Thursday, 1 August 2013

Talking about Balcombe on 5Live, and is the UK oil industry a victim of its own success?

With the protest ongoing outside Cuadrilla's drill site near Balcombe, it's somewhat inevitable that I'd end up on the radio again - 5Live Drive once again. I've included the whole segment, including Bianca Jagger, a man from Blackpool who finds the whole shale gas thing a little boring, Vanessa Vine from Frack-Free-Sussex who finds the whole thing very exciting, and finally I get squeezed in at the end.

Beyond giving you the chance to enjoy my honey-ed tones once more, there are a couple of points that arose from this interview that I'd like to expand on.

The first thing that came to mind while listening to the anti-fracking interviewee was the issue of geological dread in public perception of risk. The concept of 'dread' in public risk perception is well established. From Wikipedia, a dread risk elicits visceral feeling of terror, uncontrollable, and catastrophe. It was coined in an attempt to understand why public perception of risk is often very different to expert assessment of risk. It is often that sense of an unknown danger that provokes feelings of dread. It was initially used to describe feelings towards nuclear power, but I think it applies equally to things like flying (for some people), but especially GM food, and now fracking.

Quoting the interviewee, fracking is 'messing with subterranean geology', and 'we cannot legislate for the vagaries of subterranean geology, it's such a human arrogance'. It seems that the public has this idea that the subsurface is unknowable and uncontrollable, leading to feelings of dread. I would argue that while the subsurface can no doubt be a challenging environment, there are hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people, geologists/geophysicists/hydrologists/geochemists etc., for whom understanding and making use of the subsurface is the bread and butter of their day to day life.

Geologists (Iain Stewart aside, perhaps) don't talk enough to the general public. We saw this in the furore over Iain Duncan Smith's comments about shelf-stackers being more important than geologists, where geologists finally had the gumption to point out to the rest of the world how important they actually are. And we are incredibly important.

Take a look at all the objects around you and in your life. If it's not made of animal (wool, leather) or plant (wood, cotton) then chances are it's made of something extracted from this apparently unknowable subterranean geology, that apparently we shouldn't be messing with.

It might be stone, which has to be quarried, cement and concrete products made from quarried aggregates and limestone. If it's plastic or synthetic then it's made from oil. If it's metal then that metal had to be mined somewhere. Moreover, all of the energy we use involves the subsurface as well. Hydrocarbons are the most obvious example. But where does the uranium come from that we put in our nuclear power plants? What about renewable sources, surely these will take us away from that dreadful subterranean geology with which thou shalt not mess? Well, a typical wind turbine needs something close to 100kg of neodymium, which can only be found in a few places, and mining it is not exactly a pleasant process. And hydroelectric? Well, it's well established that reservoir impoundment for hydroelectric can produce large earthquakes - for example the 2008 magnitude 7.9 Sichuan earthquake, which killed 80,000 people, has been linked with the impoundment of the Zipingpu Dam. Slightly more dramatic than the Blackpool tremor I feel.

Much of human endeavor has been based on 'messing with subterranean geology'. During fracking, we can use geophysical methods to monitor exactly where the induced fractures have gone, and to ensure that they are wholly contained within the targeted shale beds. As geologists, we have to accept that the public are unlikely to fully understand what we do. However, shale gas extraction is not an uncontrolled, poorly understood process. To claim that it is is to do insult to the thousands, or millions, of geologists around the world who do this kind of thing, successfully, every day.

Speaking of success, the events in Balcombe raise a second point. I am wondering whether the current UK onshore oil and gas activities have been a victim of their own success in hiding their operations from the public for the last 50 years.

Protestors talk about thousands of well sites despoiling our beautiful countryside. Which is strange, because we already have thousands of onshore wells across our countryside. Literally, 2000 wells - you can download a spreadsheet listing them all here. 10% of these, so about 200, have been hydraulically stimulated. Yet no-one seems to even know that they are there, and certainly no-one seems to be claiming that 50% of them are leaking hydrocarbons and/or carcinogens to contaminate groundwater.

Our onshore industry has been very effective at (a) making sure that they don't cause environmental problems and (b) doing everything that they can to stay out of the public view. I grew up a few miles down the road from the Humbly Grove Field, which is here (as per my Fort Worth post, go to StreetView and see if you can even see it), yet until I went to university I didn't even know it was there.

Now, when a new well is proposed, because people don't know anything about the onshore industry, the thought of drilling in the rural UK countryside seems crazy, (indeed it even induces dread), even though there are 2000 wells already there.

It's understandable that when we seek to understand shale gas impacts we look to the US, and we try to understand the issues they have faced, and what the development has ended up looking like. However, we should also look to our own industry. If we want to know whether it is possible to conceal well pads without despoiling the countryside, we should look at our own ability to do so, not what American regulators and planning rules allow. If we want to know whether wells are likely to leak, we should look at whether our own 2,000 wells are leaking, not whether wells drilled under American regulatory and inspection regimes are leaking.

There's one major aspect of the media attention at Balcombe that has surprised me. There is ALREADY an oil well on the Balcombe site, drilled in the 1980s by Conoco. They abandoned it because the price of oil dropped to $10 per barrel, while now it is over $100. I've not seen this well mentioned in many reports from Balcombe. Has the old well has been causing problems for Balcombe for the last 25 years? I doubt it. I would love to know what it is about the new well that people see problems? Why will it be different, or more likely to cause problems, than the one that is already there? 


  1. A really, really, interesting post. I knew we had on-shore wells (like Poole in Dorset) but I never realised that there were 2000!

    But the problem of irrational fear and dread remains. How we get over this I don't know.

  2. " Has the old well has been causing problems for Balcombe for the last 25 years? I doubt it. I would love to know what it is about the new well that people see problems? Why will it be different, or more likely to cause problems, than the one that is already there? "

    Possibly because its not abandoned ?

    1. Would that make a difference to well-bore annular integrity though? The problems that people seem to attribute to shale gas extraction center on the drilling and completion phases, and then well-bore integrity, rather than production.

  3. 2000 wells (note there are not 2000 well sites, as multiple wells at many sites) over the UK is about one every 120 sq km.

    Hydraulic fracturing of an area like the Weald in the South would require many hundreds of times that density to make it anywhere near worthwhile.

    It is this kind of argument that is losing the PR battle for the industry.

    1. It doesn't add up...10 August 2013 at 09:30

      Over 15 years ago, long reach wells were being drilled at Wytch Farm:

      That implies that wellpad separation could be over twice the outreach distance, or say every 25km, given suitable geology. That's one every 625 sq km. Horizontal drilling changes the equation - and the productivity of shale wells. Shale also increases the flexibility of siteing wells, as the aim is not to hit the top of a dome formation (like an upturned glass), but rather to drill into the sponge of the shale.

      It's worth pointing out that 15 years ago, the 100,000 b/d produced at Wytch Farm was more than the entire average output of ALL the UK's wind farms last year. Its still producing around 20,000 b/d.

  4. I've already posted a map showing the locations of all onshore UK wells:

    The 1 per 120 sq km figure is only applicable if you consider the area of the whole of the UK. Obviously there are large areas of the UK that do not have wells, simply because the geology is not suitable (most of N.I, Wales and Scotland, for example). The density of wells in the Weald Basin and the East Midland Oil Province is substantially larger.

    Multiple wells per pad will also be normal practice for shale development. Indeed, the IoD anticipates as many as 40 wells per pad. It is in the operating company's interest to minimise their surface impact, and not just to avoid upsetting the locals, but because each new pad costs a lot of extra money.