Monday, 23 March 2015

Further comments on the Talk Fracking "Frackademics" report

After my original comments on Talk Fracking's "Frackademics" report, it seems my critique has garnered a response. Which was nice. Quotes from the response are in bold, and my further comments follow.

"Here follows a quick rebuttal. It is not comprehensive and we do not intend to embark on a lengthy program of tit for tat social media discussions."
Well, at least they got something right with regard to the uncomprehensive nature of the response! With regards social media, I would suggest that if you want to avoid a lengthy tit for tat then don't smother your social media feeds with images that appear to incite physical assault against academics. Also, don't write letters to the Heads of Departments and funding bodies of the academics you've taken a dislike to asking that they "take appropriate actions to protect the reputation of your institution".

As an aside, I'd be very interested to find out what TF believe would count as "appropriate actions". Should we be muzzled to prevent us from speaking to the public? Should we be fired?

Talk Fracking have clearly gone to considerable effort to produce this report, and to mount a social media campaign associated with the report, and even to write letters to university departments, individual academics, science funding councils, science engagement charities, and government ministers. If you're prepared to do this, you should be prepared to offer a fully comprehensive response when the targets of your attack point out the gaping flaws in your original report. If you can't, please write further letters to all of the above explaining that you were wrong and rescinding your accusations.

Moving on to the more specific points:
"His point doesn’t address the scale of ‘known’ and ‘producible’ fossil fuel reserves – and the fact that this scale is far greater than it will ever be safe to produce" 
Here's a couple of images the show (above) where our unburnable fossil fuel reserves are held, and (below) where our emissions are coming from.

You can see that the majority of our CO2 emissions, and the majority of the CO2 embedded in reserves, are in coal. Quickly phasing out coal is by far the most important thing we can do with respect to CO2 emissions. Meanwhile, we really don't want the oil and gas industries to stop producing immediately tomorrow - if they were to do so, civilisation as we know it would collapse. Therefore it is appropriate to conduct research into extracting oil and gas as efficiently as we can, while at the same time accepting that we cannot continue to burn it at the rates we presently do. These are not mutually exclusive positions, and nothing in the original report or Mr Mobbs' further comments actually challenge this position.
"The only viable model for efficient CCS would be for power generation. You can’t fit CCS to a road vehicle or a home heating boiler! [...] Most of the world’s carbon emissions do not come from power generation."
At no point do I argue that CCS is a silver bullet that can resolve all our problems. Mr Mobbs is attacking a straw-man. However, I will add a few comments anyway. My research is funded by the UK taxpayer, so I tend to focus on solutions applicable to the UK. The following image (from the CCC) breaks up the UK's emission by sector. CCS can feasibly be applied both to the power sector and to major industrial emitters. In the UK these account for 265 MT of CO2 out of our total emissions of just over 600MT, or about 40%. CCS cannot provide the whole solution, and I've never said it can. It can play an important role, however, so it is important that we continue to develop it. Therefore, as per my original comments, paying academics to conduct research in this area is completely appropriate, and nothing in Mr Mobbs' comments actually challenges this assertion.

Moreover, the only viable model for a near-zero emission civilisation is to decarbonise electricity generation, and then electrify almost everything. It's all very well pointing out that it'd be better if more people used public transport, but the tricky part is actually getting people to do so while living in a society where people are free to make their own choices.

I have no doubt that electrification of home heating, transport and the like will "create its own ecological/resource depletion impacts", but that is why climate change is such a tricky problem to solve! I think it is incorrect to say that "no mainstream agency wants to discuss [this] because it involves significant lifestyle change": most mainstream organisations would love for people to make low-carbon lifestyle changes all on their own accord, but they also need to assume when they plan for the future that most people will be extremely reluctant to do so.

For what it's worth, over the course of my 10 years in academia I have been involved in 3 CCS projects around the world: Weyburn, In Salah, and Sleipner (read my PNAS paper here). Between them, these projects have successfully sequestered tens of millions of tonnes of CO2. The average EU citizen emits 8.5 tonnes of CO2 per year. Obviously I played only a small role in these significant projects, but I am proud of the fact that during the period of my involvement the equivalent emissions of millions of people were prevented from reaching the atmosphere, while the scientific understanding to facilitate the capturing of millions of tons more was also advanced, and that I made a small contribution to helping this happen.

"“If the RS is so corrupted by industry, as is claimed by TalkFracking” *No such claim is made*". 
The flowcharts published alongside the TF report are certainly intended to give the impression that industry has wielded an undue influence on this report. I am glad to learn that Mr Mobbs has clarified that he does not actually believe this to be the case.

In the promotional material released alongside this report, it is claimed that the TF paper "undermines the foundations of the [RS/RAE Report]". Yet it seems the only alleged criticism is that it is "premature". No actual criticism of its content is put forward. Hardly much of a basis for the RS/RAE report's conclusions to be dismissed in any way whatsoever - the foundations look to be in good condition to me.

"He seems unwilling to discuss the prematurity of their conclusions"
No, I'm still waiting for actual specific criticism to be provided - which of the RS/RAE conclusions and recommendations cannot now be supported?

"Classic! Is he saying that it’s not necessary to have the ability to measure the impacts of unconventional gas extraction in order to regulate them? He can’t seriously mean that. That’s not science, that’s numerology."
No, I'm pointing out that we do have the ability to measure the impacts of unconventional gas extraction, and therefore it is possible to regulate them. This is basic primary school reading comprehension now! Are the impacts always monitored in the USA? No, they aren't, regulations vary state-by-state, with some doing better than others. However, in the UK the new rules passed in the Infrastructure Bill require the impacts on air quality, groundwater quality, seismicity, noise, climate change (via fugitive emissions), etc to be monitored at every site (and the EA would likely require such monitoring anyway without the IB).

"He resorts to talking about well integrity, and fails to acknowledge the problems of traffic generation, air pollution, and the generation of – compared to conventional gas and oil – large quantities of contaminated effluent which has to be disposed of."
I talk about well integrity because it is acknowledged that in the handful of cases where elevated groundwater methane levels have been observed and robustly linked to gas extraction, it is well bore integrity issues that have been the culprit.

Yes, we can discuss traffic movements, but then you can extend that same accusation to any kind of energy development. For some perspective, at peak levels Cuadrilla anticipate a maximum of something like 40-50 truck movements per day for their proposed Lancashire site, or 4 trucks going past per hour during the working day, and most days it'll be much less than this (one truck an hour or less). The expected traffic levels over the life of the site are depicted below:

Yes, it's important to choose sites with appropriate access roads - that's what the planning system is there to do (for example I had no issue with WSCC rejecting Celtique's proposed site for traffic reasons). But do 4 trucks an hour during working hours for a couple of weeks, on a well planned and sited pad, vastly alter the risk profile of shale gas extraction to the point where the risks are substantially different to a conventional well pad?

With regards the disposal of large volumes of waste water, Mr Mobbs clearly hasn't "look[ed] at the whole development/production system", or he'd be aware that the existing onshore conventional industry in the UK deals with over 70 million barrels of produced water every year, equivalent to the expected flowback water from approximately 7,000 fracked wells per year, which is 17 times more than the IoD estimate of a maximum of 400 wells fracked per year.

"“The TF report relies heavily on the well-known papers written by Howarth et al.”
No it doesn’t."
I'm glad to hear that the TF report is not relying on the Howarth papers. The trouble is, if you take away the Howarth papers, the remaining arguments are flimsy. I noted 6 peer-reviewed studies, a study for the European Commission and a study for the US National Renewable Energy Laboratory that all support the conclusions made in the MacKay and Stone report. Without the Howarth papers, the TF report has only the unsupported, un-peer-reviewed assertions of a member of the public who doesn't appear to have any relevant qualifications, nor be a member of any relevant professional organisation. Yet on this basis, and this alone, TF claim to have undermined the very foundations of these reports.

"I refer to data based upon instrumental analysis from the NOAA’s ‘SONGNEX’ programme – not the assumed ‘inventory-based’ studies Verdon alludes to"
I can also cite NOAA data if it is preferred: their latest paper shows overflight measurements that match inventory data for the Haynesville, Fayetteville and Marcellus shales.

Returning to the TF report, the only study cited is a Nature commentary on the Petron et al. (2014) study over the Denver-Julesberg basin. This study is based on only 6 hours of measurements over one field. Again, TF criticise Allen et al. (2013) for being unrepresentative, but base their own conclusions on only 6 hours of data collection. These caveats are clearly stated in the Petron paper: "It is beyond the scope of this paper to derive an emission inventory for the same time period represented by our measurements, i.e., a midday snapshot on 2 days in May 2012."

More importantly, the D-Jb basin produces associated gas, which means that the wells are mainly producing oil and/or condensate, with associated gas. This is a very different situation to many other shales in the USA, and to the Bowland shale in the UK. Although the oil price has now come down, at the time of the study oil was dear but gas was cheap, so without regulations saying they can't (and it seems like Colorado did not have regulations about methane venting and emissions capturing) operators may have vented methane associated with the produced oil. This is described in the Petron paper: "In Weld County, according to the state inventory, the bulk of total O&G VOC emissions come from uncaptured or unburned flashing emissions at oil and liquid condensate storage tanks" (my emphasis).

This process is not allowed in the UK: any emissions must be captured, and either passed into a production line or flared, burning the methane so that it is not emitted. Therefore TF are citing data that is completely irrelevant for the UK situation.

To conclude, the overarching point for the UK is that fugitive methane emissions can be measured on site, and indeed such measurements are required to be made and reported to the EA. Therefore, whatever the case may be in the USA, and I agree that more data should be collected combining both overflight and on-the-ground measurements into one study, we have the mechanisms in place to ensure that fugitive emissions in the UK are reduced to a minimum.

"The 1,329tcf figure represents the 50% probability from BGS’ report. The 822tcf figure I use in my work represents the 90% probability. Therefore, to quote Verdon, using a probabilistic analysis which is the “most probable” figure of gas to be produced? – it’s not the 50%!"
Mr Mobbs doubles down on his demonstration that he doesn't understand statistics. To make matters a little clearer, the following figures show probability histograms from the BGS Bowland report for the upper and lower Bowland shale units.

Each bar represents the probability that the true volume of gas resource lies within the given window. The larger the bar, the greater the probability that the given value represents the true amount of gas in the ground. Pretty clear that the most probable gas volume is at or around 1,200-1,300tcf when both units are considered jointly, and that 800tcf is not particularly probable.

"We would now like to formally invite / challenge James Verdon to a public head to head debate with Paul Mobbs".
Publicity material posted on social media by Talk Fracking and linked to the Frackademics report appears to incite and threaten physical assault on academic scientists. I will not share a stage with people who think that this is an acceptable way to behave. Mr Mobbs claims that "[he] do[es] not “deny science”. Science is the basis of what [he does]". I therefore ask him to state categorically whether he believes that posting images that appear to threaten and incite assault against scientists is acceptable, and if not, why he allowed such material to be published in association with his report.

Talk Fracking also wrote to my Head of Department, suggesting that he take "appropriate actions to protect the reputation of your institution". As above, TF do not state what they consider the "appropriate actions" might be, but it seems probably that they'd either like us to be fired or at the least prevent from expressing ourselves in public. Again, I ask: does Mr Mobbs feel that threatening the freedom of academics to say and publish what they wish is an acceptable way to behave?

So I have no interest in sharing a stage with those who appear to incite physical assault against myself and my colleagues, and who write to senior members of my institution in the hope that they act to curtail academic freedom.  

I should make some more general statements about the issue of public debates. I have been involved in numerous public discussions about fracking, including on local and national radio, as well as at public events. "Against*" me in such debates presenting a more negative view of fracking have included senior members of Friends of the Earth, senior members of CPRE, and members of the Tyndall Centre, for example.

*I hesitate to use the word "against". We came at the problem from different viewpoints for sure, but in most cases I feel that these were fruitful discussions, rather than adversarial debates.

So clearly I am not "unwilling to debate the subject in public". However, I do have some limits when it comes to public events. Generally speaking, I have no issue debating fellow scientists, and/or members of professional organisations who have the relevant expertise. The situation with NGOs can vary: as above I've had fruitful debates with senior members of Friends of the Earth, but I don't really ever expect to be able to have a sensible discussion with Greenpeace.

I think Richard Dawkins puts it best when discussing the risk one takes when debating non-experts:
"When the debate is with someone like a Young Earth creationist, as the late Stephen Gould pointed out – they've won the moment you agree to have a debate at all. Because what they want is the oxygen of respectability. They want to be seen on a platform with a real scientist, because that conveys the idea that here is a genuine argument between scientists. They may not win the argument – in fact, they will not win the argument, but it makes it look like there really is an argument to be had. Just as I wouldn't expect a gynecologist to have a debate with somebody who believes in the Stork-theory of reproduction, I won't do debates with Young Earth creationists." 
I have no interest in given Mr Mobbs the oxygen of respectability by appearing on the stage with him. If he believes that the various reports pertaining to UK shale are in error, he is welcome to submit his objections to the peer-reviewed scientific literature, where they can be assessed and validated, or rejected, by independent experts. If Mr Mobbs craves a debate with scientists on equal terms, he can do so in the accepted medium for such debates, namely the peer reviewed literature. Put up or shut up indeed.

Update (23.3.2015): The images inciting physical assault on academics appear to have been removed from the Talk Fracking social media feeds. It seems that they have belatedly realised that such behaviour is completely inappropriate.

I've also noticed that my academic title appears to change throughout the response. At the start I seem to have been promoted to Professor Verdon (I am not a professor), but at the end I have had my PhD stripped from me and I become just Mr Verdon. I'm genuinely not bothered, but it does give me the chance to link to this, which seemed appropriate.

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