Thursday, 8 November 2012

The opposition to shale gas

Hats off to the Guardian once again for this article by Mariel Hemingway on why she opposes fracking. It would be easy to mock this piece for it's flighty, right-on loony-ness, but I shan't, because I'm sure the author's beliefs are held strongly and genuinely. What I will take her to task for is her sheer narrow mindedness:
Here at the Willingway, our retreat center near Malibu, my partner Bobby and I have been growing our own food and putting solar to work on our roof. It feels great to watch the meter feeding energy into the grid, instead of just pulling it out. 
Which is all well and good, and to be saluted, but really only possible if you're a wealthy Hollywood (ex?)actress. I'd love to have a solar-powered retreat near Malibu, where I could grow my food, but for the majority of normal people this simply isn't an option. I'd love to feed solar power into the grid, but I can't afford solar panels, even if I owned a house on which to put them (and I don't consider myself poor - I get paid above the national average wage). I'm not sure how the system works in the US, but in this country the feed-back into the grid is funded by feed-in tariffs (public money), so seems to me to be a useful method for richer people (who can afford to invest in these things) to get money from the tax-payer. 

Once again it's worth noting the outright falsehoods:
The hydraulic fracturing process utilizes large amounts of toxic chemicals – 10,000-40,000 gallons per wellScience has shown that it ends up in the water we drink, the water that's used on our food, and the water that nourishes fish, animals, birds, and plants
I've added the emphasis on the 'science has shown' part, partly to highlight how silly it sounds (like the 'here comes the science' part of any hair product advert), but also to point out that there is no documented case where fracking chemicals have been found in water supplies. A couple of cases of methane contamination, yes, but not the fracking chemicals. They're not buoyant, you see, so there's no force to drive them from the shale beds at 2km depth to surface waters. It'd be like making a stream flow uphill. 'Science has shown', my arse. But what's happened is that enough people have said it, and loudly enough, that it's become accepted as fact. A good example of the big lie.

She does get one thing right though:
There's nothing worse than finger-pointing – when we walk in and turn on natural gas to cook our food, or heat our house.
Anyway, I'm talking about this article because it fits very well with my latest experience with the local anti-fracking community. A couple of months ago I saw an advertised screening of Gasland at a local community center, and I thought I'd pop along, see what the anti-fracking community looked like in the south-west.

Perhaps I've spent too long around scientists, but the biggest thing that I noticed was the lack of curiosity, the lack of hunger for details. We were shown an abridged version of the film, followed by a Q & A session. Now, Gasland is notably strong on emotive filming and short on actual facts. You get to see about 5 families claiming to have been affected by gas drilling. Without context, this is fairly meaningless. The questions that anyone watching Gasland should immediately be asking are:
  • what is the incidence rate of these contamination events, in comparison to the number of wells drilled?
  • are there any other possible sources of contamination (and what is the history of water quality in the area prior to drilling?)
  • have there been methane contamination incidences like this prior to drilling?
  • have governmental agencies (like the EPA) made any comment?
  • are local communities universally opposed to drilling?
  • how does the hydraulic fracturing process actually work? How deep are the target formations? How large are the expected fractures?
Gasland gives the impression that the answers to these questions are: really high percentage, not other possible contamination sources, no prior incidents, EPA bought by industry dollars, local communities universally opposed, and no info on the process itself. In fact, I think that it'd be better characterised as: something like 0.01% incidence rate, many potential contamination sources, both natural (natural methane seepage) plus nasty leftovers from things like coal mining, many incidences of flammable water dating back centuries, EPA have investigated many sites and found no evidence of contamination, opposition to drilling is a minority in most communities, and the target formations are typically 2km deep, and fractures are typically 100-200m.

Now, I'm fairly sure that if you were to show Gasland to a group of scientists, people would be asking these questions. Scientists are trained to be sceptical, to distinguish provable fact from opinion. One of the key scientific fallacies is confirmation bias, where you selectively believe things that already fit your worldview, accepting them with a lower threshold for credibility.

I'll admit to being a victim of this myself in my work - I recently had to modify one of my papers which heavily cited another paper (by different authors) which agreed with my results, until the authors had to retract and significantly amend their work as they'd made a number of technical errors. Clearly I'd been too willing to accept their results (which agreed with mine) without properly checking that their work was accurate (for the record, my paper is still right: I had a better and more robust method for making these measurements on fracture compliance than they had). 

But my thoughts at this local anti-fracking meeting were that it was a classic case of confirmation bias. The view of the average participant was clearly that oil companies are heartless cheating bastards who spend their whole time causing awful pollution (even though we use oil every day, and for example we've had oil production in our backyard across the South of the UK for decades without any problems or issues).

So when Gasland appears to show evidence for more of this nasty oil company behaviour, it is accepted without questioning because it already fits into their worldview. Also, there was no discussion of any potential benefits: no mention of the reductions in CO2 emissions as they swap coal for gas, no mention of the shale gas possibilities in China that would represent the biggest and fastest way to reduce global CO2 emissions.

Unfortunately, I think this view is becoming increasingly entrenched, the big lie has been told loudly enough and often enough, and I think shale gas production in the UK is in for a troubled time.

I'll finish by bringing my piece full circle to mention the demographics of the meeting: I think I was pretty much the only person there under the age of 30, and I get the distinct impression that most would fit in well with Mariel Hemingway's holistic greenery. I didn't get the impression (I may be wrong of course) that the majority of people there had financial worries, or worries for the future of the economy at least in the sense that it wouldn't affect them. There's a general lack of understanding that just because they have the time, space and money for a holistic Malibu retreat (or whatever the SW UK equivalent is), the average person will not be able to follow them in this even if they wanted to. Therefore any solution to the energy and climate issues we face has to accept that the average UK citizen does not have the money to put solar power and windmills on top of their house (if they even own one, and more and more of the younger generation will never get to own a house), nor can they afford the increases in energy bills to pay to subsidise a wealthy landowner to festoon his hills with wind turbines.

So what we need are energy sources that can actually deal with the problems we face right now. I think David Miliband summed up our energy problems pretty succinctly here (skip to 49:10) - we're fussing about with energy sources that supply about 1% of our needs, when 30% of our energy comes from coal imported from Russia. The first thing we should be doing is replacing coal with gas. And that's just about the UK, so multiply this problem several times to talk about the US and China!


  1. Greeting from vitoria, basque country, spain.
    I am a chemical engineer that usually read your blog since I started to investigate fracking. Here in basque country local politics want to start drilling.
    For the moment I am opposed to the technique, they have done all the legal process secretly so the people don´t know what´s going on. I think people should be very well informed and then decide, only the impact in landscape is very important, that should be voted in a referendum.
    In any case, I agree with you when you talk about confirmation bias and the lack of good information (are the politics really interested in giving the population high quality information? Is the population interested in receiving that information?).
    In my city there was a huge demonstration against fracking and I can assure you that most people couldn´t afford a Malibu retreat. What is the quality of the information that we have? I guess not very good, but does it exist very good quality information about fracking? Everyday we read investigations from recognised organizations that generate opposite conclusions. I think we should follow as far as possible the "primum non nocere" maxim.
    Keep on writing, I appreciate your oppinion in spite of not agreeing with you sometimes

    1. Hi Jorge,
      I agree that the biggest issue sometimes is that companies appear to be acting in secret, without proper consultation, which can alienate local people. More importantly, in an information vacuum, the falsehoods put about by the anti-fracking activists can easily gain traction as the only information that is out there. Unfortunately, the average person no longer trusts energy companies, and they no longer trust politicians. There's plenty of information out there that shows that, so long as it is properly regulated, fracking is no worse than conventional hydrocarbon production. However, the media like to report scare stories, because they sell more papers.

  2. Hello Dr JV, so-called "Earth Scientist". I like to imagine we got our degrees from the "Department of So-Called Earth Sciences!" at Cambridge. I see your critics are great fans fo the exclamation mark too, so in their honour, I will use many here!!!!!!!!!!