Tuesday, 22 July 2014

Another day, another shale gas report

Update (23.7.2014): It transpires that Gwen Harrison, the report's lead author, was recently an election candidate for the Green Party, which has explicitly stated its opposition to fracking in all circumstance. Moreover, judging by recent tweets it seemed she was involved blockading trucks at IGas's Barton Moss site.

Of course, there's nothing wrong with joining political parties nor joining protests. However, it makes a mockery of the claim that the report is "impartial" and "evidence-based", and goes a long way to explaining the report's contents.

Original Article:
Another day, another shale gas report to dissect. Today's offering comes to you courtesy of Scientists for Global Responsibility and the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health. The report claims to take an "impartial, evidence based approach". It does anything but, so once again it falls to me to point out the more egregious errors.

The best place to start is on the very first page, which shows two schematic images of the fracking process. In both cases the scale of images is such that the depth of the well is smaller than the height of the drilling rig, implying that fracking is taking place at a depth of less than 100m, rather than the actual depth, typically 2 - 3km.

Similar images are provided on page 4, and nowhere are images with the correct scales shown. The images are so out of scale that the "impartial, evidence based" claim immediately cannot be taken seriously. The moment you see an image like this, you know what to expect.

To the non-expert, the degree of the error in these images might not be immediately apparent, so I did a little photoshopping to demonstrate. Imagine if you were reading a report on whether it was safe for commercial airliners to overfly cities at altitude, and on the first page of the report was the following image, I don't think it would be taken that seriously by air safety experts:

In the introductory section of the report, it is claimed that "unlike conventional wells, fracking in shale requires horizontal drilling [and] huge numbers of wells". This statement must come as a very great surprise to the very many operators of conventional fields who use lateral wells to access their reservoirs. Wytch Farm is the famous case study for horizontal drilling, and one of the pioneers in the early 1990s, but the process is now common in conventional fields.

Many conventional fields have also used very large numbers of wells, particularly older, onshore fields in the USA. Indeed, I am sometimes bombarded by shale gas opponents with images they claim show the terrible impacts of shale gas, but turn out to be old oil fields (like the Mexia-Groesbeck, for example). It is true that on average you would expect shale developments to require more wells. However, the statement as stands is laughable in it's attempt to differentiate conventional and shale. These kinds of rudimentary mistakes means that no-one familiar with the industry could take this report seriously.

The next section of the SGR/CIEH report considers induced seismicity, and makes the oft-repeated assertion that Britain's geology is simply too faulted in comparison with the USA. It is true that some parts of the USA are fairly flat and boring. But we are talking about numerous shale plays across an entire continent. Some are flat and boring, some are very faulted and complicated. Those who regularly work with microseismic data say that they see interaction between the hydraulic fractures and potential faults in about 30% of the stimulations they monitor. Put simply, faults are common in the USA as well - it's just that you have to be unlucky to hit a fault that is already very close to slipping, in which case you can trigger an earthquake. Most faults won't trigger an earthquake.

This section closes with claims about well integrity failure and casing deformation. For Cuadrilla's well at Preese Hall, the earthquake did lead to deformation of the casing. However, the zone of deformation was entirely within the production casing string - the bit of the steel tube that has holes punched into it to allow gas to flow from the rock into the well. It's somewhat disingenuous to talk about compromising the integrity of casing where holes have deliberately been made. The near surface groundwater is protected by a different, shallower casing string. There is no suggestion that this was affected by the induced earthquake, or therefore that any risk was posed to groundwater. Strangely for an "evidence-based" report, none of this is deemed worthy of mentioning, even though there are two reports covering this (here and here). Incidentally, Cuadrilla's "6-month delay" was because they had commissioned independent experts to produce these reports - a reasonable step to take in my opinion. Funnily enough, neither is referenced in the SGR/CIEH report.

More generally, we receive on average over 50 earthquakes per year of the same size as that induced by Cuadrilla's activities. On average every 1.5 years we get a magnitude 4 quake, which is 1,000 times the size of the Preese Hall event. We have over 2,000 onshore oil and gas wells in the UK, and over 10,000 offshore wells, so it is likely that many of these earthquake have occurred near to wells. However, there is no evidence of all of this seismicity leading to well integrity failures and groundwater pollution across the UK. Again, you'd think this would be something an "evidence-based" report would want to discuss.

The next section of the SGR/CIEH considers groundwater contamination. Like many reports, the Duke University Pennsylvania study is cherry-picked, while every other study looking into water quality and fracking is ignored. A reminder that the Duke study considered a total of 140 water wells, and has no baseline. Ignored are the following:

  • Molofsky et al., who sample over 1,700 water wells, finding that methane is naturally occurring and correlates with topography, and not the positions of shale gas wells.
  • A study of 230 water wells by the Centre for Rural Pennsylvania, which found no impact of shale gas drilling.
  • A baseline water quality study by the USGS in un-drilled parts of Sullivan Cnty, PA, which records similar methane levels to those reported by the Duke team.
  • Another USGS baseline survey across the PA-NY border, again finding natural methane levels similar to those reported by the Duke team.
  • A study by the same Duke team in Arkansas that found no evidence for methane contamination.  

With respect to the number of wells with a reported infringement: it should always be kept in mind that these reports do not mean that wells are leaking hydrocarbons into the environment. A more accurate picture is painted by Considine et al., who dug a little deeper into the infringement stats. Only 2 wells out of 3,500 drilled in PA have caused methane migration into groundwater. That's a rate of 0.05%. In both cases, the wells were subsequently repaired, the issues resolved, and water quality restored. The numbers found by Considine et al. match those seen by the Groundwater Protection Council, who studied hundreds of thousands of wells in Texas and Ohio.

The next claim is that it is not known what chemicals could be used during production in the UK. While this might be technically true, we also know what chemicals cannot be used. The Environment Agency have stated that
"Only substances that have been assessed as being non-hazardous within the specified situation can be used".
Because many of the components of frack fluid are sometimes found in cosmetics and processed foods, most vendors have now developed fluids that contain only food-grade ingredients. None of this is worth mentioning as far as the SGR/CIEH are concerned

The next section of the SGR/CIEH report covers water use, and begins with the erroneous claim that "wells are generally fracked several times over their lifetime". In fact, while "re-fracturing" can be done, it is very rarely performed, because it doesn't get a lot of extra gas out for the money spent. While I don't have any stats to hand, I'd be confident that less than 1% of wells are ever re-fractured. Which begs the question of where on earth the authors are getting their information from.

Hydraulic fracturing does use a lot of water, but nowhere near as much as other activities, including electricity generation from coal. Nicot and Scanlon examined water use in Texas, finding that shale gas extraction accounts for less than 1% of state-wide water use. Indeed the switch in electricity generation from coal to natural gas actually reduced water use during the recent droughts. Clark et al. sum up the issue best:
"The type of power plant where the natural gas is utilized is far more important than the source of the natural gas".
Again, one is left wondering why such key papers are missing from an "evidence-based" report?

The flowback from Cuadrilla's Preese Hall operation contained low levels of naturally occurring radioactive material (NORM), enough for it to be classed as low level radioactive material. However, the NORM concentrations were actually not substantially different to levels sometimes found in groundwater, or even in some bottled mineral waters. The only assessment of UK flowback waters so far was performed by the Durham ReFINE group, which found:

"In no scenario was the 1% exceedence exposure greater than 1mSv – the allowable annual exposure allowed for in the UK".
and that:

"The radioactive flux of per energy produced was lower for shale gas than for conventional oil and gas production, nuclear power production and electricity generated through burning coal".
Again and again, why are such key papers missing from an "evidence-based" report?

The next section of the SGR/CIEH report covers air pollution. Sadly, this "evidence-based" report doesn't cite a single piece of data pertaining to shale gas and air quality. Which is a surprise, because there's data available that isn't that hard to find. For example, Bunch et al. record air quality measurements across a wide portion of Texas. Here are the results they found, comparing benzene levels with the number of wells drilled:
Similar surveys in Pennsylvania "did not identify concentrations of any compound that would likely trigger air-related health issues associated with Marcellus Shale drilling activities". Overall in PA, emissions of things like particulates, SOx, VOCs etc have reduced in recent years as natural gas, rather than coal, is burned for electricity generation. Again, this is good hard data, yet is missing from this "evidence-based" report.

To be fair, it's not like you can just download this information from a website you know. Except, of course, you can. Bradford Cnty, PA, has more Marcellus wells than any other counties. Here's how emissions stack up before and after drilling in the Marcellus:

The next section covers regulation. Amongst the anecdotal assertions made in the report, it's worth remembering that the UK oil industry regulations are globally regarded as among the best, which is why we have been able to drill 2,000 onshore wells, and over 10,000 offshore wells, with minimal environmental impact. They are certainly not "inexperienced" as claimed. And while the EU Recommendation has less immediate impact as a Directive, it is still legally binding. For example, there is a legal requirement for operators to monitor groundwater and air quality at sites. All operators so far have done this, while, for example, the BGS have completed a national methane baseline survey.

The next big issue covers global warming. Regular readers I am sure won't need reminding that the IPCC see a "clear" role for shale gas in addressing climate change, and that while we do indeed have too much fossil fuel to stay below 2 degrees C, most of that is in coal reserves. However, it seems that the good people at SGR/CIEH missed this section of the IPCC. If we have a limit to the amount of CO2 we can emit, burning gas is the obvious choice to maximise the energy we get for that CO2 limit.

The SGR/CIEH then make the classic mistake of conflating global warming potentials (GWP) measured per unit mass, rather than per mole. Because when you burn 1kg of methane, you get 2.75kg of CO2, rather than 1kg of CO2. So you need to compare the molar GWP, which is only 11, rather than 34 (or 85). Richard Muller of Berkeley expands on this here, and also includes the fact that coal power is usually less efficient (40%) than gas fired power (60%), which further tilts the scales in favour of gas. The net result is that the levels of methane that need to leak to make gas worse than coal are actually far larger than often stated. I won't excoriate the SGR/CIEH report too much for making this mistake, because it is one I currently see being made left, right and centre at present.

While the SGR/CIEH report concedes that shale gas development will not directly impact investment in renewables, it ignores the fact that renewable development has actually been promoted by the shale gas boom in the USA, as the abundance of cheap gas is an efficient way to provide back-up to intermittent renewables. Texas, home of shale gas development, is also leading the way in wind energy.

The closing argument, regarding total emissions, is a somewhat strange one - namely if we develop natural gas and use it to replace coal, then that coal will simply be burned elsewhere. This may well be true, but surely is a good argument for more countries to develop natural gas, thereby leaving the coal fewer and fewer places to go. The SGR/CIEH argument seems to be that we should continue to hoover up coal ships from across the oceans, just to prevent other nations from burning them. Incidentally, this argument could be equally applied to renewable energy - if we replaced all of our coal with renewables (not that we could) or nuclear (we possibly should), then that coal would still be available on the international market for someone else to burn.

I agree that our only chance to mitigate climate change is for every country to develop its own mitigation strategy under international agreements. Our responsibility is to reduce our own emissions, and hope other nations do the same, because we can't directly force them to. Once of the quickest ways to reduce our emissions would be to replace coal by burning natural gas. If that means that coal is available for someone else to burn, it is their responsibility not to burn it.

The section on socio-economic impacts completely fails to consider the impacts of shale development for the UK exchequer. Without shale, we are projected to import over 80% of our gas requirements, at an annual cost of £14 billion. This is money that leaves our economy for Qatar and Norway, and does nothing for us - paying no tax and creating no UK jobs. The alternative, domestic production, will lead to substantial economic benefits both nationally and locally, even if the effects on gas prices are disputed.

The report makes the unsubstantiated claim that shale development will impact tourism revenues. Again, in an "evidence-based" report, why make unsubstantiated claims when data is to hand? Here's a recent report into tourism in Pennsylvania over the last few years. The table below shows the headline figures. Barring the 2009 recession you can see year-on-year increases in tourism spending in PA at the same time as Marcellus development. No sign here that tourism is being affected by shale development.

The final section considers whether we need natural gas. Somehow, it focusses on electricity generation and manages to ignore 2/3rds of what we actually use natural gas for - domestic heating and cooking, and in industrial processes. This is kind of an epic, spectacular mistake for an "evidence-based" report!

The report looks solely at price parity for renewables and fossil fuels. Which is important, but only part of the whole story. Price parity does not equal economic parity, because renewables are intermittent. If company A generates and charges for electricity 24/7, while company B can only generate 30% of the time, then even if their costs, margins and prices are the same, company A will be substantially more economic than company B.

More importantly, price parity doesn't mean that the technology can be scaled to provide consistent power to the whole of the UK. There have been a number of future energy scenarios, both by the National Grid, and even by the Friends of the Earth*. In every scenario, even the greenest, natural gas consumption remains substantial in the UK. Put simply, it is not a question of whether or not to burn gas, it is simply a question of where we get that gas from - imported or domestically produced. Even Caroline Lucas agrees on that.

So to summarise, this "evidence-based" report is of a really really poor standard, nothing more than a hack job. I can't see anyone remotely familiar with the industry using this for anything more than a good laugh, and I am actually genuinely surprised that the CIEH has put their name to it. If there are any CIEH members out there in the ether, I'd be interested to hear your thoughts.

* I have my differences with FoE, but I have genuine respect to them on this particular instance, for at least trying to put their money where their mouth is and coming up with a vaguely realistic plan.


  1. The way you've been able to rip into the CIEH report you'd naturally get the impression that it was written by someone without much scientific background or industry experience, someone who is probably a member of Greenpeace or their ilk and the CIEH have just churned it out.

  2. The usual old spin. I note how they wish to show gas is worse than coal without giving full substantiation for their assertion. What was the input of CIEH or was it just approval from a few activists on their ruling body?

  3. These 'manipulators' who like to call themselves 'protectors' are blindly continuing on the road to nowhere.

    Other then the fact that they manipulate (at best) science, they also forget energy security. This is of growing concern. Europe is surrounded by hostile groups and unstable regimes (Ukraine). Do we wish to depend on them? ISIS (and many of their friendly ally groups across africa and middle east) will be happy to play their part....

    Local energy will be the trend, out of necessity. So local renewables and local shale.
    The so called 'local' opposition, which lacks any type of size anyway, will understand this rather soon and has to also take rational arguments into account. They need to seek a new hobby. I suggest they protest use of sugar in coffee. I'm sure they will be able to make a big case out of it.

  4. A good piece apart from the nonsense about keeping global warming within the 2 degree limit. You do realise the 2 degree figure was a political invention and there's been no warming this century?

  5. Dr Fracker - I know your subject is not English, but the sentence "unlike conventional wells, fracking in shale requires horizontal drilling [and] huge numbers of wells" does not imply that conventional drilling does NOT use horizontal drilling. It merely states that modern HVHF does rely on horizontal whereas conventional well may only require verticals. DO at least try to keep you arguments logical.

  6. I've sent the following to b.cowan@cieh.org:

    Your report on Shale Gas has been seen for what it is - a blatant propaganda piece by Greenpeace.


    Care to update your website to indicate Gwen Harrison's association with Greenpeace? Greenpeace always go on about transparency and don't like it when reports are funded by oil and gas companies, even indirectly, yet they seem to be doing exactly the thing they complain about. Either way its a cock up or its hypocrisy. In both instances it needs fixing.

  7. @Virtual John.

    Some conventional wells require horizontal drilling, as in the example below, so Dr Fracker is right to take issue with the statement "unlike conventional wells, fracking in shale requires horizontal drilling".

    One example of why conventional wells may also require horizontal drilling is 'to reach specific pockets of oil and gas or "targets" which may be beneath cities or
    environmentally sensitive area where a rig cannot be set up.'

  8. The CIEH article and their response seems not to be downloadable from their site .