Friday 21 November 2014

Statement from the European Academies Science Advisory Council

This week the European Academies Science Advisory Council released a statement on shale gas in Europe. EASAC is formed from the national science academies of EU member states. You can read the full statement here, and an executive summary here

A spokesman for EASAC stated:
"While there is no scientific or technical reason to ban hydraulic fracturing, there are clear rules to be followed: Companies must work harder to obtain societal approval to operate, by engaging stakeholders in constructive dialogue and working towards agreed outcomes. Trust is critically important for public acceptance; requiring openness, a credible regulatory system and effective monitoring. Data on additives used and the results of monitoring to detect any water contamination or leakages of gas before, during and after shale gas operations should be submitted to the appropriate regulator and be accessible for the affected communities. The same openness to discuss on the basis of factual evidence must, however, also be expected from the other stakeholders." 
Key passages in the statement include the following:

  • This EASAC analysis provides no basis for a ban on shale gas exploration or extraction using hydraulic fracturing on scientific and technical grounds, although EASAC supports calls for effective regulations in the health, safety and environment fields highlighted by other science and engineering academies and in this statement. In particular, EASAC notes that many of the conflicts with communities and land use encountered in earlier drilling and hydraulic fracturing operations based on many single-hole wells have been substantially reduced by more modern technologies based on multiple well pads, which can drain up to 10 km2 or more of gas-bearing shale from a single pad. Other best practices, such as recycling of flow-back fluid and replacement of potentially harmful additives, have greatly reduced the environmental footprint of ‘fracking’. Europe’s regulatory systems and experience of conventional gas extraction already provide an appropriate framework for minimising disturbance and impacts on health, safety and the environment.
  • Overall, in Europe more than 1000 horizontal wells and several thousand hydraulic fracturing jobs have been executed in recent decades. None of these operations are known to have resulted in safety or environmental problems.
  • Regulations intended to ensure safe and environmentally sensitive drilling activities are already in force in those European countries with their own oil and gas industry.
  • The reservoir volume accessed from a single site has increased substantially through such multi-well pads and longer horizontal laterals, offering a potential extraction area of 10 km2 or more from one pad and reducing surface land use area accordingly. Unconventional gas fields thus no longer have significantly higher well pad densities than conventional fields. Technically, horizontal wells with a reach of up to 12 km are possible (although such wells would at present be uneconomic), but even with clusters of only 3 km radius, it becomes viable
  • to produce unconventional gas in heavily populated areas.
  • A recent meta-analysis (Heath et al. 2014) of the scientific publications on this issue [shale gas and CO2 emissions] came to two conclusions: (1) that emissions from shale gas extraction are similar to those from conventional gas extraction and (2) that both when used in power generation would probably emit less than half the CO2 emissions of coal.
  • Regarding potential sources of emissions from shale gas extraction, flaring and venting in conventional exploitation in Europe ceased during the 1990s (with the exception of initial flow tests in successful exploratory drilling); industry therefore possesses the necessary expertise to avoid this problem. ‘Green’ completion technologies are also widely used to capture and then sell (rather than vent or flare) methane and other gases emitted from flow-back water (they can be recovered at low cost by taking out the gas within a confined separator). This will be mandatory for hydraulic fracturing of all gas wells in the USA from 2015 onwards. Ensuring ‘green completion’ is fully applied in Europe is thus an essential prerequisite for maximising benefits from shale gas to climate change policies.
  • General industry practice in conventional wells (which typically have higher pressures and gas flow rates and longer lifetimes than shale gas wells) has solved the problems of gas migration. By pressure testing, the tightness of the well can be verified. Hydraulic fracturing also uses external casing packers to separate individual fracked zones from each other, creating mechanical barriers in the lowermost part of the well against gas migration outside of the casing.
Finally, I can only conclude that the EASAC are avid readers of Frackland, as they illustrate how lateral well drilling allows a substantial reduction of the surface footprint, as I have done numerous times on this blog. 
Figure 2 Innovation in well design and operation (source: Range Resources Ltd.). Left: old single well spacing (Texas); right: modern multi-well cluster configuration accessing gas from an area of up to 10 km2 (Pennsylvania).

Saturday 1 November 2014

Image of the Day: Reclaimed Well Pads

A question I am often asked is what does a shale gas well pad look like. The answer can depend, because a pad will change over time. During operations, there will be lots of equipment on the pad, and it won't look particularly nice. However, well construction typically takes a few months, and once complete most of the infrastructure can be removed. Once this is done, much of the pad can be reclaimed and restored.

Of course, the pad in full action is the most dramatic, so this is what the media likes to show. This leaves people with the impression that a shale gas pad will always look that way, not that it's like this for a few months before being restored. 

To address this balance, here are a couple of images of well pads during construction, and then what they look like when finished. 

Firstly, this under-over image shows a pad with a single well being flow-tested, with the gas being flared, and then the same well once the pad has been reclaimed and restored. 

This next image shows a multi-well pad with a drilling rig on site. You can also see open flowback ponds storing water. It's not clear whether this is fresh water yet to be used, or waste flowback water. In the UK flowback water cannot be stored like this.

Underneath shows the same site once it has been completed. Most of the pad is grassed over, with only a small amount of infrastructure left on the pad.

Friday 24 October 2014

Sigmas and Sharpshooters

Today's paper is a recent report published in the journal "Earth's Future" looking at methane emissions from shale gas operations in the USA. As you'd expect from a paper that is critical about shale gas exploration, it has received extensive media coverage.

However, the paper falls short in a couple of really important ways, which I'll discuss below. Sadly, it provides a few handy lessons about how not to go about doing science. The first issue is falling foul of the Texas Sharpshooter Fallacy, the second is failing to use the proper measures to ensure the result is statistically significant.

Firstly, the Texas Sharpshooter Fallacy. The parable is of a hopeless Texan gunman looking to prove to the world his martial prowess. So he takes aim with his pistol at the side of a barn, and blasts away. Once he has done shooting, he notices that by chance some of his shots happen to have hit close together. He then paints on a target with its bullseye at that point, before inviting the neighbours over to admire the results of his sharpshooting skills.

More technically, this fallacy describes a situation where certain clusters of data are cherry picked from a larger population because they happen to fit your hypothesis, ignoring all the cases that would disprove the hypothesis.

So how does this fallacy apply to the paper in question? The image below shows the methane measurements for 2006-2008 (the "before" case) and 2009-2011 (the "after" case) presented in the paper:

It's clear that methane has gone up substantially all across the USA in this period. There are many sources of methane emissions, both naturally occurring (bogs, swamps etc) and man made (farms, coal mines, conventional gas wells, and shale wells). What is noticeable is that while there are places where there is shale gas activity and high methane concentrations, there are plenty of places with no oil and gas activity that have seen methane levels rise, while in other places there is shale gas activity but methane levels that are not particularly relevant.

For example, Nebraska saw substantial increases in methane, yet in 2010 there were only 2 drilling rigs in the entire state. It's a similar story in, for example, Iowa (0 drilling rigs), Illinois (2 drilling rigs) and Indiana (3 drilling rigs). In contrast, Arkansas, home of the Fayetteville shale with 39 active rigs in 2010, and Northwestern Louisiana, home of the Haynesville shale with 135 active rigs in 2010, have noticeably low methane concentrations.

There are many different shale gas/oil plays across the USA. It is apparent that methane concentrations also vary across the USA. It is therefore inevitable that, just by chance, some areas of high methane will correlate with areas of shale production. Our sharpshooters have drawn their targets around 3 such areas (the black boxes in the above image) and declared themselves to be expert marksmen. Not good science.

We can see the same effect within the individual study areas as well. The following image shows the change in methane levels for Texas from 2006-2008 to 2009-2011:

During this time, there was active drilling and unconventional hydrocarbon production from the West Texas Permian Basin, the Haynesville Shale and the Eagle Ford Shale. Neither the Permian nor the Haynesville show anything out of the ordinary, while there are other areas with no active drilling that have seen substantial methane increases. It's a similar story for the Marcellus in Pennslyvania, shown below: there are places with drilling that have high methane levels, but also places with drilling that have low measurements, and places with high measurements that do not have drilling.

The second issue is one of error bars and confidence intervals. With any scientific measurement, there is an error bar marking the interval over which we can be confident the result is accurate. Typically, confidence limits of 95% are used - if it is said that a measurement is 5 ± 1.5 at a 95% level, then we can be 95% confident that the true value lies somewhere between 3.5 and 6.5.

The authors of this paper complete their analysis for the Bakken and Eagle Ford shales, concluding that methane emissions have increased by 990 ± 650 ktCH4/yr and 530 ± 330 ktCH4/yr in each case.

What is unusual, however, is the limits they have chosen for their error bars. These are set to the 1-σ level, or one standard deviation. This corresponds to a confidence interval of only 68%, meaning there is a 1-in-3 chance that the computed value was arrived at by chance.

Scientists generally use the 2-sigma level as an error bound - corresponding to a 95% confidence level in the result (which still means that the measured observations could have occurred by pure chance 1 time in 20). For really important experiments, scientists will require even higher confidence bounds, like the 5-sigma bound for the Higgs Boson discovery, which means a 1 in 3,500,000 chance of a spurious result.

I've not often seen a confidence level of 1-sigma being used in peer reviewed science, given the implication of a 1-in-3 chance of being a spurious result. Instead, let us double their confidence levels to the 2-sigma limit (95%) more normally expected as a minimum for scientific findings. We then find the results have become 990 ± 1300 ktCH4/yr and 530 ± 660 ktCH4/yr. In both cases the error bars have become larger than the values themselves. We cannot even be sure whether rates of methane emissions have increased or decreased, since the lower error bars at the 95% level fall below zero.

In short, even with the Texas-Sharpshooting described above, the authors have not managed to produce statistically robust evidence to back up their claims. However, it's given me a chance to discuss both the Texas Sharpshooter Fallacy (which is also a common problem in attempts to forecast earthquakes) and the importance of error bars, which I am sure both scientific and non-scientific readers alike will have enjoyed.

Wednesday 22 October 2014

Europe's Geological Surveys Make Joint Statement on Shale Gas

After a meeting in Copenhagen, the North Atlantic Group of the European Geological Surveys released a statement on shale gas and fracking. More info is available here.

This group is made up of the Geological Surveys of the UK, Germany, Ireland, Holland, Norway, Iceland and Denmark, so it represents most of Europe's geological expertise. Make no mistake, these guys are experts.

Below are a choice selection of quotes both from their Copenhagen statement, as well as comments from the President of Germany's Federal Institute for Geosciences (the BGR) in a press release. The press release is in German, so I have used google to translate as best I can. Apologies to any German speakers who spot any mis-translations, but the general gist of the statements should be clear to all.

Firstly from the Copenhagen Statement:

"The Survey Directors are concerned that frequent misleading media messages regarding exploration and exploitation of raw materials and geo-energy have the potential to obscure scientific results and conclusions, and may ultimately lead to poor decisions for Society."
"The Survey Directors emphasise that their Surveys hold the majority of key sub-surface data for their Nations. They are thus best placed to objectively and independently inform decision makers, on shale and other georesource estimation exercises, and on some of the potential environmental risks of the operations."

"Particular concern was expressed that the role of the national Geological Survey may be bypassed, resulting in the submission of poorly formulated geoscientific advice to governments."
The press release from the BGR was even more explicit:
"The European Geological Surveys of the North Atlantic area, which include the Federal Institute for Geosciences and Natural Resources (BGR), fear in the face of misleading reports in the media about the exploration and extraction of raw materials negative socio-political consequences."
"Often dangers are evoked where there are none. When fracking for production of natural gas there are widespread fears in the population, most of which are unfounded from geoscientific perspective."
"Since the early 1960s, more than 320 fracking measures in conventional natural gas production have been carried out in Lower Saxony. The technique used here is similar to the method for the development of shale gas resources. In these past operations by fracking there has not been a single incident in which the environment has been damaged. When critics speak in connection with fracking as an uncontrollable high-risk technology, this is just wrong under scientific criteria." (my emphasis)
I think these comments will be worth remembering as the shale gas debate rumbles on over the coming months.

Tuesday 14 October 2014

Does the infrastructure bill give carte blanche to inject any substance an operator chooses?

Today's fuss is over the infrastructure bill currently going through parliament. The purpose of this bill is to reduce the amount of time spent in court arguing over subsurface access rights and trespass issues.

However, anti-fracking activists have today tried to claim that the bill is an attempt to subvert existing regulation, allowing operators to inject whatever fluid they want without any safeguards. The Guardian has some typically scaremongering coverage here.

Greenpeace are claiming that
"Ministers are effectively trying to absolve fracking firms from responsibility for whatever mess they’ll end up leaving underground"
while Friends of the Earth claim that
"The government appears to be trying to sneak through an amendment which would allow fracking firms to reinject their waste under people’s homes and businesses" 
Are they right? Of course not.

Saturday 11 October 2014

Advertising Complaints in Australia

A few months ago I blogged about Frack Free Somerset (FFS)'s decision not to challenge a complaint about their promotional material made to the Advertising Standards Agency (ASA). Their leaflet contained numerous errors and misleading statements. Because FFS agreed to remove their material and cease using it, rather than to attempt to offer a rebuttal, the ASA never carried out an investigation.

There are obvious parallels to the complaint made to the ASA over Cuadrilla's publicity material, and over an advert placed by the self-styled "Frack-Master" Chris Faulkner.

We in the UK are not the only country to provide an advertising regulator, and in this post I will report on a decision reached by the Publishing Advertisers Bureau in Australia.

Before I do so, however, I want to comment on the situation we now find ourselves in, where advertising standards agencies are finding themselves having to make judgements on what are, in some cases, quite complicated and technical issues, with very little understanding of the subject matter. I very much doubt that anyone at the ASA has any familiarity with oil and gas operations and/or regulation.

While I am sure that the ASA are used to dealing with complaints in subject areas they are not familiar with, I would suggest that this debate is very different to determining whether or not a new brand of shampoo really makes your hair feel 10 times silkier. Yet as an authoritative body it is inevitable that their pronouncements are taken very seriously indeed, when the more I think about it, the less reason I see to do so. Frack-Master Chris Faulkner summed the situation up: "the ASA has been both judge and jury in this case. They appear to have become unqualified experts in fracking and interpreting the complex issues surrounding fracking in the UK".

However, today's blog is about a decision in Australia. The opposition group Frack Free Geraldton (FFG), with support of the Conservation Council of Western Australia (CCWA), published an advert in the local rag, the Geraldton Guardian. The Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association (APPEA) submitted a compliant regarding the advert, which appears to have been upheld. In each case, the statements made by FFG and CCWA were found to be misleading and deceptive.

The statements, and the reasons for the findings, are discussed below.

"Shale fracking, the process of extracting gas by using toxic chemicals to crack deep rocks, can turn our water into a dangerous chemical cocktail"

It was found that this statement gives a misleading impression of the fracturing process, because it gives the impression that most of the fracking fluid is composed of toxic chemicals. It was found that "The statement that 'toxic chemicals' are used to crack deep rocks creates the impression that toxic chemicals 'alone', certainly not in such small percentage quantities are used to frack", which is not the case: frack fluid is 99% water, with only a small amount of additive, most or all of which is not toxic.

The statement finds that "to an ordinary reasonable reader the words of the advertisement and the accompanying illustration together create the impression that the amount of 'toxic chemical' used is a much greater concentration that is in fact the case", which is a misleading and deceptive exaggeration.

With regards to turning water into "a dangerous chemical cocktail", it was found that while there are risks posed by hydraulic fracturing, "the consensus of scientific data suggests that there have been no cases internationally of hydraulic shale gas fracturing inadvertently breaching a water source and thereby causing contamination", and that "a combination of research from around the world shows us that the risks are low".

Moreover, in their response to the complaint, CCWA "have not produced any evidence that hydraulic fracking fluid has in the course of any hydraulic shale gas fracking process permeated a fresh water aquifer. Its contentions are against the scientific literature".

"Research in the US has found that 6% of fracking wells leak into ground water in the first year"

Anyone who is familiar with this blog will already know why this statement is misleading. It is a topic I have discussed extensively. The 6% statistics refer to the number of wells that have some kind of casing or cement issue in one of the casing strings. However, wells have several casing strings to separate the production zone from any sensitive groundwater supplies. This means that a well with an issue in one casing string will not be spewing hydrocarbons into the environment. It's a belt-and-braces type approach.

A paper by King and King in 2013 (SPE) is instructive in this regard:
For US wells, while individual barrier failures (containment maintained and no pollution indicated) in a specific well group may range from very low to several percent (depending on geographical area, operator, era, well type and maintenance quality), actual well integrity failures are very rare. Well integrity failure is where all barriers fail and a leak is possible. True well integrity failure rates are two to three orders of magnitude lower than single barrier failure rates.
In their response, the CCWA admit that their statement "is not materially correct", and it is therefore found to be "misleading and deceptive".

This is a point I've been making for some time, so it's good to see that even environmental bodies know that it is not correct to say that 6% (or 30% or 50% or whatever) of wells are leaking, even if they do still insist on claiming this in their promotional material.

"Once our water is contaminated, it will be forever" 

This statement ignores the abundant evidence that while any contamination incident is bad, the damage is rarely permanent: wells that do leak can be repaired, spills can be remediated. For example, Considine et al. (2013) examine the environmental impacts from drilling in Pennsylvania, and find 25 incidents that they deem to be "serious". However, they find that in all but 6 cases the impacts had already been remediated satisfactorily. The APPEA provided similar examples of remediation in their supporting evidence for their complaint.

In contrast, "the contentions put forward by CCWA in support of this statement in its submission dated 22 August 2014 are without any independent scientific support. They are unsupported assertions." 

As a result, it was found that "the statement that once contaminated water will forever be contaminated is not supported by contemporary scientific views and is misleading and deceptive." 

For anyone interested in the original complaint, the CCWA rebuttal and the final decision, the documents are available below.

The original APPEA complaint is here.
The CCWA response is here.
Further APPEA comments are here.
The final decision is here.

Monday 6 October 2014

The CIEH and me: full discussion

A few months ago, the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health (CIEH) released a report into the impacts of hydraulic fracturing and shale gas extraction in the UK. You can read the original report here. Of particular concern was that the report's lead author had already taken a leading role in protests outside of unconventional gas drilling sites in the UK: hardly the best place to start if you are looking for a balanced report.

In my opinion, the quality of the report was very very poor, ranking as little more than scaremongering and with little understanding of the oil/gas extraction process. I was infuriated enough to write a rather outspoken blog post criticising the report, which some readers might remember.

In the days following the report's publication, I ordered my thoughts a little from my original post, and sent a more moderate and thoughtful criticism to the CIEH. The CIEH provided an initial response to my criticisms.

Incidentally, the CIEH made their response public, without actually stating my criticisms alongside their response (or informing me that they had done so). I can only assume that they weren't comfortable seeing their response alongside my original criticisms.

This wouldn't surprise me given the weakness of the response. In some places their is direct and/or tacit admission of error, while in others the authors manage to contradict themselves. I was originally prepared to let sleeping dogs lie and "agree to disagree", especially since I had a busy fieldwork schedule over the summer. However, the quality of the response was so poor that I couldn't help but write a further comment to the CIEH. I have not now received a response to those comments (nor do I expect to, if I'm honest), so I have decided to make public the full extent of our discussion for all to see.

I should add a warning, these are fairly lengthly documents, but hopefully make for an interesting read if you have a few minutes to spare and a cup of tea to hand.

My first critique of the CIEH report is here.

The CIEH response to my critique is here.

My comments on the CIEH response is here.

Sunday 28 September 2014

Image of the Day: Zombie Images

This image of the day showcases what I sometimes refer to as "zombie" images. No matter how many times they are debunked, these zombies keep rising from the dead to stumble forwards once more, leaving a trail of mis-information in their wake.

This first image, or variants thereof, is an aerial shot of the Jonah gas field, Wyoming. This zombie is usually summoned to show the potential cumulative impact of shale gas development, the sheer number of wells, pads and roads required. 

The only problem is, this isn't a shale gas field - this is a conventional gas field. It was drilled in the early 1990s, before the widespread use of horizontal drilling. Without horizontal wells, lots of vertical wells, closely spaced together, are required, as we can see at Jonah. Horizontal drills allow an operator to reach a much larger area from a single pad. 

With horizontal drilling, only one pad would be required for the whole area shown in the photo. A modern shale gas development would look nothing like this image. Any time you see this image being used, you can be sure that the user either doesn't know what a shale gas development looks like, or knows but is wilfully scaremongering.

The next zombie is a very common one: this image can even be found on the BBC's website, although similar ones can be found everywhere. You'll note that the depth of the well is approximately twice that of the drilling rig. This implies that the well extends to a depth of about 50-60m, when in fact most shale gas wells will extend to depths of more than 2,000m. This is an error in scale of 4000%.

In a way I sympathise with the makers of such infographic, because these wells are so deep that drawing them to scale is actually quite challenging - you need a long piece of paper. However, at the very least this zombie should come with a nice clear health warning - the vertical scale is extremely misleading.

For a better idea of the true scale, this image by Ground-Gas Solutions does a reasonable job:

Update (29.9.2014): I should add that this second zombie is a pervasive zombie indeed. He even appears on UKOOG's website.

Carbon capture and storage faces the same issue - it can be difficult to demonstrate in true scale the depths at which CO2 is buried for storage. Again, opponents can easily make out-of-scale images showing the gas a few metres below the surface ready to burst out at a moments notice. Another good true-scale image was put together by the operators of the Aquistore CCS project, Canada:

Thursday 25 September 2014

Landmark shale gas study shows no groundwater problems

One of the difficulties in the current shale gas debate is that good data is hard to come by. Operators collect lots of data from around their sites, including water sampling to test for pollution, and geophysical monitoring to track where the fractures went during stimulation. However, this data is often considered commercially sensitive, so it rarely sees the light of day.

A government-sponsored project would be very useful, because it would provide a test-bed for an extensive monitoring program. All data could then be made public, and the claims of all those involved in the shale gas debate openly tested.

This is exactly what has been happened in the USA, with the final report released this week. The US National Energy Technology Lab (NETL) sponsored a monitoring program at a hydraulic fracking operation in Greene County, Pennsylvania. The monitoring program consisted of 2 parts: microseismic monitoring to track the fractures created by the stimulation, and geochemical sampling in overlying layers to test whether any contamination has occurred. Most importantly, because the data is publicly available, it's a great opportunity to talk through the anatomy of hydraulic stimulation.

The first stage of shale gas extraction is to drill horizontal wells through which the fracking will be done. The figure below shows a map of the lateral wells drilled. Those in the yellow box were the 6 wells that made up the NETL study.

Sunday 21 September 2014

New study shows leaky wells, not fracking, is causing methane leakage

This week's most newsworthy study examines methane contamination in wells in Pennsylvania and Texas, linking them with drilling activities. It is authored by the same Duke group who have published on this topic a number of times now.

In the new study, the authors analyse the geochemistry of methane and groundwater around shale gas wells. As well as measuring the geochemistry of the methane, they measure other geochemical variables such as noble gas isotope ratios and salinities, in order to get a better handle of what might be leading to the elevated methane levels.

They find that in some cases the evidence points to a deep source of methane that has migrated relatively rapidly, with little contact with the rock layers that lie in between shallow aquifers and the deep layers in which fracking is conducted. The most obvious conclusion to make is that methane is not getting into shallow layers through cracks and fractures in the rock, but that methane migration through faulty well bores to the surface is a possibility.

The study has, for obvious reasons, garnered a lot of publicity. However, the more I thought about it, the less newsworthy the study becomes. In actual fact, I think it tells us little that we didn't already know.

We already know that faulty cement and/or casing can allow methane migration from depth. We already know that in a handful of cases in Pennsylvania, poor working practice from certain operators has lead to cement/casing problems - these companies have been prosecuted and fined by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection. So it's hardly surprising that the authors of the study were able to find cases where the geochemical evidence pointed to this issue.

Wednesday 17 September 2014

New Life-Cycle Assessment for UK Shale Gas

A new life cycle assessment for UK shale gas has been released by researchers from the University of Manchester. This study considers a range of potential environmental impacts. Most significantly, it compares shale gas extraction against a host of other energy technologies, including conventional gas, coal, nuclear power and renewables. 

This sort of comparison is very important, because when it comes to energy sources, we have to choose how our energy mix should be balanced. All sources of energy have impacts, and we can't say no to all of them. 

Equally significant is the fact that the study doesn't just consider the global warming impact of the various technologies (the global warming potential, or GWP), but a whole host of environmental factors , including the use of abiotic resources (rare earth elements etc), acidification, eutrophication, freshwater, marine, terrestrial and human toxicity, and ozone depletion. 

Before I get into the details of the study, the first figure I'll borrow is the one that compares the global warming potential (GWP), according to the various previous studies: 

Sunday 14 September 2014

My Fracking Answers

Update 21.9.2014: I thought it unlikely that DECC would provide a response to MyFrackingQuestions, which is why I wrote this post. It seems that I was wrong, DECC have now provided an official response.

The latest shale gas publicity stunt, which follows on from the damp squib that was TalkFracking, is MyFrackingQuestions, a website that allows users to put together a customised email to be sent to Matthew Hancock, the new Minister of State for Energy.

Sadly, I suspect that Mr Hancock will be too busy to get round to providing detailed answers. To make up for this, I have provided some My Fracking Answers. The MFQ questions, divided in a topic-by-topic basis, are in italics, followed by My Fracking Answers:

Tuesday 29 July 2014

Image of the Day: Latest Onshore Licensing Round

This week sees the release of DECC's 14th onshore licensing round. Potential operators can bid for licences that give them the exclusive right to explore for oil and gas, and indeed shale gas, within their licence block.

Note that having a licence doesn't automatically grant a right to drill or to do hydraulic fracturing. Operators must still get planning permission, and the relevant permits from the EA, DECC, HSE etc before they are allowed to do anything.

Below is a map showing the current state of play onshore in the UK. The map shows existing wells, fields and licence blocks, and the new blocks made available for licensing are shown in purple.

I have also created a google earth .kml file so you can look at this data in more detail. You can download it here.

Tuesday 22 July 2014

Another day, another shale gas report

Update (23.7.2014): It transpires that Gwen Harrison, the report's lead author, was recently an election candidate for the Green Party, which has explicitly stated its opposition to fracking in all circumstance. Moreover, judging by recent tweets it seemed she was involved blockading trucks at IGas's Barton Moss site.

Of course, there's nothing wrong with joining political parties nor joining protests. However, it makes a mockery of the claim that the report is "impartial" and "evidence-based", and goes a long way to explaining the report's contents.

Original Article:
Another day, another shale gas report to dissect. Today's offering comes to you courtesy of Scientists for Global Responsibility and the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health. The report claims to take an "impartial, evidence based approach". It does anything but, so once again it falls to me to point out the more egregious errors.

The best place to start is on the very first page, which shows two schematic images of the fracking process. In both cases the scale of images is such that the depth of the well is smaller than the height of the drilling rig, implying that fracking is taking place at a depth of less than 100m, rather than the actual depth, typically 2 - 3km.

Similar images are provided on page 4, and nowhere are images with the correct scales shown. The images are so out of scale that the "impartial, evidence based" claim immediately cannot be taken seriously. The moment you see an image like this, you know what to expect.

To the non-expert, the degree of the error in these images might not be immediately apparent, so I did a little photoshopping to demonstrate. Imagine if you were reading a report on whether it was safe for commercial airliners to overfly cities at altitude, and on the first page of the report was the following image, I don't think it would be taken that seriously by air safety experts:

Wednesday 9 July 2014

German Success...?

A big week for Germany in the news. And no, I'm not talking about 7 - 1!

New rules for hydraulic fracturing have been announced in Germany. This has been widely reported as "Germany bans fracking", but the devil may be in the detail - indeed some groups opposed to fracking have referred to it as a "fracking enabling law". This is because it appears that fracking will be allowed at depths below 3,000m, and "where drinking water is not in danger". It is not clear whether this means in areas where no potable groundwater is present, and/or "if the liquid being used cannot contaminate water".

The laws are due to be further discussed in the Autumn, where hopefully some of these ambiguities will be addressed.

Fracking is not new to Germany. Most of Germany's existing natural gas production, from Lower Saxony in the north of the country, requires hydraulic stimulation to be economic. These are not shale rocks, but "tight sandstones", with low permeability requiring fracturing to improve flow rates. The figure below shows the number of frack-jobs performed in Germany over the last few decades.

It's not clear whether the proposed ban would include these existing reservoirs.

Tuesday 8 July 2014

Image (video) of the Day: How near-surface microseismic monitoring works

As part of the monitoring requirements for their new wells in Lancashire, Cuadrilla are installing near-surface microseismic monitoring arrays. Geophones are buried to depths of 50 - 100m. They are capable of detecting the small "pops" and "cracks" as the shale is fractured, allowing the operator to map where the fractures are going as the stimulation progresses.

This video explains how the technique works, and how it is used both to allow operators to maximise the efficiency of their operations, and to minimise any environmental risks.

The video is made for an American audience, and I think to UK eyes it comes across as a little slick and "corporate", but it's well worth a watch.

Sunday 29 June 2014

Spotlight on SMEs: Remsol

In "Spotlight on SMEs" I draw attention to small and medium sized enterprises involved in developing UK shale gas. These aren't the operators, whose names are well known, but they provide vital services to ensure that shale gas extraction is done safely and efficiently. It is in this supply chain that shale development can give a significant boost to the UK economy.

This week's SME is Remsol, a waste management service involved in treating and disposing of waste flowback fluids after hydraulic fracturing has taken place.

Remsol was founded in 2002 by Lee Petts, a waste and environmental management expert living in Preston, Lancashire. The firm initially cut its teeth dealing with waste from the pharmaceutical and chemical manufacturing industries. They have built a reputation for solving complex and difficult waste problems, sometimes in unconventional ways.

As case example comes from Tessenderlo, a Belgian chemicals manufacturer. A production process had gone awry at its Widnes plant, contaminating 400 tonnes of hydrochloric acid with chlorinated toluene. The conventional waste industry approach would be to take it away, neutralise it and then dispose of it. However, this would prove to be prohibitively expensive, and couldn't be completed within the necessary timescale (only 3 days). Remsol succeeded in finding a buyer who was able to utilise the acid, despite the small concentration of chlorinated organic material, and arranged for all 400 tonnes to be shipped off site over a 2-day period.

Wednesday 25 June 2014

"5 Fracking Myths Busted" - Busted

A new anti-fracking initiative, Talk Fracking, is currently touring the country. Their website has a thin veneer of balance, claiming to seek an "open debate" on fracking, but you don’t have to scratch too deeply to see their true motivation.

I’ll consider one particular video in detail, which claims to have “busted” all of the reasons to support shale development in the UK.

Before addressing the substance of the video, however, I will address the style. Talk Fracking say that they want to open up a balanced debate on fracking. Yet the video has this strange, childish, mildly insulting caricature of an “industry representative” to present the pro-fracking case. If you’re looking for a balanced debate, putting up insulting straw-man caricatures of your opponents is hardly the best way to start.

Tuesday 17 June 2014

Image of the Day: Permitting Workflow

This flowchart represents the various steps that an operator must take before they are allowed to drill a well. Something to show whenever anyone tries to claim that drilling is not regulated.

You'll notice the different coloured boxes, representing engagement with various government and environmental bodies, including DECC, county council minerals planning departments, the Environment Agency, the Health and Safety Executive, the BGS, and even the Coal Authority.

This chart, and the length of time it can take to work through it, shows why the recent Lords report discussed streamlining the regulatory process. The aim is not to remove any regulatory requirements in terms of how the well is drilled or the environmental impact monitored, but to improve coordination between the various organisations such that the above process takes less time to complete.

Monday 9 June 2014

Spotlight on SMEs: Ground Gas Solutions Ltd

In the first "Spotlight on SMEs" post, I showcase an SME (small/medium enterprise) that has already worked with Cuadrilla and IGas to assess the environmental impact of their sites.

Ground-Gas Solutions is an environmental monitoring consultancy that currently employs 15 people, although that number is expected to rise quickly in support of a growing shale sector. The main office is based in Manchester, but they have people working all around the UK. GGS specialise in monitoring ground and air pollution around industrial sites. GGS was founded in 2009 by Simon Talbot and John Naylor, who have previous experience in landfill monitoring and contaminated land investigation. 

While GGS serve a number of sectors, their services are already proving useful to shale gas operators. While environmental monitoring is not a new thing, GGS have developed novel sensors capable of monitoring the concentrations of potential pollutants like methane, hydrogen sulphide and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) continuously, rather than at discrete and irregular intervals. The image blow shows how a sensor is set up in a borehole to detect potential pollutants moving through the ground.

Spotlight on SMEs: the UK companies benefitting from the shale gas development

Most people reading this blog will be familiar with the operators involved in developing UK shale - the likes of Cuadrilla, IGas and Dart. Most will also be aware of the buy-ins from the bigger players like Centrica, GDF Suez and Total.

However, the operators are only a part of the whole story. There is a whole supply chain needed to get shale development off the ground in the UK. Much of the work done by the operators is in fact contracted out to these suppliers, which are often UK-based "Small and Medium Enterprises", which are often referred to as the "life-blood" of our economy.

There are a lot of great British SMEs out there who have found that the skills and services they offer are proving useful to operators looking to extract shale gas in the UK. I'm a geoscientist, not an economist, so I tend to focus on the geoscience issues around shale, rather than the economics. That said, I think the assumption is often made that the only people to benefit from UK shale will be the operators: the handful of shareholders who own Cuadrilla, IGas et al. In fact, there is a whole supply chain of SMEs that will reap the benefit if shale is developed in the UK. This was made clear in the recent Lords report on the economic impacts of UK shale gas.

Thursday 5 June 2014

A tale of two letters

Updated 17.6.2014

I've just spotted that Tim Smit, the founder of the Eden Project, Cornwall, is one of the signatories on the anti-fracking letter in the Times.

The Eden Project is currently planning an Engineered Geothermal System (EGS) to provide power and heat to the site. As any geologist will tell you, an EGS system requires "fracking" to create fractures in the granite rock to allow hot water to circulate. Or as the Eden Project describe it,
"Two boreholes, each around 25cm wide, are drilled into the rock to a depth of about 4.5km. This is done by pumping water down one borehole until the natural fractures in the rock are opened and water can flow."
In his own words, Sir Tim believes that "there is substantial evidence showing that fracking causes water stress and risks water contamination and soil contamination, earth tremors — and is a threat to human, wildlife, bird, fish and livestock health". I would love to know how he can think this and yet be happy for fracking to take place right next to the Eden Project.

Updated 6.6.2014 (see below)

Shale gas is back in the news this week with proposals to change laws for underground drilling access (more on this to come). In addition, two letters with numerous signatories have been published, one in the Times and one in the Guardian. I'll declare my conflict of interest in that you'll see my name towards the bottom of the Guardian letter.

For the sake of posterity, I thought it would be instructive to post the two letters next to each other, including the signatories, noting very different backgrounds between the signatories of the two letters.

Firstly, in the Times:


The government’s plans to introduce fracking will change the UK for ever. David Cameron and the energy minister Michael Fallon have both told us to get ready for fracking. Already more than 60 per cent of the country will be licensed for fracking, and planning rules are being changed to allow for central government to override community objections.

The government says that fracking is safe even though it is banned in several European countries and US states. There is substantial evidence showing that fracking causes water stress and risks water contamination and soil contamination, earth tremors — and is a threat to human, wildlife, bird, fish and livestock health.

This technology will not bring down fuel bills and will not provide a jobs boom, but it has the potential to leave a damaging environmental legacy for future generations.
We urge the government to suspend fracking immediately while a genuinely independent, balanced and thorough public debate is held into the potential dangers this industry holds for the UK.

Professor Sir Harold Kroto FRS (Nobel Laureate in Chemistry), Dr Damien Short, Professor David Smythe, Professor Graham Warren, Professor Erik Bichard, Dr Hugh Montgomery (Professor of Intensive Care, UCL), Professor Lawrence Dunne, Dr David P Knight, Richard Murphy, John Christensen, Bruce Kent, Dr David Lowry, Dr Laura Adams, Chris Venables, Michael Mansfield QC, Bob Marshall-Andrews QC, Bianca Jagger, Peter Tatchell, Caroline Lucas MP, James Hansen, Mike Hill, Dr George Manos, Baron Rea of Eskdale, Vivienne Westwood OBE, Andreas Kronthaler, Katharine Hamnett CBE, Stella McCartney, Bella Freud, Alexandra Shulman, Lily Cole, Georgia May Jagger, Helena Bonham-Carter, Stephen Frears, Sue Jameson, James Bolam MBE, Ken Loach, Steven Berkoff, Jude Law, Miranda Richardson, Russell Brand, Sadie Frost, Frankie Boyle, Dr Pauline Kiernan, Liza Goddard, David Yates & Yvonne Walcott Yates, Jeremy Hardy, Greta Scacchi, Baroness Beeban Kidron, Lee Hall, Sam Branson, Tracey Seaward, Mark Tildsley, Michael Elwyn, Jenny Platt, Tim Preece, Alison Steadman, Geoffrey Munn OBE, Josh Appignanesi, Jonny Harris, Debi Mazar, Matt Lucas, Alan Carr, Noel Fielding, Lliana Bird, Dr Noki Platon, Juergen Teller, Willie Christie, Oliviero Toscani, Andy Willsher, Mary McCartney, Bryan Adams, Dr Andy Gotts MBE, Yoko Ono, Sir Paul McCartney, Sir John Eliot Gardiner CBE, Isabella de Sabata Gardiner, Danielle de Niese, Thom Yorke, Nick Grimshaw, St Etienne, Adrian Sherwood, Geoff Jukes, Jeff Barrett, Chrissie Hynde, Bobby Gillespie & Andrew Innes (Primal Scream), Asian Dub Foundation, Robert del Naja (3D, Massive Attack), Debbie Hyde (All Good Radio Show), Carl Barat, Paloma Faith, Sir Anthony Gormley OBE, Rachel Whiteread CBE, Cornelia Parker OBE, Tracey Emin CBE RA, Bob & Roberta Smith, Gavin Turk & Deborah Curtis, Sadie Coles, Anne Rothstein, Saskia Oldewolbers, Jamie Reid, Mona Hatoum, Michael Landy RA, Gillian Wearing RA OBE, Mark Wallinger, Heather Ackroyd & Dan Harvey, Jimmy Cauty, Joe Corre, Triodos Bank, Jeremy Leggett, Trillion Fund, Sir Tim Smit KBE (Eden Project), Ben Hopkins (founder ltd), Lush Cosmetics, Dale Vince OBE (founder Ecotricity), Vince Adams (founder Respect Organics), Dietmar Hamann, Jeanette Winterson OBE, Neil Gaiman, Mark Haddon, Mark Ellingham, Mariella Frostrup, Rosie Boycott, Chris Stewart, George Monbiot, Naomi Klein, Avi Lewis, Dana Nuccitelli, Nicholas Shaxson, John Pilger, Will Self, Deborah Orr, Jonas Grimas, New Internationalist, Guillem Balague, Daryll Cunningham, Alan Moore, Philip Carr-Gomm, Alistair Beaton, Fergus Henderson, Mark Hix, Sam & Sam Clark, Geetie Singh, Guy Watson (founder, owner Riverford Organics), River Cottage, Hop Fuzz Brewery, Gabriele Corcos, Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), Salmon and Trout Association, Greenpeace, Bill McKibben,, Friends of the Earth, Young Friends of the Earth, Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF), Gaia Foundation, Fuel Poverty Action, Tracy, Marchioness of Worcester (founder, Farms not Factories), End Ecocide EU, Manuel Cortes (General Secretary TSSA), Stephen Hedley (Assistant General Secretary RMT), Chris Baugh (Assistant General Secretary PCS).

Secondly, in the Guardian:

Since the Industrial Revolution almost 250 years ago, Britain's economic prosperity and national energy security have depended on having access to abundant supplies of domestic energy sources such as coal, oil and natural gas.

In 2004 the UK became a net importer of natural gas for the first time. Over the last three years, according to industry experts, output in the North Sea has fallen by 38%.

After nearly 30 years of near-abundant supplies of natural gas from the North Sea, we have become more exposed and vulnerable because of our increased reliance on foreign imports of energy to meet our power-generation needs. In 2014 UK government ministers said they expect Britain to be importing nearly three-quarters of our gas needs by 2030. But it does not have to be this way for ever.

According to the independent British Geological Survey, the Bowland Basin, which covers significant parts of north-west England, currently sits on top of 1,300 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. If we extract only 10% of this valuable resource, that is enough to boost our domestic supply to meet existing demand by at least a further 25 years, according to geoscientific experts.

Globally high prices for commodities and recent innovations mean this is now economically and technologically possible. As geoscientists and petroleum engineers from Britain's leading academic institutions, we call on all politicians and decision-makers at all levels to put aside their political differences and focus on the undeniable economic, environmental and national security benefits on offer to the UK from the responsible development of natural gas from Lancashire's shale.

Professor Richard Selley (Emeritus Professor of Petroleum Geology, Imperial College London), Dr Ruth Robinson (Senior Lecturer in Earth Sciences, University of St Andrews), Professor Ian Croudace (Director of Geosciences Advisory Unit, University of Southampton), Dr Lateef Akanji (Coordinator of Petroleum and Gas Engineering Programme, University of Salford), Dr Godpower Chimagwu Enyi (Lecturer in Petroleum and Gas Engineering, University of Salford, Manchester), Professor Ghasem Nasr (Director of Spray Research Group, Petroleum Technology Research Group and Leader of Petroleum and Gas Engineering, University of Salford, Manchester), Professor James Griffiths (Professor of Engineering Geology and Geomorphology, University of Plymouth), Associate Professor Graeme Taylor (Senior Lecturer in Geophysics, University of Plymouth), Professor Ernest Rutter (Professor of Structural Geology, University of Manchester), Professor Mike Bowman (Chair in Development and Production Geology, and President of the Petroleum Exploration Society of Great Britain, University of Manchester), Professor Stephen Flint (University of Manchester), Professor Jonathan Redfern (Chair of Petroleum Geoscience, University of Manchester), Dr Kate Brodie (Senior lecturer, University of Manchester), Dr Rufus Brunt (University of Manchester), Professor Kevin Taylor (University of Manchester), Dr Tim Needham (Needham Geoscience and visiting lecturer, University of Leeds), Professor Paul Glover (Chair of Petrophysics, University of Leeds), Professor Quentin Fisher (Research Director of School of Earth and Environment, University of Leeds), Dr Doug Angus (Associate Professor of Applied and Theoretical Seismology, University of Leeds), Dr Roger Clark (University of Leeds), Professor Wyn Williams (Director of Teaching: Rock and Mineral Magnetism, University of Edinburgh), Dr Mark Allen (University of Durham), Dr Howard Armstrong (Senior Lecturer in Department of Earth Sciences, University of Durham), Dr Martin Whiteley (Senior Lecturer in Petroleum Geoscience, University of Derby), Professor Jon Blundy (Professorial Research Fellow in Petrology, University of Bristol), Dr James Verdon (Research Fellow, University of Bristol), Professor Adrian Hartley (Chair in Geology and Petroleum Geology, University of Aberdeen), Dr David Iacopini (Lecturer, University of Aberdeen), Dr Nick Schofield (Lecturer, University of Aberdeen), Professor David Macdonald (Chair in Geology and Petroleum Geology, University of Aberdeen), Dr Andrew Kerr (University Cardiff), Professor Andrew Hurst (Professor of Production Geoscience, University Aberdeen), Dr Sina Rezaei Gomari (Senior Lecturer in Petroleum Technology and Engineering, Teesside University), Professor Agust Gudmundsson (Chair of Structural Geology, Royal Holloway), Dr David Waltham (Royal Holloway), Professor Joe Cartwright (Shell Professor of Earth Sciences, Oxford University), Professor Peter Styles (Professor in Applied and Environmental Geophysics, Keele University), Dr Steven Rogers (Teaching Fellow, Keele University), Dr Ian Stimpson (Senior Lecturer in Geophysics, Keele University), Dr Jamie Pringle (Senior Lecturer in Engineering and Environmental Geosciences, Keele University), Dr Gary Hampson (Director of Petroleum Geoscience MSc course, Imperial College London), Professor John Cosgrove (Professor of Structural Geology, Imperial College London), Professor Howard Johnson (Shell Chair in Petroleum Geology, Imperial College London), Professor Dorrik Stow (Head of Institute of Petroleum Engineering, Heriot-Watt University), Dr Gillian Pickup (Lecturer in Reservoir Simulation, Heriot-Watt University), Dr Zeyun Jiang (Lecturer, Heriot-Watt University), Dr Jingsheng Ma (Lecturer, Heriot-Watt University), Dr Gerald Lucas (Edge Hill University), Professor Charlie Bristow (Professor of Sedimentology, Birkbeck College, University of London), Dr Paul Grant (Lecturer, Kingston University).

Update 6.6.2014: A third letter
We've heard from anti-fracking groups, and from academic geologists who believe that shale gas can be extracted safely, and will generate significant economic benefits. Seems only fair that we also hear from the operators themselves - UKOOG wrote a response to the Times letter:


I agree with Paul McCartney and the others who signed the letter on fracking (June 2nd) that we need to talk about fracking, and any debate should take account of all the facts as presented in the recent studies in the UK by eminent institutions and individuals including the Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering, Public Health England, the Chartered Institute of Water and Environmental Management, and Professor David MacKay and Dr Tim Stone. All conclude that in a properly regulated industry the risks from fracking are small. We are happy to discuss the merits of shale with anyone who comes to it with an open mind. On this basis, Sir Paul, hopefully "We can work it out".

Ken Cronin (UKOOG).

Thursday 29 May 2014

New paper: Estimates of error in micro-earthquake magnitude estimation

With excellent timing, on the same day as the new BGS report into the shale oil potential of the Weald Basin, a new paper, written by two co-workers at Bristol Uni and myself, has been released in Geophysical Prospecting. In it, we examine the uncertainties in estimates of event magnitude made on small earthquakes.

This paper is significant for shale gas extraction in the wake of DECC's traffic light system (TLS) proposal for fracking operations. Under the TLS, operational decisions during the fracking process must be taken on events as small as magnitude 0.0 (the amber level), with complete cessation of activities for events larger than magnitude 0.5.

As most people are aware, a magnitude 0 event is very small, at the limit of what can be detected using conventional seismographs (see our efforts at Balcombe, for example). Expensive downhole microseismic monitoring systems are required to robustly detect smaller magnitudes.

The TLS pre-supposes that earthquake magnitudes at this low level can be accurately determined. The purpose of the TLS was to provide a simple-to-understand system to re-assure the public. Uncertainties in event magnitude estimation could undermine this, generating more controversy, not less.

We show in our paper that event magnitude estimations at these low levels can be very uncertain: you can get different answers depending on what methods you use and assumptions you make. It doesn't take too much imagination to think of a scenario where one group reporting on a fracking operation concludes that an induced earthquake was just below the TLS threshold, but another group using a different method finds that the earthquake did exceed it. The current debate over shale gas extraction is febrile enough as it is, can you imagine the recrimination and the confusion that such an eventuality would generate?

Tuesday 27 May 2014

A "hasty dash to frack"?

On the whole I've given up writing critiques of articles discussing fracking in the media written by journalists. There's not enough hours in the day, and more importantly, sensationalism - selling papers - is what journalism is all about. You might as well criticise a dog for barking.

However, it's a different story when it's academics writing for the media. The extra respect that members of the public afford to academics means that there is an added responsibility to be accurate. Which brings me on to this article in the Birmingham Post, written by Professor Alister Scott of Birmingham City University, described as "thoughtful" by a senior BBC environmental correspondent.

The first few paragraphs discuss the general discord in the government's energy policy, and I would agree that our energy policy is currently a mess. However, the problems begin when Prof Scott argues that "they have rejected any new EU Directive that would look specifically at issues from the fracking process not covered by existing legislation such as cumulative impact, underground risk assessments, chemical mixes and methane emissions".

It is true that the EU decided to release a Recommendation rather than a Directive. It is however incorrect to claim that the Recommendation has no impact on the activities of operators in the EU. This recommendation mandates a range of measures, including a wide range of environmental factors that operators must assess before, during and after their activities. Member states must inform the EU Commission of measures that they have put in place to meet the requirements of the recommendation.

These measures will be reviewed in 18 months, and if the commission deems that the terms of the recommendation are not being met then they reserve the power to impose legally binding rules at the European level (paragraphs 16.1-16.4). This is hardly the lack of regulation implied by Prof Scott. I'll note in passing that disclosure of the "chemical mix" is required by the Environment Agency.

In his next sentence, Prof Scott claims that "They have even gone further to say that some environmental safeguards should be reduced due the complex burden of permissions and licenses". I'd love to know what environmental safeguards Prof Scott thinks have been reduced? There are moves to reduce the amount of time taken to get permits, and to improve coordination between the various agencies involved (DECC, Local Minerals Planning, EA, HSE). There has been absolutely no move to reduce the environmental safeguards expected during drilling and hydraulic stimulation.

Prof Scott argues that "We need evidence-based policy and we have seen a debate that is more akin to a pantomime. The debate becomes stuck in a groundhog day mentality becoming sterile and increasingly polarised". I'd love to know what Prof Scott thinks is more inductive to "pantomime" debate: reports by the Royal Society, by Public Health England, by the Institute of Directors? Or this?

The renewables industry has long offered payments to local communities to persuade them to accept wind and/or solar farms in their area. However, when shale gas companies offer something similar, "The rush to provide incentives to people and communities affected by fracking is troublesome in social and environmental justice terms". That said, I do agree with the thought that the expectation that shale operators make community payments when industrial developments with a far greater impact - coal mining, large facilities etc - do not could be seen as unfair.

The next claim is that "continual government attacks on environmental safeguards as restricting development encircle the fracking debate". Again, I'd love to know what these attacks on safeguards are? Yes, there is the intention to streamline to permitting process and to improve coordination between agencies. The has been no suggestion of any reduction in any existing environmental safeguard that applies to drilling and/or to hydraulic fracturing.

The fact that "government ministers are quick to condemn 'unsightly' solar and wind turbine developments, but seemingly embrace landscapes of fracking infrastructure" may well be because of the very different scales of impact the two industries have, when measured on a per MWh basis. A single multi-lateral well pad, which might look something like this when completed, will produce as much energy as the entire Scout Moor wind farm, which looks like this

I can sympathise that the level of public engagement has perhaps not been what it might be. I'm not sure how mis-informed articles by academics in the media are supposed to improve this. However, there is already abundant "independent scientific evidence", if one cares to look for it, while every kind of measurement possible is being made around putative drilling sites to ensure "effective safeguards for the public and the environment and effective monitoring arrangements". Cuadrilla's Environmental Impact Report for their two new sites in Lancashire will run to over 3,000 pages. Given Prof Scott's concerns, I am sure he will read every page. 

Prof Scott's conclusion is that we're seeing a "hasty dash to frack". The prospects for shale gas in the UK were first realised in the late 2000s, and Cuadrilla drilled and tracked their well in 2011 - still the only onshore well where fracking has been used in shale rocks (as opposed to fracking in conventional reservoirs, which has been done approximately 200 times onshore in the UK). Since then, we've seen about 5 exploration wells drilled, and the first intention to frack a well submitted by Cuadrilla, where stimulation will probably take place in 2015, once the 3,000 environmental assessment has been completed. 

Meanwhile, in the USA thousands of wells will have been drilled and fracked. Meanwhile, other countries with shale potential are making solid progress, and drilling and fracking multiple wells. Argentina, China and Poland spring to mind. If 5 wells drilled and one fracked in 4 years represents "a hasty dash to frack" to Prof Scott, I'd hate to see what slow progress looks like.  

Sunday 25 May 2014

Some more comments on the BGS Weald report

Now that the dust has settled from the BGS Weald report, the general consensus is that the numbers are a little disappointing, with 4.4bn bbl not comparing particularly favourably with over 100bn bbl in the Bakken Shale, for example, or the 40bn bbl we have extracted from the North Sea.

Perhaps we've all been spoiled by the numbers from the Bowland shale, so that anything less than world class numbers comes as a disappointment. Some outlets seem to have been a little confused by the report's conclusion that there was no prospectivity for shale gas, thinking this to mean no prospectivity for any kind of hydrocarbon-bearing shale.

In terms of value, if we assume a 10% recovery rate, at £80 per bbl, 440 million bbl is still worth 35 billion. Nothing like the £1 trillion of recoverable gas estimated to be in the Bowland shale in the northwest, but not to be completely sniffed at either. I anticipate that we'll still see operators looking to develop the Weald resource, especially if oil looks like staying at £80 per bbl or more. But it's not going to change the UK energy landscape in the way the Bowland shale gas numbers could.

I would't be surprised if certain operators will feel privately that their acreage has more in it than the BGS have estimated. After all, we can never know the true numbers until we drill more wells specifically targeting the shale - in the same way that we'll never know if the huge Bowland shale numbers are accurate until we start drilling.

The other issue is recovery rates. The higher viscosity of oil compared to gas means that recovery rates for shale are not as high as for gas. I have little doubt that operators in the Bakken are already trying to find ways to increase their recovery rates. We've seen something similar in the US shale gas plays, which have been around a little longer, with recovery rates seeming to increase year-on-year. For a smaller resource estimate, maximising recovery rate will be particularly important.

Thursday 22 May 2014

BGS report on Weald Basin expected today

Update 23.5.2014: The report has now been released and is available here. The headline number is a resource of 4.4 billion barrels of oil in place.

The big news today is that the BGS report into the hydrocarbon potential of shale rocks in the Weald Basin will be released.

The Weald Basin stretches across the south of England, through the home counties from Dorset to Kent. It already hosts one very large oilfield at Wytch Farm (the EU's largest onshore oil field) and a number of smaller onshore oil and gas fields. The general public is largely unaware of these fields - I can speak from experience because I grew up almost directly above one of them - Humbly Grove in north Hampshire. I had little idea it was there until I went off to university to study geology.

In case you are wondering, here's a map of existing fields and licences, and below is a map of existing oil and gas wells drilled in the region

Wednesday 21 May 2014

A visit to the Heping cement CO2 capture demonstration project in Taiwan

Update (25.5.2014): Since I have arrived home and am no longer relying on dodgy hotel internet, I have been able to upload a video of the plant I took while I was there. The video gives a better idea of the scale of the factory that the picture cannot, simply because you can't fit the whole plant into the shot. The video is on YouTube, but I've embedded it here:

Also, if you want an aerial view of the plant, you can find it on google maps here.

The introduction to this post is that I'm writing it from the luxury of a rather swanky 5-star hotel in Taipei.

Taiwan is not in a great position with respect to energy. They have few natural resources of their own to utilise - only a few small natural gas fields in the north of the country. Nuclear is a troublesome subject for such an earthquake-prone island, especially after Fukushima. While you might think that such a mountainous island would be a good site for renewables, the regular earthquakes, landslides and typhoons means that maintaining a large number of wind turbines will also prove difficult. As a result, the majority of Taiwan's electricity comes from coal, most of which is imported from Indonesia.

Image of the Day: Oil and Gas Wells in the USA

The USA has drilled a lot of oil and gas wells in the last 100 years or so. More than a million in fact! Here's a map showing where they are. It's quite an eye-opener!

Saturday 17 May 2014

Image of the day: Comparing a train to a fracking-induced earthquake

This image compares the vibrations from a passing train, measured at a distance of 150m, to a simulated earthquake occurring 2km below Cuadrilla's Balcombe drilling site (from the Bristol University Balcombe baseline study). We found that the train vibrations had similar amplitude to a magnitude 1.5 earthquake, equivalent to the second quake that lead to the shut down Cuadrilla's operations in Blackpool in 2011 (and a two-year moratorium).