Fracking 1: Spot the Charlatan

Shale Gas Guru,  Missionary and blogger Nick Grealy has been running a blog on fracking since 2008. I used to follow it with interest in the early days because he provided some perspective and useful links to studies on what was then an emerging technology. He seemed to be a bit too gung-ho about the prospects for shale gas in Europe, but nobody knew at the time how things would unfold. On the rare occasions when I stumble across the blog now, I can’t help noting an air of desperation and a frequent resort to name calling at those opposed to shale gas, perhaps because the much-anticipated frack bonanza in Europe seems to have fizzled, due to a combination of geology and popular opposition.


For evidence of desperation, consider that Grealy has founded a company—London Local Energy —that has plans to frack under Downing Street. I’m inclined to dismiss this as a publicity stunt or even just a joke. Readers who disagree might want to go to the company’s website to find out how to invest. There should be some actual content there any day now. Perhaps Grealy will lay out the engineering and economics of multi-kilometre extended reach wells with multiple hydraulic fracturing stages. On the bright side, he probably won’t get any NIMBY objections from the current occupant of No 10.

[Added later: check out David Smythe’s blog for more details on the frack London concept.]

For the name calling, I will refer you to Grealy’s recent blogpost: Fake Fracking Experts and deliberate distortions: All the anti-frackers have left in which he categorizes two individuals, David Smythe and Mike Hill as charlatans.  I don’t know Hill at all, but Smythe has been a friend and colleague for over thirty years. He and I worked together at the British Geological Survey in the late seventies, before I decided to pursue an industry career in Canada and he an academic career at the University of Glasgow. More recently, we have worked together as consultants on an oil exploration project in Southern England.

For more evidence, here’s a screen grab of a recent front page of Grealy’s blog showing his preferred terminology for people who don’t agree with him: Green Reactionaries, ignorant, shale doomsters (he likens their tactics to vaccine deniers’), neurotics, hypocrites and the sanctimonious. This is not the rhetoric of somebody who thinks that fracking can get public approval  by respectful dialogue. No, he has to discredit the motives and smear the reputations of the people who oppose unconventional gas development. If Grealy is a leader in the promotion of shale gas in Europe, it’s no wonder project approval is going nowhere fast.

I would normally prefer to ignore blogs like Grealy’s, but he made it personal by smearing a friend. As I will show in a later post, he also tries to co-opt support from Skeptical Science, a climate blog that I contribute to, to imply that that blog is an advocate for shale gas. It’s not.


Smythe has been working and publishing on geophysical characterization of the subsurface for decades. He won the Lyell Fund prize from the Geological Society in 1985 and  has had numerous publications and citations. He held the Chair of Geophysics at the University of Glasgow for ten years. In recent years, he has focussed attention on the problems of the safe disposal of nuclear waste and the potential geological hazards of fracking. He now runs a blog Frackland and has a personal website. More recently, he has consulted in conventional oil exploration.

Grealy has an AB degree in English and has worked in gas sales for EDF and as a gas buyer for the National Health Service. He has no training or industry expertise in upstream operations or in the subsurface. That doesn’t stop him calling real experts “fake” and shamelessly labelling himself on Twitter @ShaleGasExpert.

Spot the real charlatan.

Faulting and fracking

Smythe has been arguing that geological faults are a hazard in fracking operations. Where faults are present they provide potential pathways for fracking fluid and gas to contaminate aquifers. He argues that the subsurface must be accurately mapped prior to fracking (he has shown in the case of  the Balcombe project in West Sussex that the operator Cuadrilla did not do an adequate job of this) and that the risk of problems arising from fracking near faults must be thoroughly assessed in any public review of a new shale-gas project. This is not a fanciful concern: a German panel of experts looked hard at the risks of fracking near fault zones (among other hazards) and recommended avoiding operating near them. Here is a figure taken from that report, showing schematically what could go wrong:


In oil and gas exploration, the behaviour of faults as conduits and barriers is a big risk. Oil companies try to reduce this uncertainty by conducting careful structural geology studies. Sometimes the success of a prospect can depend on a fault acting as a conduit from hydrocarbons from the source rock to the reservoir while, at the same time, the same fault must provide a barrier to form a trap. The interaction of faults and fluids is complicated and fickle. It depends on several factors: the geological history; the juxtaposition of the rocks on either side of the fault; the nature of the fault plane gouge material; the geometry of the fault; and the current and past states of tectonic stress. All of these factors vary in four dimensions. Despite the best efforts of  oil company geologists, surprises are frequent and every area has its own quirks. Understanding how faults behave surely ought to matter as much in unconventional exploration as it does in conventional exploration.

An example of the problems of  mixing unconventional gas exploitation and faulting was the pollution of a creek in Colorado by a Canadian company, EnCana, in 2004. The company drilled through a fault zone and, with a poor cement job in the well bore, allowed methane and benzene to bubble into West Divide Creek near the town of Silt, Colorado. (Aspen Times Report).   The company was fined several hundred thousand dollars. Here is how the Tyndall Centre described the incident:

In 2004 in Garfield County Colorado, US, natural gas was observed bubbling into a stream bed. In addition to natural gas, groundwater samples revealed that concentrations of benzene exceeded 200micrograms/litre and surface water concentrations exceeded 90micrograms/litre (also 90 times the state water quality limit). The operator had ignored indications of potential problems while drilling, failed to notify the regulators as required by the drilling permit, and failed to adequately cement the well casing. This, in conjunction with the existence of a network of faults and fractures led to significant quantities of formation fluids migrating vertically nearly 1,200m and horizontally 600m, surfacing as a seep. Although remedial casings installed in the well reportedly reduced seepage, the resulting benzene plume has required remediation since 2004. Subsequent hydrogeology studies found that ambient groundwater concentrations of methane and other contaminants increased regionally as gas drilling activity progressed, and attributed the increase to inadequate casing or grouting in gas wells and naturally occurring fractures.

In the interests of full disclosure, I should point out that I was a Vice President at EnCana at that time, but working in conventional exploration in another country and I have no insider knowledge of what happened in Colorado.  However, I can vouch for the company’s generally sound culture with regards to environmental protection and careful operations. EnCana was not a rogue operator with shoddy standards, but a generally responsible company that screwed up badly. When you are drilling hundreds of wells in an area where the geology is complicated and where the regulatory oversight is lax, things will go wrong and people may get hurt as a result. Good intentions are not good enough. What is required is careful technical work, close independent supervision, full reporting and giving a considered and respectful hearing to the concerns of local residents and independent experts. And you have to avoid drilling and fracking near faults.

In geology there is always an alternative point of view and somebody knowledgeable could challenge Smythe’s contentions with technical arguments. Instead and all too predictably, the friends of shale gas have taken a leaf out of the climate denialists’ play book and launched a smear campaign.  He has been attacked in the Daily Mail, The Times and the Daily Telegraph and by Professor Paul Younger, who was subsequently told by his employer, the University of Glasgow, to desist from such public commentary. And more recently−and with boundless chutzpah—Grealy piles on by calling Smythe a “fake expert”.

When you can’t play the ball…

One of the problems of shale gas exploration is that the hazards and inconveniences arising from the fracking operations are borne by the residents, who, at the same time, receive no benefits. It’s no wonder that the public look hard at what could be on the negative side of the balance sheet when there’s precious little benefit on the other side. Promoters of shale gas exploitation may well feel frustrated: their project economics  are already difficult and there’s not enough money available to buy off the locals in heavily populated areas. The best that they can hope for is to ignore and discredit dissenters, and try to ram through the projects with help of a sympathetic national government.

This approach  is not working out very well for the would-be frackers in New York State, the Canadian provinces of Quebec, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia or France and Germany. Fracking has flourished only in areas like Alberta, Texas and North Dakota where there is a tradition of oil and gas operations and where intense fracking operations evolved out of existing conventional oil and gas exploitation practices that the locals had learned to live with. However, even in those areas, regulatory frameworks that worked well for low-intensity operations in sparsely populated areas, need to be overhauled for the unconventional extraction business, with its increased drilling densities, continuous activity and for the unprecedented hydraulic violence that has to be inflicted on naturally impermeable beds to make them flow.

There are signs of pushback, even in the heart of oil country. Check out the case of Alberta resident Jessica Ernst and her unresolved suit against Encana Corporation (the company dropped the upper case “C” in “EnCana” a few years ago). Ernst also has a page listing numerous other lawsuits in North America and beyond.

Unconventional fossil-fuel exploitation may turn out to be incompatible with the quality of life in the more densely populated rural areas in England and Western Europe. If there is a case to be made for development, the burden is on the would-be operators and other interested parties to make it. It’s certainly not up to the local populations to prove that  fracking is dangerous. And, if they consult experts like Smythe and Hill who point out what could go wrong, they should expect reasonable answers and rebuttals from the corporations and the government. Instead, what we see too often are shabby smear campaigns.

And all that’s before we even start to look at the most intractable problem of shale gas: climate change.

This is the first of three articles on fracking. The others are:

7 thoughts on “Fracking 1: Spot the Charlatan

  1. Pingback: Fancy a quick frack ?- then Nick Grealy is your man | Frackland

  2. Thank you for highlighting that it is not fracking per se that is the cause of leaks in wells, but poor quality drilling. The same drilling as the for oil and which has caused occasional problems over the tens of thousands of wells drilled. So problems occur. Yes. But like in any industry, accidents happen, people are lazy, or just shit happens. But its a tiny proportion of all the wells drilled.

    [AS] I agree that most problems reported so far arise from poor drilling (bad cement jobs, particularly) rather than directly from the hydrofracturing itself. I disagree, however that the problems are restricted to a “tiny” proportion of the wells. According to this study (Table 2.1) 10% or more of wells in Canada leak gas. Unconventional exploitation typically requires hundreds if not thousands of wells, so this is not an insignificant problem.

    Are you arguing for the precautionary principle? The principle that basically says don’t do anything because something bad will happen. Do you dare step out of your front door? [deleted, accusation of deceit]

    [AS] I am saying that if a corporation wants to conduct experimental industrial operations next to or under people’s backyards the onus is on them to show that it will be safe and cause no disruption.

    Regarding your examples – Anecdotes does not make data. The odd example does not equate to the whole industry.

    Smythe was quite rightly denounced in the press when it was found that he was misusing his connection to Glasgow University. [deleted]

    Smythe is a geologist, no doubt about that. But does he know much about the latest drilling techniques and methods if he hasn’t been involved for decades?

    The problem anti frackers have is that they have to discredit the O&G companies and scaremonger because all the science and facts against them. They do all then can to make life difficult for companies who are carrying out legal activities. Occasionally the campaigners will do this by acting illegally such as trespassing. Though most of the time they will use over the top emotive language to push their case with words like “unprecedented hydraulic violence that has to be inflicted on naturally impermeable beds to make them flow”.

    [AS] Sorry if my prose offends. Look, I worked in oil for thirty years and, in the article, I expressly did not discredit the last company I worked for.

    Fossil fuels are a necessary part of modern life. If we got rid of it tomorrow society would descend into chaos. No transport, no heating, no electricity, no modern materials, no medicines, no fertilizer for crops, etc. Hydrocarbons are not just burnt, they are used to make other products. In the tiny country that is the UK 2000 wells have already been drilled and no one noticed. Drilling for gas will use the same methods as used on those 2000 wells, yep even fracking. Fracking was used on 200 of those wells.

    [AS] The huge and intense hydrofracturing that Cuadrilla et al are intending to perform is not comparable with the minor frack jobs that were done on those 200 wells in years past.

    And finally climate change. Shale gas is the best thing for climate change. It replaces coal now. Renewables can’t replace coal that quickly. And its been proven to be good for the climate as the EPA has shown that GHG levels across the US have dropped as shale gas use has increased. Renewables might feel like its helping the climate, but all its doing is moving the CO2 generation from the US (or other western countries) to China and elsewhere. [deleted, inflammatory]

    [AS] You are conflating and exaggerating a bunch of things here. It is true that cheap, unconventional natural gas has replaced some coal in US domestic electricity generation, but it’s by no means the only factor accounting for the drop in US CO2 emissions in recent years. Read Zeke Hausfather’s article on this, gas replacing coal accounts for about one-third of recent CO2 reductions. This analysis does not include other GHGs, like methane, nor does it consider the effect of ifuture increased US coal exports. Moving manufacturing emissions to China is a function of globalization and it’s simply not attributable to renewables. Shale gas is not “the best thing for climate change” it is just half as bad (at best) as the worst thing, coal.

    Fracking is not dangerous. Drilling for O&G can be though. I would prefer drilling for gas & oil than to have people working in mines digging out coal. The death rate for coal mining is extremely high. But then the Victorians realised that it was worth it as they changed society from an agricultural one where 90% of the people worked to feed everyone to a society where only 10% do so, allowing the 90% to do things like being nurses, or hairdressers, produce artisan products, or just process paper work, all of which has caused our economies to grow in leaps and bounds. I would like to keep my modern society. Forcibly switching to renewables when it is not ready to replace our current energy production methods will take our societies back to the middle ages, not forward into the future. I don’t say the production of hydrocarbon fuels is totally risk free, but the benefits from its production out weigh the costs.

    [AS] Well, you can’t frack if you don’t first drill, obviously. Yes, coal mining is dangerous for miners and fossil fuels have been marvellous for economic growth. But business-as-usual with fossil fuels can’t endure. Talking about taking our societies back to the Middle Ages as we reduce emissions is alarmist nonsense.

    • Smythe did not misuse his emeritus title, that’s his.

      Needless to say, I disagree with most of what you say here and I will deal with most of it in later posts. I added some inline comments instead, as blockquotes, in italics.

      I don’t permit accusations of dishonesty and deceit, so I have edited those sections out of your comment. In future cases, I will just delete the entire comment if you do it again.

      I do sometimes use the word “fracking” loosely to mean the whole unconventional gas or oil production process, not just the hydro fracturing part. Similarly I note that Nick Grealy often uses “shale” to mean “unconventional gas or oil”, but I know what he means. Synecdoche

    • No probs with your editing of my comment, your gaff your rules.

      Fracking is not experimental. It’s been carried out for years. Its a more efficient way of extracting gas from the ground. It’s a bit like a car engine is a car engine, but modern ones are a lot better than the ones in Ford Model T.

      “The huge and intense hydrofracturing that Cuadrilla et al are intending to perform”. There you go with the emotive words. It doesn’t offend me but if you have to use emotive language to push your case then you case is weak.

      CH4 is a stronger GHG than CO2. Yes. But is a minuscule percentage of the atmosphere. 0.007% As for the UK’s output of it, we produce 1% of global GHG. If we stopped all methane leaks NOW, and stopped all cows burps NOW, the increase in China’s output in one day would make our efforts moot. So it’s still worthwhile to spend billions and make our energy production more unreliable?

      Business as usual for O&G should endure. We need it for our modern lives. It doesn’t all get burnt, some of it used to make products that we need. There is to more to O&G than just electricity generation, such a heating our homes with combination boilers. Are all those millions of boilers going to be removed in just a few years? Who will pay for it?

      Forcing change under diktat when the technology isn’t ready is not the way to wean ourselves off hydrocarbons. The way to do it is to use the hydrocarbons and when it gets too expensive, inventors will come up with something new. Maybe we won’t need fuel for transport in the future, maybe we will have a personal electricity generator in our homes, who knows. But the whole of human history has shown that humans have invented and innovated when needed to.

    • Thanks, for your comment, SBML.

      Unconventional gas production is experimental in the UK since nobody yet knows if it will work on a sustained economic basis in the particular circumstances (above and below ground) in the country.

      I’m certainly not in favour of sudden change by diktat. I would prefer carbon taxes to be applied and for market forces to determine solutions over a periods of a few decades in which installed capital items like boilers can be replaced by better, greener choices as they reach the end of their useful lives.

      My worry, though, is that if we delay action–or kid ourselves that we are making progress when we are actually committing to growing fossil fuel production–then diktats and non-market solutions may one day be forced upon us. Pessimists already think that we have passed that point, but I remain hopeful that concerted action taken now can lead us into a better future.

      Of course, if anyone believes that there are no limits to the amount of CO2 we can safely put in the atmosphere, then inaction on emissions and supporting the growth of shale gas or oil sands production follows quite logically.

  3. Excellent comments. Professor Smythe and Mike Hill have been working with us in Lancashire to determine the possible risks to peoples health and the environment likely to be associated with Cuadrilla’s plans to drill and hydraulically fracture up to 4 wells for shale gas at each of two sites in rural Fylde. Lancashire County Council are due to make decisions as to whether Cuadrilla can proceed in January. We have found both men to be extremely knowledgeable, rational and courteous and do not like this attempt to smear them. Could it be because Grealy is worried about what they will say? That they will actually be proved right and stop the government in it’s track in this ‘dash for gas’? We have not seen any evidence that this industry will be adequately regulated, or independently monitored, and are extremely concerned about the future. We could end up being the guinea pigs for the shale gas industry in the UK. As you say we will be the ones experiencing all the pain and there is no upside for us. I will be followig your next articles with interest. Thank you Andy for taking the time to support an ex colleague in such a just and intelligent way and showing Grealy up for what he really is.

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