To Frack or not to Frack; that is the question.
On April Fool’s Day 2011 I sent off proofs for a chapter on Evangelicals and Climate Change, where I was critical of American Climate Change deniers. I never noticed the earthquake caused by fracking at Preese Hall ten miles away. After that I began to hear about fracking and was negative initially, but did nothing until a party political leaflet came through the door (not UKIP!). I liked what I read;-improved cycling facilities, recycling, environmental improvements, etc, but the last paragraph made me stamp my feet causing a Magnitude 0.75 quake! The Preese Hall quake was big and dangerous! As a geologist I knew a Mag 2.3 was trivial. When I worked in a Ugandan Copper mine, quakes 1000 times more powerful were common. The most memorable was at an Ascension Day service causing the organist to miss a note! This election leaflet goaded me into action, or rather delayed action as I had limited time until I retired in 2013. And so I began to investigate.
The usual arguments cited are;
- flaming taps due to methane in water,
- toxic chemicals in fracking fluid
- quakes, i.e. minor seismicity.
- poor geology,
- aquifer and water pollution,
- rampant capitalism
- industrialisation of the countryside
The horrors of fracking in Lancashire from Talkfracking
The University of Google directed me to anti-fracking sites, but I wanted something more reliable. As a geologist, I started with the British Geological Survey, and then the United States Geological Survey. Fracking cropped up on the Affiliation of Christian Geologists and so I contacted friends there, along with more friends in the USGS. It soon became apparent that the earthquake concern was very rare, and low risk, and where larger quakes occurred (Mag3 – 5), these were not due to fracking but wastewater injection. These had occurred since the early 80s, i.e. two decades before (the present style of) fracking started and mainly involved waste water from traditional oil production. That is still the case today. (One friend, who in 1991 wrote the earliest papers on these, took me up a couple of 14,000ft mountains in Colorado and I took him up Ingleborough!) Fairly soon, I realised that problems were caused by bad practice rather than the fracking process itself.
After that I left my geological comfort zone and looked at the other issues. I had a choice of three major sources;
- The plethora of publications by anti-frackers, and ‘eco’ organisations.
- technical material from bodies like the BGS, EA, PHE, HSE, scientific bodies and independent academics
- publications from gas operators.
I focussed on the second group. It took time to grasp the technicalities of fracking. I quickly realised that there was little scientific credibility to the antifrack publications. I used the antifrack material to guide what I should look for and ignored material from firms like Cuadrilla. Delving into all this was frustrating and annoying as I became more and more appalled at the inaccuracies of those opposing fracking, including those in the churches.
The straw which broke the camel’s back was my attending a meeting of Frack Off near Garstang in August 2013. I realised then that this meeting promoted ideologically motivated duplicity and scaremongering. More of that later.
I found dealing with anti-fracking rather like dealing with Creationism, which I have dealt with since 1971 after a visit to Schaeffer’s L’Abri in Switzerland – when I thought I was about to join Servetus in Geneva. At the risk of offending Creationists, their arguments are always fallacious, if not dishonest. Creationist claims on the inaccuracy of radiometric age-dating and other scientific questions were poor science. After many years of checking them out, I have never found any which are valid. It is the same with arguments against fracking, which either universalise from examples of bad practice as with pollution of water supplies in Wyoming, exaggerate, or misquote the evidence..
As a result I was forced to re-assess my long-held views on the environment, not that for a moment I even considered rejecting Care of Creation or environmentalism. For 50 years this has itself in appreciation of the natural world, wildlife gardening, economy of energy use and insulation etc. Not to mention my bike as my preferred means of transport, or driving economically. (I try to get 50mpg out of a Corolla which should only do 44!) I had convinced myself of the Peak Oil argument in 1971, not knowing King Hubbert presented it two decades earlier. Peak Oil came to the fore after 2000 when it seemed that fossil fuels would soon run out. I presumed society would be forced to adopt renewables. Shale gas and oil has changed that and almost certainly fossil fuels will NOT run out before 2100. Rather than adjusting to an imposed fossil-free world in a few decades, the limitless (almost) supply forces choices in relation to the environment. Not being a Global Warming Denier, that means a wise use of fossil fuels. Here for many reasons, gas (increasingly fracked) along with every other source of energy except coal is the best option for both the planet and people and here I concur with the IPCC and what actually came out of Paris in 2015!
I began my journey in 2011 rather sceptical of fracking. It was a steep learning curve forcing me to think more about energy and the environment. I came to the conclusion that fracking was the best, or least bad, option and very necessary for Britain. That put me in agreement with the “best environment minister ever” John Gummer aka Lord Deben, but meant that I went against most green Christians. As I considered the whole fracking debate issue to be important, I began to put my head above the parapet. That was impossible to avoid after Cuadrilla applied for two exploration wells 10 miles from my home in February 2014. Now that changed everything. For two years it has dominated many aspects of life in Lancashire.
In February 2014 I went to Cuadrilla’s open meeting at Elswick and was greeted by anti-frackers at the door. Many had arrived in gas-guzzlers! Inside were various stands and many staff from Cuadrilla and Arup. I did not say I had been an exploration geologist but simply asked questions. They gave very reasonable answers and did not try to blind me with science. I went away confident that they were careful operators. A few weeks later I went to a meeting at Inskip of RAFF (Residents against Fracking Fylde). It was very different as the speakers simply peddled the anti-fracking line. During question time I raised questions about a speaker’s geological understanding pointing out it was contrary to BGS reports. I was surprised that she was supported by a Friends of the Earth worker, as I had always had a high regard for FoE. I became aware of hostility to those who did not support the anti-fracking line. About that time lots of anti-fracking signs appeared in the various villages.
One of many signs near the Preston New road site near Blackpool
Welcome to Roseacre! After this appeared houses were difficult to sell
I took copies of the RAFF leaflet Shale Gas; the Facts, which I found to be grossly inaccurate. I was put in touch with Ken, who shortly had complained to the Advertising Standards Agency (ASA) about a leaflet distributed by Frack Free Somerset. Before the ASA made a judgment FFS withdrew the leaflet! Ken and I put in a complaint to the ASA against RAFF https://michaelroberts4004.wordpress.com/2014/08/19/complaint-to-asa-against-raff-residents-action-on-fracking-fylde-for-gross-errors/ . RAFF tried to answer our complaints but shortly before a judgment was due they withdrew the leaflet. We did the same for Frack Free Ryedale who in Feb 2016 withdrew their leaflet. We await the result over a complaint about Friends of the Earth’s leaflet appealing for donations to fund their work in Lancashire. Some may have seen some of the press coverage of FoE in February stemming from Cuadrilla’s complaints to the Charity Commission https://michaelroberts4004.wordpress.com/2016/01/29/how-fiendish-is-friends-of-the-earth/ . At present I am trying to work out what FoE have done in Lancs over the last few years in preparation for a paper to be given at a geological conference. It is clear they worked on local villages and fuelled the local opposition. They also provided training in public speaking in preparation for the June hearings. However those speaking simply repeated the pseudoscientific party line of the antis. My own involvement convinced me that much of the opposition in Lancashire had been fired up by groups like FoE and Greenpeace.
The substance of the Friends of the Earth leaflet
I also became concerned at the violence, intimidation, and law-breaking from some anti-frack supporters, some of which I observed.
Last autumn, we went on holiday to the USA and as we went to Philadelphia we spent a day going around a fracking area. We were put in touch with the CEO of a local company, who took us on a tour of various wells in hilly woodland. It was more attractive than most forestry commission areas. From the valley the only visual impact was a gas pipeline.
Trout Run, nr Williamsport, PA. gas pad at top of hill. Forest cleared for pip for gas grid
The “flat hill” is a gaspad with 6 wells. Houseowner happy to have it there
Well being drilled 2 mls from previous photo
Flowback ponds – which are banned in UK
We were sent on a tour on empty roads. I visited one pad and spoke to a couple whose house was only yards from another pad, and they were quite happy with it all.
I spoke to people in the motel, restaurant and shops. One or two had some reservations but most valued the fracking. This was in Bradford county a supposedly grim area for fracking.
My intention from the beginning was to consider “all sides”, and that meant talking to green groups, industry and “official” bodies and academic institutions. One major problem was that many green groups, whether in the flesh, or online, simply wanted no questioning or dealings with anyone who questioned them. I was more fortunate with the other two categories. Academics in the UK and USA sent me technical papers on request, which were often behind a pay-wall. I have had personal dealings with several and have been on geological fieldtrips with others, as I know the Forest of Bowland well. (some of my blogs on the geology of the Bowland Shales have been used by university geologists!) I have got to know staff from Cuadrilla, and they have also allowed me on-site. I have made useful contacts with many connected with the shale gas industry
Three Oxford geology profs and D. Phil student looking atBowland Shales
As can be seen, fracking is both a technical and a social issue and the two are often inter-twined. Often polarisation gets deep and fractious.
So far the CoE has made no official statement on fracking, but many individuals have. Nearly all follow the anti-fracking line and their ‘science’ is poorly evidenced and argued. Most appear to have no technical or scientific knowledge. Doctorates in literature do not qualify one to speak on drilling wells or geology!
This Church Times article https://www.churchtimes.co.uk/articles/2013/6-september/comment/opinion/wanted-a-green-theology-that-probes-fracking is simply emotional, and this discussion paper from the Blackburn Diocese is very inaccurate and biased. The Url http://www.ctlancashire.org.uk/issues/ (go to fracking) gives the paper and my response.
Cartoon to go with Church Times article. Since removed.
My conclusions of my study are;
- Fracking is as safe as any other industry. The regulations are robust. There is environmental risk (as there is with farming!), but has been greatly exaggerated. There may be accidents and minor environmental spills etc, but the key pollution pathways responsible for many of the US problems have been examined by the Royal Academy of Engineering. This has lead to a raft of regulations.
- Local gas will be better for meeting Climate Change targets, provided there is a concerted effort on renewables, energy efficiency, etc etc. The key climate issue is to eliminate of coal, which may kill 1600 people a year in the UK. LNG imports are worse for the climate than locally fracked gas.
- So often environmentalists polemically present the option of fracking OR renewables rather than both.
- If fracking takes off it benefit employment, especially in Lancs and Yorks.
- It will improve energy security and help the UK’s balance of payments, as North Sea oil did for decades.
However fracking alone is insufficient. Other aspects need tackling, e.g. planting of trees, farming methods, peat restoration, energy conservation, etc.
One of the weaknesses of many Greens today is to see everything through a lens of Climate Change, and to see fracking as the biggest evil of all. In fact, Green campaigners and architects of the Climate Change Act, Stephen Tindale, and Baroness Briony Worthington see shale gas as the way forward, in progressing to a low carbon future. The myopic anti-frack approach has resulted in polarised arguments which help no one.
This fractious polarisation is often fuelled by certain green groups, who cannot, or will not see the big picture. They constantly chant the mantra #keepitintheground. Sadly, a secondary result of my study of fracking is that many Christian Greens make the same mistake.
Over the last five years the clamour against fracking has not been edifying and the church has made no useful contribution. Many commentators have ignored the mass of scientific evidence from so many professional groups, such as the Royal Academy of Engineering, the Royal Society, Public Health England, the HSE, the Environment Agency, the British Geological Survey, CIWEM, the European Union, the US Environmental Protection Agency and dozens more. Much of this is on the internet. A good place to start is http://www.refine.org.uk/
They comment on ‘toxic’ chemicals that are not permitted under UK and EU law. They also ignore the hundreds of research papers that confirm the safety of the process. These commentators prefer health studies that are dismissed by health experts, and histrionic reports of pollution incidents that are nothing to do with fracking.
To me it is a matter of great concern whether for the environment, the well-being of people (and planet), and the credibility of the churches. Thus I am one of the many who support a well-regulated fracking for the sake of the environment.
Not all think I am right!
If successful this is what parts of Lancashire will look like in a few years. Note the major source of water pollution – and it’s not fracking! I am being corny 🙂