Tuesday, 17 March 2015

Frackademics: Anti-fracking groups reveal their anti-science credentials

Recently I discussed the increasing antipathy towards and mistrust of academic scientists, particularly in the more controversial subject areas. This anti-science views of the anti-fracking lobby have just been made clear in a recent "exposé" by anti-fracking group TalkFracking (TF).

In this report, the motives and expertise of pretty-much every university geoscience department in the country is impugned. The implication is that almost every academic with knowledge and understanding of the topic is prepared to put out misleading propaganda to promote UK shale gas. The geoscientific consensus about the safety of shale gas extraction, so long as it is regulated properly, is nothing more than a sham resulting from academics being bought off by industry. Or so it is claimed.

I'll begin with a few general points, before critiquing the report section by section. Firstly, I find it hugely ironic that this report appears to have been paid for directly by an anti-fracking group, yet has the chutzpah to claim that others might be reaching their conclusions solely for financial gain and/or influence. TalkFracking are funded mainly by fashion designer Dame Vivienne Westwood, well known for her anti-fracking views (as well as, recently, some questionable tax arrangements). So any claims made about partiality quickly begin to look like nothing more than hypocrisy. Also, the "revealed" links are all already in the public domain, so it's not like this is an expose of any underhand secrets.

Moreover, I always find it amusing to read claims that academics are only in it for the money (whether it is on this issue or any other). A career as an academic is not a well paid one. Long years as a Ph.D. researcher on a tiny stipend (£12,000 per year in my day), followed by similarly low pay and job insecurity as a postdoctoral researcher. The reason academics put up with these arrangements is, generally speaking, a love of the job - the opportunity to find out new things about the world that no one has every known about before.

However, the academics criticised in the report are all experts in what is (applied geoscience of any kind) a hugely economically valuable field. If any of these academics wanted to make a lot more money, I expect that they could stroll into a senior position in an oil or mining company and do so. The fact that they don't indicates than money is not their primary motivating factor.

The reason they speak up in favour of shale gas is more likely to be because a lot of the "information" being used in the debate is either misleading or completely incorrect, and nothing irks a scientist more than non-experts spouting incorrect things about scientific subjects without being corrected. For example, I started this blog because I kept throwing my crockery at the TV because I was so fed up with the sheer volume of BS being touted around the media on the subject. More recently, geoscientists from across Europe, even from states that have banned fracking (and so presumably have no government pressure to promote shale gas), have come together to criticise the scaremongering tactics used by anti-fracking groups.

The TF report consists of a series of "Case Studies", which I will now address in turn.

Case Study 1: Case Study 1 addresses the NERC Centre for Doctoral Training in Oil and Gas, a collaboration between several universities, NERC and industrial partners to train PhD students.

The first thing to note here is that the purpose of the CDT is to fund PhD students. Academics at the various universities do not benefit financially in any way from this arrangement, while the PhD students on the CDT are under no obligation to join the oil industry upon completion of their studies (which might not be the case if they were funded directly by industry). So they could even go and join TalkFracking if they felt like it! That the TF report seeks to impugn the motives of academics, without making the lack of actual tangible financial benefits for the academics speaking about shale gas absolutely clear, is a worrying indication of the approach taken.

A small point of error to be corrected is the claim that Cluff Geothermal is part of the Cluff Natural Resources Group and therefore linked to Halliburton. In fact, while the two companies were originally set up by the same person (Algy Cluff), they are completely separate entities and share no directors in common. Again, a worrying lack of attention to detail here.

Another problem with the TF report is the treatment of "industry" as a single monolithic bloc, a common fallacy among those not particularly familiar with the oil and gas business. In fact, there are many different players who make up "the industry", and they often have very different business models, attitudes, risk profiles, etc.. For many operators in the "conventional" industry, the "shale revolution" has not been a good thing. The unconventional oil/gas boom in the USA has contributed to the global reduction in oil prices we have seen in the last 6 months, which in turn has posed a substantial problem for operators with substantial interests in the more challenging North Sea fields, or further abroad in places like Russia.

The CDT partners are British Gas, BP, ConocoPhilips, E.On, Maersk Oil, OMV, Shell, Statoil and Total. Of these, only British Gas (via Centrica) and Total have any interest in UK shale gas, and therefore any motivation to encourage academia to promote shale gas. In contrast, most of the above have substantial assets in the North Sea, and so may not actually be keen at all to see European shale gas develop. Both BP and Shell in particular have been particularly critical of the potential for European shale gas. Why would these North Sea operators be pressurising academics to make positive statements about a source of oil/gas in which they have no financial interest, and which would in fact stand in direct competition to their current business interests? Yet the TF report is not even aware of this inconsistency.

Finally, it is worth addressing the more general point about fossil fuel research in academia, despite the issue of climate change, which means we need to substantially reduce fossil fuel burning in the next 50 years. As geoscientists, we usually work cheek-by-jowl with the climate science groups, so we're fully aware of the issues of climate change. You'll struggle to find many climate change "deniers" in geoscience departments. (yes, some of my best friends are climate scientists etc etc). Despite this, and despite the fact that the report does not mention anything about "climate change denial", the promotional material hosted on TalkFracking's carries the headline "Frackademics: End Climate Change Denial". In science, we would describe this as conclusions not supported by evidence.

Much of current research in academia is not necessarily about "discover[ing] [...] yet more fossil fuels" as claimed, it is about producing them more efficiently and minimising environmental impacts. No one is seriously arguing that we should stop all fossil fuel development immediately - they must be gradually phased out over an extended period. While they are being phased out, it is entirely reasonable to research and develop ways of extracting what fossil fuels we do produce in an environmentally friendly manner as possible.

Most academics are also very aware of the realities of our current energy system. Complete decarbonisation of modern, western economies will be very difficult: it is in no way clear that renewables and nuclear alone will be able to do the job in the necessary amount of time. This means that if we're to reach a near-zero-emission energy system, carbon capture and storage (CCS) must be deployed to capture emissions from fossil fuel burning. It is therefore not surprising that a substantial amount of "fossil fuel" funded research conducted at UK universities is actually on developing this "novel" CCS technology.

Furthermore, CO2 reductions are best achieved by phasing out the most polluting technology first, namely coal. Gas, the least CO2 intensive fossil fuel, should be phased out last. In my experience, fossil fuel research at UK universities reflects this, being skewed towards gas extraction and away from coal: I'm not aware of many academics (indeed, any at all) who are conducting research into finding or extracting more coal.

Finally, even if/when we reach a near-zero-emission energy system, oil and gas will continue to be extracted from the ground. A substantial portion of the oil and gas we produce is in fact used as feedstock for industrial chemical processes, making fertilisers, plastics, and other synthetic materials, for example. Indeed, there's a good argument to be made that oil and gas are simply too valuable as raw materials to be wasted by burning them. So it is completely appropriate to conduct research into producing these important materials while maximising efficiency and minimising environmental impacts.

Case Study 2: The second case study considers the well-known Royal Society/Royal Academy of Engineering report, the Public Health England report, and the report by DECC into shale gas and climate change (the MacKay and Stone report).

I'll begin by pointing out that in their criticism of the Royal Society, TF are making some interesting bedfellows in the form of the Global Warming Policy Foundation, who also recently released a report criticising the RS. If the RS is so corrupted by industry, as is claimed by TalkFracking, it's difficult to explain how they can also have drawn the ire of the GWPF, who are strongly in favour of fossil fuel usage. In reality, the fact that they have been so strongly criticised by both groups is probably a good sign that they are doing something right, as well as demonstrating that the anti-science agenda cuts across many issues, as described above.

I think my favourite paragraph in the report is this one, because it is simply such drivel:
"Practically we can only regulate that which can be managed; and we can only manage that which can be identified and measured. Without the ability to measure impacts effectively, there can be no regulatory process".
I suppose that this statement is facetiously true. However, it has no bearing on the issue of shale gas development. Can groundwater protection be measured and identified? Yes, it certainly can. Can air pollution be measured and identified? Yes, it can. Can induced seismicity be identified and measured? Yes, it can.

In fact, such measurements will be required under the new Infrastructure Bill, (and would likely have been required by the Environment Agency anyway). Moreover, the EA has the power to shut down any operator if air or groundwater measurements indicate that there has been contamination, or if an operator causes earthquakes. The levels at which the regulatory bodies will act are well below the levels that may cause a risk to human health.

So I suppose that the quoted paragraph tacitly supports shale gas extraction, because we can measure impacts, and therefore it would seem that we can regulate the process, which is good news I suppose!

Equally, the different risks posed by the various activities which take place on a drilling pad are well established. Therefore it is simple to develop regulations that prevent the more risky activities from being done. For example, it is more risky to store flowback fluid in open ponds. Therefore such ponds are not allowed in the UK, and fluids must be stored in double-lined steel tanks, placed on drip trays, while the who pad must be placed within an impermeable membrane, such that no fluids can ever escape the pad. A potential impact identified, a risk managed, and a process better regulated.

The claims that have been made about "best practice" and "appropriate regulation" are well evidenced. Most of the risks posed by fracking are little different to the risks posed by conventional oil extraction. Wellbore integrity is the same issue whether it's a shale or a conventional well. In both cases chemicals must be stored on site and transported around without being spilled. Contaminated water produced alongside the hydrocarbons must be treated and disposed of from conventional wells as well as shale ones.

Post Piper Alpha we have seen oil/gas regulations improve substantially in the UK, and concomitantly we have seen the number of accidents and environmental issues associated with the industry reduce. Similarly, elsewhere in the world, where regulations are weaker, we see continued accidents and impacts. Regulations do work in the oil and gas business. If the authors of the TF report find this evidence hard to find, I would suggest that that is because they don't want to see it. Even Caroline Lucas accepts that stringent regulations can minimise any local environmental risks - has she also been corrupted by the industry?

The TF report criticises the PHE report based on a single letter to the BMJ. However, this letter actually provides an excellent potted demonstration about the impact of regulations on the safety of shale gas, precisely as described by PHE. The BMJ letter (Law et al.) relies on two papers as the basis for claims about the health impacts of shale gas extraction. These are the McKenzie et al. papers that I have discussed here.

These papers studied an area where operators had been conducting uncontrolled venting during flowback: the gases produced during flowback were vented directly into the atmosphere. This process is prohibited by regulations in the UK, gases must instead be captured during flowback, and cannot be vented. In attempting to claim that regulations cannot make a difference, the BMJ letter actually shows a fantastic example of how regulations can and will make a real difference in the UK. How do metal girders taste? (irony).

The TF report also makes much of the New York State decision to ban fracking in the state.  However unconventional gas extraction is carried out in about 30 US states. Many of these have also conducted reviews and reports about the process, and concluded that shale gas extraction is safe to proceed, as have the Australian Council of Learned Academies. Here is Michigan, for example, and here's Maryland, both coming to a different conclusion to NYS. Only one US state with appreciable shale potential has banned fracking - the TF report has cherry-picked the only study that suits their ideology.

Case Study 3: The next case study considers the greenhouse-gas emissions from shale gas extraction, and claims that MacKay and Stone have intentionally underplayed the impacts of fugitive methane emissions. The TF report relies heavily on the well-known papers written by Howarth et al., who have claimed that shale gas extraction produces more GHG emissions than coal. TF make no attempt to represent the scientific consensus on this issue. The figure below is taken from a study by Stamford et al.:
Every other study has the GWP of shale at around 500-700gCO2/MJ (and therefore substantially better than coal). Only the Howarth study finds values of 1,500gCO2/MJ. This shows how much of an outlier the Howarth study is in comparison to every other author on the subject. MacKay and Stone's estimate is in line with the majority of other studies as depicted above as well as that produced by the EU Commission. If MacKay and Stone have pulled a fast one, then so it would seem has every other scientist to have studied the issue except Howarth et al..

It is also notable that the Talk Fracking report criticises a report by Allen et al., which measured methane emissions at about 500 drilling sites 489 wells and found low levels of methane emissions, on the basis that the samples it takes are unrepresentative. However, the latest paper by the Howarth group relies on only 7 wells. If the report by Allen et al. only samples 0.1% of all wells, then Howarth et al. is based on only 0.0014% of wells. Yet somehow Allen et al. is flawed, while this isn't an issue for the Howarth group's paper!

In conclusion, MacKay and Stone's numbers broadly match numerous studies in the scientific literature. Whatever accusations of conflicts of interest may be levelled, they do not appear to be manifest in their report. The TalkFracking report simply isn't up to speed with the scientific literature, which leads it to make basic errors.

Update (17.3.2015): Perhaps also worth noting that the Howarth group have received research funding from anti-fracking groups for their research. If the source of funding prevents TF from trusting the results of scientific studies, clearly they need to address both sides of the coin.

Case Study 4: Case Study 4 addresses reports by the Science Media Centre, a charity dedicated to helping improve the public understanding of science. The fact that TalkFracking criticise a charity for the crime of being "a PR agency for science" indicates pretty clearly that TF have a strongly anti-scientific bent.

The roll call of "scientists" (quotation marks from the TF report) used in SMC reports includes the likes of Prof Kevin Anderson, Jim Watson, John Loughhead, and Stuart Haszeldine. None of these could be described as being cheerleaders for shale gas development (for climate budget reasons in the case of Prof Anderson, for more economic reasons in the case of Jim Watson, for example). I'd love to know their thoughts on being lumped in together as "frackademics", as TF do. This "Case Study" shows that they are lashing out indiscriminately in their antipathy towards scientists.

Case Study 5: Case study 5 criticises the letter in support of UK shale gas signed by 50 applied geoscientists and published in the Guardian. Apparently, the fact that the letter makes economic points as well as "geophysical" points is unacceptable to TalkFracking.

The TF report has a strange obsession with the geophysical, which to me demonstrates a lack of familiarity with the menagerie of sub-fields that fall within the general term geoscience: while I am proud to be a geophysicist, the majority of signatories are not. The criticism levelled by TF indicates a clear lack of familiarity with the range of expertise of the typical academic geoscientist, many of whom do have expertise in the economic impacts of energy development as well as the geoscience (economic considerations are an important component of applied geology).

It is also incorrect for TF to assert that domestic energy production has no impact on economic development. Yes, there are nations that produce substantial volumes of energy but struggle economically (usually due to corruption and mismanagement), and nations that import much of their energy can still have strong economic development. Nowhere in our letter to we claim otherwise - these are straw-man arguments. I doubt that any of the signatories to the Guardian letter would disagree that "the strength and security of an economy is based on more than just its sources of energy." However, this does not invalidate our claim that we have become more vulnerable and exposed to international energy markets as a result of our increasing reliance on imported energy, or that producing more energy domestically would provide an economic boost.

Our description of the BGS report is entirely accurate. It is clearly described by the BGS as a resource estimate, which implies that it is an estimate of the total volume of gas trapped in the Bowland shale, as we describe in our letter using layman's terms: "the Bowland Basin, which covers significant parts of north-west England, currently sits on top of 1,300 tcf of natural gas". The 1,300tcf figure is the most probable, most likely, scenario as described by the BGS report, and it is therefore entirely appropriate that we use it.

The TF report appears to have some difficulty understanding statistics. They claim that the P90 figure is "more reliable". However, there is only a 10% chance that there is this much gas or less in the ground, and a 90% chance there is more gas in the ground than the P10 value that TF use. Our 1,300tcf figure is the P50 figure: there is a 50% chance there is more than 1,300tcf in the ground, and a 50% chance there is less than 1,300tcf in the ground. It is clearly the most appropriate figure to use, unless one has an ideological reason for misrepresenting the resource. If we had used the upper P10 limit (2,281tcf, almost double the 1,300tcf figure we did use) then this criticism would be valid, but of course we did not.

It's also worth considering the implicit accusation regarding the "independence" of the BGS, namely that they might have overstated the figures under pressure from the industry. It doesn't take too much insight to realise that this is complete nonsense. The operators want to base their future investment on the most accurate figures, so that they can invest to the appropriate level. If the BGS overcook the numbers, and operators make investment decisions based on those over-egged numbers, then the operators will lose a lot of money when the gas promised by the BGS isn't actually there. The BGS is able to make its way in the world because its reports and estimates can be trusted. Deliberately overstating the resource due to external pressures would be a great way for the BGS to lose all of its future business.

It is also alleged that this letter was part of a "tit-for-tat" PR campaign following the publication of a letter earlier in the same week signed by various famous names from the entertainment industry. Sadly, this was indeed a coincidence, the majority of academics had put their names to this letter weeks and even months before it was published - we had no idea about the other letter until its publication.

Case Study 6: The final case study (thank you for staying with me for what I know is a long post) covers the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on shale gas. It is true that the APPG takes funding from the industry. However, it also offered free places on its Advisory Panel to environmental NGOs such as Greenpeace, WWF and Friends of the Earth. Perhaps a better way of characterising the situation is that industry groups have to pay a fee to join the APPG, while environmental organisations are allowed to join for free. Similarly, both the Frack Free Balcombe Residents Association (FFBRA) and No FiBS (No Fracking in Balcombe Society) are listed as Associate Members. Which sort-of drives a coach and horses through TalkFracking's claims.

The newly-created Shale Gas Task Force comes in for similar criticism. However, it is notable that the Environmental Audit Committee, who are no fans of fracking, are prepared to put their faith in this task force. Given that TF and the EAC have similar views on banning fracking, then perhaps TF can follow the EAC lead in accepting the task force's conclusions (I'm not holding my breath). Note also that if you feel you have some evidence that the Task Force must consider, you can submit it via the Task Force website.

Conclusions: TalkFracking make a number of accusations about the motives and impartiality of almost every academic who has spoken out on the topic of shale gas. However, the simple fact is that there is broad consensus among earth scientists that shale gas extraction can be done safely in the UK with appropriate regulation. This consensus extends beyond the UK to geoscientists across Europe, including those in countries whose governments have banned shale gas, and therefore have no interest in promoting shale gas. If TF's claims are to be taken seriously, they must explain how geoscientists across Europe have reached the same conclusions, even where the sorts of pressures they allege in their report may not be present. Indeed, this view stretches all the way to Australia as well.

As discussed in my previous post, there seems to be an increasing "lobby" of science-deniers, who see nefarious motives in the research and public pronouncements of academia. To them scientists are just mouthpieces for sale to the highest bidder. This science-denial stems from both sides of the political spectrum, whether it is the climate change "denial" or GMO scaremongering. Or the anti-vaxx lobby (I don't really know which side of the aisle that lobby sits) or even the homeopathy crowd, and presumably stems from ideological grounds. It's clear that TalkFracking can take their place in this dubious hall of fame.


  1. Link to Talk Fracking in first paragraph doesn't work for some reason.

    1. Thanks TaD. I've updated it, hopefully it works now...

  2. Totally brilliant JV. Exposing the Talk Fracking bullshitters for what they are. All financed by a complete hypocrite.

  3. "Recently I discussed the increasing antipathy towards and mistrust of academic scientists, particularly in the more controversial subject areas."
    I suspect this is one of the reasons.

  4. I'm not sure if the anti-fracking crowd even believes that the continued use, even in diminishing amounts, of fossil fuels will kill the planetary biosphere, which, if true would be a reason for their extreme behaviour. I suspect the group simply feels that oil and gas activity - and capitalism, population growth, the human use of "nature" - is just "wrong". A moral and spiritual error in principle, acceptable at no level.