identify concentrations of any compound that would likely trigger air-related health issues associated with Marcellus Shale drilling activities". Overall in PA, emissions of things like particulates, SOx, VOCs etc have reduced in recent years as natural gas, rather than coal, is burned for electricity generation. Again, this is good hard data, yet is missing from this "evidence-based" report.

To be fair, it's not like you can just download this information from a website you know. Except, of course, you can. Bradford Cnty, PA, has more Marcellus wells than any other counties. Here's how emissions stack up before and after drilling in the Marcellus:

The next section covers regulation. Amongst the anecdotal assertions made in the report, it's worth remembering that the UK oil industry regulations are globally regarded as among the best, which is why we have been able to drill 2,000 onshore wells, and over 10,000 offshore wells, with minimal environmental impact. They are certainly not "inexperienced" as claimed. And while the EU Recommendation has less immediate impact as a Directive, it is still legally binding. For example, there is a legal requirement for operators to monitor groundwater and air quality at sites. All operators so far have done this, while, for example, the BGS have completed a national methane baseline survey.

The next big issue covers global warming. Regular readers I am sure won't need reminding that the IPCC see a "clear" role for shale gas in addressing climate change, and that while we do indeed have too much fossil fuel to stay below 2 degrees C, most of that is in coal reserves. However, it seems that the good people at SGR/CIEH missed this section of the IPCC. If we have a limit to the amount of CO2 we can emit, burning gas is the obvious choice to maximise the energy we get for that CO2 limit.

The SGR/CIEH then make the classic mistake of conflating global warming potentials (GWP) measured per unit mass, rather than per mole. Because when you burn 1kg of methane, you get 2.75kg of CO2, rather than 1kg of CO2. So you need to compare the molar GWP, which is only 11, rather than 34 (or 85). Richard Muller of Berkeley expands on this here, and also includes the fact that coal power is usually less efficient (40%) than gas fired power (60%), which further tilts the scales in favour of gas. The net result is that the levels of methane that need to leak to make gas worse than coal are actually far larger than often stated. I won't excoriate the SGR/CIEH report too much for making this mistake, because it is one I currently see being made left, right and centre at present.

While the SGR/CIEH report concedes that shale gas development will not directly impact investment in renewables, it ignores the fact that renewable development has actually been promoted by the shale gas boom in the USA, as the abundance of cheap gas is an efficient way to provide back-up to intermittent renewables. Texas, home of shale gas development, is also leading the way in wind energy.

The closing argument, regarding total emissions, is a somewhat strange one - namely if we develop natural gas and use it to replace coal, then that coal will simply be burned elsewhere. This may well be true, but surely is a good argument for more countries to develop natural gas, thereby leaving the coal fewer and fewer places to go. The SGR/CIEH argument seems to be that we should continue to hoover up coal ships from across the oceans, just to prevent other nations from burning them. Incidentally, this argument could be equally applied to renewable energy - if we replaced all of our coal with renewables (not that we could) or nuclear (we possibly should), then that coal would still be available on the international market for someone else to burn.

I agree that our only chance to mitigate climate change is for every country to develop its own mitigation strategy under international agreements. Our responsibility is to reduce our own emissions, and hope other nations do the same, because we can't directly force them to. Once of the quickest ways to reduce our emissions would be to replace coal by burning natural gas. If that means that coal is available for someone else to burn, it is their responsibility not to burn it.

The section on socio-economic impacts completely fails to consider the impacts of shale development for the UK exchequer. Without shale, we are projected to import over 80% of our gas requirements, at an annual cost of £14 billion. This is money that leaves our economy for Qatar and Norway, and does nothing for us - paying no tax and creating no UK jobs. The alternative, domestic production, will lead to substantial economic benefits both nationally and locally, even if the effects on gas prices are disputed.

The report makes the unsubstantiated claim that shale development will impact tourism revenues. Again, in an "evidence-based" report, why make unsubstantiated claims when data is to hand? Here's a recent report into tourism in Pennsylvania over the last few years. The table below shows the headline figures. Barring the 2009 recession you can see year-on-year increases in tourism spending in PA at the same time as Marcellus development. No sign here that tourism is being affected by shale development.

The final section considers whether we need natural gas. Somehow, it focusses on electricity generation and manages to ignore 2/3rds of what we actually use natural gas for - domestic heating and cooking, and in industrial processes. This is kind of an epic, spectacular mistake for an "evidence-based" report!

The report looks solely at price parity for renewables and fossil fuels. Which is important, but only part of the whole story. Price parity does not equal economic parity, because renewables are intermittent. If company A generates and charges for electricity 24/7, while company B can only generate 30% of the time, then even if their costs, margins and prices are the same, company A will be substantially more economic than company B.

More importantly, price parity doesn't mean that the technology can be scaled to provide consistent power to the whole of the UK. There have been a number of future energy scenarios, both by the National Grid, and even by the Friends of the Earth*. In every scenario, even the greenest, natural gas consumption remains substantial in the UK. Put simply, it is not a question of whether or not to burn gas, it is simply a question of where we get that gas from - imported or domestically produced. Even Caroline Lucas agrees on that.

So to summarise, this "evidence-based" report is of a really really poor standard, nothing more than a hack job. I can't see anyone remotely familiar with the industry using this for anything more than a good laugh, and I am actually genuinely surprised that the CIEH has put their name to it. If there are any CIEH members out there in the ether, I'd be interested to hear your thoughts.

* I have my differences with FoE, but I have genuine respect to them on this particular instance, for at least trying to put their money where their mouth is and coming up with a vaguely realistic plan.

Wednesday, 9 July 2014

German Success...?

A big week for Germany in the news. And no, I'm not talking about 7 - 1!

New rules for hydraulic fracturing have been announced in Germany. This has been widely reported as "Germany bans fracking", but the devil may be in the detail - indeed some groups opposed to fracking have referred to it as a "fracking enabling law". This is because it appears that fracking will be allowed at depths below 3,000m, and "where drinking water is not in danger". It is not clear whether this means in areas where no potable groundwater is present, and/or "if the liquid being used cannot contaminate water".

The laws are due to be further discussed in the Autumn, where hopefully some of these ambiguities will be addressed.

Fracking is not new to Germany. Most of Germany's existing natural gas production, from Lower Saxony in the north of the country, requires hydraulic stimulation to be economic. These are not shale rocks, but "tight sandstones", with low permeability requiring fracturing to improve flow rates. The figure below shows the number of frack-jobs performed in Germany over the last few decades.

It's not clear whether the proposed ban would include these existing reservoirs.

There's a wider point to be addressed here. I'm often told that we should follow Germany's example in terms of energy policy. Germany's "energiewende" policy has promoted renewable energy sources extensively, resulting in something of a boom for this technology. Indeed, in recent weeks breathless reports announced that Germany had produced 50% of it's electricity needs from solar.

These headlines need some context - this was 50% of electricity over a short period on a summer day that, being a public holiday, saw particularly low demand. Also, electricity only represents part of our total energy consumption profile - we also use energy for transport, domestic heating and cooking, and in industry. In my opinion, the efforts made by Germany in this regard are deserving of praise. However, the additional costs have had an impact on domestic energy prices:

As always, we must keep the bigger picture in mind. The BP Statistical Review of World Energy provides a more sober analysis. Considering total energy consumption, renewable energy sources only provided 10% of Germany's total energy consumption in 2013. That still compares very favourably with the 3.9% we managed in the UK last year.

Ultimately, the reason we develop renewable energy sources is to reduce our CO2 emissions. How do Germany and the UK compare in terms of CO2 emissions? In 2012, Germany produced 810,000kT of CO2, while the UK produced only 490,000kT. Of course, this isn't a fair comparison, because there are more Germans than British. However, even when you take per capita emissions, in 2012 Germany produced 9.7 tonnes per person, while the UK produced 7.7 tonnes per person. It still might be an unfair comparison, because the German economy is generally considered to be stronger than ours. However, even when you consider emissions per unit GDP, the Germans were only able to produce $3,621 of GDP for each tonne of CO2 emitted, while the UK managed to produce $4,284 of GDP for each tonne of CO2.

Given that we in the UK get our energy cheaper than in Germany, and yet produce fewer CO2 emissions, I really don't know why it is that we are so keen to emulate the Germans (their football team excepted, of course).

How can it be that Germany produces more than double the amount of electricity from renewables than we do, and yet have higher CO2 emissions. The clue is in how energy is generated when the sun isn't shining. The picture below gives a clue.

This is an open cast lignite mine. They are big enough to spot easily on google maps, and the machines used in the mining are some of the largest vehicles ever made. Whole villages are being forcibly moved to allow the mines to expand. What is more, the fuel they produce, lignite, is one of the dirtiest burning fuels available. So why does the UK have lower CO2 emissions? Because we burn more natural gas in our mix compared to the Germans, and the CO2 reduction provided by a significant switch from coal to gas exceeds that provided by a small increase in renewable energy.

In conclusion, I find the current situation in Germany to be a little crazy. You can strip-mine your way across the country-side, forcibly moving whole villages, to produce the most CO2-intensive fuel possible. Yet if you want to drill a 6-inch hole in the ground to a depth of 2km, using about a football-pitch-worth of land, and pump some water down said hole for a few hours, to produce a fuel that is the least CO2-intensive of all the fossil fuels? A technique that has been used in some form in Germany for decades? Well, that is not allowed. The mind boggles, as my father would say.

I'd still trade it all for their football team though...

Tuesday, 8 July 2014

Image (video) of the Day: How near-surface microseismic monitoring works

As part of the monitoring requirements for their new wells in Lancashire, Cuadrilla are installing near-surface microseismic monitoring arrays. Geophones are buried to depths of 50 - 100m. They are capable of detecting the small "pops" and "cracks" as the shale is fractured, allowing the operator to map where the fractures are going as the stimulation progresses.

This video explains how the technique works, and how it is used both to allow operators to maximise the efficiency of their operations, and to minimise any environmental risks.

The video is made for an American audience, and I think to UK eyes it comes across as a little slick and "corporate", but it's well worth a watch.

Sunday, 29 June 2014

Spotlight on SMEs: Remsol

In "Spotlight on SMEs" I draw attention to small and medium sized enterprises involved in developing UK shale gas. These aren't the operators, whose names are well known, but they provide vital services to ensure that shale gas extraction is done safely and efficiently. It is in this supply chain that shale development can give a significant boost to the UK economy.

This week's SME is Remsol, a waste management service involved in treating and disposing of waste flowback fluids after hydraulic fracturing has taken place.

Remsol was founded in 2002 by Lee Petts, a waste and environmental management expert living in Preston, Lancashire. The firm initially cut its teeth dealing with waste from the pharmaceutical and chemical manufacturing industries. They have built a reputation for solving complex and difficult waste problems, sometimes in unconventional ways.

As case example comes from Tessenderlo, a Belgian chemicals manufacturer. A production process had gone awry at its Widnes plant, contaminating 400 tonnes of hydrochloric acid with chlorinated toluene. The conventional waste industry approach would be to take it away, neutralise it and then dispose of it. However, this would prove to be prohibitively expensive, and couldn't be completed within the necessary timescale (only 3 days). Remsol succeeded in finding a buyer who was able to utilise the acid, despite the small concentration of chlorinated organic material, and arranged for all 400 tonnes to be shipped off site over a 2-day period.

Being based in the NorthWest, Remsol were aware of Cuadrilla's hydraulic fracturing plans at an early stage. Initially, Remsol wondered whether treated waste water from other industrial applications, instead of fresh mains water could be used as a cheaper alternative. Understandably, however, Cuadrilla wanted to have complete control over what they were injecting in order to guarantee safety, so this was a non-starter.

However, after their fracking tests in 2011, Cuadrilla's flowback fluid was found to contain small quantities of Naturally Occurring Radioactive Material (NORM). United Utilities made a commercial decision not to process the flowback water at their Davyhulme site, so Cuadrilla were in the market for someone who could process flowback water containing NORM, which lead them back to Remsol.

Through their contacts in the UK nuclear sector, they identified a process that has been used to remove low levels of radioactive material from waste water for over 40 years - a process similar to a slightly more complex 3-stage chemical separation and filtration process conducted at about a dozen waste treatment facilities around the UK. In collaboration with some of these operators, they demonstrated, first in the lab, then at plant-scale trials, that the process was able to remove more than 90% of the NORM particles, reducing the radioactivity of the wastewater to a level lower than that found in your average bottle of mineral water.

Their early successes with Cuadrilla mean that Remsol are gearing up to play a key role as the industry develops. The flowback disposal issue is one that resonates with the public, and they've been engaging with local people in the Northwest to address fears in a calm and rational manner. "Radioactivity" is a word that can scare people easily, and it's important that the levels of radiation in flowback fluids are put into perspective with the amounts of radiation we are exposed to as we go about our daily lives. They've also listened some of these concerns - the issue of road traffic, for instance - so are using larger tankers to reduce the number of journeys needed, and developing onsite clean-up facilities, so that the fluid can be recycled and reused. This significantly reduces the amount of water required, as well as reducing tanker journeys.

The purpose of "Spotlight on SMEs" is to draw attention to UK companies involved in the shale gas supply chain. When I contacted Lee, he had this to say about the importance of UK companies getting involved:
"For shale gas to succeed, the industry needs to make good on its promises about local jobs and supply chain roles.

To deliver the maximum economic benefit for the country, we need to see a mostly British supply chain (that pay corporation tax here) comprised largely of SMEs - because it will be smaller firms that have to take on new staff in order to grow and meet demand, thus boosting jobs - with priority given to companies based in the areas where shale gas activity takes place.

It's important that we show there is already a well-developed SME supply chain in place that has both the desire and skills to perform the necessary work to the required standard. If we don't, I think there's a real risk that the big oil field services companies like Halliburton, Schlumberger and Baker Hughes will come to dominate the supply chain space, along with the global environmental consultancies, civil engineering giants like Babcock, Carillion and AMEC, and water treatment firms like French-owned Veolia - companies that are all big enough to take on a lot of the work without taking on new people, and that will perhaps pay their taxes in countries other than Britain."

Wednesday, 25 June 2014

"5 Fracking Myths Busted" - Busted

A new anti-fracking initiative, Talk Fracking, is currently touring the country. Their website has a thin veneer of balance, claiming to seek an "open debate" on fracking, but you don’t have to scratch too deeply to see their true motivation.

I’ll consider one particular video in detail, which claims to have “busted” all of the reasons to support shale development in the UK.

Before addressing the substance of the video, however, I will address the style. Talk Fracking say that they want to open up a balanced debate on fracking. Yet the video has this strange, childish, mildly insulting caricature of an “industry representative” to present the pro-fracking case. If you’re looking for a balanced debate, putting up insulting straw-man caricatures of your opponents is hardly the best way to start.

Now, to the content. The first “myth” is the impact (or not) that shale gas will have on energy prices. My view is that the only realistic position to take is that we simply don’t know what impact it’ll have on prices. It also depends heavily on whether the rest of Europe also develops shale gas. I suspect that the impact is unlikely to be dramatic as we’ve seen in the USA. Some studies have indicated it will have little impact, while others have suggesteda possible price reduction of up to 25%.

The Talk Fracking video argues that fracking will “keep a monopoly of energy with the big six companies”. In fact, Centrica’s farm-in to Cuadrilla’s Lancashire acreage aside, current operators in UK shale have no connection with the big six, so I’d really like to know how shale development strengthens their monopoly. In reality, the big six monopoly is unlikely to be affected whether or not we develop shale gas. However, one of the most fundamental rules of economics is that producing more of something can only have a downward impact on prices.

The second “myth” is the impact of shale on jobs and the economy. The latest figures on this come from EY, which comes up with similar numbers to the 2013 IoD report. EY estimates 6,000 direct jobs, 39,000 supply-chain related jobs and 19,000 induced jobs. As we have seen in in my “Spotlight on SMEs”, there are a lot of UK businesses that stand to benefit from shale development - in the supply chain and providing ancillary services - beyond those working directly for Cuadrilla and IGas.

The Northwest Energy Task Force now has over 400 business supporters who see the benefits of shale development in Lancashire. This includes the Chairperson of “Stay Blackpool”, which represents over 200 hoteliers and guesthouses. The “induced” jobs created in the hospitality trade may not count as far as Mr Mobbs and Ms Rothery are concerned, but I bet they count to the people holding down these jobs.

This is exactly what we have seen in the USA: the economic benefits of shale development extend far beyond the drillers themselves. Hotels are booked out all year round. Restaurants are full. There are jobs created in haulage and construction.

Finally, note the sleight of hand where Ms Rothery switches attention to sex workers in the jobs total. Rest assured, the IoD and EY reports don’t consider sex workers in its jobs figures.

“Myth” 3 is energy security.  Joseph Corre invites us to “ask yourselves what energy security really means for you”. I would suggest that it means that when you press the light switch, the lights come on. We saw over the winter, when storms affected power supplies for several days, the level of disruption that resulted. Keeping the lights on is no laughing matter.

We’re already in a situation where electricity generation capacity is getting perilously close to the margin. The National Grid are looking for volunteers to receive payments in return for being the first to be switched off in the event of outages. At best, this is additional cost on our bills. At worst, put yourselves in the shoes of a high-energy industrial user, such as a factory. Would you be likely to invest in the UK knowing that you might be asked to shut down if demand spikes? Energy security has impacts across the economy, even if it’s just a buzzword for Mr Corre.

Current projections suggest we will be importing 76% of our gas, at a cost of over £15 billion per year, by 2030. The question is not whether or not we will burn gas, but where that gas will come from – domestic shale or imported. Even Caroline Lucas accepts this. If gas is imported, that £15 billion is lost from our economy – it creates no jobs and pays no tax. If gas is produced domestically, the jobs and tax stay at home, benefitting the UK economy.

Any yes, Dame Westwood is correct that we don’t presently import gas from Russia. However, Talk Fracking want to have their cake and eat it. The impact of shale development on UK prices will be modified by the fact that we are part of an interconnected EU market. However, they then ignore these interconnections when it comes to considering the impacts of events in Eastern Europe. Much of the rest of Europe does import much of its gas from Russia. As they are so fond of pointing out, we are connected to this market. So we are impacted, even though none of the gas in our pipelines actually comes from Russia. 

Moreover, we are importing substantial amounts from Qatar instead. There are environmental implications of liquefying gas and shipping it halfway around the world as well, and the middle-east is hardly the best place to be sending £15 billion a year if we can really help it. Producing domestic gas is a better option than importing Qatari LNG, for a whole host of reasons.

“Myth” 4 is the “gold standard” regulatory system in the UK. I’ll be honest and say that I’m not sure exactly what counts as “gold standard”, and who gets to decide whether something meets that standard. But it’s pretty safe to say that regulations in the UK are significantly stronger than they are in the USA. Anyone who thinks otherwise simply cannot be familiar with the industry.

I’m not sure how what has happened in the banks or our supermarkets has any bearing on shale gas development. It’s not the same people regulating these very different industries. I’ll admit that I have no idea the regard to which our food industry is held, but prior to the banking crash I remember hearing more about light touch regulation than gold standard regulation. But apparently “the banks went bad” is a good argument to ban fracking.

Liz Arnold goes on to regurgitate the SLB Oilfield Review, which examines well integrity in the Gulf of Mexico. Anyone who thinks deep-water GoM data is relevant to onshore drilling either doesn’t understand drilling or is intentionally looking to mislead. Anyone who argues that the numbers in the SLB report show wells “leaking” either doesn’t understand well construction or is intentionally looking to mislead. When someone is presented as an expert, flown over from the USA specifically for her expertise, I lean strongly towards the latter conclusion.

Wells are constructed with multiple layers of steel and cement to isolate the well from surrounding rocks, preventing gas from getting into shallower layers. Sometimes, one of these barriers develops an issue of some kind, but this does not mean that gas is able to leak from the well. Actual well leakage is very rare. King and King summarise the issue better than I can, so I’ll quote: 
while individual barrier failures (containment maintained and no pollution indicated) in a specific well group may range from very low to several percent (depending on geographical area, operator, era, well type and maintenance quality), actual well integrity failures are very rare. Well integrity failure is where all barriers fail and a leak is possible. True well integrity failure rates are two to three orders of magnitude lower than single barrier failure rates.”
Ms Arnold also makes the erroneous claim that well integrity issues have allowed frack fluid to leak into shallow aquifers. In fact, fracking fluid is dense, and therefore unlikely to rise from deep formations. So even if a well has experienced a total loss of annular integrity, you wouldn’t expect to see frack fluid in shallow formations. This has been the case in the USA – even where methane migration has been attributed to well integrity, such as at Dimock, or in the Duke PNAS paper, no evidence for fracking fluid chemicals has been found.
Finally, the best place to look when considering the efficacy of existing regulations in the UK, whether they are gold standard or not, is to look at the existing onshore industry and its environmental impact. Over 2,000 wells have been drilled onshore in the UK, over 200 of which have been hydraulically stimulated in some manner. No significant environmental impacts have been noted.
While modifications to the regulatory system might be appropriate to address the increases in frack fluid volumes and the number of wells associated with shale gas development, I think in general past experience points to a regulatory regime in which we can place confidence.     

The fifth and final myth is that of gas being a bridge fuel. It is true that greens where advocating gas as a fuel decades ago, because its CO2 footprint is substantially lower than that of our dominant fuel, coal. This argument still holds true today: and is recognised by the IPCC, which states that 
"In mitigation scenarios reaching about 450 ppm CO2eq concentrations by 2100, natural gas power generation without CCS acts as a bridge technology, with deployment increasing before peaking and falling to below current levels by 2050 and declining further in the second half of the century (robust evidence, high agreement)."
While in the press conference associated with the report's release, the IPCC spokesman said
"We have in the energy supply also the shale gas revolution, and we say that this can be very consistent with low carbon development, with decarbonisation. That's quite clear."
I would like to know whether the organisers of Talk Fracking dispute the IPCC’s conclusions, and if so, why?

In the closing stages of the video we learn that Talk Fracking's position runs far deeper than just shale gas extraction – in fact, Talk Fracking believe that our whole model of industrial civilisation, and all the developments we’ve made in the last 200 years, needs to be changed. I’m not about to be drawn into an argument over the benefits or issues with this sort of debate – resource use and limits to growth are hugely complex issues. However, I don’t think that this as a reason to abandon shale gas development will chime with the wider public. If Talk Fracking’s true manifesto goes far beyond the fracking issue to a wholesale reorganisation of our economic system, then I believe they should be honest about this to the general public.  

Tuesday, 17 June 2014

Image of the Day: Permitting Workflow

This flowchart represents the various steps that an operator must take before they are allowed to drill a well. Something to show whenever anyone tries to claim that drilling is not regulated.

You'll notice the different coloured boxes, representing engagement with various government and environmental bodies, including DECC, county council minerals planning departments, the Environment Agency, the Health and Safety Executive, the BGS, and even the Coal Authority.

This chart, and the length of time it can take to work through it, shows why the recent Lords report discussed streamlining the regulatory process. The aim is not to remove any regulatory requirements in terms of how the well is drilled or the environmental impact monitored, but to improve coordination between the various organisations such that the above process takes less time to complete.

Monday, 9 June 2014

Spotlight on SMEs: Ground Gas Solutions Ltd

In the first "Spotlight on SMEs" post, I showcase an SME (small/medium enterprise) that has already worked with Cuadrilla and IGas to assess the environmental impact of their sites.

Ground-Gas Solutions is an environmental monitoring consultancy that currently employs 15 people, although that number is expected to rise quickly in support of a growing shale sector. The main office is based in Manchester, but they have people working all around the UK. GGS specialise in monitoring ground and air pollution around industrial sites. GGS was founded in 2009 by Simon Talbot and John Naylor, who have previous experience in landfill monitoring and contaminated land investigation. 

While GGS serve a number of sectors, their services are already proving useful to shale gas operators. While environmental monitoring is not a new thing, GGS have developed novel sensors capable of monitoring the concentrations of potential pollutants like methane, hydrogen sulphide and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) continuously, rather than at discrete and irregular intervals. The image blow shows how a sensor is set up in a borehole to detect potential pollutants moving through the ground.

Spotlight on SMEs: the UK companies benefitting from the shale gas development

Most people reading this blog will be familiar with the operators involved in developing UK shale - the likes of Cuadrilla, IGas and Dart. Most will also be aware of the buy-ins from the bigger players like Centrica, GDF Suez and Total.

However, the operators are only a part of the whole story. There is a whole supply chain needed to get shale development off the ground in the UK. Much of the work done by the operators is in fact contracted out to these suppliers, which are often UK-based "Small and Medium Enterprises", which are often referred to as the "life-blood" of our economy.

There are a lot of great British SMEs out there who have found that the skills and services they offer are proving useful to operators looking to extract shale gas in the UK. I'm a geoscientist, not an economist, so I tend to focus on the geoscience issues around shale, rather than the economics. That said, I think the assumption is often made that the only people to benefit from UK shale will be the operators: the handful of shareholders who own Cuadrilla, IGas et al. In fact, there is a whole supply chain of SMEs that will reap the benefit if shale is developed in the UK. This was made clear in the recent Lords report on the economic impacts of UK shale gas.