Wednesday 25 April 2012

My response to the Guardian letters page

With fracking all over the headlines in the last week or so, the Guardian has helpfully collated a letters page on the issue (link). The content of these letters usefully highlights many of the myths and misconceptions about fracking. This in turn inevitably leads to me getting angry, and therefore writing a blog about it (much like the credible hulk I imagine).

I thought the best way to structure this post would be to address the letters one by one. So we start with:
It beggars belief that fracking is recommended to be extended and earthquakes the only risk taken into account (Gas fracking gets the green light,  17 April). Other risks are not just theoretical; appalling consequences have already happened on a wide scale in the US. Fracking has been carried out in rural areas where people's off-grid water supplies have been made unusable by pollution. There have been cases where people cannot use water from the tap at the kitchen sink because methane comes with it, with the risk of explosions. Only half the chemical-laden water used in the process is recovered. It is then kept in lagoons on the surface where it is allowed to evaporate volatile toxic chemicals into the air.
We cannot afford the risk to our water supplies. We don't have the open spaces which have been affected in the US. Even now we are faced with water restrictions and drought. We don't have the necessary huge quantities of water available to be used and made dirty for ever. The landscape would be dominated by well heads spread out over the whole gas field. It is likely that the air around these installations would be polluted by volatile toxic emissions. Come back wind turbines, all is forgiven.
Marion Watson
By 'appalling consequences on a wide scale' I assume the writer means 'one confirmed incidence of a contaminated well (Pavilion, WY), and one possibly contaminated well (Dimock, PA) which has now been remediated'. These two incidences from the tens of thousands of fracked wells in the US. Hardly appalling consequence on a wide scale.

The second point, 'we don't have the necessary huge quantities of water available to be used', nicely exposes a common fracking myth: it takes something like 0.5 - 3 million gallons of water to frack each well. This sounds like a lot, and in these drought-ridden times, do we have enough water to frack all these wells? As ever, though, the key is in the context. The total leakage rate reported by water companies in the UK last year was 3295 million liters (660 million gallons) per day. Per day! If you're worried about water shortages, I'd be writing to your water companies if I were you: you could frack 200 to over 1000 wells per day on the amount of water lost by our utility companies every day. So I'll rewrite the statement. Fracking a well takes 0.5% of the total water lost through leakage in the UK in a single day.

The final point raised is 'The landscape would be dominated by well heads spread out over the whole gas field'. It seems the author has never seen a well head in her life. Here's what a well head looks like:
For sure, not to everyone's taste, but plant a couple of small trees or a large hedge next to them and they're hardly a blot on the landscape. If you're going to come out as anti-shale-gas and pro-wind on the basis of 'blots-on-the-landscape', I'd suggest you'd be more than a little confused (for the record, I'm both pro-fracking and pro-wind, I think both will be important for our energy futures).

Right - next letter, and by our only Green Party MP, no less (who I quite like in general):
The Department of Energy and Climate Change report recommending that shale gas exploration be allowed to continue says nothing about water and air pollution, nor the consequences of shale on renewables and our efforts to tackle climate change. The UK is the richest country in Europe in renewable energy potential, but the new focus on gas threatens to displace investment in those renewables, making it even harder to achieve our targets and nurture this jobs-rich sector. A number of studies have shown the overall climate impact of shale gas to be as great as that of coal. If carbon capture and storage technology is not in place, burning just 20% of the gas which Cuadrilla claims to have found in its licence area in Lancashire would generate 15% of the UK's total CO2 allowance to 2050. And despite claims from gas lobbyists that shale gas will bring down energy bills, we know from Ofgem and DECC that recent energy bill rises resulted mainly from high gas prices. Analysis by Deutsche Bank concludes that the impact of shale on bills would actually be low.
This report does not give the full picture, The government should reconsider its policy on shale gas so that we can make a genuinely green transition that will deliver both energy security and a cleaner environment.
Caroline Lucas MP
Green, Brighton Pavilion
One reason I like her is that I agree, the UK has bundles of renewable energy potential and should be making use of it. But I don't think it's true that an increased supply of gas will displace our renewables sector. Burning hydrocarbons has always been (and still is) a lot cheaper and easier than renewable energy - it's why we've been doing it for so long and so effectively. Therefore, renewables are reliant on governmental initiatives, incentives, subsidies etc. So long as the government keeps these in place, then there will be space for renewables. In the meantime, if and when we decide to burn lots of gas (as we currently do) we could either get it from our own shale deposits, or we could get it cheaply from Russia and/or Qatar. Either way, it'll be cheaper than the renewables, but it won't eat up government subsidies. If we're going to burn gas (and we are, we really are), I'd much rather it was our own, rather than lining the pockets of that nice Mr. Putin, or those nice Bahrainian Princes we've had all over our TV screens during the recent F1 Grand Prix.

In fact, we could use the billions of £s of tax raised on producing shale gas to fund renewable initiatives. If you're still worried that we're generating too much CO2, then increase your carbon tax, reduce your emissions quotas (or whatever other method you favour) and the first thing to close down will be the coal-fired power plants (which emit a lot more CO2 than gas fired power). And that's the key: managed properly (i.e., ensuring that the greenhouse-gas emissions reductions incentives that promote renewables remain in place), the main competitor for shale gas isn't renewables, it's coal. And nobody likes coal.

Next, we come to one of the classic contradictions commonly made by anti-fracking types. On the one hand, Caroline argues that shale gas will fundamentally change our energy landscape, choking off the potential for renewables to break through, while at the same time 'the impact of shale on bills would actually be low'. You can't have your cake and eat it. If you think that the impact of shale gas won't be particularly significant anyway, you can't also claim that it's going to destroy our budding renewables industry.

Finally, an I'll address a point that simply makes no sense to me; if 'recent energy bill rises resulted mainly from high gas prices' then surely a technology that increases gas supply (and therefore lowers gas prices) would help lower our energy bills?!    

Right, next letter:
The fact that a scientific committee thinks earth tremors can be reduced by using the right equipment does not mean fracking to obtain shale gas is acceptable. Fracking results in atmospheric releases of methane twice that found with conventional gas. Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas, seven times more potent than carbon dioxide over a 20-year time frame. For shale gas to be environmentally friendlier than other fossil fuels, methane emissions from fracking have to be kept below 2%. Current operations release around 10% and, in the US, the fossil fuel industry is strenuously resisting methane control legislation by the Environmental Protection Agency. Development of shale gas is impossible to reconcile with the low-carbon economy the planet so desperately needs.
Dr Robin Russell-Jones
International conference organiser, Help Rescue The Planet
I think I've dealt with this issue already here. The figure used here (10%) is above even the upper estimate from the Howarth paper. As always, no mention of how widely panned this paper has been, just a bold assertion of fact.

The next letter is fairly measured and bland, so I'll skip on one more to this:
One of the most disquieting sentences in the fracking report said information on the chemicals involved in the process had been withheld "for commercial reasons". There are references (What's the truth about fracking?, G2, 18 April) to chemicals, and chemical lubricants (and to 75% of these remaining underground) but not to what the chemicals are. Part of the planning approval process for such extraction must include an environmental impact assessment – how can this be completed to the satisfaction of the public, or courts, if the nature of the chemicals involved is kept secret? How can public confidence be won if the companies say "you do not need to know, just trust us"? That trust does not exist, so Cuadrilla – what are you using?
Martin Hemingway
So, Martin Hemingway would like to know more about the chemicals used during fracking. Apparently they've been withheld. Martin is obviously a very lazy man (or maybe I'm just a brilliant hacker, but I doubt it). One click on the Cuadrilla website takes me to this page, which gives an overview of the fracking chemicals used. One more click takes you here, where each component of the fluid is listed in full. Unknown fracking chemicals, companies keeping secrets? Lazy pillock!

The government report on "fracking" makes it sound as safe, economic, and environmentally friendly as nuclear power. No worries there, then.
Steven Thomson
Can we compare fracking to the nuclear industry? More importantly, as a 'fracker' is that a comparison we'd like? After all, a lot of people who live near nuclear power plants are often in favour of them. The French in particular are quite fond of them, which is lucky for us because there are now parts of southern England that now get their electricity from French nuclear power. So long as you don't build your power stations on earthquake and tsunami-prone islands, or use Soviet-style technology, nuclear power generally seems to do ok at producing a lot of electricity for very little CO2 emissions, with very few incidences of contamination. I'm sure the writer is trying to be funny, but it's a silly letter really.

I'll skip the next one, which is more about our energy policy in general than about shale gas, and move on to this:
Nigel Smith of the British Geological Survey is either very young or has an extremely short memory if he seriously believes that "we have just had 30 years of getting our gas from the North Sea [and] it's not caused any problems to anyone". The Elgin platform is still leaking gas, and threatening a major fire, after nearly four weeks, and is predicted to continue for several months, but at least no one has died. Earlier disasters entailed major loss of life. The pollution toll will not be known for some time. In 1988 Piper Alpha, in Norwegian waters but not much further from Scotland than the Elgin, exploded, causing 167 deaths. It was producing gas and oil. Earlier, the previous record-holder, the Alexander Kielland, simply turned over in 1980, killing 123. That was an oil rig, but the same fossil-fuel lessons hold. Previously, in the same Ekofisk field, a blowout in 1977 released some 120,000 barrels of oil. So, Mr Smith, perhaps it's time to look at genuine alternatives?
It's true that there have been bad accidents in the North Sea in the past, particularly in the 70s and 80s. But Piper Alpha was in 1988, so while Nigel Smith is technically incorrect to say "we have just had 30 years of getting our gas from the North Sea [and] it's not caused any problems to anyone", he wouldn't have been far off had he said 25 years. In my view, the industry is pretty good at learning from its mistakes, and that safety record extending back for a quarter of a century is pretty good. The argument 'wouldn't it have been better if we hadn't bothered to develop North Sea oil and gas' wouldn't be likely to win much support beyond the hard-core green community. After all, North Sea oil and gas development is one of the central planks in Scotland's push for independence. If we could guarantee that shale gas development took a similar trajectory to North Sea oil/gas, I think the majority of the UK public would be in favour.

Finally, I'd add that whatever the issues with respect to the North Sea, remember that the majority of shale gas development will be on land, which makes life a lot easier and safer when you have direct access to the ground surface, rather than being separated from it by several hundreds of metres of water.

Nearly at the end now: the final letter. Thank you, dear reader, for pushing on this far.
According to the University of Texas, fracking has caused some hundred earthquakes in the US. One, in Youngstown, was recorded at just over 4 on the Richter scale. However, the government-sponsored report on fracking is a diversion, it has simply looked at the geological implications. The important issues are:
1. Water. Around 2-3m gallons of water are used for each well, which can be fracked up to 18 times. In the US there are at least 35,000 wells, so a lot of water is used over there, and here, in the UK we are facing a water shortage.
2. Pollution. The United States house of representatives committee on energy in April 2011 reported 652 different chemicals used in fracking, 29 of which are human carcinogens. In addition, the New York Times (27 February, 2011) reported the presence of radium, unintentionally extracted in the process. Between 40% and 70% of the water used comes back to the surface and has to be disposed of. Then the US Environmental Protection Agency recently announced, for the first time, that fracking may cause groundwater pollution.
3. Climate change. Increasingly large amounts of energy will be required to extract shale gas – methane. Some 2-4% of this escapes from the well, and it is several dozen times more powerful a greenhouse gas than CO². Anyway, shale gas distracts from the real task which is to find effective renewable energy because, whether you accept climate change or not, we are going to run out of gas, oil, coal and even uranium one day soon.
Fracking has been banned in Bulgaria, France, New York, New Jersey, Quebec and Switzerland, and in parts of Australia and South Africa. We need to consider the implications of the process before we allow powerful international companies to start drilling in the UK.
Firstly, a correction. The Youngstown earthquake was not caused by fracking. It was caused by geological disposal of flow-back water. When fracking is completed, the left-over fracking fluids must be disposed of. Sometimes this water is treated on the surface, sometimes companies will inject the water into deep-lying saline aquifers. It was this waste-fluid injection (and not fracking directly, as at Blackpool) that caused the quake. Again, I should stress that this was a very small earthquake, and it has happened once in several 1000 waste-water injection programs.

As for the points listed from 1 to 3:
1. Water consumption. As above, although 3 million gallons sounds like a lot, it's represents 0.5% of the water lost by our water companies through leakage PER DAY!
2. Water contamination. The US EPA has documented one case of contamination (Pavilion, WY) in the thousands of fracked wells drilled across the US. As for the hundreds of scary secret chemicals, they're all readily available on Cuadrilla's website.
3. Climate change. I agree that we should be putting a lot on energy into developing renewable energy sources. But that doesn't mean that, if we're burning gas, it'd be better for our wallets, our tax man and for our geo-political security if we burned our own gas rather than Putin's gas or the Prince of Bahrain's gas.

So, there you have it. A complete dissection of the Guardian letters page. Sorry it took so long, thanks for sticking with me. There's a lot of straw-men out there being attacked in the fracking debate that we're currently having. And yes, there is a place for genuine debate about fracking. But let's have it based on reality, not scare stories and myths.

Sunday 22 April 2012

Shale Gas - Good or Bad for Global Warming?

Update (24/04/12): In case anyone wasn't sure about how widely the Howarth paper is now cited by those opposed to fracking, without any recognition of how controversial, and how widely criticised it has been from the scientific community, check out how often it gets a mention on the Guardian letters page (link).

As promised to those of you who follow my twitter feed (@TheFracDoctor) for those who weren't aware, a blog about the Cornell/Howarth paper, does shale gas emit cause more global warming than coal?

The reason we're talking about this is because of a study by Howarth and Ingraffea, from Cornell, examining the likely greenhouse-gas footprint from shale development. Link to paper here. We all know that burning gas produces about 1/2 as much CO2 as coal, so swapping coal for gas should be a good thing for global warming, right? However, during shale gas production, a proportion of the methane gas is vented from the well-head. Methane is a potent greenhouse gas (about 20x more so than CO2). So, Howarth et al came up with some numbers for methane emissions, and found that shale gas could contribute significantly more to global warming than, for example, using coal for electricity generation.

This paper is now regularly cited by anyone who doesn't like shale gas. Examples here (otherwise a sensible, well balanced article in my opinion), and here, it features prominently on the shale gas wikipedia entry (here) and if I wasn't so lazy (just got back from a long day in London cheering my better half round 26.2 miles of London's streets) I could find plenty more examples. But how accurate is the study?

The Howarth et al paper has received a tonne of criticism. You can find a summary of criticisms here. Indeed, even Howarth's peers at Cornell have come out in criticism of the paper (here and here). The criticisms can be divided into several parts:

1. Overestimates of fugitive emissions. Howarth et al use an estimate of fugitive emissions of ~7% - i.e. for every 100 MSCF of gas produced, 7 will be leaked to the air. This is a very high number (most estimates would go for 1-2%). Simply from a commercial point of view, it's difficult to imagine a company allowing 7% of it's saleable resource go drifting into the atmosphere. Reduce the fugitive emissions from 7% to 2% and you go a long way towards showing that total global warming from shale gas is significantly less than from coal.

2. 20 year vs 100 year forcing. When comparing the global warming effect from methane with respect to CO2, Howarth et al use the 20 year forcing value. Basically, methane is a much more potent global warming gas than CO2, but it has a much smaller residence time. so methane emitted soon oxidises. Therefore, while it is potent over the first 20 years or so, over 100 years methane is much less significant for global warming. Common practice in these things is to use the 100 year forcings, yet Howarth et al chose to use the 20 year forcings. Had they used the 100 year forcings, the effect of the fugitive emissions becomes a lot less than the CO2 emitted by coal power plants.

There were a couple of smaller points related to whether we should consider emissions for electricity generation versus domestic heating (gas domestic heating is less efficient than electricity generation, but hardly a fair comparison given that noone uses coal to heat their houses any more) and ignoring methane emissions from coal mining, but this post is already getting pretty long. In short, in my opinion, this paper should be used with extreme caution, and I think whenever it's used by mainstream news outlets it needs to come with a large disclaimer.

Anyway, to finish off, is shale gas good for us with respect to global warming? Well, that very much depends on how it fits into our energy production landscape. If shale gas is used to push renewables off the grid, then no, it's not a good thing for global warming. However, if the cheap gas prices enabled by shale gas makes coal-fired power a less attractive option, then it can only be a good thing. The world has far too many coal-fired power-plants, both in the West and especially in China. The key is for governments to stay strong and ensure that backing and subsidies for renewables remain in place, gradually allowing renewables to increase their market share, while allowing the market to dictate a replacement of coal power plants by gas turbines.

In this blog, the Secretary of Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (or somesuch), the cheap price of shale gas has lead to the retirement of 106 coal-fired power stations, and the cancellation of 168 planned (future) such plants. These numbers seem a little high to me, and I have no way of confirming them. However, the general trend of gas replacing coal is almost certainly true, If that trend can be replicated when China starts producing shale gas in significant volumes, then there's a lot of Chinese coal-fired power plants that need to be shut down.

Thursday 19 April 2012

Fracking: the GM food of the 2010s

I want to post about a fantastic article posted on the BBC website in the aftermath of Tuesday's shale gas announcements. Link to it here. In it the author (Richard Black, the BBC's Environment Correspondent) compares the development and public opposition to shale gas to that experienced by GM foods in the mid 90s.

When GM foods first appeared in Europe, there was a huge negative public backlash. Scare stories about Frankenstein-foods that would give us all cancer and genetic diseases while wiping out all non-GM flora abounded. This, despite all the scientific evidence that showed there was (a) nothing dangerous about GM food, and (b) that there were huge potential advantages in making food cheaper for us at home, and in improving food production rates (in a developing world still full of very hungry people). However, the scare stories and the publicity stunts carried out by anti-GM activists were sufficient to see GM foods essentially scrapped across the whole of Europe.

10 years down the line, we can see how silly all the anti-GM propaganda was. GM foods are now commonplace around the world - they haven't made anyone sick and they haven't taken over the world by wiping out all non-GM fauna. The Day of the Triffids has not come to pass.

We are now seeing a very similar story developing with shale gas and fracking. With the promise of fracking coming to Europe, scare stories of destroyed landscapes, polluted water supplies, crust-ripping earthquakes, and even volcanos are making their way around the media, based on little scientific evidence. Anti-fracking groups are now widespread, with little understanding of the science behind fracking, and little desire to understand it, preferring to promote their scare-story propaganda rather than sit down and have a rational debate about genuine fracking-related issues. And their publicity stunts may well be effective enough to see that Europe becomes a no-fracking zone, much as it is already a no-GM zone.

Anyway, I thought it was a really insightful article. Well done BBC.

Tuesday 17 April 2012

Latest from DECC on fracking

Hot news this morning: DECC have released a report on the seismic events produced by fracking at Cuadrilla's Blackpool drilling site:

Press release here and full report here

Keeping things as short and sweet as I can, this report says that while seismic events cannot be ruled out during fracking, they are unlikely, and will be too small to cause any damage.

Certainly, any seismicity will be of a lower magnitude than typical mining-induced tremors, which we're able to live with without a lot of bother. I've already talked a little about seismic activity, and what seismic magnitudes mean here. From a selfish point of view, what is especially good news for me is that the report recommends that all frack stimulations should have seismic monitoring, which is something that our group in Bristol specialises in.

What the report does not do is address any issues of water contamination, which, for me at least, is the biggest environmental risk during fracking. Nevertheless, fracking companies have welcomed the report, and see it as a green light to continue their plans for shale gas development in the UK. Which, of course, means that anti-frackers are up in arms about it.

Anyway, this report has featured on most of my favourite internet news providers, such as the Guardian, and the BBC, so I figured I should write about it sharpish. I'll probably go into more detail in a later post when I've had a chance to read the report over a couple more times.

I'll also to talk about some of the responses to the report's release, that I've found quite interesting - for instance why is it that the BBC headline is "Fracking 'should continue with checks'", while the Guardian headline is "Fracking: Green groups denounce report approving further exploration", which immediately gives the reader very different feelings about the same story?

So, stay tuned for more.......

Sunday 15 April 2012

CCS in the UK

As promised, my next post will be all about carbon capture and storage. It's a little later than I intended: what can I say, I had an enjoyable Easter. As I hinted in my last post, there was big news in the pipeline for CCS, and it was this:

The government has revived the competition to award 1 billion pounds to a power plant that can demonstrate commercial scale CCS: that is a coal or gas fired power plant where the CO2 emissions are captured and pumped offshore in the North Sea, where they are stored in depleted oil/gas reservoirs, or other suitable saline aquifers. They have also set aside £125 million for further research into CCS.

CCS has long been touted as a potential solution for reducing our greenhouse-gas emissions. It allows us to continue burning fossil fuels, without overheating the planet. However, it is not universally popular. Indeed, Greenpeace hate the idea. The principal objections are the cost, and public concerns over leakage security.

I'm not best placed to comment on costs. Yes, CCS will be expensive in comparison with just burning coal with no efforts to moderate their pollution. But then, every alternative energy source, from renewables to nuclear, is a damn sight more expensive than just burning coal. That's why we're so addicted to fossil fuels - they're so remarkably cheap and easy to burn!!! So if we want to mitigate global climate change, whether we get there with nuclear, renewables or CCS (or a combination of all 3), it's going to be more expensive than just burning fossil fuels.

Secondly, public concerns over the risks of leakage. As a geologist/geophysicist, I'm better qualified to comment on this. Public outrage about a potential CCS storage site in the Netherlands has already been sufficient to see the cancellation of Shell's Barendrecht CCS project.

CCS is seen as an unproven technology. This is one of the first things Greenpeace will bring out as the main criticism of CCS. And, once you start telling people that an unproven technology will be deployed near their town, of course they're going to get upset about it. But is CCS really unproven? When the Norwegian government announced an offshore CO2 tax in 1995, Statoil decided it would be cheaper to capture and store the CO2 emissions from their Sleipner drilling rig. CO2 has been injected at Sleipner at a rate of 1 million tonnes per year for over 15 years now, with no sign of leakage. Similar stories can be found at Weyburn, Canada, and at In Salah, Algeria. Unproven? Not really.

However, by far the best way I've found, when talking to non-geologists, to convince them that storing CO2 in subsurface reservoirs is, from a geological perspective, not really that challenging, is to point out that we've been storing gas underground for decades and noone's had a problem with it. The gas we do store is highly explosive, so it's pretty dangerous. It is, of course, natural gas.

Natural gas is produced from reservoirs at a relatively constant rate all year round. However, we use a lot more gas in winter than we do in summer. So the gas we produce in summer has to be stored until winter. The most common storage sites are either depleted gas reservoirs, or saline aquifers, near to the population centers that will be needing the gas.

Now, how is it that we (and the residents of Barendrecht) are ok with storing an explosive gas in geological formations near their towns, yet we have problems if we want to store an inert, non-toxic gas (CO2) in the same formations? This makes no sense to me. But of course, we've been storing natural gas for decades, so it's a proven technology, and it enables the gas companies to lower our bills, while CO2 storage is a 'new' technology, and obviously it's more expensive to capture the CO2 at power plants rather than just burning the coal and polluting our planet.

What's more, while some people are also getting upset at the thought of CO2 pipelines running near their neighbourhoods, they seem totally fine with having explosive gases pumped through pipelines right into their kitchen.

It's the kind of problem that should (and, I believe, does), get psychologists and social scientists all excited about why it is that we often perceive risky things to not be risky, and non-risky things to be dangerous. As a geophysicist, understanding people has never been my strong point. 

Anyway, good news that the government has decided that it will put some more effort into encouraging CCS.

<insersts tongue into cheek>Time to dust of some funding proposals and see if I can't get my fingers into some of that £125 million designated for CCS research </removes tongue from cheek>