Dr Doug Robinson, now retired, but until recently a Senior Lecturer at Bristol University, attended a public meeting held by Frack Free Somerset last week. Following his visit, Dr Robinson contacted me to discuss the experience, and to outline his concerns about the group. His comments follow:
Notices posted by the frack free Somerset group for a meeting in Wookey Hole village about fracking “heading our way” attracted my attention being a retired geologist and local resident. I went along assuming it was a bona fide group raising rational concerns about unconventional gas recovery, and that there would be an opportunity to have an informed discussion on the pros and cons of the issues involved. At the introduction it was stated that the group had no political or other agenda and wanted to provide a balanced account of the pros and cons of the fracking controversy and that in the discussion, views and comment allied to both sides of the argument were welcome.
The hour-long film produced by the group was said to present to provide a balanced and true view of the debate on unconventional gas development. The film, however, was largely based on opposition to the exploitation of unconventional gas, and of little more than a propaganda style repeating many of the unsubstantiated and well-known scare stories that have already been widely aired in the press and online. The film did use various cuts from interviews with professional Earth scientists, and also showed and gave quotes from the 2012 Royal Society report on “Shale gas extraction in the UK: a review of hydraulic fracturing” (available at http://royalsociety.org/policy/projects/shale-gas-extraction/report/), attempting to show engagement with scientific issues. These examples were however of negative points, and didn’t attempt to use such sources to present a scientific analysis of the process. Two examples can be used to demonstrate this point:
It was mentioned that vast and unsustainable volumes of water were needed for the fracking process. While indeed the process uses large volumes, it is always helpful to put it into context and use the Royal Society report which indicated the volume of water to run a typical shale gas well “for a decade” is that which United Utilities in the northwest of England loses to leaks “every hour”, or that which a 1,000 MW coal power station uses every “12 hours”.
A scaremongering approach reported recycled fracking water as containing dangerous levels of radioactive material. Again no mention was made of the conclusion of the Royal Society report that the radioactive materials in the source shales are “at levels significantly lower than safe limits of exposure”.
In addition the film provided only partial facts on some matters, leading viewers into false assumptions. One example was the concern raised about the chemicals used in the fracking process. It was correctly reported that the bulk of the fluid used (~ 95%) was water, but the implication was given that the remainder was made up of toxic chemicals, rather than reporting that the next major component (~5%) is in fact sand, and that chemicals constitute < 0.2% (source Royal Society report).
The presentation contained material of a contradictory nature by indicating that exploration in Somerset could cover the entire area of the Mendip hills, raising fears of wells all over the Mendip AONB. In fact the map of the Petroleum Exploration and Development Licences (PEDL) granted for exploration in Somerset that was shown in the film demonstrated that they overlap only a very small part of the eastern end of the Mendip AONB.
One of the more misleading and scaremongering aspects of the presentation was the claim that figures from the company UK methane, intending to exploit unconventional gas in Somerset, reveal that it would necessitate “drilling over 2000 wells” – a statement that is indisputably false for two main reasons. First, the company has given no figures on the number of wells that would be involved, basically because the investigation stage has not even been initiated and there is no accurate data on whether or not exploitation would be commercial (this very information is in fact reported in frack free Somerset’s own published notes see: http://www.frackfreesomerset.org/2012/09/30/346/). The second point relates to the failure of frack free Somerset to have even a basic understanding of the geological basis for this area being investigated for unconventional gas. Again, using their own notes on a meeting with UK Methane (URL above) it is stated that the economic potential relates to “coal strata in the Bristol and North Somerset area”. The area of the Carboniferous Coal Measure rocks in the Somerset area that comes under the PEDL is in fact some 70 km2. Indeed it is only in this very small area of North Somerset that the Coal Measure rocks actually occur - they are totally absent from ~ 97% of the county. Thus it is complete fabrication for frack free Somerset to claim that UK methane investigation of the Coal Measures would potentially result in over 2000 wells across Somerset. Obviously frack free Somerset don’t let a lack of understanding or actual facts and the truth stand in the way of a scaremongering headline of Somerset being overrun by drill wells!
While the presentation concentrated mostly on scare stories and often mythology about unconventional gas exploitation, it failed to mention some real scientific concerns about utilizing the process in the former Somerset coalfield. Such true concern relates to the Coal Measures being at a relatively shallow level, and being part of the Variscan foreland thrust belt the rocks are often highly fractured and deformed, raising concern about potential fluid migration pathways.
Following the presentation I raised the issue of the exploration of the north Somerset former coalfield area being wrongly extrapolated to the whole of Somerset. The response was a monologue about the presentation being the truth and their figures on the number of wells were correct because a nuclear physicist had calculated them. This “discussion” was then stopped by saying that enough time had been spent on the point and the discussion would move onto other points. So much for the claim in the introductory statement that all viewpoints were welcomed!
For anyone with even the most elementary understanding of geology watching this presentation and interacting with the group proponents, demonstrates the ignorance and duplicity with which the propaganda is presented. The driving force of this group is not based on understanding the scientific or technical issues associated with unconventional gas extraction, but appears driven entirely by dogma. As such it is entirely on a level with the reported claim that the winter flooding in Somerset was the result of the passage of the new law on gay marriage.