Monday 24 June 2013

Horizon: Fracking, a new energy rush by Professor Iain Stewart - a review

Shale gas and fracking got the big time BBC treatment this week with the airing of Prof Iain Stewart's Horizon special. Link is here, although be quick, because the BBC don't tend to keep them up (also, you probably can't see it unless you are in the UK).

<colossal name drop> I've been fortunate enough to chat to Britain's favourite geo-celebrity before on this topic </colossal name drop>, so I knew that this was in the works, although I wasn't expecting it to hit our screens so soon.

I'm also pretty sure, unlike the author of this blog, that the views expressed genuinely represent how Iain sees the subject. I don't think, to quote, that
that Prof. Stewart was ready to burst, he was holding back so much. It was the uncomfortable way he spoke to camera, I could almost sense the person behind the camera giving him a stern look. Be balanced, be careful, this is dangerous stuff. Hang on, let’s cut to you saying nothing and driving, that’s safer.
To be fair, there WERE a lot of driving shots. It seems to be the done thing for documentaries these days. Perhaps it is assumed that unless we see shots of the presenter travelling between locations we might get confused and think they're still in the same place.

However, I don't quite understand the surprise felt by many commentators over Iain's take on the topic. The view of pretty much every professional organisation that has addressed the topic, be it the British Geological Survey, the Royal Society, the Royal Academy of Engineers, is that shale gas extraction can be conducted safely, and that risks posed are not much different to conventional hydrocarbon extraction. That's not to say that there are no risks (everything we do carries a risk), but that those risks can be managed within the UK's already robust oil and gas regulatory regime. I'm not sure why Prof Stewart, a professional geologist, would be desperate to (and I quote again)
blown his top and started ranting at the camera. ‘For pities sake, wake up, this isn’t the solution, this is shortsighted madness! We drill and pump and waste billions of gallons of fresh water extracting this stuff, we burn it, we increase carbon in the atmosphere and then it runs out. Remember ‘North Sea Gas?’ Yes it’s easy and a stopgap and a final, last ditch frenzied attempt at keeping the crumbling edifice of the fossil fuel corporations going, but it’s insane.’
I think if you only read, say, the Guardian, on shale gas, you'd be fairly convinced that fracking is completely awful, and that no-one in their right mind could support it, unless you are a greedy Texan oil baron. It must then come as a bit of shock when someone like Iain Stewart, supposedly one of the good guys, the cuddly face of geology,  takes the view (as the majority of geologists do) that the risks of shale gas extraction should be entirely manageable. Hence the rather nasty comments suggesting that either Iain, or the producers, must surely have been in the pockets of big oil to commit such an outrage.

In all I feel it was a very balanced program. The best evidence for this is that after the show, @ProfIainStewart's twitter feed was bombarded with angry commentators from both sides of the debate castigating him for making such a biased program. If you're pissing off both sides, you're probably doing a reasonable job.

The first half of the show was dedicated to the benefits of shale gas extraction.  This included a visit to a Louisiana 'shale-ionaire', a man who received a $430,000 one-off payment, plus regular monthly royalties, for drilling rights on his farmland. It also showed the scale of shale gas extraction in the US: it's not limited to Pennsylvania and Texas (although these are two hotspots). There are over 1 million wells in over 30 states. Some people believe that there is more gas in the US than there is oil in Saudi Arabia. The effects the shale gas revolution on the economy, and in particular the attraction of cheap energy to manufacturing and chemical industries that are 're-shoring' to the US was mentioned.

Particularly interesting was the visit to the National Grid control center, during the Strictly Come Dancing finale. As the show ends and everyone in the UK makes a cup of tea, the demand spikes and the Grid brings on extra power to meet this demand. I'd heard of the so-called 'TV Pickup' effect before, but it was still fascinating to see it in action. We are all so accustomed to receiving electricity quite literally at the flick of a switch, and we so rarely think about the sheer complexity of infrastructure needed to deliver it too us! It really is mind-blowing when you step back to look at it.

The scale of this infrastructure was further demonstrated by the visit to the Isle of Grain LNG terminal, where gas from Qatar is landed. The scale of the holding tanks and the size of the tankers were quite astounding - quite literally like a wall of steel as Iain describes it. The tanker is 1/4 of a mile long, and carries enough gas to power 70,000 homes for a year. Which is just as well, because 40% of our electricity comes from gas, and more than 50% of our gas is imported. This highlights the often underestimated issue of energy security - gas tankers are highly flexible, so if the Qataris ever decide to sell their gas to someone else, or someone else decides to pay a higher price for it, we'd begin to run out of gas pretty quickly. Hence the geo-political importance of 'home-grown' energy to buffer us from these consequences.

Having looked at the potential benefits, the second half of the program heads to Pennsylvania to examine some of the potential issues. Iain meets with a family, the McIntyres, who list a series of health problems that they associate with contaminated water caused by nearby gas drilling. It seems the whole community is scared of their water, and now only drink from delivered bottles. The McIntyres admit that it has been difficult to prove this link scientifically, and this comes across in the program: lots of complaints, not a lot science to back them up.

The confidential make up of drilling fluids was also mentioned. There's little doubt that drilling companies made a strategic blunder in trying to keep this information secret. There reason for doing so - the desire to keep commercial secrets from their competitors - is technically a valid one, but only if you are thinking mainly of your competitors, not the general public. Because if the public see you are keeping secrets, they will assume you have something to hide. The industry is starting to come around to this fact, and more and more wells are registered on FracFocus, but from a PR point of view this horse (and trust in the industry) has long bolted.

One of the few scientific studies that has found any kind of link between methane contamination and drilling is the famous Duke study, which receives some air time at the end of the show. It's worth bearing in mind that this study hasn't gone without substantial criticism (see here, here and here (last link is industry funded and not peer reviewed, but worth including)). This included Iain performing the now famous lighting of the water due to methane content, and the debate continues as to what extend groundwater methane is naturally occurring, and to what extent it has been exacerbated by drilling.

Overall, I think the final point is right on the money: UK shale gas operations will likely look very different to the US shale gas experience - the operating culture, the regulatory system, and the mineral rights systems are all completely different. However, it is up to British scientists and engineers to prove that they know the risks, and that they can manage the risks safely.

The thing that impressed me most about the program however, wasn't any information about shale gas. Having been involved in the topic for some time now, there wasn't a lot to surprise me. What I really enjoyed was that, perhaps unintentionally, it showcased real geoscientists doing what real geoscientists actually do.

We're not short of popular outreach in the geosciences (especially thanks to the work of Prof Stewart et al.). However, geoscience in the media tends to revolve around dinosaurs and disasters. Super-volcanoes and Stegosaurus. Tsunamis and T-Rex. In fact, only a small portion of geoscientists are palaeontologists or vulcanologists, especially in the commercial world outside of academia. This is leading to public misunderstanding of the work geoscientists do, perhaps exemplified by the incident of Iain Duncan Smith, the geologists and the shelf-stacker.

During this program, we got to see drilling engineers alongside the incredibly complex surface operations - that spaghetti-like tangle of hydraulic lines - needed to conduct a well stimulation. Such incredibly complex engineering that we rely on completely just to go about our daily lives!

We saw a geophysicist using 3D seismic data to work out where the shale rocks were, 3 to 4km beneath us, and using microseismic event locations - pops and cracks that carry no more energy than a dropped bottle of milk, detected and located with pin-point accuracy on arrays of geophones kilometers away - to map exactly how far and in what directions the stimulated fractures went. The geophysicist points out that, as the first person to look at the 3D seismic data, he really is the first living thing to 'see' these rocks since those dying organisms, whose organic matter eventually transformed into methane, were buried 350 million years ago. Astounding!

We saw Iain himself go in for a bit of palaeofacies reconstruction in some Peak District caves, using information from sedimentary structures and fossilised corals and plant matter to reconstruct the enivronmental conditions hundreds of millions of years ago, to work out where the coastline would once have been, and therefore where the best places to drill might be. What to the untrained eye might be a boring-looking grey rock, actually contains a wealth of information about what the world was like 350 million years ago!

We saw inside the BGS core store, where 250km of core samples from across the UK, logging the depths beneath our feet, are stored. We saw how electron microscopes are used to see the tiny, tiny pores within shale rocks, which may only be 5 nanometers across. These tiny pores may be pretty-much invisible to the naked eye, yet in sufficient number they allow apparently rock solid, dense shales to trap trillions of cubic meters of natural gas!

Finally, we saw hydrologists conducting water sampling across Pennsylvania. Not glamorous, perhaps, but vital work to guarantee the health and livelihoods of people who rely on that water! 

There's so much more to geoscience than the big box-office sellers: dinosaurs and natural disasters. I'm glad that, perhaps unintentionally, this program was able to show that.


  1. NOTE TO READER: JAMES VERDON IS AS UNBIASED AS DICK CHENEY! He stands to make millions from the dash for cash, sorry gas. Anyone who claims to be an independent scientist but suggests people watch fracknation, an industry funded propoganda film, is suspect. There's no debate, the gas industry itself acknowledges aquifers can be contaminated by cement failure, which happens in ALL wells in their lifetime. Cuadrilla acknowledge they have NO control of how the rock fractures. Cuadrilla also admit they will use the full range of chemicals once the exploratory phase is completed. The Colorado Gas Conservation Comission document several cases of aquifer contamination caused by fracking. The gas industry use the same PR firm that tried to say cigarettes didn't cause cancer. JAMES VERDON IS ON THE PAYROLL!!!

    1. Not sure where to begin with this one! I would love to know how you think I am on the payroll? My funding comes from the UK Natural Environment Research Council (so ultimately the tax payer, via the UK Science Councils). If you could let me know where I could pick up my millions that would be much appreciated, but in actual fact I work as a not-very-well-paid research scientist because I am more interested in good science than I am money. If I wanted to make a lot on money, I would have joined industry a long time ago.

      I'm not alone in this, and I really am starting to wonder why people opposed to shale gas are convinced that everyone who has a different opinion to them MUST be being payed by the industry. Is Prof Iain Stewart also 'on the payroll', because the views he put across in the Horizon program are not that different to mine. More importantly, they are not that different to most geologists. Working in an university geology department, I have a fair knowledge of what the average not-industry-funded geologist thinks about shale gas, and most will tell you that shale gas can be extracted safely. Talk to the Royal Society, the Royal Academy of Engineers, the British Geological Survey, they'll tell you the same thing.

      This kind of uniformed (and offensive) rant is exactly why I set up this blog. As someone with a reasonable degree of knowledge on the subject, I was fed up with seeing endless streams of misinformation pouring from those opposed to shale gas.

      To begin with, you call FrackNation industry-funded propaganda. Evidence for this please? FrackNation was funded via Kickstarter (which is a platform for picking up lots of small donations from regular people), and the producers returned any attempts at sponsorship from anyone tied to the industry. It does of course focus on the benefits that shale gas extraction has brought to the US, but in that respect you could no more call it propaganda than you could GasLand. Or is it only propaganda when something puts across a view you disagree with, but not when it's views you agree with (just as everyone expressing a different view to you must be industry-funded)?

      Does well failure happen in all wells in their lifetime? By the way, well failure is a bit of a meaningless term - what does it mean to say a well has failed (many in the industry would call it a failed well if it doesn't find oil). You are talking about annular leakage - where cementing problems allow light, buoyant hydrocarbons (principally methane) to move up the edge of wellbore, into shallower layers (or to surface), so let us be precise and call it that (I know that seems like a pedantic point, and for that I apologise, but I do like to use the right terminology).

      Well, there are already over 2000 onshore oil and gas wells in the UK (200 of which have been fracked, by the way). Are all of these leaking? I think that if they were we might be aware of it. Then there are god-knows-how-many oil and gas wells in the North Sea - are all of these leaking too? This idea that all wells are leaking has come about because Josh Fox took one paper on deep-water Gulf of Mexico wells (one of the most challenging drilling environments), from a company that sells wellbore repair options (so is looking to exaggerate the problem), looking at Sustained Casing Pressure (which is NOT the same thing as leakage), and extrapolated it to tell us that 50% of wells are leaking. If that's the case, we should already have 1000 leaking wells onshore UK, and however many more in the North Sea? Do we?

    2. I'm not sure what Cuadrilla might have acknowledged to you (based on your comment so far, it seems likely that you might have misunderstood), but I can re-assure you that control over the rock fracturing is possible, using a technique called microseismic monitoring. I know about this because at Bristol we are developing and making new advances in this science. By placing geophones around the reservoir, it is possible to detect and locate the 'pops' and 'cracks' as the rock fractures (usually to within an accuracy of 10 meters) - see here for an example:

      This is done in real-time, so the operators can track exactly where the fractures are, and if during the process the operators see something they don't like, they can change the injection rates and pressures to change how the fractures are forming, or even to stop injection (look at operations like 'zipper-fracs' and 'hesitation-fracs' to see how operators are using microseismic to guide their injection programs).

      Now, because in the US the regulations are not as tight, only about 5% of fracs are monitored with microseismic. In the UK, DECC have said that all fracs must be monitored using microseismic (again, highlighting the big differences between UK and USA regulation).

      Now, have there been incidents of problems with shale gas wells? Yes, there have been a handful of examples of methane leakage (no evidence of all the nasty chemicals that people go on about). Are these ubiquitous, an inevitable result of shale gas drilling, or are they a rare occurrence, caused by poor (even illegal in some cases) practice by cowboy companies operating under an extremely lax regulatory environment? When you realise that literally millions of wells have been fracked in the US, the handful of incidents in GasLand really are an extremely rare occurrence. Most peer-reviewed scientific literature finds this to be the case - see here for example:

      Equally, we have seen a significant REDUCTION in shale gas complaints from 2008 (when shale gas operations were mainly being carried out by small, mom-and-pop operations with little experience or regulatory oversight), to 2012-2013 (now that the big boys, with a lot more expertise, and a lot more oversight, have got involved) - this despite huge INCREASES in the number of wells drilled during this time.

      The conclusion: Like ANY subsurface operation (just like mining, geothermal, conventional oil and gas etc) there are risks involved, and it is right that these risks are regulated and managed. In the UK we have one of the best regulatory systems for oil and gas drilling in the world. Which is why you don't have to be paid by industry to think that shale gas drilling can be done safely in this country, you just have to be familiar with geological processes.

    3. Tony Harvey of the DECC states
      "The DECC Has records of some kind of drilling of 2159 onshore wells on however we do not have records of how many of them were fracked because until recently fracking was regarded as a daily routing oilfield operation and not subject to specific consent. from enquiries to the operators we believe that at least 200 of these did have hydraulic fracturing treatments of some kind but we would emphasise that these non shale fracks are not comparable,in the volumes of fluid employed. To Cuadrillas operations at Preese hall in 2011 the non shale fracks are much smaller".
      What is your basis for saying that there has been a reduction in shale gas complaints ? where is your proof ? complaints to whom ? just another meaningless fact plucked out of the air by an "expert " the should be ashamed of himself.
      Fracking in the US generated 280bn gallons of toxic waste water, enough to flood Washington 22ft deep beneath a toxic lagoon. 'The nasty chemicals' are the tip of the iceberg as the fracked water returns to the surface with carcinogens and radium and a whole host of chemicals which should stay in the shale never to breathe air. When Bromine in wastewater mixes with Chlorine in the water used in treatment plants it produces triomethanes, chemicals that cause cancer and increase the risk of reproductive and developmental health problems according to a new report from Duke University.
      Scientific American recently highlighted a study regarding the 600.000 underground waste and injection wells nationwide Scientists and federal regulators acknowledge they do not know how many of these are leaking.
      Stefan Finsterle a leading hydrogeologist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory who specialises in understanding the properties of rock layers and modelling how fluid flows through them says "there is no certainty in any of this and whoever tells you the opposite is not telling the truth, You have changed the system with pressure and temperature and fracturing so you don't know how it will behave.

      'Are we heading down a path we might regret in the future ?' said Anthony Ingraffea, a Cornell University engineering professor who has been an outspoken critic of claims that weeks don't leak "Yes."
      So Dr JV we may not be able to chase any of the money back to you yet but we are watching. Anyone in any doubt just click not youtube and watch any 10 posts of your choosing with videos of what to expect in your town. if you're still in favour and want to live next to it i hope you live next door to Dr JV.

  2. Great Review !
    The growing concerns about the ill effects of hydraulic fracturing has helped the citizens to get more information about the facts and figures which we should consider to prove the ill effects of this process.

    Bruce Hammerson

    Hydraulic Hammers

  3. I don't know if this was mentioned in Prof. Stewart's documentary, but - regarding the 'TV pickup' effect - there is a 'pumped storage' power station in Wales which was built to address these spikes in demand: It's worth a visit, as the engineering involved is very impressive. Essentially, it consists of two lakes at the top and bottom of a mountain, connected by a tunnel which runs through a turbine. When demand is high, the top lake is allowed to drain into the lower lake, powering the turbine. When demand is low, and the spot-price of electricity is low, the turbine can be run in reverse to pump water back up to the top lake.

    1. Thanks Anonymous,
      I've been past Dinorwig a couple of times when hiking Snowdon. Must say I'm usually too busy admiring the mountains to worry about the engineering. I've also been taken to the Shisanling pumped storage plant near Beijing. I don't know enough about how much they can put out though - how many more Dinorwigs would we need to build to deal with renewable intermittency issues, or are there more efficient and scalable energy storage options?

    2. It doesn't add up...10 August 2013 at 13:07

      The problem is we don't have many sites that could be used for (pumped) hydro that aren't already being exploited, so it isn't really going to be a solution to handle the variability of wind and solar power (or tidal power) in the quantities that are now coming on stream.

    3. Whaaaa? Frackland is gross comical effort, especially when compared to Gasland. You're a very naive person or you're lying through your teeth-I think the latter. If you're interested in fracking then you have interests in fracking. You should be ashamed of yourself.

  4. And the BGS are involved in Fracking. I've been wondering why all the British geologists seem to pro-shale. This blog is a joke.

  5. "Well, there are already over 2000 onshore oil and gas wells in the UK (200 of which have been fracked, by the way)."

    Would you care to give us some evidence that 200 wells have been fracked in the UK - When I say evidence I mean something that refers to reliable source documents and not just anecdotal "it was said by someone from DECC before so it must be true" stuff.

    You are a scientist so I am sure you will have researched this claim before publishing it :-)

    1. Well, I've chatted with the people that did them. It was mainly BP in the 1980s, and now that iGas bought the majority of these fields, they now have the majority of the data (excepting Wytch Farm, which is Perenco). I've been pushing IGas to publish more of their data. Unfortunately, it is considered commercially sensitive, so not available to the public.

      Prior to shale developments in the last 5 years, hydraulic fracturing in conventional oil/gas reservoirs was considered to be such a run-of-the-mill completion technique that there were no specific data reporting requirements.

    2. Please see my reply to the above thread, the 200 fracked wells were not shale, no one can confidently say how many of the onshore wells are. 200 is a nonsense. figures then are based on fracked oil and not shale. A hugely different process in terms of waste water.

  6. Arguing with anti-frackers is like arguing with creationists. All a case of MSU !

  7. I just saw the Fracking program last night on German TV. Though it is true that Fracking has brought prosperity to some areas, with it has also come more crime and prostitution (this is what I am hearing from relatives in North Dakota). In addition, I am concerned about what Fracking does to the stock of drinkable water. Tey say that there is only 70 years worth of drinkable water in Europe. How quickly will this dwindle if the water is used for Fracking (not to mention, if the water is contaminated!). Also, has there been a study to check the quality of the crops which may be watered with contaminated water? The trouble with Fracking (as with genetically modified foods, cigarettes etc.) is the lag between cause and potential effect. It took years before people accepted the link between cigarettes and cancer. It may take generations before people find a link between health and genetically modified food and fracking. Why don't the Europeans just sit back and let the Americans conduct their scientific experiments on a massive scale and see how it pans out. The shale oil isn't going any where. Let the US perfect the methods and in the meantime, we develop better (solar, wind, water) methods which we know will not harm the environment.

    1. Hi anonymous,

      I'm not sure where your stat of 70 years of drinking water has come from - most of our freshwater aquifers are continually replenished by that wet stuff that falls from the sky. When taken overall, shale gas extraction uses a tiny percentage of total water consumption - we're talking less than 1%. It's only likely to place a strain in particularly water-scarce areas. Water UK (which represents UK water utilities) and UKOOG (which represents all onshore operators) have signed a memorandum of understanding - they don't see any issues meeting the expected demand. We lose more water through pipeline leaks in a day that we'd need for a year's worth of shale gas extraction, so if water scarcity is an issue, the first thing to do is to get on with fixing pipelines.

      I'm not sure anyone has studied the effects of watering crops with flowback water, because no one is planning on watering crops with flowback water. That would be completely illegal. If any company in the UK were found to be doing that, I would join you in demanding they be shut down. In reality, there are strict protocols for the storage, transport, treatment and disposal of any waste fluids from the fracking process, regulated by the Environment Agency. This is no different from the many other industries in the UK that use, transport, store and dispose of various chemicals and water, without causing pollution.

    2. With regards sitting back and waiting - there is a risk to doing nothing as well. I assume that we both start from the point of wishing to maximise human well-being. Well, the number one factor that correlates with human health, is wealth. In areas that are economically deprived you see higher instances of mental health issues, substance use and abuse (booze, fags, drugs), both malnutrition and obesity, etc etc etc. If the result of sitting and waiting is that an area becomes increasingly run-down with no inward investment, that too has an impact on human well-being. Just not as immediately obvious as a drilling rig in a field.

      This is obvious when you consider the industrial revolution in its entirety. There were clear risks in the development of the industrial revolution, and lots of problems. But are we not glad that our forebears took those risks, ultimately leading to the lives we live now? Had they instead taken your approach, neither you or I would be having this conversation, and instead we'd be heading out to break our backs ploughing a field, seeing half our children die before age 5, and dying by the time we're 40.

      In terms of the USA experiment, the "shale boom" is close to 10 years old, and more than 10 million people live within a mile of a "fracked" well. If there were truly significant health impacts (on the scale of smoking, for example as you allude to), then there is a very large population "at risk", and we'd expect to be seeing significant effects already.

      Finally, as regards renewables. I would also like to see more renewables developed (it's a false dichotomy to say that if you're for fracking you must be opposed to renewables, or vice versa). But they are not without impacts themselves. Firstly both solar and wind require large quantities of rare earth elements like neodymium. Each wind turbine require 80kg of the stuff in its magnets. Mining Nd is not a pleasant process. So there is an impact, it's just out of sight for the average UK citizen. There's also the additional cost, which as discussed above has a negative economic impact, which in turn has a negative impact on human well-being.

      Finally, the more important fact is that even if we do everything we can to develop renewables, we'll still be burning a lot of gas, for heating our homes, cooking our food, in industrial processes, and as rapidly-despatchable electricity when it's not windy and/or sunny. The National Grid Future Energy Scenarios make this very clear. It is not a question of whether we burn gas, it's a question of whether we produce it domestically or, as output from the North Sea diminishes, increase our imports from Qater and Eastern Europe.

  8. I'm not sure anyone has studied the effects of watering crops with flowback water, because no one is planning on watering crops with flowback water. That would be completely illegal. - Well it is happening in California. Treated water is being used during the drought to irrigate the many fruit crops grown.

    How do you get rid of ALL the NORM from treated frack water? I would be interested to know.