Saturday 24 August 2013

Shale gas and "fracking": FAQ

What is shale gas?
Shale rocks are generally dense and black-coloured, formed from mud deposited at the bottom of past oceans, now solidified into rock. This mud is rich in un-decayed organic matter - that's what gives shales their black colour. When heated, the organic matter is transformed into oil and gas.

Once it has formed, some of this oil and gas is able to move out of the shale layers, rising through overlying strata, where it may become trapped in sandstone or limestone layers. This oil and gas is what we consider to be 'conventional' reservoirs, where we have usually looked for oil.

However, it has always been known that much of the oil and gas formed during burial remains behind, trapped in the shale layers. Compared to sandstones and limestones shales tend to have lower porosity, making it harder for the oil and gas to move about through the shale. This means that it is harder to extract gas from shale than from conventional reservoirs where the fluids can flow more freely.
So how is shale gas extracted?
Firstly, a well is sunk, which travels vertically through the overlying strata. When it reaches the shale layer, it turns sideways, drilling horizontally. Modern wells are capable of drilling over 10km horizontally: such wells are called 'extended reach laterals'. This part is absolutely no different to conventional drilling.

Once the horizontal well is drilled, it must be hydraulically stimulated, or as it has become known, "fracked". The horizontal well is "fracked" in portions, stage by stage every few hundred meters or so, meaning that a 2km lateral well might need 10 to 20 stages. For each stage, the targetted section of the well is sealed off, and water is pumped down at high pressure. This water will contain about 1% chemicals that make the stimulation more efficient: surfactants (basically like detergent) that make the water more 'slippery', so less pressure is needed to pump it; and viscosifiers, that help the water carry proppant (more on that in a moment).

The pressure of the water is sufficient to open up pre-existing fractures in the rock, and to create new ones. These fractures are important, because they provide a pathway for the gas to flow out of the shale rock and into the well. Above I pointed out that it is difficult for oil and gas to flow through shale rocks. It is the fractures that allow them to flow into the well. Towards the end of the stage, proppant is pumped with the water. Proppant is usually just sand and gravel, although ceramic beads can also be used. The proppant is pushed into the fractures that have been created, literally 'propping' them open, ensuring that the gas can continue to flow.

Each stage takes a few hours of pumping, so to "frack" all the stages of a lateral might take a week. Once that is completed, the well is ready for production. A small 'Christmas Tree' valve is placed on the top of the well, and the gas may continue to flow for years without any further intervention.

There's suddenly a lot of media fuss about fracking. It must be a new technology, right?
Wells were first hydraulically stimulated in the 1940s. It has been a standard tool in a driller's toolbox for a long time. Horizontal wells are in fact far newer, really only becoming common in the 1990s. Some would argue that the current developments have more to do with horizontal drilling than they do hydraulic stimulation. However, even with these developments, many geologists felt that it would never be possible to extract gas from shales at economic rates.

George Mitchell, a Texan, persevered through the 1990s, improving the technique, to show that it was in fact possible, and the shale revolution was born. Since then, a drilling boom exploded as American companies realised they didn't have to look abroad, or in the deep and treacherous waters of the Gulf of Mexico, because huge volumes of oil and gas were to be found under Texas, Colorado, Pennsylvania and now 30 other US states.

So hydraulic stimulation, or "fracking", is a very well established technique. Horizontal drilling, just as essential to shale development, but much less talked about, is newer, developing in the 1990s.

However, to extract gas from shales requires more fractures than in a conventional reservoir, as they are initially less permeable. Therefore, the volumes of water being injected for shale are typically larger than that used previously in conventional reservoirs. So while current developments are not using new technology, it does represent a scaling up of that technology.

I've heard about scary-sounding chemicals contaminating water supplies. Is this true?
Opponents of fracking sometimes talk about the 500 toxic chemicals needed to "frack". I don't think any stimulation needs 500 different chemicals: that's probably the total number used in the history of the technique, not the number used for a single stimulation.

The two main chemicals used are surfactants (found in most soaps/detergents) and viscosifiers (typically guar gum, used in many food products). While not hideously toxic, I wouldn't want to drink water contaminated with surfactants and the like (who'd want to drink the sink-water after they've done the washing up). In addition, the water injected during "fracking" comes into contact with the deep shale rocks. These sometimes contain heavy metals and salts, which may also enter into the "fracking" fluid.

The most obvious way for these chemicals to enter groundwater is if they are spilled on the surface. There is an example from Louisiana where 17 cattle died after undiluted KCl was allowed to spill off of a drill pad. Many of the reported issues in the US are due to the ponds used to hold the waste fluids: open pools lined with plastic. The lining of these ponds has been known to tear, or if it rains heavily they can overflow. Ponds like this are not allowed in the UK for exactly these reasons. In the UK waste fluids must be stored in double-lined steel tanks: this is a major difference between drilling in the UK and the USA.

Safe management of fluids on the surface should be standard practice for all oil and gas operations - you can read here all the precautions Cuadrilla have taken at Balcombe, layer upon layer of protection to ensure that no substance on the drill site is allowed to leak.

The secondary concern, of course, is what happens when the fluid is injected into the ground. "Fracking" takes place well below the water table, typically at depths of 2 - 4km (most potable ground water is found within a few hundred meters of the surface). So there is a lot of solid rock between where the fluid is injected and any potable water.

For the injected fluids to contaminate groundwater, two things are required: (1) a path (such as faults and fractures) along which these fluids could migrate, and (2) a force to push these fluids along this path.

If there were an easy path allowing fluids to move upwards, then the oil or gas, more buoyant and more mobile than water-based "frack" fluids, would have already travelled through these paths during the 200 million years of geologic history for which the gas has been trapped. Therefore, the fact that the gas is still trapped there to start with tells us that such paths are unlikely.

As for a driving force to push the fluids along such a pathway, should it exist? The water-based "frack" fluids, with their various additives, are of a similar density, or perhaps even more dense, than the brines that fill non-gas-bearing rocks at these depths, and of course much denser than oil and gas. Therefore, they will tend to sink downwards, rather than rise upwards. There is no driving force to push the "frack" fluids back towards the surface.

So we have no pathway, and no driving mechanism, to cause injected "frack" fluids to rise upwards towards potable groundwater sources. This was the conclusion of a recent study into the possibility of hydraulic communication between shale layers are depth and shallow groundwater bodies, finding it "physically implausible".

That's all fine in theory, what about the evidence? Well, a number of studies have been done on water quality in shale areas. Only one, a recent paper by an Arlington group has suggested any kind of link between drilling and contamination by "chemicals". They found a correlation between arsenic and selenium levels and proximity to natural gas wells. They are uncertain in their conclusions, however, as there are a number of possible causes for their observations. Moreover, they do not link their observations with any communication of "fracking" fluids from depth - if drilling is to blame, they believe is likely to be due to vibrations from drilling operations that agitate old, rusty water wells. This agitation of old rusty metal is the most likely source of the observed metals.  

The majority of water quality studies have found no evidence of fracking-related chemicals in groundwater: some (one from the Duke team, one by Molofsky et al) found no evidence of any effect whatsoever on water quality. One from the Duke team found evidence for methane contamination (see below), but no evidence for "fracking" fluids.

I've also seen videos of a tap catching on fire? Is methane leakage a problem?
Perhaps the most dramatic footage in the famous Gaslands film is the scene where the farmer can set his tap water on fire. This is caused by methane gas contaminating groundwater. Methane itself is not toxic in any way, although if it builds up in large enough quantities it presents a fire hazard.

There are two potential ways that methane trapped at depth in shale rock could get into shallow groundwater - through a pathway in the rock, or through a gas well. As above, if there were an existing pathway through the rock to the surface, then the gas would have already taken that route during the millions of years that it was otherwise trapped. Unlike "fracking" fluids, methane is buoyant and mobile. In drilling a well, a new potential pathway is created for methane to get to the surface.

When wells are drilled, they are lined with several concentric layers of steel, called the casing. When all is as it should be, the gas flows up the middle of the well, inside the casing, to the surface. The casing is fixed into place with a layer of cement that fills the small gap between the casing and the rock.

If there are gaps or cracks in this cement then methane can move up through this gap (sometimes called the annulus) towards the surface. Of course, the crack/gap has to run all the way from the shale layer to the surface. Well bore integrity has long been known as a potential problem for all oil and gas wells, for both conventional and shale reservoirs.

There have been definite examples where poor casing/cement has lead to methane migration into shallow groundwater. Dimock, Pennsylvania, is probably the best-known. The company involved was cited for a number of violations of drilling regulations, and fined heavily. The wells have since been repaired, and methane levels have fallen back to below safe minima. Casing and cement is something the industry has been working with for a long time - there are monitoring tools that can be used to check that there are no gaps or cracks in the cement, and, as at Dimock, it is possible to repair problematic casing.

The majority of methane-in-groundwater complaints come from Pennsylvania. This perhaps inevitable, because methane occurs very commonly in groundwater in PA. There are a number of natural ways that can lead to methane in groundwater. Of course, that means that determining when gas drilling is to blame, and when it is natural, can be problematic.

We know at Dimock the gas was drilling-related. But how common is this problem. There have been three main studies here, two by the Duke team, one by Molofsky et al.. The Duke team studied the Fayetteville shale, Arkansas, and did not find any evidence for drilling-induced methane contamination.

However, when they examined the Marcellus (Pennsylvania), they found evidence for drilling-induced methane contamination. Yet this paper has come in for substantial criticism for two main reasons: the number of samples analysed (only 160ish), and the apparent non-randomness of where the samples were taken from.

To address this, Molofsky et al conducted a much wider sampling regime (over 2,000 samples). They found that if you lived near a gas well, there was a 3 - 4% chance of finding methane in your groundwater. However, if you lived in an area with no drilling, there was also 3-4% chance of finding methane in your groundwater. When you look regionally, whether or not you are in a drilling area doesn't appear to affect the probability of groundwater methane occurrence.

What can we conclude from this? Well integrity and methane leakage is an important issue for the industry, one that it needs to keep on top of. We've seen at Dimock that if a company takes shortcuts, and violates regulations, this can be an issue. Importantly, there are ways to check cement integrity once a well has been drilled, and ways to repair problems.

The question is, how widespread is this issue? The data from Molofsky et al appear to show that it is likely to be a few isolated incidents, rather than a widespread problem. Reviews by the US Groundwater Protection Council have come to a similar conclusion.

I've heard that 5% of wells fail immediately, and that 50% fail eventually?
This is a statistic often cited by opponents of drilling looking to highlight the methane leakage issue discussed above. The statistic comes from a paper by Schlumberger examining wells in the deep Gulf of Mexico, and particularly the chart on page 2. Firstly, it's worth noting that this 'paper' is basically an advert by a company selling well repair solutions, so it's in their interest to 'big-up' the stats as much as possible.

More importantly, what do we mean by 'well failure'? In the context of shale gas extraction, we surely mean that a well that is allowing methane to leak into shallow groundwater. This is where the use of the above statistic is somewhat disingenuous. The statistics in the paper are for sustained casing pressure, or SCP. This is where a portion of the annulus remains pressurised when it shouldn't be. This is absolutely not the same as a well leaking - leaking well will probably experience SCP, but that doesn't mean that SCP indicates a leaking well.

Equally disingenuous is the fact that these stats come from deepwater Gulf of Mexico wells. Drilling is a lot more challenging when there is a couple of kilometers of water between your rig and the ground (as the Deepwater Horizon accident showed). It's only in recent years that drilling technology has advanced to enable us to drill there at all.

It's not a fair comparison to link wells drilled in the GoM with onshore shale wells, the drilling and casing of which is no different to the thousands of conventional onshore wells we've been drilling for almost a century. It'd be like using the number of crashes in an F1 race to predict how many accidents there'll be on the M25. Deepwater GoM wells are at the limits of our technology. Shale gas wells are far more mundane.

If we really want to understand how common well casing issues might be in the UK, surely the best place to look is at our many current onshore wells. There have been over 2,000 wells drilled onshore UK. Whether on not they are "fracked" or not has little bearing on casing integrity. These 2,000 existing onshore wells will be no different to shale gas wells. I'm not aware of any complaints of casing integrity issues or methane contamination from any of these existing sites.

Didn't fracking also trigger an earthquake in Lancashire. Is that common?
It did. In 2011, when Cuadrilla "fracked" a well near Blackpool, two small earthquakes were triggered. Both were very small, at the limits of what humans can feel, and would have caused a similar amount of shaking to an HGV driving past your house.

It's a fact not often appreciated that everything we do in the subsurface carries a small risk of triggering an earthquake, whether it be coal mining, conventional oil/gas, geothermal, hydroelectric. Even quarry blasts are basically man-made earthquakes. Shale gas is no different, there will always be a small risk of triggering small earthquakes. However, this risk is small: only one of the hundreds of thousands of "frack" stages in the US has triggered an earthquake. Any quakes produced will be too small to cause actual damage. DECC have said that every future "fracking" site will require seismic monitoring, and Bristol University have currently deployed seismometers at the Balcombe site (even though they're not planning to "frack" at this stage).

I know that some forms of hydrocarbon extraction lead to subsidence issues. Could that be a problem for shale gas?
When you remove material from the ground, a space is created that is sometimes filled by the overlying material subsiding into the gap. This is particularly true for coal mining, which can cause severe subsidence.

However, shale rocks are dense, with low porosity. That is why they need to be "fracked" to get the gas out. Because of this, they are usually mechanically strong enough to support themselves once the gas is removed. As such, subsidence is not expected to be an issue during shale gas extraction. The Barnett shale in Texas is the oldest shale field: production started over 10 years ago. There has been no measurable subsidence during this time.

How much water will be needed?
Several million gallons of water, or 2 - 5,000 cubic meters of water are needed for each well. That's a couple of olympic-sized swimming pools. That sounds like a lot of water. However, it's important to keep that number in context. The average golf course can easily use this much water a week in summer months. Similarly (and a lot more shockingly), UK water systems leak over 3 billion liters (3 million cubic meters) per day. So if we our utilities were to improve leakage by 1%, we'd have enough water to "frack" 30 stages every day.

In all but the driest places, shale gas development doesn't pose a strain on water resources. Moreover, water abstraction is regulated in the UK. If demands on water resources are too great, the Environment Agency will not provide a license to abstract water, and utilities will not provide it.

What about air pollution, is that a potential issue?
Along with water contamination, this is one of the hot issues for shale extraction, because it involves people's health. There have been a number of regional-scale air quality surveys that do not find any evidence for drilling-related air quality issues, including in the Barnett shale and in Pennsylvania. In fact, the Pennsylvania report shows significant improvements in air quality, mainly because coal-fired power stations are being replace by gas power stations.

More localised studies have found the occasional issue, mainly it seems with compressor stations rather than drilling sites. However, even these studies have concluded that "the screening results do not indicate a potential for major air-related health issues associated with the Marcellus Shale drilling activities".

Fracking might be ok in the wide-open spaces of the US, but surely there's no space for it in the UK?
It's true that shale gas extraction is easier in unpopulated areas. Opponents of shale gas often show images of the Jonah gas field, where the land is covered with wells. This is actually a conventional gas field, drilled in the 1990s, before horizontal drilling had taken off. The benefit of horizontal drilling is that you don't need nearly as many well pads.

The truth is that the drilling industry is very adaptable. Sure, if you give them a big empty space and tell them you can drill all over it, then they probably will. However, they can cope in far more constrained conditions when it is necessary. Perhaps the best example of this is Dallas-Forth Worth. This is the 9th most populated city in America, with a population of over 6 million. Yet the Barnett shale runs right underneath, and it's being drilled. By using long lateral wells, drilling sites can be squeezed into urban and suburban areas without taking up much space at all.

Does the UK have much of a record for onshore drilling?
The UK onshore industry does not have a very visible profile. However, it is there: we produce 100 million cubic meters of gas per year. Over 2,000 onshore wells have been drilled in the UK. Of these, about 200 have been "fracked". I've plotted a map of all the wells here. In some places, such as Beckingham Marshes, they manage to squeeze a lot of wells into not-very-much space, without upsetting local people.

The UK onshore industry has been very good at staying out of sight, and very good at making sure they do not pollute. If we want to predict what shale gas development in the UK will be like, the first place to look should be the current onshore industry, which does a very effective job working with local communities.

I've heard that the methane leaks mean that shale gas is actually worse for climate change than coal. Is that true?
Burning coal for electricity produces approximately 3 times as much CO2 as natural gas does. Therefore, switching from coal fired to natural gas fired electricity should represent a significant benefit. CO2 emissions in the US have dropped significantly as gas has replaced coal as a source of electricity.

However, natural gas production has the potential to release methane to the atmosphere. Methane is also a potent greenhouse gas, so if shale gas extraction emits a lot of methane, it could counteract the benefits of reduced CO2. This was the premise of a paper by Howarth et al., which has garnered a lot of publicity. However, this paper has come in for a raft of criticism, as most other studies on the subject have indicated very clear benefits from switching from coal to gas. No Hot Air lists some of the scathing comments about the Howarth paper.

A study funded by the EU Commission concluded that, with respect to greenhouse gas emission, domestic shale gas production has a similar footprint to imported gas (that has to be compressed and shipped to Europe from the Middle East), and a significantly better footprint than coal. 

Even if it's better than coal, gas is still a fossil fuel. Surely we should be focusing all our efforts on renewable electricity?  
Now we're on to a more serious criticism of shale gas development. We know we already have more fossil fuel reserves than we can safely burn without causing catastrophic climate change, so why are we bothering to look for more?

My answer to this comes in two parts: firstly is to point out, as above, that for a unit of energy produced, shale gas emits less than half as much CO2 as coal. If we are to avoid climate change, there must presumably be an upper limit to the rate that we can emit CO2. If the treat of climate change requires us to ration our CO2 emissions, it seems obvious that we should choose the fuel source that gives us the most energy for that ration of CO2 emission. That fuel source, by a significant margin, is gas.

It's correct that we should leave a large portion of our current fossil fuel reserves in the ground. That portion, however, should be coal. Moreover, renewable energy currently requires flexible backup sources - an abundance of gas provides this.

My second argument relates to how we get to a point where our CO2 emissions are reduced. A common call is that 'we should be investing in renewable energy sources'. This is absolutely true. However, in order to invest, you need to have money to invest. Given our current economic struggles, it becomes harder and harder to politically justify renewable energy receiving public money, either as a supplement on bills or as a direct subsidy from the treasury.

If the economy improves, there will be more money available to invest. In my opinion, we should be ring-fencing a proportion of the taxes made on shale gas development, in order that they be re-invested into renewables and/or next-gen nuclear. This would ensure that in the short term we reduce our CO2 emissions by replacing coal fired power, but that in the long term investment continues in alternative energy sources, such that they will be ready as soon as possible.

That's the theory, how does this bear up to reality? Well, Texas is the undisputed home of shale gas, with the Barnett, Eagleford and Haynesville shale plays. Yet, perhaps surprisingly, Texas is also one of the leading states in terms of renewable energy, and the renewables boom has occurred at pretty-much the same time as the shale boom. In Texas, at least, a booming shale gas industry has gone hand-in-hand with booming renewables, rather than competing with each other.

Will shale gas have an impact on my gas bills? 
This is somewhat uncertain, and as a geoscientist I'm probably straying outside of my main area of expertise. The most recent report commissioned by the government suggests prices could fall by 25%. However, other reports have suggested it would have less of an impact.

However, it's important to look at the economic impacts beyond consumer gas prices. At present, we expect to be buying more and more gas from places like Norway and Qatar. That is money that leaves the UK economy for good, never to be seen again. It creates no jobs, and pays no taxes.

In contrast, a UK shale gas industry would provide jobs for UK workers. It's true that some of those jobs would be specialists, attracting high-payed international workers. That is still beneficial to the UK economy, because those people will live in the UK, and spend their money here. But there are many lower-skilled jobs involved as well.

Moreover, remember the manufacturing chain. For example, well pads need cement. The casing is high quality steel, and each well needs several kilometers of it. That means work for people who make cement and steel. Add in the mulitplier effect, as more employment means more people buying things in shops, eating in restaurants, staying in hotels, and it's clear that, whatever the effect on the gas price, shale development will have a significant impact on the economy.

Equally, any gas produced will be taxed. That's money going into the public purse, to be spent on schools, hospitals, or even wind farms. Public finances appear to be somewhat short of cash at the moment. Given our current situation, I don't think we can afford to be handing billions of pounds a year over to Qatar to host an air-conditioned World Cup when we could be reaping the economic benefits of shale gas development at home.  


Thursday 15 August 2013

Greenpeace BS

I've commented before about Frack-Off's spectacular hypocrisy, and a recent video that really brings out the science around shale gas development.

In this post, here's Greenpeace using bullshit in lieu of actually managing to get a story. This actually came out a little while ago, but it was just before Iain Stewart's Horizon documentary, and then events in Balcombe, which have somewhat dominated most of my "social media time".

In a post from Lawrence Carter of Greenpeace, who reckons he has some sort of scoop, trapping a Cuadrilla executive on tape "admitting that everything he says in public is bullshit". You can listen to the recording here, and, as always, judge for yourself.

Funnily enough, the tape cuts just after the "bullshit", although you can just about hear the "but" that comes afterwards. I've asked Lawrence for the rest of the tape (and I'm not the only one to do so), strangely enough it has not been forthcoming. Perhaps the tape just happened to conk out just at that point. Or maybe he goes on to say something along the lines of, as Nick Grealy suggests: "everything I say sounds like utter f***ing bullshit, but it's the real deal". Or as I imagine it might be: "everything I say sounds like utter f***ing bullshit, but it's actually backed up by peer reviewed science".

According to Lawrence, it "was something about renewables and shale gas living hand in hand, aka bullshit". I'm not sure how that ranks as bullshit, given the generally agreed consensus that large-scale renewable grid penetration requires quickly-dispatch-able gas power plants as back-up - read here for a recent report from Citi-Group on the issue, for example. This is borne out in real life too, as well as in studies: renewable energy has boomed in the USA the same time as the shale gas revolution. Texas is the undoubted 'home' of shale gas, yet renewable energy has grown significantly over the same time period.

Greenpeace have an annual turnover of over £200 million. That makes them a lot larger than the likes of Cuadrilla. I think that they have a certain responsibility to act in good faith as they pursue their agenda - bullshit like this simply does not cut it.

Monday 12 August 2013

A message from the Balcombe front lines

I'm sure that if you're reading this blog, you're aware of the current protest ongoing in the village of Balcombe. The main impact for me has been a lot of radio interview requests, but also, if the Blogger stats page is to be believed, a surge of interest in this blog. For obvious reasons, the protest itself has had as much of an impact on the local community as the drilling itself. Reports from either side of the debate will tell you either that the locals are fed up to the back teeth of the imported rent-a-mob, or that the locals are joining in with gusto.

If you'll excuse me another colossal name-drop, chatting to Prof Iain Stewart after his visit to Pennsylvania for his Horizon documentary, one of the most striking impacts that he found wasn't the pollution or lack of it, but how drilling had divided communities. Sadly, it seems that this is already happening in Balcombe, as a message I received from a local resident will testify:
A few months ago, I like many had never heard of fracking! Just a few lines to put you in the picture about who I am. Malcolm Thomason is my name, a 56 year old Balcombe born & bred guy. Until a couple of weeks ago most in the world had never heard of our lovely village with a population of about 1750. Balcombe is about 16 miles due north of Brighton, 8 miles south of Gatwick Airport in the Sussex Weald. We have a lake, mill and the fantastic Ardingly Reservoir - most of reservoir is in Balcombe. We have a pub, social club and a village shop. Not a lot but its nice and mainly quiet. But in recent years the outsiders, not village types have moved here, paying vast prices for houses near the main London-Brighton rail line with easy access to Croydon & London. I would say 25/30 years ago I knew 90% of the Village and now I dont know 90%. Thats the short introduction done with !

In 1986 Conoco drilled the same site next to B2036 south of village for 23 days. The site is 600-700yds due south of my house as crow flies. In 1986 there were no protesters, in fact we were invited to view site and to see what was going on, a very interesting visit it was as well. Conoco found some oil, not in large quantities but it was there.

How things have changed in July/Aug 2013, we have now been invaded by a vast array of people of all descriptions. Another 1000 NoDashForGas folk are setting up a camp in a field from 16-21August, the same group that shut down West Burton power station for three days last year! They seem intent on shutting down also the Cuadrilla site in Balcombe as well.

Not knowing about fracking I set of to research the subject! Plenty info about if one cares to take time and look that shows in my opinion that it is not dangerous in any shape or form! Just scaremongers putting out propaganda to try and convince the gullible that its not the thing to do! I stumbled across James Verdon twitter page and read with interest his blogs on fracking and learnt a lot more than I already knew. I only wish the antis in Balcombe would view these blogs, but a lot can only see the the water being polluted, the fantastic Victorian Balcombe Viaduct finished in 1841 collapsing through an earthquake, and the blue skies turning black!

This issue is already dividing a village with people who used to talk to each other, now trying to avoid each other, a sad state of affairs i think you all will agree!

Thursday 8 August 2013

Guardian given lifelong ban on talking sense

In the latest Guardian shale shock story, a shale gas company in Pennsylvania (Range Resources) stands accused of poisoning a family's water (the Hallowiches), then imposing a court gagging order to silence the family, including the children, from ever talking publicly about fracking ever again.

In actual fact, this story has been 'out' in the US for quite some time, so it's hardly the scoop that the Guardian are claiming. More importantly, however, are the numerous facts left out in the name of a good scare story.

Court gagging orders are never going to make for good PR, but the key question must be: did Range Resources actually cause contamination of the Hallowich water supplies or air quality? Everything else is just lawyers throwing their weight around.

Pennsylvania DEP conducted an investigation into the Hallowich groundwater, and their findings are available. Here are their conclusions, which I shall selectively quote from below:
you allege that Range Resources has contaminated the supply [...] After a review of the information, including primarily water analyses, we cannot affirm your conclusions.
Importantly, Range actually drilled their well in July 2007. The Hallowiches only purchased the property in June 2007, and didn't drill their water well until October 2007, 3 months after the shale well was drilled. Therefore they can have no evidence regarding water quality prior to shale drilling.

Acrylonitrile and styrene appear to have been identified as an offending chemicals. However,
RT’s [a water testing lab] own sampling did not measure any styrene at the reported detection level. How styrene might be related to gas well drilling is not clear. However, the water lines in the Hallowich household, as well as from the water well to the house, are PVC which contains styrene.
Acrylonitrile is used in the manufacture of plastics, glues, pesticides, ABS pipe (common drain line pipe used in homes; the “A” in ABS stands for acrylonitrile ), synthetic rubber, acrylics, carpets, dinnerware, food containers, toys, luggage, automotive parts, appliance, telephones, among others. It can also be washed from the air by rain and then enter the groundwater system. There is a plastic rock which has been placed over the water well and could be leaching contaminants into the ground during rainfall events, which interestingly enough is when Mrs. Hallowich reports that the acrylonitrile values seem to increase based upon on-going sampling that apparently has been occurring.
This might be why, in the absence of any data prior to drilling, the DEP tested water from nearby wells close to the shale drilling, and did not find acrylonitrile or styrene:
the results taken at a neighboring property (163 Avella Road), which is also close to the gas well, only shows a lead problem; the other four parameters are either non-detect or within drinking water standards. 
In conclusion, the DEP summarise:
Mrs. Hallowich alleges that the drilling of the gas well polluted the aquifer. [...] we are lacking any direct evidence to prove this assertion.
we question your conclusions about the contamination problems to the Hallowich water supply. The only parameter that is clearly above the MCL is manganese, and we cannot clearly link it to the drilling of the Range Resources gas well. Therefore the DEP cannot issue a water supply replacement/restoration order to Range Resources.
This area also formed part of a DEP study into air quality impacts of Marcellus drilling, similarly finding that

the screening results found during the five-week study did not indicate a potential for major air-related health issues associated with the Marcellus Shale natural gas activities
Given the above data, it is perhaps not surprising to find that, in the court documents, the Hallowiches concede that:
1. With respect to Plaintiff minors’ alleged claims involve nuisance and personal injury claims, there is presently no medical evidence that these symptoms are definitively related to any exposure to the activities of Defendants...

2. The minors have alleged claims for nuisance and personal injury in connection with Defendants’ business operations.  There is presently no medical evidence supporting that these claims related to any exposure to Defendants’ business operations as set forth in Plaintiffs’ Complaint.
When the court order to 'un-gag' these documents were made, there was much excitement in the media in the hope that a smoking gun was about to be revealed. Much has been made about such gagging orders: surely now the release of one such set of documents would catch the frackers red-handed. Instead, they found instead that once again, water and air testing by the relevant government agencies had failed to find evidence of fracking-induced contamination:

There's no doubt that gagging clauses make for bad PR. However, this case shows that just because they have been used, doesn't mean that there is evidence for shale gas pollution. In fact, as the Pittsburgh-Tribune has the headline, it might be better to describe the situation as: Couple collect $750K settlement in fracking case with no medical evidence.

The information I've presented above is easily-locatable in the public domain. Which begs the question - why does none of it make it into the Guardian's latest scare story? I think we're all fine with media organisations that take a well established editorial line - it's unlikely the Guardian are ever going to favour shale gas extraction. However, I'm a lot less happy with irresponsible scare-mongering, which is what I see this to be.

Tuesday 6 August 2013

Update: Map of existing UK oil and gas wells

In a previous post I discussed the 2000 or so pre-existing onshore oil and gas wells in the UK that rarely seem to get a mention when people talk about shale gas extraction despoiling our wonderful countryside. Well, in a quiet moment at work I made a map showing where they are (click to enlarge). Each red pin is an oil or gas well drilled between 1902 to the present day.

Update: I have modified the map to colour-code the wells by the date they were drillied. Pre-1949 are cyan, 1950 - 1979 are yellow, 1980 - 1999 are (light) pink, and 2000 - 2013 are (dark) purple. 

Update 2: You can download the original data from the DECC website at: Lat/long data is in Deg/Min/Sec.

I created .kml files to plot the data in Google earth. You can download the 4 files at:


Radio 4 You and Yours Interview

On the radio again, this time Radio 4 (does this count as a promotion from 5Live?):

Thursday 1 August 2013

Talking about Balcombe on 5Live, and is the UK oil industry a victim of its own success?

With the protest ongoing outside Cuadrilla's drill site near Balcombe, it's somewhat inevitable that I'd end up on the radio again - 5Live Drive once again. I've included the whole segment, including Bianca Jagger, a man from Blackpool who finds the whole shale gas thing a little boring, Vanessa Vine from Frack-Free-Sussex who finds the whole thing very exciting, and finally I get squeezed in at the end.

Beyond giving you the chance to enjoy my honey-ed tones once more, there are a couple of points that arose from this interview that I'd like to expand on.

The first thing that came to mind while listening to the anti-fracking interviewee was the issue of geological dread in public perception of risk. The concept of 'dread' in public risk perception is well established. From Wikipedia, a dread risk elicits visceral feeling of terror, uncontrollable, and catastrophe. It was coined in an attempt to understand why public perception of risk is often very different to expert assessment of risk. It is often that sense of an unknown danger that provokes feelings of dread. It was initially used to describe feelings towards nuclear power, but I think it applies equally to things like flying (for some people), but especially GM food, and now fracking.

Quoting the interviewee, fracking is 'messing with subterranean geology', and 'we cannot legislate for the vagaries of subterranean geology, it's such a human arrogance'. It seems that the public has this idea that the subsurface is unknowable and uncontrollable, leading to feelings of dread. I would argue that while the subsurface can no doubt be a challenging environment, there are hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people, geologists/geophysicists/hydrologists/geochemists etc., for whom understanding and making use of the subsurface is the bread and butter of their day to day life.

Geologists (Iain Stewart aside, perhaps) don't talk enough to the general public. We saw this in the furore over Iain Duncan Smith's comments about shelf-stackers being more important than geologists, where geologists finally had the gumption to point out to the rest of the world how important they actually are. And we are incredibly important.

Take a look at all the objects around you and in your life. If it's not made of animal (wool, leather) or plant (wood, cotton) then chances are it's made of something extracted from this apparently unknowable subterranean geology, that apparently we shouldn't be messing with.

It might be stone, which has to be quarried, cement and concrete products made from quarried aggregates and limestone. If it's plastic or synthetic then it's made from oil. If it's metal then that metal had to be mined somewhere. Moreover, all of the energy we use involves the subsurface as well. Hydrocarbons are the most obvious example. But where does the uranium come from that we put in our nuclear power plants? What about renewable sources, surely these will take us away from that dreadful subterranean geology with which thou shalt not mess? Well, a typical wind turbine needs something close to 100kg of neodymium, which can only be found in a few places, and mining it is not exactly a pleasant process. And hydroelectric? Well, it's well established that reservoir impoundment for hydroelectric can produce large earthquakes - for example the 2008 magnitude 7.9 Sichuan earthquake, which killed 80,000 people, has been linked with the impoundment of the Zipingpu Dam. Slightly more dramatic than the Blackpool tremor I feel.

Much of human endeavor has been based on 'messing with subterranean geology'. During fracking, we can use geophysical methods to monitor exactly where the induced fractures have gone, and to ensure that they are wholly contained within the targeted shale beds. As geologists, we have to accept that the public are unlikely to fully understand what we do. However, shale gas extraction is not an uncontrolled, poorly understood process. To claim that it is is to do insult to the thousands, or millions, of geologists around the world who do this kind of thing, successfully, every day.

Speaking of success, the events in Balcombe raise a second point. I am wondering whether the current UK onshore oil and gas activities have been a victim of their own success in hiding their operations from the public for the last 50 years.

Protestors talk about thousands of well sites despoiling our beautiful countryside. Which is strange, because we already have thousands of onshore wells across our countryside. Literally, 2000 wells - you can download a spreadsheet listing them all here. 10% of these, so about 200, have been hydraulically stimulated. Yet no-one seems to even know that they are there, and certainly no-one seems to be claiming that 50% of them are leaking hydrocarbons and/or carcinogens to contaminate groundwater.

Our onshore industry has been very effective at (a) making sure that they don't cause environmental problems and (b) doing everything that they can to stay out of the public view. I grew up a few miles down the road from the Humbly Grove Field, which is here (as per my Fort Worth post, go to StreetView and see if you can even see it), yet until I went to university I didn't even know it was there.

Now, when a new well is proposed, because people don't know anything about the onshore industry, the thought of drilling in the rural UK countryside seems crazy, (indeed it even induces dread), even though there are 2000 wells already there.

It's understandable that when we seek to understand shale gas impacts we look to the US, and we try to understand the issues they have faced, and what the development has ended up looking like. However, we should also look to our own industry. If we want to know whether it is possible to conceal well pads without despoiling the countryside, we should look at our own ability to do so, not what American regulators and planning rules allow. If we want to know whether wells are likely to leak, we should look at whether our own 2,000 wells are leaking, not whether wells drilled under American regulatory and inspection regimes are leaking.

There's one major aspect of the media attention at Balcombe that has surprised me. There is ALREADY an oil well on the Balcombe site, drilled in the 1980s by Conoco. They abandoned it because the price of oil dropped to $10 per barrel, while now it is over $100. I've not seen this well mentioned in many reports from Balcombe. Has the old well has been causing problems for Balcombe for the last 25 years? I doubt it. I would love to know what it is about the new well that people see problems? Why will it be different, or more likely to cause problems, than the one that is already there?