Tuesday, 18 March 2014

Comments on the RSPB shale gas report

Today's post centers on a "new" report from the RSPB on the impacts of shale extraction in the UK. I say new, because it's really just a rehashing of a few existing reports (more on this below).

Before I get into the meat of things, there's one particular (not shale related) aspect I would like to address, because having been through it numerous times, and not always successfully, it is a subject very dear to my heart. The reports claims to be "peer reviewed" by the Center for Ecology and Hydrology. To my mind this is not a peer reviewed document. Peer review does not consist of handing your work to a friend to read over (though I would recommend to any young scientist that they do so BEFORE submitting for peer review).

Peer review implies an independent editorial body to oversee the process. Moreover, like the scientific process itself, peer review also implies the possibility of failure - that the reviewer has the option of saying that a paper is incorrect/unsuitable/makes unsupported conclusions and therefore should not be published. None of the above seems to be the case here, so I do not consider this report to be peer reviewed. That the authors are prepared to claim otherwise shows a worrying lack of respect for the process. Perhaps to non scientists this seems a little pedantic, but I'm sure anyone that has gone through the peer review process will understand that it should not be taken lightly, nor should the mantle of "peer-reviewed" be attached to things that are not. 

Post publication peer review is an interesting new idea developing in academia, where any "peer" can review a paper after it is published, as opposed to restricting peer review to the pre-publication stage. So I suppose this post represents something along those lines. I won't be going into as much rigour as a full peer review however, mainly because despite the 64 pages, there isn't actually a lot of substance in the report. Certainly there's very little that I would consider new, it's mainly a rehash of a few, cherry-picked existing sources: a report by Broderick et al. (2011) is cited 14 times - this report was funded by the Co-op, which had made its opposition to shale development clear long before this report was published. The widely discredited Howarth group papers are cited 9 times.

The cherry-picking is apparent in a number of sections. For example, when discussing methane in groundwater, the Duke studies (Osborne et al., 2011; Jackson et al., 2013) are cited extensively - indeed figures are lifted directly from their papers. Yet the RSPB makes no mention of the many other studies into methane and shale gas production that have found no link between drilling and shallow methane contamination. No mention, for example, of the paper by Molofsky et al. (2013) that studied a far larger dataset than the Duke studies and found no connection between methane levels and drilling (and explicitly addressed some of the shortcomings of the Duke paper itself). No mention of the Center for Rural Pennsylvania study that found no connection between drilling and methane. No mention of the baseline study by the USGS in areas unaffected by drilling that found methane levels no different to those found by the Duke study. Or a second USGS study across the border in the NY state, where drilling is banned, that again found similar results. No mention of another Duke study in Arkansas that found no issues associated with drilling. Or the most recent study that again showed similar methane levels before drilling begins. For what essentially purports to be a review paper, that's an awful lot of papers omitted!

In the discussion on water usage, no mention is made of papers that have studied the life cycle water consumption comparisons between shale gas and conventional gas, or the overall impacts of shale gas development in places like Texas when the overall impacts on water use in the energy sector are considered (links here and here). Though we are fortunate to see in Table 4 showing the relative water consumption of shale development in comparison with other users. Apparently an industry that uses between 0.4 - 0.06% of water is the major problem here.

The report identifies the "fluctuating water needs of the industry throughout the year", and it's true that different amounts of water are needed during the development cycle - a smaller amount during the 4-6 weeks of drilling, a rather larger amount during stimulation, and then none for 10 - 20 years of production. What is rather less appreciated by many (and I include Jim Marshall from Water UK in his speech to the Shale UK Forum last year) is that operators can be flexible in how they receive this water. It doesn't all need to arrive at once. The operator will be on site constructing the pad, and then drilling and casing the wells, running logs, performing seismic surveys, for quite some time before they need to stimulate. During this time they can be gradually filling up their storage tanks, ready to use for the stimulation at the end of drilling. They don't need all the water to suddenly arrive all in one go.

In the discussion on climate change and fugitive methane, the report relies heavily on the widely discredited Howarth study, with no mention of the most extensive dataset of fugitive methane emissions available - Allen et al. (2013), or any of the may other critiques of the Howarth studies. The RSPB report also makes extensive use of two papers by a NOAA team (Petron et al., 2012; and Karion et al., 2013). Again, no mention is made of serious flaws identified in the first NOAA paper (see here and here also), or that in the second paper (Karion et al., 2013), the value range published by the authors is the 1-sigma range, meaning a 1-in-3 chance that the true value is outside the published range, and that when are more scientifically acceptable 2-sigma (95%) confidence interval is used, the results do not indicate with any statistical certainty that methane levels are outside of the ordinary. In addition, no mention is made of the fact that these publications rely on just 3 hours of monitoring data, in one area, so can in no way be considered representative of the industry as a whole.

In addition to the cherry-picking, there is also much in the report that is simply irrelevant to the UK setting, or taken wildly out of context. The induced seismicity section is almost wholly irrelevant, because this is predominantly an issue associated with subsurface re-injection of waste fluids, a practice that will not be conducted in the UK.

Much is made about the impact of numerous well pads on "core forest" habitats in Pennsylvania. Yet it is highly unlikely that UK operators will look to fell forest or woodland to site pads, when we have plenty of empty fields available (why waste all that effort cutting down trees when you can just build a pad in a field?). Similarly, much is made of the discharge to water with high TDS into sensitive rivers. This is a practice that would not be allowed by the Environment Agency.

My final criticism is a lack of context and perspective in the report. For example, an MIT study is used to look at pollution incidents. These show that the two main issues are well-bore integrity issues leading to natural gas migration, and spills of fluids at the surface (so not directly "fracking" related in either case). What is missing is the context - 47 incidents out of hundreds of thousands of wells drilled, meaning that less than 0.05% of wells have any impact (FWIW, this study reflects similar numbers found by other studies). Equally, the sections on water consumption are obviously missing any context in the form of a comparison with other industries.

Another obvious lack of contextualisation is evident in the failure to discuss the existing UK onshore industry at all. It barely receives a mention. Yet over 2,000 onshore wells have been drilled in the UK. In terms of the issues of lighting, noise, and habitat disturbance, a shale well will be little different to a conventional gas well. I have no idea whether any studies have been conducted into habitant disturbance caused by the existing onshore industry. If there are, these should have been made prominent in the RSPB report, seeing as they'd represent the most relevant data available. If there are no such studies, then one suspects that the existing industry has not caused significant issues.

Either way, this omission is glaring, especially given for example, the number of wells in close proximity to an RSPB nature reserve at Beckingham Marsh:

Note also that many of these wells have been hydraulically stimulated (albeit on a smaller scale than that proposed for shale developments). Comments by RSPB officials on their website indicate that many of them are unaware of this.

The final lack of context, which I am not the first to point out, is the comparison with the RSPB's favoured energy technology - renewable energy, which in the UK means, predominantly, wind turbines.

Whenever I comment on renewable energy I always feel that I should state for the record that I am broadly supportive of the development on renewable technologies. Renewable tech as it currently stands has not yet reach sufficient capability that it can reliably power a developed economy. Nevertheless, the only way we learn is by doing, so we should continue to encourage the deployment of renewable energy technologies, so that the scientists and engineers who work on them have an opportunity to develop the technology such that the future will lead to more sustainable energy supplies (even coal, of which we have something like 400 years-worth still in the ground, will run out eventually).

Nevertheless, the impact on birdlife has clearly been an issue. A recent study estimates 888,000 bat deaths and 573,000 bird deaths due to wind turbines in the US, including 83,000 raptors (eagles, falcons etc). I leave it to your imagination the response from the RSPB had shale gas extraction been to blame for this many bird deaths! Note also the comparative amounts of noise from a shale well during drilling in comparison to wind turbines (where noise levels at the turbine can be over 100dB(A) at the turbine itself), and note also that for the shale development this noise is there for a few weeks of drilling, where a wind turbine is permanent. Finally, note that a single shale well pad, occupying a couple of hectares, may produce a similar amount of energy to a whole wind farm occupying over 500 hectares of land. All of this context is glaringly absent from the RSPB report.

Update 21.3.2014
The Center for Ecology and Hydrology have released a comment detailing their involvement with the "peer-reviewing" of this report. They state that "this was not a systematic review". The "Are We Fit To Frack?" summary report, which lists the recommendations that have been making the actual headlines was not subjected to any review whatsoever.  Note also that "Dr Singer was contracted by the consortium […] to spend 4 days to review its scientific content". Last time I checked, under proper "peer review" the review-ee does not get to chose who the reviewer is, nor how long they should be given to perform the review (these decisions being the domain of an independent editorial body). This update by the CEH confirms that the RSPB report is not peer-reviewed, and the decision by the authors to claim otherwise shows a worrying lack of concern for the process.


  1. I am just about to work up a blog on the report and got most of your points. What are the RSPB, Nat Trust and Wildlife Trusts doing?

  2. I am just about to work up a blog on the report and got most of your points. What are the RSPB, Nat Trust and Wildlife Trusts doing?

  3. Excellent critique - thanks a lot. I will cite this page frequently wherever anti-frackers rear their exceedingly uninformed heads.

  4. Great stuff James, I will contact the ASA and see if they are the body that can refute this highly biased report. If not there is bound to be a body that will be able to critique this, as it is not on to have 'respected' bodies pumping out disinformation, which then gets great publicity. Strangely the UKOOG response, which noted 'critical innaccuracies' seemed to get little response. The damage has been done and I will see what I can do to get that reversed.

  5. ThinkingScientist19 March 2014 at 03:03

    An excellent, balanced and well informed review provding accurate and relevent factual information. You should try to write for a newspaper - Telegraph maybe?

  6. Another group pumping out misinformation on fracking are churches and Christian groups. google fracking/Blackburn/church etc and you will see what I mean. I am not popular for giving a different line - similar to James. BTW I was originally an exploration geologist turned vicar