Thursday, 27 December 2012

Cuadrilla, Elswick and some spectacular hypocrisy from Frack-Off

Let me begin by wishing you all a happy Christmas - I hope you ate lots of turkey, those little sausages with the bacon wrapped round (my favourite) and Xmas pudding!

But now, to business. It has slipped under my radar until now, but as well as the drilling sites on the Fylde Peninsular, Cuadrilla are the proud owners of a small gas well at Elswick, a small town on the Fylde. The question is, why?

The may be many reasons - for example the sale from Independent, the previous owners, may have included geological or geophysical data that could have been beneficial to Cuadrilla. However, it wouldn't be surprising if, as surmised by Frack-Off, a major element in the sale was the use of Elswick for PR purposes.

You can see on the Cuadrilla site a couple of images of the site. The well-head is capped by a 'Christmas tree', about the size of a person. The site can be easily concealed with a medium-sized hedgerow. This is what a shale-gas drilling site will look like once the drilling and fracturing stages are completed (so about 6 months to a year after drilling begins). So owning this site, and having photos to plaster all over the web will provide a useful PR opportunity for Cuadrilla.

Also, note that the well has been hydraulically fractured. Not to the same extent as what is needed to produce shale gas, but it provides an idea of a typical UK onshore gas example, a well has been drilled, fracked, and has produced gas for 20 years without any environmental incidents of any kind. Certainly a useful example to have, even if shale gas extraction will be on a larger scale than this. If 50% of wells fail after 20 years, as claimed by Josh Fox in The Sky is Pink, I guess this must just be one of the lucky ones.....

I did rather enjoy Frack-Off's spectacularly hypocritical article on the Elswick well. It begins with a reasonable enough description of the Elswick site, and Cuadrilla's motives for buying it. However, for Frack-Off, the fact that it is a single well makes the example meaningless, and they end the article with the usually predictable Cuadrilla-bashing.

Of course more wells will be needed to produce a shale gas reservoir. Probably one well-head every few miles. What the Elswick example is good for though, is to show what one of these well-heads will look like. Could we handle an Elswick every few miles?

Well, Frack-Off's response is this photo-shopped monstrosity:
 
It's photo-shopped from this photo from the Jonah Gas field, Wyoming, overlaying some British countryside onto this image:
The Jonah Field is a tight gas (i.e. sandstone) field developed in the early 1990s. That is before the technology to drill horizontal wells had been developed, so of course there are a lot of wells. Shale gas in the UK would look nothing like the Jonah field.

If Frack-Off don't like Cuadrilla's use of Elswick for PR on the basis that it is a single well site, while shale gas would use many, it's surely pretty duplicitous for them, in the same article, to use an image from a field developed using obsolete 1990s technology for their own PR. It all seems spectacularly hypocritical to me......

Update 28.12.2012: In case you can't be bothered to click the link, here's the image of the Elswick Christmas Tree:


Update 2, 28.12.2012: Rather than using old, 1990 gas wells (either Elswick or Jonah Field), perhaps we'd all be better off using some up to date pictures. Perhaps, for example, from the Pennsylvania shale gas fields currently being developed. Here are a couple of links to aerial photo tours of affected areas:

http://www.geo.cornell.edu/eas/PeoplePlaces/Faculty/cathles/Gas%20Blog%20PDFs/10-%20Will%20gas%20development%20be%20ugly.pdf

http://www.flickr.com/photos/skytruth/sets/72157632055783199/with/8203603186/






Monday, 17 December 2012

Ed Davey's Written Statement on Shale Gas: Highlights

Well done if you got to the end of my previous post, Ed Davey's full statement on shale gas extraction. In case you didn't, I've selected the highlights with respect to induced seismicity:

I have concluded that appropriate controls are available to mitigate the risks of undesirable seismic activity. Those new controls will be required by my Department for all future shale gas wells.
 So any new regulations will be applied to all wells.
the amount of energy likely to be stored in these faults is not large, and the largest earthquake likely in this area from such a cause is assessed at magnitude 3.
Seems reasonable that the maximum likely quake is the same as those typically seen in background rates.
Operators will first be required to review the available information on faults in the area of the proposed well to minimise the risk of activating any fault by fracking, and required to monitor background seismicity before operations commence. Real time seismic monitoring will also continue during operations, with these subject to a “traffic-light” regime, so that operations can be quickly paused and data reviewed if unusual levels of seismic activity is observed.
Very interesting, and good news for service companies. The 'available information' on faults in the area must surely imply 3D seismic surveys prior to any fracking. Good news if you are WesternGeco et al. Also, real time (micro)seismic monitoring is required. Good news for microseismic companies (and researchers like me).
Real-time recording of earthquakes during and for 24 hours after each stage of the frac will be analysed to look for abnormal induced events amidst the normal background seismicity.
Again, more good news on real time monitoring. I'm not sure how we'd classify an 'abnormal' event though.
Operators will also be required to monitor the growth in height of the frac away from the borehole. This will allow the operator to evaluate the effectiveness of the frac, but also ensure that the actual fracture is conforming to its design, and that it remains contained and far away from any aquifers.
To monitor the growth in height of the fracture will require accurate microseismic monitoring, with depths in particular being well constrained. This means deployments of significant arrays. Chucking a couple of broadband seismometers nearby will not be sufficient - large dense surface arrays or downhole arrays will be required.
the remedial action level for the traffic light system (that is, the “red light”) will be set at magnitude 0.5 (far below a perceptible surface event, but larger than the expected level generated by the fracturing of the rock).
Cuadrilla's 'traffic light' system will remain in place. This states that fracking must stop if an event larger than M0.5 is induced. In principle this is a sensible limit. However, it throws up questions of it's own, because in science there are such things as error bars. There's no such thing as an M0.5 event. There's M0.5 ± some value. There are also several different ways of computing magnitude, which don't always produce the same value. The question is then: do you take the highest possible value, the lowest possible value, or some mean (most probable) value as the point at which the traffic light red is exceeded?

And who gets to decide? Industry themselves? Probably not the wisest move. DECC themselves? Do they have the expertise - not really? <begins shameless self promotion> how about independent academic experts?< /ends shameless self promotion>

All told, good news for shale gas companies looking at the UK, but even better news for service companies (and researchers) with experience in microseismic monitoring!  













Ed Davey's Written Statement on Shale Gas: In Full

The news this week has been buzzing with the recent decision by DECC to allow hydraulic fracturing in the UK to continue. Here's the Energy Minister's statement in full:
Shale gas development has been of increasing importance in the US for some years, but exploration has only just begun in the UK. The potential of producing shale gas from a suitable formation can only be established by fracturing the rock, and it happens that the fracturing of the first shale gas well in the UK, at Preese Hall near Blackpool last year, resulted in noticeable seismic tremors. These were not at a level which could cause any damage, but seismic activity at this level was not an expected consequence of the fracking activity, and DECC therefore suspended all fracking operations for shale gas pending a thorough investigation of the causes of these tremors and the scope for mitigation of seismic risks in any future operations of this type. I am announcing today the outcome of that investigation and the way forward on exploration for shale gas in the UK.
Having carefully reviewed the evidence with the aid of independent experts, and with the aid of an authoritative review of the scientific and engineering evidence on shale gas extraction conducted by the Royal Academy of Engineering and the Royal Society, I have concluded that appropriate controls are available to mitigate the risks of undesirable seismic activity. Those new controls will be required by my Department for all future shale gas wells. On that basis, I am in principle prepared to consent to new fracking proposals for shale gas, where all other necessary permissions and consents are in place.
This opens the way to a resumption of work on exploration for shale gas, though I stress the importance of the other regulatory consents, and planning permission, which are also necessary for these activities, and which must be in place before my Department will consider consent to individual operations. In practice, it will be well into next year before any new exploration work has all the necessary consents to proceed. Whether any production operations may be proposed will depend on the success of the exploration work, but, in any event, this is likely to be some years away yet.
The background is that, in most oil and gas fields worldwide, the oil or gas is extracted from a relatively porous rock, usually a sandstone or calcareous rock, in which it has been accumulated or trapped. The original source of the petroleum however lies elsewhere, in deeper formations of non-porous rocks classed as shales. These shale source rocks are widely distributed around the world, and exist in many areas of the UK.
It has long been recognised that very substantial quantities of oil and gas were trapped in these shales, but the scope for its economic extraction seemed small - largely because the rock in its natural state allows the oil and gas to flow into a well only at very low rates. In the last twenty years, however, further development of oilfield technology, first in the Barnett Shale in Texas, has enabled economic large-scale extraction of gas, and oil, from these source rocks.
One of the key technologies involved is hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. This is carried out by pumping water at high pressure into the shale formation, which forms blade-like fractures, a few millimetres wide and extending several hundred feet away from the well bore. Once the fractures have started to form, sand or a similar material is pumped in, to hold the fractures open once the pressure is released. The fractures can continue to grow only so long as pressure is maintained. When the fractures have sufficiently developed, the pressure is released and the frac fluid, followed by the released gas, can flow into the well. The process is not novel and is also widely used in conventional oil and gas production, It is however, more intensively used in the production of shale gas.
It has been recognised for some time that injection of large quantities of water into the subsurface can cause seismic tremors. This has happened, for example, in those areas of the US in which disposal of waste water into deep injection wells is permitted. However, the quantities of water used in fracking are substantially smaller, and up until the time of the Preese Hall tremors, no association had been recognised between injection of these smaller volumes and any seismic activity. The analysis carried out by Cuadrilla’s advisers, and confirmed by our independent panel of experts, has however concluded that the most likely cause of the tremors is the movement of the frac fluid into and along a fault which was already under stress. The additional pressure of the fluid allowed the fault to move, releasing the energy stored in the fault and resulting in the perceived tremors at the surface.
Our experts advise that there are many other faults in the Lancashire area which similarly have unrelieved stresses, and could in a similar scenario likewise result in tremors. Because of the relatively weak nature of these rocks, the amount of energy likely to be stored in these faults is not large, and the largest earthquake likely in this area from such a cause is assessed at magnitude 3. While this is not large enough to cause significant material damage, it would be perceptible and disturbing. I consider that new controls to minimise disturbance to those living and working nearby, and to prevent the risk of any damage, are now a prerequisite for further exploration.
I am therefore announcing new controls to mitigate these risks, which will be applied to all future fracking operations for shale gas. As this is a developing area of knowledge, I stress that we will be moving forward with appropriate caution. The controls are not at this stage to be regarded as definitive, but as appropriate precautionary measures for our present state of knowledge. Initial operations under these controls will be subject to careful scrutiny to ensure the effectiveness of the controls. And they will be reviewed, as experience develops, to ensure that they are proportionate to the risks. The controls will be enforced by my Department, though the data obtained will of course be shared with other regulators.
Operators will first be required to review the available information on faults in the area of the proposed well to minimise the risk of activating any fault by fracking, and required to monitor background seismicity before operations commence. Real time seismic monitoring will also continue during operations, with these subject to a “traffic-light” regime, so that operations can be quickly paused and data reviewed if unusual levels of seismic activity is observed.
We will also be requiring operators to take a more cautious approach to the duration and volumes of fluid used in the fracking itself. A fracking plan will be required to be submitted to my Department before consent is given to any fracking. The fracking plan should be progressive, starting with the injection of small volumes of fluid and analysing the resulting data carefully before the full stage. Each stage of the frac will be carefully designed to use just enough fluid to create a fracture sufficient to enable gas to flow. A flow-back period will be required immediately after each stage to re-balance the pressures. Real-time recording of earthquakes during and for 24 hours after each stage of the frac will be analysed to look for abnormal induced events amidst the normal background seismicity.
Operators will also be required to monitor the growth in height of the frac away from the borehole. This will allow the operator to evaluate the effectiveness of the frac, but also ensure that the actual fracture is conforming to its design, and that it remains contained and far away from any aquifers.
So far as Cuadrilla’s current exploration programme in Lancashire is concerned, the remedial action level for the traffic light system (that is, the “red light”) will be set at magnitude 0.5 (far below a perceptible surface event, but larger than the expected level generated by the fracturing of the rock). I consider that this is an appropriately precautionary approach. We received representations in our consultation that this is too cautious, by comparison with the control protocols established for geothermal energy, construction and quarrying projects. I emphasise that this level is adopted only for fracking operations for shale gas, and the reasons for setting it at this level are entirely specific to the context. And it may well prove to be the case that, as our experience of applying this type of control to fracking operations develops, it can be confirmed that trigger levels can be adjusted upwards without compromising the effectiveness of the controls.
For the first few operations, DECC will have an independent expert on site to observe the operator’s conformance to the protocols we have established and to monitor the operator’s interpretation of data. We will therefore be able to learn as much as possible from these first operations and to put the lessons promptly into effect. But it would clearly not be right, in our present state of knowledge, to attempt to establish definitive standards, and I have preferred to start on an explicitly cautious basis.
At the present time, no applications for consent to fracking operations for shale gas are outstanding, and it is too soon to say exactly how the new protocols will be applied to any such proposals which may come forward in other basins. I can say that we will apply the same principles, of careful prior analysis of the risk of seismic activity, progressive design of the fracking process and feedback from the emerging data, and systematic monitoring by the operators before, during and after the operations. We will also expect operators to make monitoring data promptly available to the public.
As I have noted, fracking is not exclusively associated with shale gas extraction, and fracking operations using smaller volumes of fluid have been carried out both onshore and offshore the UK for many years. These have not to date been associated with any seismic risk, nor is there any evidence for such risks from elsewhere. However, DECC will apply proportionate scrutiny to the possibility. Oil and gas operators proposing fracking will be required to submit an analysis of the risks of any seismic activity being caused by the proposed operations, to conduct appropriate monitoring, and to inform planning authorities and local residents. Appropriate levels of control will be imposed by DECC where the assessed risk is not negligible.
These new controls on seismic risks do not remove any of the existing regulatory controls and requirements. Consistent with previous practice, my Department will not give consent to specific fracking operations until all other consents are in place, including in particular planning permission, the obtaining of environmental permits from the Environment Agency or the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA) as the case may be, and scrutiny by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE. Separate guidance is available from local planning authorities and regulators on how to acquire the relevant permissions and permits. Both the Environment Agency and SEPA have published sector-specific guidance for the shale gas industry.
However, I am well aware, in particular from the responses to our consultation on the report of our independent experts, that many people, including residents of Lancashire and other areas where shale gas exploration may be contemplated, have many other concerns besides the seismic risks, and it is only right that I should say how these other concerns are being addressed.
The development of shale gas in the US has been accompanied by an increasing level of debate on its environmental impacts. Many of the incidents reported have, on investigation, not been shown to be connected with oil and gas activity. However, they have given rise to concerns which in themselves are entirely reasonable. Residents in those areas want to be assured that their water will not be contaminated with gas or toxic chemicals, and the air will not be contaminated with noxious gases; that there will be no threat of damage from earthquakes; and that other kinds of disturbance such as traffic, lights and noise will be kept under control. In considering these concerns, I have had the benefit of the earlier report on shale gas by the Energy and Climate Change Committee, and many authoritative reports from the US, including two from the Secretary of Energy’s Advisory Board.
I have also had the benefit of the comprehensive and authoritative review of the risks of fracking by the Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering which I have already mentioned. I can announce that the Government accepts all the recommendations of the academies’ report addressed to it. Work is already in hand to implement these recommendations, so far as the current phase of exploration activity is concerned. One further recommendation is being considered by the Research Councils to whom it was addressed.
The reports from US regulators and review bodies do confirm that gas developments there have, on occasion, led to water contamination. There are relatively few confirmed instances of this – most complaints on investigation have proved to be attributable to causes other than gas production. And no case has yet come to light in which it has been confirmed that fracking has contaminated an aquifer. But the instances of contamination which have occurred confirm the need for the industry to consistently apply good practice, and the need for proper scrutiny and oversight of the industry to ensure that this is in fact done.
So far as the UK is concerned, I believe that the industry has a good record, and that there are already in place robust regulatory controls on all oil and gas activities. On water contamination, first, all such operations are subject to scrutiny by the appropriate environment agency (the Environment Agency in respect of England and for the time being of Wales; and the Scottish Environment Protection Agency in respect of Scotland). It is an offence to cause or knowingly permit poisonous noxious or polluting matter to enter controlled waters, which include ground waters. The environment agencies are statutory consultees in the planning process, and have to be consulted on all proposed borehole operations. A permit from the Environment Agency is required where fluids containing pollutants are injected into rock formations that contain groundwater. A permit may also be needed if the activity poses an unacceptable risk of mobilising natural substances that could then cause pollution. The permit will specify any necessary limits on the activity, any requirements for monitoring, the chemicals which may be used, and any appropriate limits on permissible concentrations. Regulators will take a risk based approach, and if the activity poses an unacceptable risk to the environment, it will not be allowed.
The academies’ report, and that of the Select Committee, also emphasise the importance in this context of the integrity of the well. This issue is central to the regulation of the safety of well operations by the HSE. The Executive have to be notified of all drilling operations for oil or gas, and will scrutinise the well design and operational plan. Additionally, the regulations require a full review of the proposed and actual well operations by an independent competent person, the “well examiner”. The academies in their report commented that this independent review is highly valuable, and made recommendations for strengthening it, which we of course accept and are already working on.
So far as the use of chemicals is concerned, the environment agencies take a risk-based approach to the regulation of the use of chemicals in shale gas fracking activities. The hazard potential of all substances proposed to be injected into the ground will be assessed and the use of substances hazardous to groundwater will not be permitted. The identity of all substances proposed for injection, and the agency’s conclusions on their hazard potential, will be publicly available.
Concern has also been expressed about the quantities of water used in fracking, or the disposal of waste water from the process. The water used may of course be obtained from licensed suppliers, but if directly abstracted by the operators, requires a licence from the environment agency. Licences will only be given where the agency is satisfied that a sustainable supply is obtainable.
Equally, disposal of waste water is subject to scrutiny by the agencies and will require a permit. The waste water from the operations in Lancashire has been found to contain low levels of radioactivity. A case-specific radiological assessment is required in support of any application for a permit for the disposal of radioactive waste. The agency will critically review any such assessment, and will only issue a permit if satisfied.
Concern has also been raised about the possibility of fracking leading to subsidence, but this is not considered a risk because of the strength and load-bearing characteristics of these rocks. And this is borne out by practical experience, because there is no report from the US of subsidence attributable to fracking, although the number of wells which have been fracked for shale gas is now in the hundreds of thousands.
A further major area of concerns was with the impacts of normal operations in terms of noise, traffic, impacts on health, etc. All proposals for oil and gas exploration require planning permission from the relevant minerals planning authority. The National Planning Policy Framework requires planning authorities to assess applications for all minerals developments so as to ensure that permitted operations do not have unacceptable adverse impacts on the natural or historical environment or on human health, including from noise, dust, visual intrusion, or migration of contamination from the site. In doing so, they should take into account the cumulative effects of multiple impacts from individual sites and/or a number of sites in a locality. Conditions can be placed on working hours at the site, numbers of traffic movements, etc., to ensure that any such impacts on local residents remain within acceptable bounds.
Other concerns which have been expressed are not to do with the current phase of exploration work but with the implications of a possible future move to production operations, if the exploration is successful. It is by no means certain that any such operations will ever be proposed, but if they were, a different set of considerations would arise, which I address further below. But as regards the concerns which have very reasonably been expressed about the current phase of exploration operations, I consider that the consistent application of good practice by the industry, supplemented by the additional action to control seismic hazards which I am announcing today, will ensure that there will be no unacceptable damage to the environment, or threat to the health of local residents, or interference with their lives.
I also consider that the existing regulatory framework already provides the means to ensure that the industry does apply good practice throughout its operations; and that it will do so consistently. But we are taking further steps to reinforce the regime. We have already set up a Strategy Group on Shale Gas at senior official level, with representation from the main Departments engaged in shale gas regulation, the Environment Agency and the HSE, to ensure that the work of the various bodies is well-coordinated. That group can already point to some successes in improving the coordination of regulation, for example, planned joint inspections of fracking operations by the HSE and the EA. And in the Gas Generation Strategy published last week, I announced that a new Office of Unconventional Gas and Oil will be set up in DECC to support this work as well as providing a single point of contact for investors and ensuring a streamlined regulatory process.
Accordingly, I am satisfied that fracking for shale gas can now in principle resume, and I will be prepared to consent to new proposals, subject to case-by-case scrutiny by my Department, to the new requirements to mitigate seismic hazards, and to confirmation that all other necessary permissions and consents are in place.
I should also mention one further outcome of the investigation of the tremors at Preese Hall. DECC has come to the conclusion that Cuadrilla’s response to the occurrence of the tremors demonstrated some weaknesses in its management of environmental risks. This conclusion has been discussed with the company, and they have in consequence reinforced their overall management structure, including by assigning to one board member specific responsibility for health and safety measures, and by reinforcing technical skills within the operational team. The effectiveness of these changes, and the resulting revised structure, is at present being reviewed for Cuadrilla by external consultants. Further fracking operations by Cuadrilla are in any case dependent upon the obtaining of new planning permissions and Environment Agency permits: but my final consent to new fracking operations will not be given until the conclusions of the external consultants have been discussed with the company, and any remaining points of concern addressed to the Department’s satisfaction.
As regards the implications of any future move to large-scale production, the concerns are principally of two kinds: on the one hand, concerns about the local or regional impacts on questions such as traffic movements, noise, night-time lighting, etc., or on the health of people living in the vicinity, or on regional water resources, or on tourism and other aspects of the local economy; on the other, concerns about wider issues including the implications of large scale shale gas production for climate change, for the UK’s climate change policies or for renewables investment.
As regards the local or regional impacts, it should be noted that the planning system requires permission to be obtained separately for exploration and production activities (and for any appraisal phase where distinguishable). There will therefore be a full opportunity to consider the local and regional impacts, including cumulative impacts, of any proposals to initiate production activities, before any such development takes place.
Planning procedures of course already provide for full consultation with communities who may be affected, and the planning authorities may require an Environmental Impact Assessment to be carried out. However, the academies have in addition recommended that an Environmental Risk Assessment should be mandatory for all shale gas operations, involving the participation of local communities at the earliest possible opportunity, and that this assessment should address risks across the entire lifecycle of shale gas extraction.
DECC will therefore take steps to enhance the existing frameworks for consultation and consenting to these activities, in line with these recommendations. Licensees will be required to carry out a comprehensive high-level assessment of environmental risks, including risks to human health, and covering the full cycle of the proposed operations, including well abandonment; and to consult with stakeholders including local communities, as early as practicable in the development of their proposals. The scope of these assessments would naturally be framed by the operations proposed, so that prospective future production operations would not be in scope for an assessment drawn up for exploration activities. Cuadrilla has been asked to conduct such an assessment in relation to their proposals for further exploration work in Lancashire.
This high-level assessment may inform the work entailed by risk assessments already required, for example under the Environmental Permitting Regulations, and which are consulted on separately by the Environment Agency, as well as work entailed by any Environmental Impact Assessment which may be required by the local planning authority. And together, these assessments will provide a full picture of the risks and impacts to inform effective engagement with local communities.
On health impacts, the Health Protection Agency is currently reviewing the evidence base on the health impacts of shale gas, with a particular focus on the health impacts of emissions to air, land and water. This review will identify any potential health risks, and inform both future regulation and any future health impact assessments that may be carried out.
As regards the wider concerns about the implications of large scale shale gas production for the UK’s climate change policies, etc., it is in general too early as yet to make any meaningful estimate of what these might be in the absence of any convincing estimate of what future production might be. But as there has been particular concern about the carbon footprint of shale gas operations, and in particular the possible impacts of fugitive emissions of methane, I should note that all shale gas operations will be subject to my Department’s long-standing policy on flaring and venting of methane. Venting of methane, which has been widely unregulated in the US prior to the recent proposals from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for a new controls, is already required in the UK to be reduced to the minimum technically possible. Flaring of methane will also be required to be reduced to the economic minimum, so that where cost-effective routes for economic use of the gas are available, these must be used. These controls mean that UK oil and gas operations already meet the standards which the EPA is introducing, but the new Office will ensure that these work consistently with new controls which may be introduced by the Environment Agency in applying their legislation, and that methane emissions will continue to be minimised.
At the present time, methane emissions from oil and gas operations onshore are a very small part of our GHG emissions. The current estimate is that they contribute less than 1% to the total. And the relatively small number of wells which might be drilled in the current exploration phase will not in any case substantially increase that contribution. I therefore intend to commission a study into the possible impacts of shale gas extraction on greenhouse gas emissions. This will consider the available evidence on the lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions from shale gas exploitation, and the need for further research. I have invited Professor David Mackay, my Department’s Chief Scientific Adviser and Dr Tim Stone, the Expert Chair of the Office of Nuclear Development to undertake this work.
We are also taking steps to prepare the way for any future production phase, though this is likely to be some years away. We have commissioned more detailed work on the shale gas resources of Great Britain from the British Geological Survey (BGS) and this will be published early next year. I emphasise that this will provide only an estimate of the resource, the gas in the ground, and not the reserves, the amount of gas which can in practice be produced economically from that resource. Until more exploration work has been done, a significant number of wells fracked and production patterns established over time, it will not be possible to make any meaningful estimate of likely economically recoverable resources of shale gas in the United Kingdom.
Also, we will be acting on the academies’ recommendations that the regulatory bodies should assess the requirements for effective regulation of a significant future production phase, and that existing coordination should be maintained and strengthened. The new Office of Unconventional Gas and Oil will be taking this forward in collaboration with the other departments and agencies concerned. And the Environment Agency is already conducting a review of the implications of shale gas for its regulatory responsibilities, including the question of whether further controls and monitoring requirements are appropriate in respect of methane emissions. To facilitate future development, further consideration is being given to ensuring a streamlined and transparent regulatory process for environmental permitting.
We will also be taking steps to open the way to new onshore licensing. DECC had already commenced a Strategic Environmental Assessment in 2010, with a view to further onshore licensing, and conducted a public consultation in the latter part of that year. Work on the SEA has however been in abeyance following the seismic tremors in 2011. DECC will now commission further work on the environmental implications of further licensing, taking account of all new knowledge arising since the earlier assessment was compiled, and will conduct a full public consultation on the extended assessment. The results of this consultation will be fully considered before any decisions are taken on new licensing.
Many more questions of detail have been raised over the last year or so, particularly in the course of our consultation, and in this statement I have sought only to cover the principal issues of interest to the greatest number of respondents. I have today placed in the Libraries of both Houses and placed on my Department’s website a full synopsis of the questions raised and of the Government’s responses to them as well as a response on all of the recommendations of the academies’ study group.
Did you get to the end? Well done! I'll pick out my highlights in a subsequent post....

Tuesday, 11 December 2012

Shale gas in the news this week

A fairly low-effort post this week, as I have just arrived back from the annual AGU conference in San Francisco. While it was interesting to compare the differences between AGU, which is a very academic conference, and the more industry-centered conferences which I more typically attend, it seems I went at a bad time, because shale gas has been all over the news in the last couple of weeks.

Firstly, we saw about 300 people erect a mock drill rig outside parliament in protest about shale gas extraction. Does 300 sound like a lot? Not sure. Hundreds of thousands once protested about the Iraq war, to little effect....

Meanwhile, the Independent reported that 60% of the UK countryside could be exploited for shale gas. However, DECC were quick to rubbish that statement.

Andrew Rawnsley wrote about how poor the UK's shale prospects are, unilaterally declaring that UK shales are the thinnest in Europe, despite the fact that the Bowland shale is in fact remarkably thick. The fact that this hasn't been corrected on the website version of the article is fairly shocking to me. Especially given that the piece comes up with a new term: 'frack-heads'.
Believers in shale gas have a tendency to rave about it as if they are using a mind-bending substance. So I suggest we call them frack-heads.
Fairly offensive from a main-stream journalist, especially from one who has gotten his facts completely wrong with respect to the main premise of the article.

I've never used mind-bending substances, but we've found a new chief frack-head who certainly looks as though he might have: Boris Johnson has waded straight into the middle of the fracking debate. Turning a phrase as only BoJo, love him or hate him, can:
Beware this new technology, they wail. Do not tamper with the corsets of Gaia! Don’t probe her loamy undergarments with so much as a finger — or else the goddess of the earth will erupt with seismic revenge
Of course, as I've mentioned before, James Lovelock, the inventor of Gaia theory, is actually hugely in favour of shale gas.

Meanwhile the EU parliament has taken it upon itself to regulate our moves towards shale gas exploitation. I'll admit to not being particularly pro-EU at the best of times, but sometimes they really don't help themselves do they?

So why all the palaver? Well, George Osborne has revealed a new gas strategy, promoting domestic gas extraction and the construction of new gas fired power plants. My only issue with this: we shouldn't be giving tax breaks to shale gas companies - we should take our full slice of the money they make and use it to benefit the economy!



Friday, 30 November 2012

Shale gas and opinion polls. Pt II: The UK

Having looked at recent USA opinion polls in my last post, now lets look at the most recent UK data. A recent opinion survey of residents of Fylde, Blackpool and Lancashire has been commissioned. Report is here, Cuadrilla's take is here, and a BBC report on the survey is here. The headline figures: 44% favour continued extraction, 23% oppose further extraction, and 35% don't know. Remarkably similar to the US numbers actually.

Now, I have to stop for a minute to take the BBC to task about their reporting of the issue. You'd think the headline for this story would be something like: 'New survey shows majority of residents support fracking' (or something catchy-er than that, I guess I'll never get a job at the Sun). Instead, we get 'Cuadrilla fracking survey is propaganda: Protest group'. Or as it should read: 'Crazy person with clear and obvious bias makes completely unsubstantiated claims'.

It really is laughably sad. The protagonist in this case is Gayzer Tarjanyi, who has changed his name by deed-poll to Mr Frackman to oppose shale gas. Probably not the kind of person to be relied upon to provide impartial analysis. Does anyone really think the Mr Frackman gives 'balanced presentations' as he claims?

The sole piece of evidence advanced to suggest that the survey is 'propaganda' is that 90% of the people who come to his meetings oppose fracking. Well, I'm fairly sure, much like my own experiences of Bristol's anti-fracking groups, is that the reason they are there is not because they want to find out more, but because they already oppose fracking and are looking for more information to support their view. The 45% of people who support fracking are unlikely to come to Mr Frackman's meetings.

Finally, unless there is another petition hidden away somewhere, his latest petition appears to only have about 300 signatures. Bear in mind that the population of the area in question is several hundred thouand. Of course, there doesn't appear to be a geographical limit to the petition, so maybe some of the signatories have been bussed in from elsewhere, much like the protesters who came all the way from Brighton to chain themselves to Cuadrilla's rig last year (and much like how much of the US shale gas opposition is bussed in from New York city).

Much like the US experience, it would appear that in the local areas affected by shale gas extraction, public support is running at 2-to-1 in favour (with a significant proportion of 'don't knows'), while anti-fracking sentiment is stronger in other areas that are more affected by Josh Fox's movie-making than any direct experience of fracking.

Shale gas and opinion polls. Pt I: The USA

Shale gas extraction in the US has been an environmental disaster of unmitigated proportions, leaving a blighted wasteland of drill rigs, dead animals and exploding water supplies. The locals are distraught about the damage caused to their areas, but are crushed beneath the power of big gas companies. Surely they'd take any chance to speak out against this appalling practice?

This begs the question: what do the people living in above shale gas plays in the US actually think? An opinion poll by the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Social and Urban Research provides an interesting insight. Newspaper report here, and more details here, including the actual data tables.

The survey divides the results into 4 geographical areas. If Pennsylvanian geography isn't your strong point (don't be ashamed, I had to look this up too), Pittsburgh City is the center of Pittsburgh, Alleghany County is basically the Pittsburgh Metropolitan area, the 6 Counties are the wider suburban commuter belts, while the remaining 25 Counties make up half of rural Pennsylvania (and parts of W Viginia and Ohio).

The first thing to notice is that in all areas, those in favour of shale gas far outweigh those opposed. Overall, 45% somewhat or strongly support shale gas production, 25% somewhat or strongly oppose, and 30% are ambivalent. This is hardly the groundswell of opposition that anti-fracking advocates like to suggest, hardly evidence that the US experience is one of small gains for huge environmental cost, as suggested by Frome Council as justification for their decision to ban fracking. It is recognised that shale gas can have environmental issues, but that regulation can be improved (58% favour increased government oversight) but that the benefits have far outweighed any problems. Clearly, the US experience shows that shale gas extraction can produce significant benefit, but that appropriate regulatory oversight is necessary. I think that is a view that would resonate with most UK geologists.

It's also interesting to compare the responses by geography. Before doing so, note that the vast majority of shale gas extraction is done in rural PA: the 25 Counties. For obvious reasons, there's not a lot of drilling going on in the middle of Pittsburgh. With that in mind, notice that across the board, the most favourable views on shale gas are found from the residents of the 25 Counties, while the least favourable are found from people in Pittsburgh. For example, 29% of Pittsburghians somewhat or strongly oppose shale gas, while only 18% of those from the 25 Counties share these views.

There may well be demographic or political reasons for these differences, but the story this seems to paint to me is that the people in the countryside who are actually at 'ground-zero' for the drilling are in fact finding that the economic benefits to their small rural communities are far outweighing any negative impacts. Meanwhile, people in the city, who perhaps aren't exposed to shale gas extraction on a day-to-day, week-to-week basis, but are simply picking up on the sensationalist media stories (who always refer to shale gas as 'controversial'), as well as the scare stories of Josh Fox et al, and this is producing a less favourable view of shale gas than those who are actually on the ground and experiencing the effects first hand.

If opinion polls aren't your bag, you may have been aware of a small election or two in the US a month or so ago. As well as presidential elections, many local positions were up for grabs, many of them contested by candidates on 'anti-fracking' platforms. What happened? Across the board, candidates on anti-fracking platforms were defeated. Much like Pittsburgh, it appears that the majority of those opposed to fracking are those living in cities like New York, whose sole experience of shale gas is the videos shown in the media. Meanwhile, upstate in the Southern Tier counties, the locals are voting in candidates in favour of bringing in drilling, and voting out those in favour of a ban.

Monday, 19 November 2012

Schrag on shale gas and Exxon in favour of a CO2 tax

Daniel Schrag is a geology professor at Harvard, currently working on ways to mitigate future climate change on President Obama's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. His latest paper, available here, on shale gas and climate change, is well worth reading. I'll begin by quoting the abstract:
Abstract: Shale gas is a new energy resource that has shifted the dominant paradigm on U.S. hydrocarbon resources. Some have argued that shale gas will play an important role in reducing greenhouse gas emissions by displacing coal used for electricity, serving as a moderate-carbon “bridge fuel.” Others have questioned whether methane emissions from shale gas extraction lead to higher greenhouse gas emissions overall. I argue that the main impact of shale gas on climate change is neither the reduced emissions from fuel substitution nor the greenhouse gas footprint of natural gas itself, but rather the competition between abundant, low-cost gas and low-carbon technologies, including renewables and carbon capture and storage. This might be remedied if the gas industry joins forces with environmental groups, providing a counterbalance to the coal lobby, and ultimately eliminating the conventional use of coal in the United States.
The only point I'd have any disagreement with here is whether shale gas is forcing out renewables. During the US shale gas boom, we've also seen record penetration of renewable energy. Renewable energy is mainly dependent on political willpower to maintain subsidy. Even with no gas, renewables can't directly compete with coal without some sort of subsidy, or a carbon tax on coal. Some more selective quotes:
Are greenhouse gas emissions from natural gas better than those from coal? The answer would seem obvious. Natural gas has roughly half the carbon content of the average coal per unit energy, thus producing half as much carbon dioxide when combusted for heat or electricity. Moreover, a combined-cycle natural gas plant that generates base-load electricity has a thermal efficiency of roughly 50 percent, which is higher than the newest ultra-super critical coal plants (40 to 45 percent) and much higher than the average coal plant (33 percent) in the United States. Thus, burning natural gas for electricity, when displacing an average U.S. coal plant, results in a reduction in carbon dioxide emissions of nearly a factor of three.
He goes on the shred the Howarth/Ingraffea paper, both on their leakage rate estimates, and on their choice of global warming potential factor. If the more appropriate Global Temperature Potential (GTP, which measures the actual temperature rise due to a greenhouse gas, rather than the radiative forcing, as per GWP) is used, methane emissions are only 7 times as bad as the equivalent amount of CO2 - this is because methane has a much lower residence time in the atmosphere. The GTP of 7 is 15 times lower than that used by Howarth/Ingraffea, meaning that they are out be more than a whole order of magnitude! 

The only problem that Schrag identifies is that the economic boom from shale gas extraction will be sufficient to encourage significant economic growth, creating more CO2 emissions. Of course, many that oppose shale gas want to have their cake and eat it, opposing shale gas on the grounds of CO2 emissions while claiming it won't make a significant economic difference anyway.

More interesting, however, is Schrag's solution to our current problems. Putting a price (or a tax) on carbon would benefit the renewables industry for obvious reasons, but would also benefit the natural gas industry as it would it coal harder than gas, allowing gas to take coal's share of the market. This would be good for the gas companies, and good for the climate. Such a coalition would not be easy to maintain:
Building a coalition between the natural gas industry and the environmental community to support a comprehensive climate policy will not be easy. The oil and gas industries have long had a combative and distrustful relationship with the environmental movement.
However, it seems pretty clear that the environmental lobby has failed to prevent big coal's stranglehold on US energy policy. Perhaps a clash of the titans: big gas vs big coal is what is needed to shift the balance:
By leveraging the finnancial self-interest of the natural gas industry to broaden political support for anti-coal policies, environmental groups can simultaneously use a grassroots campaign to pressure existing coal-fired power plants to shut down. The success of this strategy will determine whether shale gas is indeed good for climate change.
Funnily enough, it looks like Exxon must have been reading this, as they have just come out cautiously in favour of implementing a carbon tax in the US.






Sunday, 18 November 2012

David Miliband on the energy crisis

On a recent BBC Question Time panel, David Miliband (ex foreign minister, one time competitor for the leadership of the Labour party) addressed the issue of the energy crisis. He did a wonderful job summarizing the inanity of much of the debate surrounding energy issues. I've linked to the iPlayer video before, but as non-UK readers won't be able to watch, and as the video has probably expired by now, I thought I'd post the transcript, because it really is a great comment that cuts right to the heart of the issue:
Look, we've got an environmental crisis of absolutely overwhelming proportions, we are going to need every conceivable source of low-carbon energy we can find. As it happens, this country is a leader in offshore wind, a world leader in offshore wind. We're going to need some onshore wind as well, but honestly, you've got the Lib Dem Secretary of State arguing with the Conservative Energy Minister about 1% of our energy.

The truth is if you care about the energy mix, and you care about low carbon, 30% of our energy comes from coal at the moment, and it comes from coal that isn't dug in this country, it's imported from Russia. The biggest thing that we can do to actually contribute to a global environmental challenge as well as to ensure our own reliability and decent cost of supply is to switch from having 30% coal to putting that 30% into gas. Gas is actually being discovered all around the world, including in America, shale gas, unconventional gas.

We're going to need the wind, but the truth is to debate 1%, when you've got 30% coal, we're not doing justice to the environmental challenge never mind the energy challenge.

I'm not a natural labour voter, but based on this, it's a shame his brother Ed was made leader instead of him....

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

The hornet's nest keeps on giving

Ragamala has been good enough to respond once again in our conversation in the comments section of my letter to the Somerset Standard.

He comments:
You have a penchant for facts, Dr Verdon. Can you please say what percentage of the Wytch Field oil reservoirs tapped is onshore? Yes it is called an onshore resource. For the reason that it suits the pro-fracking argument to call it that, and this misrepresentation should be continually challenged as it used, erroneously, to imply support for onshore fracking.
Regarding fugitive methane emissions I stand by my statement that there is no certainty whatsoever about the levels of methane fugitive emissions from shale gas fracking. In the EU report you refer to we have indeed some tables of figures produced, but these are estimate drawn from various widely varying US sources, some now dated, rather than hard fact. And the report makes it clear that the European experience will not necessarily be the same as the US. In other words, there is NO reliable estimate of methane emissions. I am grateful to Dr Vedon for conceding that CO2 emission is a very different thing from greenhouse gas emission or CO2 equivalent emissions, this is a factor which is hidden by much pro-fracking propaganda.
Regarding Cuadrilla's wilful breach of their planning permnission your statement is demonstrably wrong.And the Guardian article you refer to makes no reference to migration at all. What it does say is that Cuadrilla wanted to exceed their planning deadline FOR THEIR OWN REASONS, and decided to go ahead WITHOUT CONSULTING LCC because they had the nod from an employed consultant. This was wilful breach of planning which had no link with migration patterns at all, and I would ask you for a retraction on that.

Frankly I can not see how if Cuadrilla mislead about economic benefit this is any better whatsoever than them being misleading about geological "data". This would only be true from your blinkered perspective. The people of the Fylde are being encouraged to accept fracking turning their land into an industrial area by use of misleading figures on economic benefit. Earlier Cuadrilla issued figures on the likely shale gas available which were wild guesses and even their Australian part parent company is sceptical about these and the resulting viability of Cuadrilla's operation.

Regarding shale gas estimates, can we agree to wait until the new BGS report - expected shortly - is out?
I've never been accused of having a penchant for facts before. My sarcasm detector is off the chart. In science, having a penchant for facts is usually considered a good thing. Anyway, my response as follows:
I guess I should take the backhanded compliment of having "a penchant for facts". Better at least than being accused of "overlooking" or even "blissfully ignoring" facts, as your other comments have alleged. Similarly, this conversation began with me apparently 'totally ignoring' the EU Committee reports, but now you yourself want to argue that the information in the report should be discounted. I can only assume that you've had this change of heart because the data in the report does not support the story you want to tell.

Of course they can only be estimates, but they are made with the best evidence available, so they shouldn't be discounted just because you don't like them. If anything given the more stringent EU regulations, estimated based on the US are likely to be an overestimate. Several different reports and papers have come to similar conclusions, the only one that hasn't, by Howarth and Ingraffea, has been widely criticised even by their colleagues at Cornell as using out of date data and poor assumptions.

Unfortunately, one fact I do not have is the proportion of Wytch Farm that is under Poole Harbour, and what under land. However, this is irrelevant to the issue: For drillers, once the drill is under the ground the process is the same, whether on land or under water. When working at 2km depth, the presence or absence of 10m of water really doesn't matter. What does matter is whether the drill has to be sited on land, or on a rig, and therefore whether it will have to go through the water before drilling into rock. In fact, drilling offshore is far harder than onshore. From all technical perspectives, however, drilling at Wytch Farm, where wells start on land but bend out through rocks that are under the coast at depth, is absolutely no different to drilling on land anywhere else. This isn't some invention for pro-shale-gas opportunism, this is how fields are always defined, and with good reason. I'm not sure why you feel that the fact that part of Wytch Farm is under Poole Harbour means that the safety record there can be discounted - if they'd polluted Poole Harbour that would be a major incident!

Regardless of this, I wasn't aware that Wytch Farm was being used for propaganda purposes. If you really don't like this particular example, which of the other 30 or so onshore UK oil fields (that have produced a combined 66 millions tonnes of oil since 1975) would you prefer to use as an example? I think Wytch Farm is mainly talked about because it is the largest and most well known. I grew up 5 minutes down the road from the Humbly Grove Field (Hampshire), but wasn't even aware of it until I studied to become a geologist. You can see where they all are via this map:

http://tinyurl.com/d4speh8

The planning permission time limit breached by Cuadrilla was there because to protect bird life. Apologies for stating migrating, when I should have said over-wintering, birds aren't a strong point of mine. And I've already stated that from a public relations perspective it was a very silly thing to do, and if I were LCC I'd want to know it wouldn't happen again. But to jump from that to banning all shale gas anywhere forever is quite a leap to make.

I've not seen any data on the economic benefits of the geophys survey - either those claimed by Cuadrilla or actually measured (I'm not an economist, so I wouldn't know how you'd go about measuring that). Typically these things cost several million at least, though obviously much of that would go to the specialist companies involved rather than local people. It will indeed be interesting to see the latest numbers from the BGS. The current number being bandied about is in the region of £1.5 trillion, although until that's made official we shall, of course, have to wait.
I really should stop feeding the trolls and get back to my day job.......



Monday, 12 November 2012

I may have stirred up a hornet's nest in Frome. Part II

My letter to the Somerset Standard got such a response that I thought I'd better break it up into two more manageable sized chunks. My original letter is here, you can see some of the comments it received directly here, and a finally a whole new letters page was devoted to it here. Part I of my response is here, and now I shall continue with Part II, my response to the letters by Helen Moore and John Boxall.

Firstly, here is Helen Moore's response to my letter:

How disappointing that Dr James Verdon, a geophysicist at Bristol University, has to resort to labelling those who oppose fracking as disseminating "biased propaganda", when his own credentials and research interests surely make him seriously biased in favour of hydraulic fracturing (fracking)?

Having completed an internship for Shell, he was clearly influenced in the direction of drilling for and burning hydrocarbons at an early stage in his career. He now describes his principal research interests as lying "in imaging and modelling fractured rocks… monitoring hydro-fracture stimulations for tight and shale gas, and understanding the geomechanical response of producing oil reservoirs".
As a so-called "Earth scientist", Dr Verdon would do well to read the work of Dr Stephan Harding, author of Animate Earth, who points to the ways in which much of modern science and technology is based on the vision of our planet as "a vast dead machine full of 'resources' that have value only when they are converted into money", a world view which is causing untold damage to ecosystems and people around the globe.
Dr Verdon's own response to the perspective that our Earth is alive and animate, a self-regulating super-organism currently reacting to the vast amounts of greenhouse gases being pumped into the atmosphere (ie melting polar caps, increased global temperatures, increased rates of hurricanes, droughts and flooding etc) might then prove his own prejudices.
At a time when any sane person should be rejecting the use of fossil fuels (coal, gas and oil), a UK-wide "dash for gas" makes no sense whatsoever. Moreover, Dr Verdon's argument "that in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, locally produced shale gas has no worse a climate change impact than liquefied natural gas imported from Russia or the Middle East" seems utterly spurious.
And the evidence is clear – if we want energy security in the UK, so that we're no longer reliant on foreign regimes with appalling human rights records, we don't need to put up with a technology that creates water contamination levels, even if "below acceptable minima" in places. Instead we could adopt the Centre for Alternative Technology's impressive framework for a Zero Carbon Britain by 2030, which includes substantial job creation for British workers.
But due to his own biases, Dr Verdon is unlikely to be interested in this. Instead he will probably be backing the activities of our supposedly "greenest Government ever", where all kinds of vested interests in oil and gas companies have recently been exposed – visit frack-off.org. uk/gas-mafia-infilitrates- greenest-government-ever/
I, however, am proud to live in a town where our Independent councillors have sufficient vision to recognise and to reject the wildly inappropriate technology that is "fracking".
While John Boxall said:   

Unlike Dr James Verdon ("Energy firms will not be selling shale gas to customers cheaply", November 1) my last brush with the academic world was a Department of Transport Basic Sea Survival Course so I could serve as a relief stoker in the Merchant Navy. I have, however, devoted a lot of time to the study of the blindingly obvious.

In my copy of Modern Engines and Power Generators – published in 1905 – the author, Professor Kennedy, expresses concern that the UK would run out of coal. Well, that is basically what has happened to natural gas supplies in the USA and Canada, and is happening to our own reserves.
Unlike the UK, however, North America does not have access to imported supplies, which resulted in a significant rise in gas prices and a drive to find alternative sources – hence fracking. As their market is insulated from world gas prices, unlike the UK, fracking has resulted in a drop in prices.
Now, where I do agree with Dr Verdon is that we are increasingly likely to have to import gas from nations that are "unstable" or have unpleasant governments, however firstly it is estimated that at best fracking will provide about 25 per cent of UK gas requirements and secondly what happens when the frack gas – and the rest of our supplies – run out?
A report by National Grid suggested that gas produced from waste and sewage could provide about 18 per cent of the UK's gas requirements – or about 48 per cent of our domestic consumption by 2020 – something coincidentally Nick Cater from Somerset Waste Partnership talked about in his article also on November 1, "Burping bacteria ready to enjoy an electrifying feast". More importantly, unlike frack gas, it's not a resource we will run out of.
Secondly, a lot of our gas is wasted in inefficient appliances and buildings, while I do not have a figure for the savings from more efficient use of gas, given that the figure for potential electricity savings is about 70 per cent – and about 40 per cent of our electricity is generated from gas, clearly we can significantly reduce consumption while keeping our homes warm and lights on. Again, once we install the efficiency measures they stay in place, unlike frack gas.
Unlike the UK and the USA, most other industrialised nations have not had abundant domestic energy supplies, so have had to use energy much more wisely, best summed up by the situation in Germany where energy prices are higher, but bills are lower.

There may be a case for keeping fracking as a reserve technology should we ever find ourselves in serious difficulty, there is however no reason why we should be using it when 35 per cent of UK lofts and 32 per cent of cavity walls are still not insulated. Sadly, however, it seems unlikely that Labour, Conservative or Liberal Democrat politicians will not take the security of our energy supplies seriously until it is too late. 
Again, I couldn't resist leaving a comment or two, so I initially went for this:
Despite having completed an internship at Shell, my views on shale gas are not a result of ignoring global warming, but because of it. We currently generate 30% of our electricity from coal, which produces twice as much CO2 as from gas. I agree with John Boxall that we should be doing everything we can to improve energy efficiency, and I also agree that bio-gas from waste seems like a no-brainer to me. However, we've known all this for years, yet we've made little headway: are we really likely to see sudden efficiency changes in the next 10-20 years? I'd like it to be so, but knowing human nature I'm not getting my hopes up. With that in mind, shale gas production perhaps holds the key to quickly reducing the CO2 content of our electricity generation mix.

That domestic shale gas has a lower CO2 footprint than imported LNG is not spurious, it was the finding of a recent EU Commission report into the matter (which also came to the conclusion that, with appropriate regulatory regimes in place, shale gas production should be considered).

More importantly, however, is to consider the global context. We could become the greenest country in the world, but it wouldn't matter in the slightest to global warming if China continue to burn coal at the rate they are doing. China has huge shale gas potential: if they can access this gas readily and cheaply, and switch coal for gas in their power stations, this would be the fastest and most dramatic manner of reducing CO2 emissions. The experience from the US is telling in this regard where, as cheap gas has replaced coal in electricity generation, CO2 emissions have plummeted far faster than in Europe, despite our focus on increasing renewable energy (which, incidentally I am also in favour of).
Followed by this:
In reply to Helen Moore, I should add that as a "so-called Earth Scientist", I am familiar with the various dynamic systems that affect earth system processes. While most scientists recoil at the description of the earth as a living being, and the more esoterical and spiritual aspects of his ideas, many of the scientific principles regarding feedback loops in dynamic systems that underpin James Lovelock's Gaia hypothesis are widely accepted in the scientific community. 
However, if Helen Moore is so keen on Gaia theory, she should perhaps give due consideration to the recent comments of its original protagonist James Lovelock (with whom Dr Harding has collaborated with extensively), who in a recent Guardian interview came out strongly in favour of shale gas development because of the potential rapid benefits in CO2 emissions reductions they could confer in replacing coal-fired generation. The link is below:
 
http://tinyurl.com/775fjdc 
Again, as per my last post, I'd love to have feedback as to whether I'm coming across as reasoned and relatively impartial, or a crazed planet-destroyer? Or whether Helen Moore sounds reasonable, or a crazy eco-loon? Feel free to hide behind internet anonymity and be as mean as you'd like.

I find these responses saddening because they represent an increasing separation between science and the environmental or 'green' movement. Once upon a time science and green movements were pretty close bedfellows. After all, it was science that first identified the risks presented by the shrinking ozone layer. Science that first identified that our CO2 emissions were causing the planet to warm. The green movement has taken that information and made it their own. Which is fine. However, they didn't stop there. They have now taken things much further, and to place where science cannot follow. We see this in a range of issues, from nuclear to GM crops, where scientists and greens are increasingly found on opposite sides of the debate.

I think it's particularly ironic that Helen Moore outlines what I would call 'Lovelock-ian' (i.e. Gaia hypothesis) worldview while making her accusations. In a recent Guardian interview, Lovelock described how the Green movement is becoming closer and closer to a religion or cult:
One thing being a scientist has taught me is that you can never be certain about anything. You never know the truth. You can only approach it and hope you get a bit nearer to it each time. You iterate towards the truth. You don't know it. It's just the way the humans go that if there's a cause of some sort, a religion starts forming around it. It just so happens that the green religion is now taking over from the Christian religion. I don't think people have noticed that, but it's got all the sort of terms that religions use.
And of course, when something becomes a religion, anyone with dissenting views must be cast out as heretic. I think that's what just happened to me. In the culture that is being created, dissent becomes intolerable, and anyone expressing a different view must immediately be discredited as a stooge for big oil/big nuclear/big agro.

Compare Helen Moore's letter with John Boxall. I'd describe John's letter as that of a sensible, considered environmentalist. Prepared to consider alternatives, aware of the situation in which we find ourselves. John's letter is the basis for the start of a debate.

Helen only wants to shut debate down. She knows that she is right, she has her solution, and if science disagrees, then science must be wrong. As the green movement goes down this route, all they do is shut down the debate whilst providing ammunition for the Clarksons and Delingpoles of this world to dismiss them as irrelevant hippies. This will be damaging because we need a strong, science based environmental movement to protect our planet. Science shows very clearly that the biggest, quickest and most effective thing we can do to reduce global warming is to get the Chinese to burn gas instead of coal, and China has huge shale gas reserves.

I'll end with a sad but illuminating fact: in the UK recent increases in coal-fired generation (switched from gas) have outweighed all of the savings made from all of the wind farms in the UK.



I may have stirred up a hornet's nest in Frome. Part I

I've had some responses to my letter to the Somerset Standard criticising the manner in which Frome Council took the decision to declare themselves 'Frack Free'. My original letter is here. These letters are also available on the This is Somerset webpage. First of all, my initial letter received a few comments:

From 'ragamala':
Frankly, I am amazed that someone parading his qualifications (Dr Verdon) should pitch into the debate committing the crimes he accuses "environmentalists" of committing. He stresses the need for "rational, evidence-driven debate" yet in his opposition to buying foreign gas he dredges up the emotive question of human rights records. Where is the rationality of that? He totally ignores all the reports emerging, for example the three reports for the EU environment Committee in September, which consider that in the UK and Europe shale gas is not a solution to perceived energy problems and is unlikely ever to provide cheap gas. At least Verdon concedes that there have been instances in the US of water contamination, unlike some or the pro-frackers. Regarding Cuadrilla, I suggest Dr Verdon checks his statements about openness. Has Cuadrilla released any details of its geological survey work this year? No. Did they breach their planning conditions and continue working for two months beyond their planning permission time? Yes. Did they broadcast the fact they were using radioactive sources in wirline testing? No. Have they been honest about the benefit to the local Fylde economy of their geo survey work? No. Did they manipulate data? Yes. I'm sorry, Dr Vernon, but it seems from my perspective that you are the one polarising debate and overlooking facts.
And from 'GreyWolf':
And if you read Cuadrilla's applications you will see they indicate that will not use any radioactive sources on site, although if you ask the they will tell you that they will. Not that that should worry local residents of course, should it?  
As to Dr Verdon's arguments, he seems to a victim of Hume's problem of induction. Suggesting that the UK economic and environmental experience of fracking will mirror what has happened in the USA when local economic, physical and demographic environments are so different is either incredibly naive or deliberately misleading. 
He really should know and do better. 
Obviously, I couldn't let this go unchallenged, so my response was:
Ragamala has a point, the reference to 'the emotive question of human rights records' is indeed irrelevant to the debate, so I'm happy to apologise for that. What's less open to question is the economic benefit of domestic gas production over importing LNG.

I am indeed aware of the EU Commission reports, which come to the conclusion that, with appropriate regulatory regimes in place, shale gas extraction should be considered, in addition to the fact that the CO2 footprint of domestic shale gas can be lower than imported LNG. It's true that the likely market benefits of shale gas are less well understood and difficult to predict (and I'll admit that as a geologist, this is not my strong point). However, it's clear that the companies involved believe there is significant economic potential there. If they are wrong then they are free to lose money and go out of business.

As for the US experience - my comments on this were motivated by Frome Council's statement that their decision to go 'frack-free' was based on the US experience. So am I a victim of Hume's induction, or is Frome Council? I agree that experiences on either side of the Atlantic may be different. That doesn't mean we shouldn't take the evidence we have and extrapolate the best we can. For instance, it's worth bearing in mind that drilling and environmental regs in this country are significantly tighter (and rightly so) than those in the US.

As for Cuadrilla, it is true that they exceeded the length of their planning regs, which was a silly thing to do from a PR perspective. Those regs were there mainly due to issues with a bird migratory route. They did at least hire a bird-expert to assess the risks posed by their operations, but I agree, not a great start.

I'm not sure what details you would like about their geological survey? As far as I'm aware, local residents were informed in advance, although as I am not a resident in the area, I am happy to stand corrected. It's a fairly common procedure though, you can see on the following website a history of all such onshore surveys conducted in the UK (where the Cuadrilla survey will eventually end up):

http://tinyurl.com/ce4j5e9

If you have other evidence that they have manipulated data of some kind then I would be very interested to see it. My experience was that all of the tremor data was immediately released to the BGS, where it has been available for study by the UK academic community. At the same time, they were very fast to take responsibility for the tremors, and to take actions to reduce the probability of them happening again.

It is interesting that much of the opposition to shale gas is not based on the methods unique to shale gas production (the high-volume hydraulic fracturing), but often talks mainly about methods common to all oil extraction - as above, where the topics are well logging, geophysical surveys, and more generally with issues about well completion integrity. It must come as a surprise to learn that the UK produces something like 10,000 barrels a day from onshore wells. Wytch Farm is the largest onshore field in the EU, and it sits below an area of significant environmental importance (Poole Harbour) and some of the highest house prices in the land. Rarely (if ever) do we see any problems from such onshore fields, yet those opposed to shale gas appear sometimes to have greater issue with the techniques used at all these fields than the specific techniques needed for shale gas. This is why I feel that the environmental movement is missing something with respect to the way it has approached the issues surrounding shale gas.
Which garnered the following response from 'ragamala':
I am amazed that Dr Verdon can at the same time claim that the Wytch Farm is exploitation of an "onshore" field and admit that it is actually an offshore resource. This ignorance and spin characterised a recent House of Commons statement by a minister - Hayes - who expected us to be "surprised" but has some lessons to learn himself. It is even worse when Verdon himself knows that the three main fields exploited by the Wytch Farm are actually offshore under Poole Harbour and Poole Bay. The field consists of three separate reservoirs known as Bridport, Sherwood and Frome. Dr Verdon will also, no doubt, be very aware that there have been problems with Wytch Farm involving cessation of activities because of leaks and pipe corrosion. Dr Verdon should be aware that as far as I know Europe's largest onshore oilfield is actually in Albania. 
The issues with shale gas extraction are not restricted to "CO2 footprint" but involve unavoidable and unquantified by the industry releases of methane, a more potent greenhouse gas in the short and medium term. Regarding Cuadrilla's abuse of their planning permission this did not cover just a breach of their conditions regarding protection of an important natural resource, but by a second and separate breach exceeded their time limits. To suggest this was caused by "issues with a bird migratory route" is not only wrong but laughable. 
Regarding Cuadrilla's geo survey they in some instances indeed failed to inform residents, they caused significant concern and some damage, and if Dr Verdon wishes to query this he can take it up with Fylde MP Mark Menzies, who felt the need to intervene. Regarding data manipulation, I would rather say that Cuadrilla have rather been totally misleading. They have, in particular, issued figures for local economic benefit to the Fylde of their geo survey which have been shown to be totally deceptive. Sorry, Dr Verdon, we expect more from someone who claims to be a scientist relying on facts, and moreover educates our young. If this pro-fracking propaganda, blissfully ignoring facts, is an example of what they are taught in Bristol I really fear for the future. 
But if, at the end of the day, as Dr Verdon suggests the industry itself is not confident of shale gas's potential, why on earth should he expect local communities to abandon the precautionary principle? 
Again, I couldn't resist sticking my oar in with:
Dear ragamala,From a technical point of view, Wytch Farm is considered to be an onshore field because all of the drilling is conducted from the land - there is no offshore rig. Yes, parts of the field are below the sea, and parts below the land, but is this really basis enough for your scorn? Since you seem to be in the mood for cheap point scoring, I should mention that I described Wytch Farm as the largest in the EU, which Albania is not. It is true that production was stopped for about 2 months in 2011 as corrosion issues were dealt with. Production is now continuing, no oil leaked from the site. Is this example of a company identifying a problem and promptly acting on it really sufficient reason for a blanket ban on shale gas?  
You mention 'unavoidable and unquantified' methane emissions, having already criticised me for being unaware of recent EU Commission reports. Yet this EU report in fact does quantify methane leakage rates, factors them into the calculations regarding global warming, and finds that domestic shale gas still comes out with less of an impact than imported LNG. When referring to CO2 I was of course referring to CO2 equivalent, apologies for any confusion there. 
Cuadrilla's planning permission issue was in fact entirely related to issues of migrating birds. This has been widely reported by the national press. Laughable perhaps, but apparently true: 
http://tinyurl.com/cq4j6rr
If Cuadrilla were less than diligent in informing local residents about their survey then that is indeed unfortunate. Your comments on data manipulation could easily be read as an accusation of manipulation of geological data rather than an over-egging of possible local economic benefits, which would be a far more serious accusation. But these surveys are a common procedure for many geological applications. Indeed our undergraduates are lucky enough to perform one across the Bristol Downs and in South Wales every year (albeit on a far smaller scale of course). You can see from my previous link the sheer number that have been conducted across the UK. The technique is exactly the same for each. Why is it that it is only the one related to shale gas that has attracted problems? 
I'm not sure I suggested that industry itself is not confident of success. The industry is, I believe, extremely confident, as are the British Geological Survey, about the amounts of shale gas that might be extracted both in the UK and around the world.
I'm not sure how I feel about this really. I know that I'm never going to change ragamala's mind, but I think it's important that anyone else reading this knows that there are two sides to every argument (one of which has a lot more facts available to it, while one is much more emotive). I hope I haven't appeared too reactionary. If there's anyone out there in the mood for commenting (unlikely I know) I'd love to know how this discussion comes across. Do I seem like an impartial professional making sensible, considered points, or do I appear to be a raging drill-baby-drill crazy-person in hock to Exxon? Equally, do ragamala's points seem like someone engaging in sensible debate or the rantings of an eco-loon? The comment ratings have me on +1 and +1, while ragamala is on -1 and -2, but I'd love some more detailed feedback. You are welcome to hide behind online anonymity and be as mean as you like......