Monday, 12 November 2012

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):

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:
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......


  1. As a geologist and someone working in the oil and gas industry I'd say you're coming across as rational, answering his/her points with patience whilst they come across, not quite as an eco-loon but certainly irrationally against fracking based on silly fears (concerned about radioactive sources in wireline tests, etc...)

    Just started following your blog by the way, already a big fan.

  2. I think you come across as reasonable and informed JV. Good work on the science outreach, something I know I don't do enough of (got me in trouble with the girlfriend last time I did mind). And I rated you up on the comments :)

  3. Think you come across as someone with genuine subject matter knowledge that shares facts calmly. However, although perhaps misguided, I also think your protagonist demonstrates a good ability to dig out information and is clearly passionate in his/her position against shale gas exploration. Sadly, too many of the arguments made against stem from 'group think' where a minority of vehemently opposed individuals 'poison' the thinking of moderates who then embrace the negativity as their own and perpetuate half-truths etc to make their point (not accusing your protagonist of falling into either of these camps I should just say!) What would be interesting is to ascertain how many of them have made themselves energy self-sufficient in their own homes using renewables and how many recognise that, with no gas, the ability of renewables to provide more of our needs will ironically be made even harder...