Friday, 16 December 2011

Letter to the Editor.....

The recent reports about fracking producing a volcano in the Mendips riled me enough to write an angry letter to the Wells Journal and Bath Chronicle. Still waiting to hear if either will publish it.

Dear Editors,

I am writing to express my concern at reports suggesting that shale gas exploitation could trigger a volcano in the Mendips (More concern over fracking, Bath Chronicle, Thurs 1st December; 'We could be sitting on a Mendip volcano' says Somerset expert, Wells Journal, Sat 3rd December). Such alarmist scare stories, with no factual basis whatsoever, will not help to promote a constructive discussion about shale gas exploitation as hydraulic fracturing develops in the UK.

Let us be clear, there is no 'river of lava ready to erupt' below the Mendips, no 'sleeping giant' to be awakened. The volcanic deposits in the Mendips were formed during the Silurian Period, approximately 425 million years ago. At this time, Britain was located 20 degrees south of the Equator, as the continental plates of Avalonia, Baltica and Laurentia collided to form an Alpine-scale orogeny. These volcanos ceased to be active, and rocks ceased to be molten, some 400 million years ago. All that remains are the solidified volcanic rocks, which contain a little residual warmth that heats the warm springs. Such deposits are common across much of the UK, in the Lake District, North Wales, and Western Scotland, for example.

There is a genuine discussion that needs to take place regarding shale gas and fracking. Potential issues include increases in heavy vehicular traffic moving equipment to the drill pads; the presence of 5 acre drill-pads, in place for perhaps 6-8 months or more in an area of natural beauty; the significant volumes of water required for fracking (usually measured in millions of gallons); and the ability of treatment facilities to handle and treat this water after fracking has been completed.

This discussion needs to be based on facts, logic and reason, weighing the potential economic benefits (particularly relevant in this time of austerity and high unemployment) against potential negative effects. Misleading scare stories about volcanic 'sleeping giants', or the videos of flammable tap-water that existed long before fracking began, are not productive. Besides slanting the discussion against shale gas exploration in an unfair manner, these reports in fact do a disservice to those who oppose shale gas on more reasonable grounds, as the temptation is then to lump all 'anti-frackers' together as unscientific, uninformed scare-mongers with no interest in evidence and no understanding of simple geological principles.

It is particularly concerning that this report comes from a Mendips District Councillor. One expects a certain degree on local knowledge from local councillors. However, despite his concerns about volcanic activity, Cllr Taylor seems totally unaware of the presence of one of the world's leading volcanology research groups (led by Prof Steve Sparks FRS CBE) just up the road at Bristol
University. I have had the pleasure of meeting Cllr Taylor during filming of the recent BBC Inside Out West report on fracking, and I have made the above points to him. However, the councillor appears to be less interested in gathering evidence than he is in promulgating baseless scare stories. The Mendips deserve better from their councillors.

I am not an advocate for the fracking industry. However, as a scientist I am concerned that, whatever the decisions made by Somerset Council (and at higher levels) on shale gas development, they should come from a careful assesment of the potential benefits and issues, based on evidence and reason. Unsubstantiated reports about 'rivers of lava' and 'sleeping giants' are of no help to this decision-making process, and it is of particular concern when these stories emerge from those elected to lead us.

Yours Faithfully,

Disgusted from Tunbridge Wells, etc etc

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