Sunday, 14 September 2014

My Fracking Answers

Update 21.9.2014: I thought it unlikely that DECC would provide a response to MyFrackingQuestions, which is why I wrote this post. It seems that I was wrong, DECC have now provided an official response.

The latest shale gas publicity stunt, which follows on from the damp squib that was TalkFracking, is MyFrackingQuestions, a website that allows users to put together a customised email to be sent to Matthew Hancock, the new Minister of State for Energy.

Sadly, I suspect that Mr Hancock will be too busy to get round to providing detailed answers. To make up for this, I have provided some My Fracking Answers. The MFQ questions, divided in a topic-by-topic basis, are in italics, followed by My Fracking Answers:

The fracking industry does not know if it can extract fossil fuels on an economically viable basis in the UK and it won't know for the next ten to twenty years[1]. Some of the estimates for recoverable fossil fuels through fracking have proved to be grossly overestimated[2]. Despite this, the British government has no satisfactory plan B if shale reserves are less than predicted and no long term plan when reserves are exhausted.

Analysts even state that the fracking industry is a ‘ponzi scheme’[3], is showing signs of failure[4] and will only contribute to energy insecurity.

Given doubts about the economic viability and size of reserves, how will fracking provide energy security?
Until exploratory wells have been drilled and stimulated, no one can know the true size of the resource available. Therefore the responsible course of action for any government is to allow operators to drill these wells, such that we can conduct this debate from a more knowledgeable position. It is clear that shale gas opponents do not want us to even be able to find this information out.

That said, the preliminary estimates made by the BGS are of significant size. A typical recovery estimate for shale gas is 10%. If 10% of the BGS estimate for the Bowland shale can be recovered, that is a reserve worth nearly one trillion pounds at today's prices. A resource of this size will have a significant economic impact. While a handful of shale plays' resources seem to have been overestimated (the Monterey in California springs to mind), for the majority of plays the original estimates have proved to be far below what is now being recovered.

It is true that some natural gas producers have experienced financial difficulties in the USA. This is because the price of natural gas in the USA plummeted, creating a more challenging operating environment. That same price drop has obviously been excellent news for domestic and industrial gas consumers. Unless MyFrackingQuestions are claiming that a similar scale of price crash will happen in the UK, operators here will not see the same financial difficulties.

In conclusion, whether or not the UK produces shale gas domestically (and whether or not significant investments are made in renewable energy), the majority of expert assessments predict that we will burn substantial amounts of natural gas in the UK, both domestically, in power stations, and in industry. Without shale gas development, that gas supply will come increasingly from LNG shipped from around the world (even with shale gas development, I expect that we'll be importing LNG). Both the price and supply of such gas is volatile. A domestically produced source of gas will help shield the UK market from some of this volatility.

Although we are being told that there are no recorded cases of water contamination from fracking in the US, there are at least 100[1] cases in Pennsylvania alone linked to the drilling process itself[2].
The geological structure of the UK has 400 times more fault lines than in the US[3]. This means that fracking in our country will be far more dangerous to our water.
Bath and Northeast Somerset council commissioned a report[4] from the British Geological Survey in 2012, which stated that it would be “difficult to guarantee” that the famous hot water springs would not be contaminated by ‘fracking’.

Will contamination of British water supplies by fracking be inevitable?
It is correct to say that there are no recorded cases of water contamination from the fracking process itself. Evidence presented by numerous US state regulators confirms this. Where incidents of contamination have occurred, they are either due to well casing failure, or failure to handle and dispose of produced water adequately. These issues are as much an issue for conventional oil and gas drilling as they are shale gas, and as such are not directly related to fracking. It's worth noting that in a some of the statistics emerging from the PA DEP, conventional and unconventional wells are lumped together into a single figure, so it's not at all clear whether the problems are from conventional or unconventional wells.

In a previous post I examined the numbers reported in the cited study. NRDC and and PA DEP numbers suggest there are over 100,000 wells in the state, so the 100 incidents represent a failure rate of 0.1%. Moreover, the numbers show a decrease in incidents with time as more robust regulation was introduced during the drilling boom. Considine et al. (2013) examine PA data in more detail, and find that only 25 of the above incidents could be described as serious, and at present only 6 have not been satisfactorily remediated.

The claim regarding faults relies entirely on a retired geologist who has been disowned by both the Geological Society and by his old university. Moreover, whatever the prevalence of faulting, there is no evidence that an increased prevalence of faults increases the risk of water contamination.

As the question correctly identifies, where issues have occurred they are due to drilling, not fracking. As such it is most relevant to consider the situation onshore in the UK, where over 2,000 wells have been drilled, as this will demonstrate whether UK regulations and operating practice is sufficient. A recent study by Davies et al. (2014) revealed that only 1 has experienced any kind of well integrity failure. As such, it is clear that UK regulations are sufficient, and that water contamination is very unlikely.

Fracking may have an adverse effect on local businesses such as tourism[1], brewing[2], farming[3] and fishing[4], as well as on property prices[4, 5] and insurance[6].
The National Farmers' Union[7] are concerned “that long-term responsibilities (for compensation, restoration and aftercare of sites) may be reassigned, possibly defaulting to the landowner” and the Angler’s Trust[8] states that “the current system is simply not fit for purpose and it would be irresponsible to allow fracking to proceed until effective controls are in place.”
Insurance analysis from the US[6]. suggests that accidents are inevitable, that some fracking operations may be uninsurable and that the costs of short and long term adverse effects may default to the community affected. It is unclear to what extent drilling companies will be responsible for remediation of accidents caused by ‘fracking’ or what level of bonds will be put in place to ensure they can fulfill this responsibility.
How will you ensure fracking companies have responsibility for compensation in the event of environmental or economic damage?
The above assertions are based on the assumption that water contamination is inevitable. As above, these risks are minimal with adequate regulation (such as that found in the UK). For example, despite claims about what shale development might do to tourism, tourism is actually booming in Pennsylvania.

There has been no indication that insurers in the UK have said they will not cover homeowners against damage from fracking. Moreover, shale gas operators themselves will carry insurance to cover any damage in the event of an accident and/or damage to surrounding properties. Finally, responsibility for compensation and damage can be ensured because that is the law in the UK (see Rylands v Fletcher: "the person who for his own purpose brings on his lands and collects and keeps there anything likely to do mischief, if it escapes, must keep it in at his peril, and if he does not do so, is prima facie answerable for all the damage which is the natural consequence of its escape").

The form of fracking proposed for the UK, is a relatively new combination of technologies, not a ‘proven, safe’technology[1]. In this form it has only happened once in the UK[2], at Preese Hall near Blackpool, where there were two minor earthquakes[3] as a result.
Because this is a relatively new technology, there has been little time for independent research into the short and long-term effects. But emerging research indicates[4], [5] that fracking presents a threat to human health[6] including birth defects, respiratory problems and cancer.

How can you be sure that our health will not be put at risk from fracking?
Shale gas extraction is a new combination of 2 older technologies: hydraulic stimulation and horizontal drilling, both of which have been used previously in the UK without evidence of harm.

Most of the "evidence linking shale gas extraction with the health impacts listed simply haven't stood up to scrutiny. For example, a study attempting to link fracking to birth defects was explicitly disavowed by Colorado Public Health Officials. Various cancer professionals spoke out to reject Josh Fox's claims about cancer and hydraulic stimulation in Texas. Often, data that has not been through peer review is misleadingly touted as clear scientific evidence.

In summary, while evidence for harm can never be ruled out (absence of evidence is not evidence of absence and all that), what claims have been advanced are fairly flimsy. It is worth recalling that over 15 million people live within 1 mile of a shale gas well in the USA. If shale gas extraction were regularly causing health impacts, the evidence for this should be very clear given the sheer number of people who are apparently "at risk".

Finally, monitoring requirements in the UK are very stringent, including both air quality and groundwater quality measurements. As such, any contamination incident that might pose a risk to human health can be immediately identified and remediated, ensuring that the industry never poses a risk to the health of surrounding communities.

Talk Fracking[1] invited over 80 key policy makers (including your predecessor), industry figures and scientists to sit on the pro-fracking panel for six debates spread over two months. Only one person would commit to attending to speak on behalf of fracking.
Several large organisations such as the Department for Energy and Climate Change, UKOOG and Cuadrilla all failed to provide anyone to engage in this public debate.
British people are demanding a public debate on fracking so that they can see both sides of the story through fair and balanced debate and make up their own minds before it is introduced to their local area.
Will you attend a Talk Fracking debate to address the public’s concerns?
Given that I was invited to one of the debates,it's nice to know that I am a "key policy maker". However, like several of the 80 invitees I have spoken to, I was only invited to the final debate in London, after the five regional "debates" had been held. The regional debates appeared to consist of an entirely anti-fracking agenda, while the final debate in London was ultimately cancelled.

I accept that there is a need for fair and balanced debate. However, it was immediately apparent that Talk Fracking were in fact virulently anti-fracking, and not remotely interested in fair and balanced. Indeed, prior to the debates they released a video that included childish and offensive portrayals of shale gas supporters. I don't think anyone serious from the pro-fracking side is going to be interested in "debating" with people who make videos like that in the link. TalkFracking are deluding themselves if they think they are promoting "fair and balanced" debate. For my part, I am happy to debate those from a scientific background (and have done), I have no interest in debating activists.

A number of influential figures in the UK government have close connections to the fracking and energy industry[1].
One of David Cameron’s chief advisors[2] is a lobbyist for the fracking industry and incoming chairman of the Environment Agency, Philip Dilley, had drillers Cuadrilla as a client until recently[3]. 
Lord Browne is the major share holder in fracking company Cuadrilla while also being an unelected special advisor to the government on energy policy. He has been responsible for appointing corporate individuals[4] to powerful positions in the Department for Energy and Climate Change. 
Documents show that Lord Browne personally intervened on a reported “argument”[5] between fracking company Cuadrilla and the Environment Agency “over whether tough regulations on environmental waste should be applied to its operations”.   
How can we trust the Government on fracking when there are clear conflicts of interest?
There are interested parties throughout the upper echelons of power, and sadly I suspect that there always will be. It's not my place to defend them here. However, the biggest conflict of interest has been missed here - namely that the UK exchequer stands to benefit significantly, to the tune of billions of pounds, from a successful UK shale gas industry, via the economic benefits it provides and the tax it pays. This is money that the government of the day can spend on schools, hospitals, tax cuts or whatever pet scheme they think of that keeps themselves in favour with the electorate.

This is why all 3 of the major parties, all 4 if we're calling UKIP a major party these days (while the SNP seem keen on increased oil and gas extraction as well), have expressed a favourable view towards shale gas extraction. In some cases, shale gas extraction has become an anti-Tory issue. Those who are hoping that a change of government next year will lead to a ban on shale gas extraction will be disappointed. If there is a change of government, will the anti-Tory side of shale gas opposition be as virulent?

All international governments have agreed with the IPCC report that if global warming rises above 2 degrees centigrade, runaway climate change is inevitable. 80% of known fossil fuel reserves[1] need to remain in the ground in order to avoid this.
Recent developments[2] in renewable technologies have led to reductions in cost but the UK government is pushing fracking while capping[3] subsidies to renewables.
Although we are told that fracking is “cheap, clean and safe”[4], this may not[5] be the case and in fact, fracked gas could be more harmful to global warming than coal[6]. Without independent research into the long term effects, it is impossible to know. 
How does backing fracking instead of renewables help avoid catastrophic climate change?
I agree that a substantial amount of proved fossil fuel reserves must stay in the ground to reach a 2C target (unless CCS is deployed at a large scale). However, the majority of unburned carbon reserves are found in coal, this is the first fuel we should be looking to move away from. If we do have a limit to the amount of fossil fuel we can burn, it makes sense to burn the fuel that gives us the most energy for the smallest amount of CO2 - that fuel is natural gas. We have already seen in the USA a reduction in CO2 emissions due to the switching from coal to gas.

While claims have been made about methane emissions negating these benefits, it is becoming increasingly clear that this study is an outlier: the scientific consensus is that fugitive methane emissions during shale gas extraction are not of sufficient magnitude to overwhelm the benefits of producing less CO2 when burned. 

Fuel switching is not enough on its own to reach a 2C target. However, it is becoming apparent that, rather than hindering renewables development, shale gas in the USA has gone hand in hand with a boom in renewable energy deployment. Because it is far more flexible than coal or nuclear power, cheap natural gas provides the best back up for renewables when they are intermittent.

Equally shale gas development can provide an economic boost. The government cut the renewables subsidy because, while it only added a small fraction to overall bills, it became increasingly unpopular as electricity prices rose in an otherwise struggling economy. A technology that has the potential to both host the economy while reducing energy prices will provide greater political lee-way for increased subsidies to renewables and energy efficiency. 

In conclusion, experience from the USA shows that it is not a case of either/or, shale gas and renewables can and should be developed in tandem. 


  1. You are providing an excellent well argued case here and I congratulate you in putting your head above the parapet. I would only object to one point and that is your acceptance of the catastrophic anthropogenic global warming argument. Surely it is now becoming clear that CO2 is not causing anywhere near as much warming as the climate models were predicting. Matt Ridley has summed it up very well in his recent article here: If the warming is much more modest then we do not need to have such draconian policies.

  2. An excellent review of the false arguments being put about by those who found science hard at school. It appalls me that some planning applications are being rejected based upon false information and scaremongering. The recent surface methane report is a case in point. Totally rejected by so many as it doesnt fit the agenda.

  3. Blackpool Resident19 September 2014 at 07:35

    Good to see you posting again, Dr.

    I noticed that Breast Cancer UK's position on fracking has received a bit of attention in activist circles over the past couple of months:

    It doesn't appear to be particularly well-informed and looks to rely on quite a few questionable sources, which seems out of character for an organisation which claims to have scientists on its board. In short, it appears to be bafflingly disingenuous.

    I'm wondering if you might have seen the same post and what your professional opinion is on it?