Monday, 30 December 2013

Keeping the lights on

In a recent post, I took issue with Friends of the Earth's "bullshit bingo" fracking cards. It seems I'm getting noticed, because Tony Bosworth promised me a response when I met him at a recent IMechE event on shale development, although I've yet to hear back from him.

I know that I shouldn't take these things too seriously, but there was one particular square on the bingo card - Keeping the lights on - that has really nagged away at me, such that I've felt the need for a whole new blog post just to get my feelings off my chest. The nagging has only got stronger since I spent the last couple of weeks travelling around the Yucatan, Mexico, where many communities, away from the flesh-pots of Cancun, really do only have electricity for a few hours a day.

The implication from FoE, as far as I can tell, is that people who talk about "keeping the lights on" are somehow worthy of mockery, or shouldn't be taken seriously (and I would dearly love Tony B to confirm this for me, but that's the only conclusion I can see from the bingo cards). The more I think about it, the more flabbergasted I am that a supposedly reputable organisation could see things this way.

In our modern world, I think we take energy and electricity for granted (among many other things). If we need light or heat, we just flick a switch. If we need to drive somewhere, we pull in to a petrol station and fill up. Power cuts and fuel shortages are very rare disruptions to us these days - although the recent storms provide a timely reminder of how disrupting it can be when the power does go off.

However, keeping the lights on is no easy task, and it appears that in the coming years this task is set to get yet harder still, as ageing power stations are mothballed without adequate replacements. Recent OFGEM figures suggest that the spare margin - the difference between generating capacity and peak demand - could fall to as low as 2%

To deal with potential shortfalls, OFGEM have outlined a new scheme where businesses will receive payment in return for switching off their power during peak times 4 - 8pm on weekdays. While it is good that businesses will be compensated for lost power, of course it adds an extra cost to the consumer to cover these fees. 

Either way, these measures show that "keeping the lights on" is not some laughing matter to go on a Bullsh!t Bingo card, as the good folks at FOE seem to think.

Moreover, I'm not sure what message this sends out to businesses considering investing in Britain? We're all agreed that we want to build up our manufacturing base, to reduce our economic reliance on London's financial services industry. However, given that manufacturing operations generally require a stable and reliable electricity supply, being told that you might be expected to take a power cut for 4 hours a day can't be the most attractive incentive for investment in the UK.

Wednesday, 4 December 2013

Shale gas and methane emissions - a perspective from

A major part of the debate around shale gas has focused on methane emissions and climate change. Natural gas, when burned, produces half as much CO2 as coal, so switching from coal fired power stations (still ~40% of our electricity supply) to natural gas could provide substantial emissions reductions. However, if a portion of the methane produced during extraction is allowed to leak into the atmosphere, then this could offset the CO2 gains, because methane is itself a powerful greenhouse gas.

We've seen a number of papers in recent times trying to get a handle on what proportion of methane produced from shale wells is ending up in the atmosphere, rather than in our boilers. Direct measurements at drilling sites have given low estimates, but regional overflight measurements have indicated that overall estimates might be underestimated - although with regional overflights, the source of methane (conventional gas, coal mining, shale gas, agricultural) cannot be determined.

The key question to ask is - how relevant are these estimates to global climate change, and are we seeing changes in methane emission rates impacting on the global concentration of methane in our atmosphere, and therefore on global climate change?

Who better to answer this question than the climate experts at - certainly no stooges for the oil and gas industry.

So - are reported increases in methane emissions bad news for global warming? (my emphasis added)
Not really, because the one real hard fact that we know about atmospheric methane is that it’s concentration isn’t rising very quickly. Methane is a short-lived gas in the atmosphere, so to make it rise, the emission flux has to continually increase. This is in contrast to CO2, which accumulates in the atmosphere/ocean system, meaning that steady (non-rising) emissions still lead to a rising atmospheric concentration. There is enough uncertainty in the methane budget that tweaks of a few percent here and there don’t upset the apple cart. Since the methane concentration wasn’t rising all that much, its sources, uncertain as they are, have been mostly balanced by sinks, also uncertain. If anything, the paper is good news for people concerned about global warming, because it gives us something to fix.
 Also, in more general terms:
The US is apparently emitting more than we thought we were, maybe 30 Tg CH4 per year. But these fluxes are relatively small compared to the global emission rate of about 600 Tg CH4 per year. The Arctic and US anthropogenic are each about 5% of the total. Changes in the atmospheric concentration scale more-or-less with changes in the chronic emission flux, so unless these sources suddenly increase by an order of magnitude or more, they won’t dominate the atmospheric concentration of methane, or its climate impact.
I am not a climate scientist, and there are probably too many non-experts shouting their views from the rooftops, so I will pose my conclusions instead as a tentative question: are we overestimating the importance of shale gas methane emissions with respect to climate change?

Tuesday, 3 December 2013

Bullsh*t Bingo!

I love a game of Bullsh*t Bingo (usually deployed in business settings to mock overly jargonistic speakers). Something I have in common, it seems, with Friends of the Earth, who have come up with their own B-B card for UK shale development. Let's investigate their tiles:

We need gas for decades to come
FOE get off to a good start by "bullsh*tting" something that they themselves have agreed and accepted. FOE's energy ambitions are set out in their Clean British Energy report. For obvious reasons their plans are very ambitious in terms of what might be achieved in the next 20 years. Nevertheless, even they have gas providing 25% of our electricity in 2030 (not to mention the remainder of our gas use in domestic heating and cooking, and industrial processes). From a more neutral source, the National Grid considers two scenarios in their Future Energy Scenarios reports - a "slow progress" and a "gone green" option, the gone green option representing the fulfilment of the majority of clean-energy objectives. The difference in total gas demand in 2036 between these two end-member scenarios is 600TWh for the gone green, and a shade under 800TWh for the slow progress. So to conclude, we do in factneed gas for decades to come, regardless of future energy policies. Even FOE actually agree with this.

UK Gold Standard Regulation
It is well established across the world that UK (and western Europe in general) have some of the tightest regulations anywhere in the world for oil and gas activities. The are 2,000 wells drilled onshore in the UK, with imperceptible environmental impact, while there are many 1,000s more drilled offshore in the North Sea. So beyond the slight ambiguity inherent in who gets to define 'gold standard', it is a statement generally accepted around the world.

74,000 jobs
For obvious reasons, it is impossible to know exactly how many jobs will be created by a UK shale gas boom. Some reports have said lower (AMEC: 20,000), some have said higher (IoD: 74,000). Either way, even 20,000 new jobs is still something to cheer, rather than jeer, in these tough economic times, is it not?

Lower energy bills
Like the exact number of jobs created, the effects of shale development in the UK on gas prices is difficult to predict. At its simplest, the increase in supply should put downward pressure on prices. However, the impacts probably depend in part on what happens in the rest of Europe. A recent Poyry report, looking at shale development across the EU, predicted a 14% reduction in wholesale gas prices for the high shale scenario. Regardless, focussing on gas prices alone misses many of the other economic benefits of domestic shale gas development - one of which is...

Our gas supply
I'm really not sure why FOE merit this statement with inclusion on the bullsh*t board. Self evidently, this is a new and domestic gas resource. This means that the jobs it creates are created here, and the taxes it pays are collected here. The IoD estimate that by 2030, we will be importing £15.6 billion pounds of gas per year. UK shale development could see this reduced to £7.5 billion. That means £8 billion pounds re-invested in the UK every year, rather than lost to us and handed straight to the Qataris and to the Norwegian Sovereign Wealth Fund. This is before we begin to consider the geo-political insecurities inherent in a long and tenuous energy supply chain.

No risk of water contamination
I'm not sure that anyone has ever claimed that there is 'no risk' - no activity on this planet comes with zero risk, even just staying home. However, both the Royal Society and Public Health England have stated that the health risks posed by shale development are low and can be managed. The majority of studies conducted have found no evidence of systematic water contamination due to shale gas drilling in the US.

Communities will benefit
The UKOOG has committed that £100,000 will be given to local communities for every well site, plus 1% of the resulting revenues. This could easily run into the millions of pounds for a single site. FOE must know some very well funded local councils if they think a benefit payment of this scale deserves to go onto the bullsh*t board.

We should look to the US
FOE seem to want to both have their cake and eat it when it comes to the US, suggesting that while we should not use it to compare potential economic impacts (and it's difficult to overstate how significant the economic impacts have been in the states), we should draw all our negative examples from US with respect to other impacts. So we can all tick this box whenever FOE are making their claims. The US has very different infrastructure, regulations, and economics. This means that both the positive and negative impacts cannot be imported to the UK without a fair bit of thought and deeper analysis. However, I do think that it is acceptable that both sides of the argument draw some of their evidence from the USA, so long as the appropriate caveats are included.

Shale gas is a bridge to the future
To be honest, I'm not really sure what this means, so I guess in that respect it does belong on the bullsh*t board. Personally, unless someone actually invents a time-travelling bridge, I don't think anything should ever be described as a bridge to the future. How about instead of worrying about bridges we concern ourselves with powering the country over the next 20 years as cheaply, yet as green-ly, as possible, where even FOE accept that large amounts of gas-fired power will be needed.

Beyond Petroleum
A reference to BP, I presume. A strange one, given that BP have shown no interest in developing UK shale gas, and sold off the majority of their conventional onshore assets in the 1990s and early 2000s.

No conflict of interest
It is true that the government has a conflict of interest in shale development. The large amounts of tax they might be able to collect, plus all of the other economic benefits, will be of great use for the government of the day, whoever they might be. Look at how useful the North Sea oil boom was for Margaret Thatcher. It is a conflict of interest for all of us, because improved government finances *should* (and I accept that this isn't always the case) mean more investment in our public services. This is why none of the major political parties have suggested that they would prevent shale gas development in the UK.

Shale gas can help us tackle climate change
Gas fired power produces 50% less CO2 than coal, and we still get something like 40% of our electricity from coal. So more abundant gas would help lower CO2 emissions if this fuel switching occurs, as we have seen in the USA (sorry, looking to the US again there I know). Moreover, the flexibility of gas turbines is crucial for coping with the intermittency of renewables - numerous head honchos of US renewable operators seem to think that the shale gas boom has been helpful to them. Ideally, the UK government should ring-fence some of the UK shale tax take to spend on renewables and energy efficiency measures, as I have discussed here.

Tax breaks
Currently, conventional oil fields are taxed at 62%. However, smaller or more technically challenging fields can receive an allowance to promote the development of these otherwise less profitable fields, ensuring more investment and a larger tax take in the long run. In a similar manner, current shale developments will receive this allowance, and be taxed at 30%. This is still higher rate than the standard corporation tax (payed* by everyone else) of 24%. I'm not sure I agree with this allowance (I think shale development will be profitable enough anyway), but either way the operators will still be paying a higher tax rate than most other sectors.

*of course, we all know that many major corporations are not paying as much corporation tax as they should. One of the benefits of hydrocarbon producers, however, is that it is very difficult to 'offshore' your operations - the oil is where it is - making it very difficult to get around the tax system. This means you don't tend to see oil and gas companies "pulling a google".

The desolate North
This one tends to be used by opponents of shale gas, in order to rinse Lord Howell. Shale should be careful who its friends are. The North is clearly not desolate, but I don't think that shale gas development will change that.

Myth and misinformation

Indeed, it would be good to see a little less misinformation.

Keeping the lights on
Luckily, I wasn't around for the 3-day-week in the 1970s, but most people who went through it will tell you that it wasn't much fun. Given the potential harm caused either by blackouts or by increasing energy prices, keeping the lights on at the right price is a deadly serious matter. The fact that FOE seem to think that 'keeping the lights on' is a bit of a joke says something worrying about their mentality.

Tax revenues
are paid by all UK operators. Taxes on the whole UK oil and gas sector amounted to £30 billion in 2011, 5.5% of all taxes paid, and a third of all corporation taxes. We all want good public services, so tax revenues are an important aspect to consider.

Indeed, much like myths and misinformation, it would be nice to see a little less of that.

Low carbon transition
I think we're beginning to cover old ground now. Perhaps FOE were scraping the barrel for their final few slots. I believe this is fairly well covered in the tackling climate change post above.

Balcombe wasn't a local protest
From what I've seen and heard, the protests at Balcombe divided the village, with some in favour and some against. It's worth noting that the locals' biggest concern prior to drilling was the impact on traffic levels, and it seems likely that the protesters caused far more traffic disruption than the drillers. Also worth noting is that, where the major, national-level opposition groups haven't got involved, drilling this summer went relatively unopposed.

So there we have it - I've covered every block....

Monday, 25 November 2013

To a curious reader....

I received an email last week from someone concerned about the implications of UK shale gas development, with particular focus on the implications in terms of climate change. I ended up writing quite a long response, which I think is worthy of sharing with a larger audience. I have posted in below:

Hi J____,

Thanks for getting in touch. You are quite correct, I am far too young to have grandchildren.

I think you might have been somewhat mislead in your comment that Germany generates 60% of its energy, and Denmark generates more energy than it needs, from renewable sources. Looking at the annual review of world energy statistics (p 41), Germany gets 9% of it's total energy consumption from renewables, while Denmark gets 18%. Clearly, there is still some way to go before we are producing all of our energy from renewables. 

Indeed, I think that James Hansen, probably the leading expert in climate change, one of the first scientists to realise the threat it posed, put it well when he said in an essay in 2011: "suggesting that renewables will let us phase rapidly off fossil fuels in the US, China or India, or the world as a whole, is almost the equivalent of believing in the Easter Bunny and Tooth Fairy".

I agree your premise that there is probably an upper limit to the amount of CO2 that we can safely put into the atmosphere, and that number is less than existing fossil fuel reserves. However, it is important to consider relative contributions of the various fossil fuels to these reserves, the relative rates at which they are burned, and the amount of energy produced from each fuel per tonne of CO2 produced. The first figure attached shows where the CO2 in our reserves is embedded, while the second shows where the world's CO2 emissions come from presently:

These figures make clear that the biggest problem is coal, and especially coal being burned in China. Any 'environmental' policy that does not address this is, to my mind, not an environmental policy. 

Natural gas, when burned, produces twice as much energy per unit of CO2 as does coal (i.e., coal produces twice as much CO2 per unit energy). If we accept that we have an upper limit to the amount of CO2 we can produce, then it makes sense to use the fuel that gives us as much energy as possible for that given amount of CO2. For example, if increased natural gas abundance leads China to switch from a coal-dominated to a gas-dominated power sector, it would cut that big purple column on the left hand side above in half. That would be a much bigger impact that wiping the UK's emissions off the map completely. So while full renewables penetration would be the ideal situation, we should not let perfect stand in the way of good, because switching natural gas for coal wherever possible would produce significant impacts.

Natural gas has other advantages as well, including reduced air emissions. However, the one I will focus on now is its flexibility, relative to coal and/or nuclear. It takes a long time (days, as far as I'm aware) to turn coal and nuclear plants on and off, whereas gas turbines can be switched on and off in minutes. This makes gas an ideal complement to large-scale renewable energy penetration, as they provide the flexibility to adapt to the intermittence inherent in renewable sources. If you won't take my word for it, perhaps the Texas Clean Energy Coalition comments will be of interest. Equally, ClimateDesk reports on the chief of the US Solar Energy Industries Association: 
'Natural gas and renewables complement each other very nicely,' Rhone Resch, CEO of the Solar Energy Industries Association, said this morning at a press conference for the release of Bloomberg New Energy Finance’s 2013 Factbook, an exhaustive analysis of the state of clean energy in America. 
The report, based on a blend of original and existing government research, is unequivocal in placing natural gas in the same ‘clean energy’ boat as renewables, a new arrangement Resch and Dave McCurdy, head of the American Gas Association, agreed they were happy to see. 'Natural gas can fill the gap when renewables go intermittant,' he said, 'ramping up when the wind stops or the sun goes down.'
The Director General of the International Renewable Energy Agency stated:
"Shale gas at low cost can help to create a hybrid system, whereby more gas-fired power is fed to the grid, supplanting coal, and augmented by wind and solar."
I have a blog post describing this in more detail here. It's a little known fact that of all the US states, Texas has deployed more wind energy than any other in the last 10 years. That's big, bad Texas, home of the shale gas revolution. The abundance of cheap natural gas is making renewables more attractive. Equally, the improved economic conditions, part fuelled by the shale developments, leaves more money in state finances to fund renewable developments. Contrast that with the situation in the UK - rising energy costs mean that the additional charges needed to promote renewable development are becoming increasingly politically unpopular, while the poor economic situation in which our government is stuck means that there is little government cash to fund this.

My take on the situation is as follows: Firstly, the development of UK shale gas should not be seen as a panacea for all our energy and economic problems. It will help, but it's not a solution to all our problems (I know that some in the media have presented it as such). However, even the most optimistic predictions for renewables development show that we will be burning gas in this country for some time to come. Remember, only 1/3 of the gas use in this country is used for electricity, another 1/3 is used for domestic heating and cooking, and the final 1/3 is used as feedstock in industrial processes (such as at the Grangemouth plant that was nearly forced to close 2 weeks ago, in part because of the increased costs of raw materials).

At present, we are increasingly importing this gas from abroad. This is money lost to the UK economy, to be spend by Qataris on fast cars and an air conditioned football world cup. Given that a potential equivalent resource exists within the UK, it seems irresponsible to be allowing this money to leave our economy when we could be developing a home-grown alternative instead. However, it is important that this opportunity is leveraged to our advantage, unlike our past development of North Sea oil and gas. I would like to see the government ring-fence the taxes taken from future UK shale developments, to be spent only on energy efficiency initiatives and/or research into improving renewable energy technologies. I have already written to various MPs to make this suggestion (see also my blog post on this aspect).

I hope this goes some way to answering your questions. I realise that I've sent quite a long reply, but I think it is a subject worthy of lengthy discussion, rather than the 30 second soundbites provided by the media.

Kind regards, and my best wishes to your grandkids,


Monday, 18 November 2013

Seismometer Deployments at Balcombe: Final Report

Cuadrilla's drilling at Balcombe attracted a lot of headlines. In a previous post I described (mainly by way of lots of holiday snaps) the deployment of seismometers by Bristol colleagues and I.

We have now completed our data analysis, and our results are available for you to read!

Hydraulic stimulation was not planned for this phase of Cuadrilla's operations. Therefore, we did not expect to see any induced seismic events. Nevertheless, we saw this as a good opportunity to attempt several objectives:

The first objective was simply about public perception. The average member of the public does not know much about earthquakes or about seismometers. They don't really understand magnitude scales, and they are not aware of the detection capabilities of modern seismometers. We hoped that the high levels of publicity surrounding Balcombe would give us a chance to help educate the public in these regards.

However, we had two main technical objectives as well. These relate to DECC's proposed traffic light scheme, whereby operators are required to stop if they trigger events above magnitude 0.0. Traffic light schemes are common for such operations - the Swiss in particular seem to like them. However, the minimum threshold here is far lower than anything used by the Swiss. Our aim is not to say whether this is appropriate or not, but its operation does pose some additional challenges, which our work seeks to address.

The first issue stems from the Gutenberg-Richter law, which states that the number of earthquakes (N) that occur which are larger than a given magnitude (M) is given by
                             log(N) = a - bM.
where a and b are measurable constants. The BGS gives values for a and b in the UK of 3.82 and 1.03, respectively. Using a magnitude of 0.0 (the lowest cutoff for the traffic lights), this relationship tells us that over 5,000 such events occur every year. The existing BGS seismic network is not capable of detecting these low magnitude events.

In order for the traffic light scheme to work effectively, we need to be able to distinguish between the 5,000 naturally occurring magnitude 0.0 and greater quakes that occur each year, and those induced by hydraulic stimulation. This requires us to have data about the naturally occurring events, which we do not currently have. Therefore, one purpose of our array was to begin to establish baseline measurements around a potential drilling site so that we can characterise any pre-existing, natural seismicity. This is but a small start, with only 1 month of background data. In an ideal scenario we'd want to have at least a year of baseline data.

The second purpose of our array was to measure typical levels of seismic noise and detectability thresholds for small, temporary arrays such as ours. The traffic light threshold of magnitude 0.0 is often at the threshold of detectability for surface seismometers. The detectability is controlled in part by the levels of noise on the seismometers. Although you might think the British countryside is a quiet place, there are many potential sources of noise, such as trains, roads, farm machinery, rivers. We wanted to see whether a small, relatively cheap array like ours would be helpful in administering the traffic light scheme, or whether more expensive microseismic monitoring methods are likely to be needed.

So, what did we find?
Well, the most obvious thing we saw was the train, made famous by local concerns about seismic impacts on the viaduct. We saw the train on all 4 seismic stations that we deployed. Here is an example:
You can see that the train is coming from the north. It is seen on station BA02 first, which is the northernmost, and on BA04 last, which is the southernmost. BA04 is only 150m from the rail line, so you can see the biggest signal on this station.

We wanted to compare the vibration from the train with typical earthquake magnitudes. To do this we used the UK magnitude scale, which is defined as
                             Ml = log(A) + 0.95log(R) + 0.00183R - 1.76,
where A is the amplitude of the signal at the station, and R is the distance between earthquake and seismometer. We modelled earthquakes occurring directly below the drilling site, and found that a quake with magnitude of 1.5 (the same as the 2nd Preese Hall quake) produced a similar amount of vibration to the train going past at 150m.

We used an automated trigger algorithm to search our data for potential local seismic events. Sadly, we didn't see anything that looked like a local earthquake, either before or during drilling.

The seismometers that we used are actually designed to detect earthquakes from around the globe. We did spot a number of such events (called "teleseismic arrivals"). Here's an example from a magnitude 7.7 event in Pakistan:
This map shows all 25 such events that we spotted:

One of our stations was only 300m from the drilling site. We did notice that things got slightly noisier on this station when drilling started. This figure compares the background noise before and during drilling. A simulated M0.5 event is shown - this shows up above the noise for both cases.
We didn't see any events during our monitoring period. However, we wanted to work out what we could have seen, had something happened. We simulated earthquakes occurring below the drill site, with a variety of magnitudes, and ran the simulated data through our automated detection algorithm, to see what was the smallest that could be reliably identified, given our recorded noise levels

We found that magnitude -0.2 was the smallest we could see. This simulated event is shown below:
As you can see, it just peaks up above the noise. This is the smallest event we can expect to see. This is just below what is required for the traffic light scheme, so a small array like this could work. However, I'd want to see a larger number of stations to really push the detection limits below the magnitude 0.0 cutoff.

Discussion - Accurate event magnitudes?
We finish with a number of recommendations for the implementation of the traffic light scheme (TLS). A fact unbeknownst to most non-seismologists is that there are in fact a number of different magnitude scales, depending on how magnitude is measured. They are all designed to be close to each other, however they are not always exactly the same.

The most common magnitude scale is known as "local magnitude", or ML. This is basically the good ol'fashioned Richter scale, and is fairly simple to compute. You simply measure the maximum amplitude of the seismic trace, you take the distance from source to receiver, and you put it into a local magnitude equation as I outlined above.

An alternative magnitude scale is the "Moment magnitude", or Mw. This directly relates to the moment (read 'force' or 'energy' in layman's terms) released by the earthquake, and in turn to both the size of the fault and the amount that the fault slipped. Mw is slightly harder to compute - you have to look at the frequency content of the earthquake signals - but probably a better representation of the physical process occurring in an earthquake (as opposed to an empirical approximation, as provided by ML).

Small, local arrays such as ours will typically report ML. However, the dense coverage provided by microseismic arrays (as now installed at Preese Hall) often report Mw. It needs to be made absolutely clear how these different types of measurements will be factored into the TLS, because they may not be exactly the same - indeed at small magnitudes they can be different by half a magnitude unit or more. So, for example, what happens if a quake is measured with ML = -0.1 but Mw = +0.1?

Similarly, all measurements of magnitude are subject to an error. This is rarely reported for the large earthquakes you see on TV - the relative signal to noise ratios for a large event are so large that you can be sure that it is magnitude 6.5 (or whatever) ± a very small amount. However, as you enter the world of micro-seismic events, the signal to noise ratio deteriorates (as you can see in image #6 above). As this happens, the error in the calculation gets larger. Again, the incorporation of errors into the TLS needs to be clarified - what happens if an event has magnitude -0.1 ± 0.2?

These issues do not invalidate the traffic light scheme. However, given that operational decisions, and therefore potentially millions of pounds, hang on the accurate characterisation of event magnitudes, it would be helpful to iron out any potential inconsistencies now, rather than in the wake of another induced event.

In closing, I would like to thank the co-authors of this work, who don't yet have blogs of their own.

Friday, 15 November 2013

My first media hack job: "The Truth Behind the Dash for Gas"

The Truth Behind "The Truth Behind the Dash for Gas"

Talk to media people enough, and something like this was inevitable, but it seems that I am the star in a new anti-fracking documentary entitled "The truth behind the dash for gas" (my part starts from about 20 minutes in).

Back in November last year I received an email from a young guy who said he was looking to make his way as a film-maker just out from film-school. His email to me is quoted below:
I am putting together a short film about fracking in Somerset. The aim is to present a fair and informative assessment of the potential for fracking in Somerset, the risks and dangers associated with it, and the views of local people. The film and those working on it are independent of both the anti-fracking campaign groups and those who stand to gain from the fracking industry.
I think just by watching the first few minutes of the film you can see that their  claimed intent "to present a fair and informative assessment of the potential for fracking in Somerset" is barefaced lie. Even more barefaced is their claim that "the film and those working on it are independent of [...] the anti-fracking campaign groups". However, the film has a facebook page, in which it clearly states that the film is facilitated by Frack Free Somerset. The FrackFreeSomerset and FrackOff websites appear prominently in the credits at the end of the film.

Given that the very first contact between myself and the film makers was a lie, one can hardly expect the remainder of the film to do any better. I find it especially ironic that the 2nd word in the film title is "truth", while their very first contact with me was an obvious, barefaced and outright lie. It's not worth my time to address the content of the film as a whole, but I do want to comment on the parts in which my comments have been used.

Comment #1: that debate over hydraulic fracturing has descended into a media slanging match, and I don't think anyone could disagree with that. However, the film moves straight to the same science denialism more usually seen in the anti-climate-change world - if you can't trust the Royal Society for advice on scientific matters, the British Geological Survey, or the Geological Society, for matters geological, or Public Health England for public health matters, then I'm not sure where is left for you to turn, and the term conspiracy theorist begins to apply (see my final comment for more in this vein).  

As for my own 'close ties', I spent 3 months in the BP Institute in Cambridge as a 20-year-old M.Sci student. While BP provided the funds to set up the lab, the students who do projects there are  university students, and have no connection to BP (I certainly spoke to noone from BP while I was there, and in fact the majority of research being done when I was there was on developing energy efficient buildings). I also spent a few months in Rijswijk in Shell's research facility during my Ph.D. During my Ph.D I developed geophysical techniques to ensure safe storage of CO2 in geological reservoirs - so-called CCS, a potential method to mitigate climate change. During this time Shell asked my to come over and help apply some of these methods to their test site at Ketzin, Germany. All of this is made abundantly clear on my website.

Comment #2: I say that in many cases the impacts have been exaggerated. The Scranton Times-Tribune investigated claims made by residents about shale developments in Pennsylvania, finding that 77% of accusations were without substantiation. Surely an example of impacts exaggerated? Equally, even in cases where regulatory breaches by companies have lead to issues - the example of Dimock springs to mind - the impacts of this have been regularly exaggerated. At Dimock, while methane was found to have contaminated groundwater, there was no evidence of fracking fluids in the water. It's not good to have methane in groundwater, and this should be prevented from occurring at all times. However, methane is not toxic or harmful to human health, barring the risk of explosion if it allowed to accumulate in significant amounts. After the company had been cited and forced to repair its wells, levels of methane dropped, returning below the minimum safety levels set by the EPA (a fact never mentioned by activists, who will tell you that once contaminated, an aquifer can never be restored).

Comment #3: The most famous flaming tap in Gasland, the Markham well, had nothing to do with oil and gas drilling. This has been made abundantly clear by the Colorado State regulator (COGCC), which felt the need to release a comment to "correct several errors" in the film. The flaming tap is the headline image of Gasland, it appears in all the trailers and promotional material. That the gas is of biogenic origin, from shallow layers well above those targeted for drilling, implying that gas drilling is not the cause. This film attempts to argue that poor well casing still allowed shallow biogenic methane to migrate. However, the COGCC report makes clear that "there is little or no temporal relationship" between gas drilling in the area and the complaints made about the Markham and McClure wells. This is a fairly massive oversight to be made, one that I think that is worthy of comment. Clearly the film-makers find it easy to relate to other films that are economical with the truth in order to tell a story.

The regulators did rule that a drilling company was at fault in the case of the Ellsworth well. This company reached a settlement with the claimant (again, a fact that the film neglects to mention). The COGCC conducted sampling over a 170 sq mile area, and the Ellsworth well was the only one where any impact was detected. Strangely, we don't get to see Josh Fox setting the Ellsworth taps on fire - one can only guess at why?

The next sleight of hand is either quite clever, or monumentally dumb, I'm really not sure which. They move on to discuss the Duke methane studies, which I have discussed in previous posts here and here. Of course, there are a number of studies performed along along these lines, all of which come to very different conclusions to the Duke study. For some reason the film makers don't mention these (one wonders why). However, these film-makers can't even get the Duke PNAS study facts right! A screen-grab of the PNAS abstract is shown, highlighting an apparent claim that methane was found in 82% of drinking water within 1km of a gas well.
 How about we look at that section of the abstract in full:
In fact, you can clearly see that the 82% figure refers to all the water sampled, not just the ones near gas drilling sites. Methane was found in 82% of water samples, REGARDLESS OF WHETHER THEY ARE NEAR GAS WELLS OR NOT! Incidentally, this is a similar percentage to that found by Molofsky et al., who sampled a much larger dataset (1,700 samples vs 140 samples), finding that 78% of samples contained methane, regardless of proximity of gas wells. In fact this is why establishing whether shale development has caused problems is so difficult in Pennsylvania - there is already a lot of methane in the groundwater. Where studies have been conducted in areas where natural methane is not present in shallow water, they have not seen an impact from drilling.

I honestly find it hard to believe that this accidental highlighting of parts of two sentences, conveniently removing the context to make a scarier quote, is accidental. Either way it is particularly dumb to hope that people familiar with the source material won't spot the attempted trick.

Comment #4 is about well integrity. The astute among you will notice a cut in the editing between the start and end of my answer. Clearly, other things I've said have been edited out. Sadly, this interview was conducted a year ago, so I can't remember exactly what I said, and back then I was too naive to make my own recordings (not a mistake I'll make again), but presumably it was something that didn't fit with the narrative being portrayed.

The films then cuts to the SLB Oilfield Review from 2003. Always a good litmus test of a shale gas commentator is how they treat this report. Firstly this report covers data from deep offshore in the Gulf of Mexico. This is a very challenging drilling environment, so it's not surprising to have more problems offshore than onshore. The only statistics relevant to onshore UK shale drilling are stats from other onshore wells.

More importantly, the film describes the stats as showing either "leakage" or "failure". In fact, they depict incidents of Sustained Casing Pressure. SCP isn't a good thing, and again it should be avoided, but it doesn't equate to the mass leakage of hydrocarbons into shallow layers. Categorically, these stats have no bearing on the rate at which well integrity issues are causing contamination, which is what, misleadingly, the film tries to claim.

The most obvious place to look for wellbore integrity-related contamination issues from onshore wells drilled under a UK regulatory system, is of course to look onshore in the UK, where we have drilled 2,000 wells already, many of them in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s (making most of them 30 years old at least). One of the few things this film gets right is that whether a well is fracked or not has no bearing on wellbore integrity issues. Therefore, if the statistical claims made in this film were true, there would be 1,000 onshore contamination incidents already. If the bold claim that follows ("all wells leak eventually") were true, we'd surely have 2,000 incidents by now. Clearly the claims made in the film do not add up, because I'm not aware of any problems associated with onshore wells in the UK.

Similarly, after the Piper Alpha disaster, regulations were significantly tightened to prevent such an event ever happening again. Again, the North Sea has not been turned into an environmental wasteland - we're still so keen to eat North Sea cod that there's almost none left!

We can also look to the US, which has hundreds of thousands of onshore wells, and actually examine statistics relating to actual incidents of groundwater contamination, as opposed to SCP. Luckily, the US Groundwater Protection Council has done exactly this, in a study released in 2011. They find that of 187,000 wells drilled in Texas, and 33,000 wells drilled in Ohio, only 21 and 12 wells respectively had seen casing issues leading to contamination, rates of 0.01% and 0.04%.

Comment #5 regards regulatory differences between US and UK, and resulting differences in operating practices. The above statistics show that contamination is not endemic to shale drilling. However, even the handful of cases that have occurred is a handful too many. These few incidences are inevitably the result of poor practice, and/or the contravention of regulations.

While I'm speaking, they cut to some shots of flowback waste pits. What they fail to point out is that these are not allowed in the UK - any waste flowing back from the wells must be stored in double-lined steel tanks. This is with good reason: in the GWPC report I mention above, the majority of drilling-related contamination incidents (172 in Ohio, 190 in Texas) have come from surface activities, not from processes happening under the ground. In the US it is common to store the waste fluid in open, plastic-lined pits. These have been known to overflow during heavy rain, or for the liners to tear, allowing the contents to leak. I think the endless shots of waste-fluid pits that activists like to show indicates either that they are not aware that these are banned in the UK, or that they do know this but don't like to let facts get in the way of the story.

For example, in one well-publicised case XTO opened the valve on one of their tanks, allowing the fluid to flow out into the ground, while in another case a trucker dumped his load into a nearby storm drain, rather than taking it to the treatment plant. This sort of illegal activity should absolutely be prevented, and it is important that regulators keep a sharp eye on operators to ensure that this doesn't happen. But it doesn't show that shale gas development is inherently problematic. Again, we can look the the UK example for dealing with produced water. The existing UK onshore industry handles 70 millions barrels of produced water a year, with no apparent contamination problems.

The next interviewee, Laurence Rankin, is presented a "Former Environment Agency manager", with the obvious intention of making us think that he is an impartial commentator. Since my 3 months as a 20-year-old M.Sci student at the BP Institute is worthy of mention, maybe the film should have also pointed out that he is also a coordinator of the Sefton Green Party and member of Friends of the Earth, so perhaps slightly less impartial than first appearances might suggest. While the Green Party man seems to have a problem with Cuadrilla's activities, the Environment Agency itself doesn't, and hasn't claimed that Cuadrilla have broken any of their regulations. The fact that the Green Party man isn't familiar with fracking, doesn't mean it hasn't happened. For example, horizontal wells have been fracked at Wytch Farm in Dorset. Update - this comment reflected media reports regarding Wytch Farm. Water is injected into the Wytch Farm reservoir, but this is to increase the reservoir pressure and drive oil towards production wells (a common practice in conventional fields), not to fracture the rock.

The use of the term 'slick-water' is another slight of hand, somehow implying that slick-water is somehow worse that what has gone before. In fact, in the good old days it was common to use a mix of gelled gasoline and napalm as the frack fluid. Given the choice of water with 1% chemical additives, or gasoline and napalm as the frack fluid, the use of slick-water represents an improvement. And the fact that there were no specific references to fracking in exploration licenses is that it was considered such a normal part of oilfield and drilling activities (with 10% of existing onshore wells being hydraulically stimulated). The main difference between now and what has gone before is one of scale, with modern treatments using higher volumes, rather than any major differences in the technique itself.

The film moves on to the Cuadrilla-induced earthquake near Blackpool. The next mistake made comes with the claim that the increase in earthquakes seen in US is directly attributable to hydraulic stimulation. In fact, the increase in seismicity is caused by an increase in the volumes of waste fluids, from both conventional and unconventional operations, being disposed of by deep injection into saline aquifers. I know this because I have worked in depth on these events, including writing a report for parliament, because they have implications for CCS. There are no proposals in the UK to dispose of fracking fluids through injection into deep aquifers. As far as I am aware, we do not have suitable deep saline aquifers onshore (although we are targeting such aquifers offshore in the North Sea for CCS). Again, one is left wondering whether the film makers know this and are lying, or simply do not understand the science that is being done in this area?

There is only one case in the US where fracking has triggered seismicity - in the Eola field, Oklahoma, which occurred in January 2011, 3 months before Preese Hall event, but was not reported as such until August 2011, after Preese Hall, and one case in Canada (British Columbia), where events occurred between 2009 and 2012, although they were not reported until August 2012, a long time after Preese Hall. So Preese Hall was the first reported incident of induced seismicity triggered by hydraulic stimulation for shale gas.

With respect to reporting of the earthquake and resulting casing deformation to the Energy Minister, there was no regulatory requirement to report casing deformation to him - this is the role of the HSE. Moreover, I think the actions taken were entirely appropriate - they ceased operations to allow a 6-month scientific study to be conducted, after which the results were reported for DECC, HSE and the rest of the world to read. While we're on the point, all of the casing deformation was within the production casing string, within the target zone of production - it was actually below the depths of the frack stages that triggered the seismicity. It poses no risk whatsoever to the integrity of the well. The figure below shows the well design - the deformation is the little yellow bar right at the bottom.

I think that's it in terms of my contribution to this piece of work. I'll comment briefly on the accusation of "mission-creep" in terms of chemical use - every chemical used in the UK must be permitted by the Environment Agency, and fully disclosed to the public.

One final point in closing: the go-to 'expert' for this film appears to be Ian R. Crane, an ex-oilfield-executive, who gets the final word as far as this film is concerned. I don't usually like to stoop to ad-hom arguments, but as Mr Crane seems to appear on an increasing number of anti-fracking pieces, it'll be worth your time having a look at his profile on RationalWiki, a website dedicated to uncovering cranks, conspiracy theorists, and pseudoscience. If this is the best figure-head that the anti-fracking movement can come up with, I would suggest they need to try a little harder.

UPDATE: I checked out the FrackFreeSomerset website to look for more information. According them, the film is not just "facilitated" by FFS, but in fact "produced" by them.

UPDATE (21/11/2013): The film maker himself has left a comment for me. He is correct to point out that I failed to address my comments of water use. In the film, I describe how much water is used for a single stimulation. Of course, the issue is cumulative effects over time if many wells need to be stimulated. The water use for an individual well (~10,000 - 50,000 cubic metres) sounds like a lot, but it must be placed in context. Between the 3 largest water utilities (Severn Trent, United and Thames), 1.7 billion liters of water are lost to leaks PER DAY. If water companies were able to improve on this by just 1%, we would have available an extra 17,000 cubic metres of water, that's enough water to frack a well every day. If water consumption is your concern, don't blame frackers, get the water utilities to fix their leaks (or at least 1% of their leaks).

Tuesday, 22 October 2013

Shale, renewables, and the importance of a carbon price

There are those who claim that exploiting shale gas will lead irrecoverably to climate change. Then there are others who have looked at what has happened in the US so far - where abundant gas has gone hand-in-hand with a renewables boom, displacing coal from the electricity mix and reducing US CO2 emissions, and argue that shale will be beneficial from a climate change perspective.

To know which is more likely to be the case, one has to be able to see into the future. Unless you have a particularly effective crystal ball, we do this by constructing economic models to try to predict how changes in supply, price and legislation will affect future economies.

I am not an economic modeller, but I know that they can get pretty complicated. Moreover, I know enough about modelling more generally to know that trusting the results from a single model can be risky - for added certainty you are best-off looking at multiple models and seeing if they all give you the same answer.

For this reason, a new study released by the Stanford Energy Modeling Forum is of particular interest. They have modelled the future effects of shale gas development on US, looking at a number of potential impacts, in particular changes in greenhouse gas emissions. Moreover, rather than just use one model, they have collated together the results from 7 different models and modelling teams.

Each model and team was asked to simulate a range of potential scenarios, including:
  1. Reference scenario - the prediction for the future follwing business as usual
  2. Low shale - a scenario with significantly reduced shale gas production - down 50% from the reference case
  3. High shale - a scenario with significantly increase shale gas production - up 50% from the reference case
  4. High shale, high growth - a scenario that includes the high shale scenario, with the added bonus that economic activity receives a boost from shale development, boosting annual growth by 0.5%
  5. Carbon price - a scenario where the government places a price on carbon ($25 per tonne) to try to encourage emissions reductions. Otherwise follows the reference economic growth and shale development
  6. Carbon price and shale - we have the same shale gas boom (high shale), but the government puts the carbon price in place
The graph below shows the results of the models in terms of CO2 emissions, comparing emissions in 2010 with predicted emissions in 2050. Each group of columns is the results from one of the models, while each individual column represents a particular scenario as listed above.

The first thing to note is that there are big differences in some of the absolute values between models - this is why trusting to one model alone can be a bad idea. However, the trends between the different scenarios are generally consistent between models, and that is the important result.

The most notable observation is the lack of impact of shale development on CO2 emissions, either in the positive or negative sense. Whether we follow the reference case; or boost shale gas production significantly; or restrict shale gas production significantly, the resulting CO2 emissions by 2050 will be little different. Even if shale gas provides a significant economic boost relative to the reference case (the shale growth scenario), CO2 emissions will be little different.

There are two scenarios that achieve significant reductions in emissions, and these are ones where a carbon price of $25 is imposed. If this carbon price is created, models predict a dramatic reduction in CO2 emissions, regardless of whether shale gas development continues as business as usual, or whether we see significant increases in shale production (shale carbon). 

So, what is the moral of this story? It appears that whether shale gas is developed extensively, or is severely restricted, has little impact on CO2 emissions. To really make an impact, we need to put a price on emitting CO2 to the atmosphere. If climate change concerns you, chaining yourself to the front of a shale drilling site is a waste of time. This is time that could have been better spent trying to persuade government to introduce a carbon tax (or cap-and-trade, or an emissions trading scheme, or whatever your preferred method of pricing CO2 might be). I should add that it is particularly depressing when it is an elected member of parliament is the chain-ee, who's time really could be better spent arguing for a carbon price.

I've linked to this paper before, but there are those who argue that a CO2 price would actually be in the interests of natural gas companies (as it would favour gas over coal in the power sector, and gas over oil in the transport sector), and that harnessing the lobbying power of large and profitable gas companies might be the best way to go about gaining governmental acceptance for it. That certainly seems like a better use of time than chaining oneself to gate in Sussex.

Acknowledgements: A tip of the hat to Grant McDermott for pointing out this study to me - he discusses it at his blog here.

Friday, 4 October 2013

The role of experts vs interest groups when science-related issues are dicussed in the media

A recent piece in the Guardian has criticised the BBC over its coverage of climate change issues, and in particular the release of the latest IPCC report. In the interests of so-called "editorial balance", there has a tendency to include non-specialists, so-called 'climate deniers' (not a term I'm particularly fond of, given its connotations, despite being a 'climate-believer' myself).

It was a complaint that immediately stuck me as ironic coming from the Guardian, given much of its recent reporting about shale gas. Particular Guardian highlights include letting Lucy Mangan, a lifestyle columnist, free reign make up whatever she liked about shale development, including, my particular favourite, the claim that the UK has no history of onshore operations, which must have come as a surprise to the operators of Wytch Farm (the largest onshore field in the EU) and the other 40 or so existing onshore oil and gas fields.

Similarly flawed was their piece accusing an operator of gagging a family claiming that their water had been impacted by drilling, while failing to mention that the Pennsylvania DEP had been in to test the water, and had found no evidence of any drilling-related contamination.

Meanwhile Andrew Rawnsley felt sufficiently geologically-qualified to claim that UK shales were unlikely to be profitable because they were "typically among the thinnest" of Europe, when in fact at over 6,000 feet the Bowland shale is probably the thickest shale deposit found anywhere to date.

These are the headline mistakes, but of course every piece on shale must be accompanied by a statement from a protest group detailing imminent environmental catastrophe, without ever being asked to provide any evidence or justification of any kind. Certainly there's been no attempt to highlight the difference between ill-informed shale hype (and there is plenty of this from both sides of the debate) and expert scientific opinion as expressed, for example, by the Royal Society report, by the BGS, or perhaps even from John Hanger, one-time Pennsylvania environmental chief (whose 'Facts of the Day' blog is well worth a read).  

There are many areas of modern life where science intersects with social and political viewpoints (global warming, GM food, nuclear power, vaccinations, creationism, all spring to mind). At this point I want to move my discussion away from shale gas specifically to treat the subject of expert representation in the media more generally.

With unsurprising regularity, wherever the science agrees with a particular viewpoint you'll see protagonists urging: "let the scientists speak - don't let the unscientific opponents be given equal footing to the actual experts", only to find that when the boot is on the other foot over a different issue, suddenly having balance in the debate is crucial: interested parties, even if not experts, should be given a platform to express their views.

I'm not sure where I stand on this issue. On the one hand, the scientist in me feels that on every issue we should ensure that it is the experts that are given prime time in the debate, and that editors/producers must make sure to differentiate what is evidence based from what is (socio-)politically motivated. We can see direct examples where the failure to do so leads directly to harm (the MMR scare and resulting South Wales measles outbreak springs most immediately to mind).

Sadly however, I suspect that many editors lack the expertise needed to do this, having neither the ability nor inclination to cross-examine their sources to differentiate expertise from BS. Moreover, we should not be insensitive to the fact that many of these issues provoke very strong emotions some sections of the non-expert general public, who will come to be represented by partisan organisations and spokespeople. Is there a case to be made that, if a certain view is held by a significant portion of the population, then it is right that the media provide air-time to that view-point, even if misinformed?

For me it's a difficult question, a difficult balance to be found. Comments and thoughts welcome in the comment section as always.

Wednesday, 2 October 2013

Spot the Wells Part II: Downtown LA

I've played this game with you before but it's time for another go. Here's an aerial image of the Beverly Hills area of LA. Can you spot 50 oil wells?

Spot them? Thought not? How about if I zoom in a little?

If you've got sharp eyes, you might just be able to spot them now, but maybe not. Just in case, I'll zoom in one more time:

You should be able to see them now - nestled in behind the Beverly Center Shopping Mall. If you're still not sure, check out google maps here. As we did for the Forth Worth Airport wells, let's go to street view and see what we can see (again, I recommend that you go to google maps and do this for yourself):

On the occasion of this image, there is a drilling rig on site (the frame tower you can see). These are temporary structures present only while the well is drilled. As for anything else, all you can see is the wall shielding the pipes and tanks from view, the whole site dominated completely by the shopping mall.

Approx. 50 wells have been drilled from this pad, which is targeting a tight oil reservoir (much like at Balcombe, as I'm sure we're all aware). All have been hydraulically stimulated (i.e. fracked). It's right that we discuss the potential surface impacts of shale gas development in the UK. But we should always bear in mind what can be done to ensure that the impact is minimised.

This website provides some neat examples of other drilling pads discretely dotted around downtown LA. According to this site (I've not been able to find verify this anywhere), the Beverly Center pad produces 500,000 barrels of oil a year. At a price of approx. $100/barrel, that's worth $50,000,000 dollars per year. As per the wells at Fort Worth Airport, I struggle to think of any other economic activity where you can get as much 'buck' for as little footprint.

Sunday, 29 September 2013

New study on methane emission from shale wells, and a comment on the role of environmental NGOs

A new paper released in PNAS, using measurements from 500 shale wells, shows very low methane leakage rates (~0.43% of total produced volume). This is significant because it has been suggested that high methane leakage rates could counter the greenhouse benefits of the 50% CO2 reduction you get from switching from coal to gas.

Those who have been following this debate for a while will know that this issue has been put to bed a while ago, with numerous studies contradicting the infamous, and oft-cited, Howarth study (which, to re-iterate, was based purely on estimates and models, and no actual measurements). I've covered this before here, and NoHotAir has covered the issue quite succinctly here. Nevertheless, this new study is probably the most comprehensive yet, with numerous measurements from each stage of the well completion process, and it is reassuring to see that it has come to similar conclusions to prior studies that also show the significant climate benefits of switching from coal to gas.

The details of the study has been widely reported, so I won't waste too much ink on it here, instead I'll let you read some links here and here.

The study was funded by a collaboration between 9 drilling companies and the Environmental Defence Fund, and it is on this aspect that I'd like to dwell for the remainder of this post.

The EDF's policy towards natural gas is outlined here. Like any environmental organisation, they're not wildly in favour of gas production, and would prefer to see an increase in renewable energy capacity. However, they appreciate the role of natural gas in a diverse energy portfolio. That is, of course, so long as it is extracted safely, and so long as fugitive methane emissions do not impact the benefits of burning gas over coal.

To ensure that this is the case, they are working in collaboration with drilling companies. Through this collaboration, they gain direct access to drill sites in order to take the kind of measurements necessary for the kind of studies described above. I would describe this as a mature, practical approach, bringing industry, scientists and environmentalists to the same table to talk about what can be done to protect the environment.

This can be contrasted with the efforts made thus far by UK environmental organisations such as Greenpeace, FOE and the Green Party, which could be described as like a child having a tantrum, screaming "No No No", No attempt to discuss how shale gas extraction could be made as safe as possible, no attempt to explore the potential to displace coal generation. Just say no.

I simply cannot see how chaining yourself to a fence outside a drilling site and getting arrested is a more productive use of time than getting around the table with some scientists. Indeed, why not use a small part of Greenpeace's £200 million annual turnover to fund a few UK academics to do some studies? If you believe, as these groups do, that shale gas extraction is fundamentally unsafe, why would you not be rushing to put some funding together to find the scientific proof that this is so.

I'll leave you with some similar comments from a blogger from Scientific American, who puts across similar thoughts far more succinctly than I.

Friday, 13 September 2013

Produced water disposal - a comparison with the conventional industry

A typical fracture stimulation stage requires approximately 1 million gallons of water. Depending on the specific site, you would expect between 25 - 75% of this fluid to return to the surface in the days following the frack. The fluid that comes back is called "flowback".

The injected fluid may contain about 1% chemical additive. The two principal additives tend to be friction reducers (which reduce the energy needed to pump the water) like polyacrimide (found in many cosmetic products) and thickeners (to help the fluid carry proppant) like guar gum (found in many food products). Cuadrilla have listed their ingredients here.

In addition, during its brief sojourn underground, the injected fluid can pick up additional material from the shale rock, including naturally occurring radioactive material (so-called NORM) and other minerals. Therefore, these fluids need to be treated before they can be safely returned to the water system.

The need to dispose of produced water is not a new problem for the oil industry. In most conventional hydrocarbon reservoirs, there is a certain amount of water trapped along with the oil. As the oil is produced, so is the water. As the field gets older, and most of the oil is gone, more and more water is produced alongside the remaining oil, and the "water cut" (the percentage of water produced alongside the oil) can be as high as 90% (i.e. 90% of the fluid produced from the reservoir is water, not oil).

As is the case with water injected for fracking, this water will have been in contact with the hydrocarbon reservoir, in this case for millions of years, rather than a few days. Therefore it may be highly saline, and it may contain NORM. This water, when produced, has to be dealt with.

A recurring theme in many of my posts is that what is proposed for UK shale extraction does not differ hugely from conventional operations, and also that we have a successful onshore industry with an excellent track record of minimising its environmental impact.

To make this point again, this time with respect to dealing with water produced from oil and gas wells, the table below lists the volumes of water (in barrels) produced from onshore UK oil and gas fields in 2012.
In total, over 73 million barrels of water are produced from onshore UK wells every year. The majority of this comes from the Wytch Farm oil field. Some of this water is re-injected into the reservoir to help force out more oil (approx 5 million barrels at Wytch Farm) but typically it is treated, and then, once clean it's discharged into the sea.

The larger UK offshore industry has to deal with an eye-watering (excuse the pun) 1.5 billion barrels of produced water every year!

A typical hydraulic fracture stimulation will use approximately 1 - 5,000 cubic meters (200,000 - 1,000,000 gallons) of water, or 6,000 - 30,000 barrels. Assuming that 50% returns to surface, that's 3,000 - 15,000 barrels of water to be processed for each frack stage.

This, again, is where comparisons with the conventional industry become pertinent - the current UK onshore industry has to deal with 73,000,000 barrels of produced water every year. It would take thousands of frack stages every year just to to match that rate. As an unnamed onshore operator commented to me recently (my emphases): "most people don't realise that all oil and gas wells produce water, more water than oil, and we have been dealing with it since way before shale gas. It is a lot of water. Can't blame the UK water on fracs!".

I'm not a chemist, so I'm not really up to speed with the details of how produced water is processed. I had an anonymous commenter on this post who seemed to really know his stuff. However, the best place to find out would be from the guys who are doing it, such as Lee Petts from Remsol, who has blogged about the issue here.  

Saturday, 7 September 2013

Shale and renewable energy

In a recent post I pointed out the role that domestic shale gas production can play in moving towards a greener energy system, and suggested that the exchequer should ring-fence a portion of the taxes resulting from shale development to be spent on alternative energy research and development (improved renewable tech, next gen nuclear, and energy efficiency). I'm not the only UK geoscientist to come to this conclusion - if you enjoy FrackLand then I highly recommend that you also follow, a new blog by Paul Glover, a Professor of Petrophsics at Leeds Uni.

My hope is that more UK academics start to realise the vital role they need to play in the current shale gas debate. Gasandgaiters has come to a very similar conclusion about the implications for shale development and renewables for the UK.

I think this point is made most succinctly, however, by those involved in the renewable energy business themselves - do they see shale gas as a help or a hindrance? The remainder of this post is borrowed from Energy in Depth (this post in particular). This is an gas-industry-sponsored website, so is unsurprisingly pro-gas-industry. As such, I try to avoid linking to it too much. In this case, however, the pertinent quotes are from leaders in the renewables industry, collated by EID.

Focusing on Texas, a renewables boom as gone hand-in-hand with the shale gas boom, as reported in the Scientific American. Quoting EID:
A report released today by the Texas Clean Energy Coalition has reconfirmed that natural gas and renewables “are complementary, not competing, resources.” The study, compiled by economists with the Brattle Group, analyzed the short and long term relationship between natural gas and renewable resources in the Texas electricity market – and what they found was a “win-win for Texas and the environment.” Texas provided 28 percent of all U.S. marketed natural gas production in 2011, while leading the nation in installed wind generation capacity.  Combined, these resources are providing clean, reliable, and affordable power for Texas consumers. Yet while wind energy provides 96 percent of renewable generation in the state, the overall output is not controllable and at times is ill-matched with electricity market demand. The ability of natural gas to quickly ramp up and down and to provide intermittent output makes it an ideal, complementary match to wind output.
Rhone Resch is the chief of the US Solar Energy Industries Association. ClimateDesk reports:
'Natural gas and renewables complement each other very nicely,' Rhone Resch, CEO of the Solar Energy Industries Association, said this morning at a press conference for the release of Bloomberg New Energy Finance’s 2013 Factbook, an exhaustive analysis of the state of clean energy in America.
The report, based on a blend of original and existing government research, is unequivocal in placing natural gas in the same ‘clean energy’ boat as renewables, a new arrangement Resch and Dave McCurdy, head of the American Gas Association, agreed they were happy to see. 'Natural gas can fill the gap when renewables go intermittant,' he said, 'ramping up when the wind stops or the sun goes down.'
Studies from MIT have shown how shale gas development can free up resources to invest in renewables. This is the view taken by US Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz. Meanwhile, Bloomberg reports the director-general of the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) as stating:
Shale gas at low cost can help to create a hybrid system,’ whereby more gas-fired power is fed to the grid, supplanting coal, and augmented by wind and solar.
The success or otherwise of renewables in the UK will depend principally whether the political willpower is there to continue to support them. I hope the government continues to show that it will develop renewable energy systems. The extraction of domestic shale gas will support, not hinder, this development. 

Update (10/09/2013): It seems that I timed this blog rather nicely. Yesterday, in a speech to the Royal Society, DECC Minister Ed Davey, outlined the future role of UK shale development. This is backed up by a new government report describing how shale gas development fits in with the UK's plans to develop renewable energy and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.