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: