On the whole I've given up writing critiques of articles discussing fracking in the media written by journalists. There's not enough hours in the day, and more importantly, sensationalism - selling papers - is what journalism is all about. You might as well criticise a dog for barking.
However, it's a different story when it's academics writing for the media. The extra respect that members of the public afford to academics means that there is an added responsibility to be accurate. Which brings me on to this article in the Birmingham Post, written by Professor Alister Scott of Birmingham City University, described as "thoughtful" by a senior BBC environmental correspondent.
The first few paragraphs discuss the general discord in the government's energy policy, and I would agree that our energy policy is currently a mess. However, the problems begin when Prof Scott argues that "they have rejected any new EU Directive that would look specifically at issues from the fracking process not covered by existing legislation such as cumulative impact, underground risk assessments, chemical mixes and methane emissions".
It is true that the EU decided to release a Recommendation rather than a Directive. It is however incorrect to claim that the Recommendation has no impact on the activities of operators in the EU. This recommendation mandates a range of measures, including a wide range of environmental factors that operators must assess before, during and after their activities. Member states must inform the EU Commission of measures that they have put in place to meet the requirements of the recommendation.
These measures will be reviewed in 18 months, and if the commission deems that the terms of the recommendation are not being met then they reserve the power to impose legally binding rules at the European level (paragraphs 16.1-16.4). This is hardly the lack of regulation implied by Prof Scott. I'll note in passing that disclosure of the "chemical mix" is required by the Environment Agency.
In his next sentence, Prof Scott claims that "They have even gone further to say that some environmental safeguards should be reduced due the complex burden of permissions and licenses". I'd love to know what environmental safeguards Prof Scott thinks have been reduced? There are moves to reduce the amount of time taken to get permits, and to improve coordination between the various agencies involved (DECC, Local Minerals Planning, EA, HSE). There has been absolutely no move to reduce the environmental safeguards expected during drilling and hydraulic stimulation.
Prof Scott argues that "We need evidence-based policy and we have seen a debate that is more akin to a pantomime. The debate becomes stuck in a groundhog day mentality becoming sterile and increasingly polarised". I'd love to know what Prof Scott thinks is more inductive to "pantomime" debate: reports by the Royal Society, by Public Health England, by the Institute of Directors? Or this?
The renewables industry has long offered payments to local communities to persuade them to accept wind and/or solar farms in their area. However, when shale gas companies offer something similar, "The rush to provide incentives to people and communities affected by fracking is troublesome in social and environmental justice terms". That said, I do agree with the thought that the expectation that shale operators make community payments when industrial developments with a far greater impact - coal mining, large facilities etc - do not could be seen as unfair.
The next claim is that "continual government attacks on environmental safeguards as restricting development encircle the fracking debate". Again, I'd love to know what these attacks on safeguards are? Yes, there is the intention to streamline to permitting process and to improve coordination between agencies. The has been no suggestion of any reduction in any existing environmental safeguard that applies to drilling and/or to hydraulic fracturing.
The fact that "government ministers are quick to condemn 'unsightly' solar and wind turbine developments, but seemingly embrace landscapes of fracking infrastructure" may well be because of the very different scales of impact the two industries have, when measured on a per MWh basis. A single multi-lateral well pad, which might look something like this when completed, will produce as much energy as the entire Scout Moor wind farm, which looks like this.
I can sympathise that the level of public engagement has perhaps not been what it might be. I'm not sure how mis-informed articles by academics in the media are supposed to improve this. However, there is already abundant "independent scientific evidence", if one cares to look for it, while every kind of measurement possible is being made around putative drilling sites to ensure "effective safeguards for the public and the environment and effective monitoring arrangements". Cuadrilla's Environmental Impact Report for their two new sites in Lancashire will run to over 3,000 pages. Given Prof Scott's concerns, I am sure he will read every page.
Prof Scott's conclusion is that we're seeing a "hasty dash to frack". The prospects for shale gas in the UK were first realised in the late 2000s, and Cuadrilla drilled and tracked their well in 2011 - still the only onshore well where fracking has been used in shale rocks (as opposed to fracking in conventional reservoirs, which has been done approximately 200 times onshore in the UK). Since then, we've seen about 5 exploration wells drilled, and the first intention to frack a well submitted by Cuadrilla, where stimulation will probably take place in 2015, once the 3,000 environmental assessment has been completed.
Meanwhile, in the USA thousands of wells will have been drilled and fracked. Meanwhile, other countries with shale potential are making solid progress, and drilling and fracking multiple wells. Argentina, China and Poland spring to mind. If 5 wells drilled and one fracked in 4 years represents "a hasty dash to frack" to Prof Scott, I'd hate to see what slow progress looks like.