Thursday, 16 August 2012

Bought and paid for?

If shale gas companies are involved in funding research, is that research intellectually compromised?

It's a really important question - there have been several favourable reports about shale gas recently, and most have some connection to the oil and gas industry, as reported in this Guardian article. Does this mean we can't believe what is in the reports - are they intellectually compromised?

This is a particular issue for me in my own work. My funding situation is a little complicated. We have an industry funded research group at Bristol, which funds most of my office-mates. However, I myself am funded on a NERC grant (that's the government). However, part of the NERC grant involves being given data for free by BP. So although they're not giving me cash, there is a connection there, and the data is given in lieu of a cash payment that would otherwise have to cover 25% of my grant. So while I'm not directly getting any money from industry, there are certainly strong connections there.

But how does this affect my work? I can honestly say it doesn't affect it one bit. I've never hidden or not published data in case of embarrassing a sponsor. I've never massaged figures. The very idea that I would is completely offensive!

(Not that I would, but I guess I've never had to, because I've never come across data showing a problem with shale gas.)

I think some people miss the point as to why companies generally fund research. Usually, funding academic research is not a public relations exercise - they have different departments, different budgets and different people for that (besides - have you met academics - PR is not our strong point). They usually fund academic work because they want to get to the bottom of a question that is perhaps too broad in scope, or too specialised, for them to do in house. They fund academics because they want answers, not yes men. I think we'd be more likely to lose our funding if we were found to be making data up to cover a problem, than we would be by publishing about a particular issue.

Besides, it's not really surprising that authors of reports on shale gas have industry connections. If you had no industry experience, how on earth would you have the knowledge to write a report on shale gas? Do you know about well casing, drilling methods, pressure-based and microseismic monitoring methods? If you do, chances are you've worked in industry, because it's the only place you can learn about these things. And if you don't how exactly do you intend on writing accurately about shale gas extraction?  

So in reality, beyond the shock headlines of Guardian-land, it's not surprising that most of the reports about the shale gas have some sort of connection with the shale gas industry. Most reports about wind energy come from groups that have some involvement in wind turbine manufacturing or design. In fact, most of our information about wind seems to come from RenewablesUK, and they're not likely to be unbiased are they?

Indeed, the chair of Parliament's Energy and Climate Change committee is Tim Yeo, who receives something like £140,000 a year from renewable energy firms. This isn't some independent university report, which we (and our policy-makers) are free to read or ignore as the will. This is a parliamentary committee set up to advise parliament on energy issues, and it's chaired by a man who stands to gain considerably by promoting wind energy over other generation methods. Yet because it's wind, we're ok with this (well, except for the Mail and Telegraph, of course). Can you imagine the outrage if it transpired that the chair of such a committee was trousering hundreds of thousands of quid from Exxon?

And what about reports funded by environmental pressure group? Reports critical of shale gas have come from the Park Foundation, the Cooperative, and you won't be surprised to hear that Greenpeace are not fans. But do these reports have an underlying motive pushing them towards a certain conclusion before the study even starts? They don't have a profit motive as such, so surely they'll be unbiased? Not really. Just because there's not an immediate bottom line, organisations like Greenpeace have a reputation to uphold, and followers to keep happy.

Without the support of these followers, they'd become meaningless. And can you imagine the response of the Greenpeace faithful if they came out and said - 'you know, we've looked at all the evidence, and on balance, exploiting shale gas is the best thing we can do for the environment right now, because it's better than mining and burning coal'? Of course they can't say that - their supporters would be livid, and would leave in droves. For an environmental organisation to say that is as likely as an oil company saying 'do you know what, this whole shale gas thing is just too risky, we're not going to chance it' - it's just not going to happen. So I don't think a report funded by an environmental organisation is any more likely to be unbiased than a report from an oil company. The only difference is that an oil industry report is more likely to have up-to-date information to hand, helping to avoid this kind of fiasco.

So if all reports have the possibility (or even probability) of bias, who do we believe? How do we get anywhere? I guess the key is that ultimately, all reports have to be based on data. And sure, you can try to use statistics to get the result you want, but ultimately, data will show one way or the other. So the data is pretty clear that fracking caused 2 small earthquakes near Blackpool (earthquakes are notoriously difficult to hide, you see). However, we can see that for all the fracking in the US, no notable earthquakes have been caused (there have been quakes caused by re-injection of waste water in deep aquifers, but this is a different problem and one not unique to fracking).

We know that the EPA has shown evidence of water contamination at Pavilion (WY) from fracking. Pavilion is a difficult case, because the reservoir is much closer to groundwater aquifers than most typical shale reservoirs, so perhaps this isn't so surprising. In Dimock (PA) there was a methane contamination in 2009. After repairs to a well, all levels of contaminants have returned to normal. And that's pretty much it, two incidents for hundreds of thousands of fracks. Meanwhile, US CO2 emissions are plummeting as shale gas is used instead of coal in electricity generation.

Finally, the evidence from my speciality, microseismic monitoring is pretty unequivocal. This image shows the depth of every microseismic event in the Barnett shale. The coloured lines track where the fractures have gone during fracking. As you can see, even the shallowest fractures are very far away from any potential water source (the blue bars at the top). This is hard data - you can't fake this. But don't expect to see this picture in any Greenpeace report (or Josh Fox film) any time soon.

As I've mentioned before, the anti-shale groups have struggled to find proper geologists to support their cause. Academics, yes - but they tend to be atmospheric chemists, climate change specialists and biogeochemists, not proper geologists. I think that this is because it might take a geologist to fully understand how difficult it would be for contaminants to rise from the reservoir through 2-3km of impermeable rock (with little or no driving force, given that fracking fluid is less buoyant than gas) to reach potable water supplies. Usually, if there's legs in an idea, you can usually find someone to run with it. And I think that is probably the most encouraging thing I can say about shale gas - there are hardly any serious geologists who have a problem with it. 

Update [19.08.2012]: Thanks to my favourite (only) commenter Owain S for this, but I've just been perusing the links he posted, leading to something that has left me gobsmacked. Despite making hundreds of thousands from wind energy investments, while championing wind subsidies in his role as Chair of the Energy and Climate change committee, Tim Yeo is in fact opposing the development of turbines in his own constituency, on the grounds that they are unsightly and would spoil his view. Wow! Just, wow! That is an incredible level on hypocrisy - happy to foist turbines on everyone else, but not in his back yard please.


  1. I'm a scientist working in industry, and your description of the interaction between academia and industry sounds about right. There's lots of people moving back and forth between the two as careers progress and change, and people have different priorities in life. I know I'd like to go get a masters in structural geology at some point, and we have geologists who did their PhD projects funded by Randgold, working on Randgold deposits, who are now working for the company. Of course, the PT conditions of gold mineralisations are not a politically contentious issue, so escape the sort of scrutiny doled out to the work of scientists in the energy sector. This exchange of personnel is, I think, enriching for both academia and industry, and helps the flow of funds from industry to published research, which goes to help all of mankind in the steady march of scientific progress. Industry gains, like you say, by being able to outsource research to universities, better equipped and staffed to handle such research.

    I agree with all your conclusions about how to deal with the funding/bias catch-22, and I can't add anything to what you've said without repeating or paraphrasing it. It's a double-edged sword, and if the rationalists in the environmental movement don't get a grip on the political types who seem to be doing all the driving, this could come back and bite them on the ass. The call for a “clear bright line between industry and academia” by Jack Shaner of the Ohio Environmental Council is in no way practical.

    The Tim Yeo MP conflict of interest was something highlighted on the Guido Fawkes blog early on
    . For me, that issue is quite simple, if you're going to be in the government, making decisions that affect an industry, you should be divested from that industry before you do so. It's the best way to show you're not acting out of selfish motivation, consciously or unconsciously while in power. He should divest straight away, or resign.

    To give Guido his dues on calling out Yeo, he's done so on multiple occasions, on green issues and conflicts of interest.

  2. Some more detailed info on the Yeo/Deben conflict of interest.

    I'm very much a supporter of nuclear power, and I think it's a travesty that the British governments of the 80's, 90's and 00's had so little political courage that they let NIMBYism and irrational fear spread by pressure groups dissuade them for increasing our nuclear power capacity. We will pay for this in the future with the global warming from the GHG outputs of fossil fuel power plants nuclear power didn't replace.