David Smythe – anti-fracking geologist

 A world-class star of geological research

One of the difficulties of following fracking is working out who the experts really are amidst the clamour of competing voices. This is especially so if one has no technical expertise. Very quickly I discovered that the anti-fractivists in Lancashire looked to two experts. For the actual drilling and later for medical stuff, the expert was Mike Hill from Lytham, who was taken down a peg or two in 2015 about the time of the publication of the Medact report,  https://michaelroberts4004.wordpress.com/2015/04/03/medacts-madact-on-fracking/. This also refers to the Times report on Hill.

When I heard Tina Rothery rave about Prof David Smythe I was intrigued and several cited him at the hearings in County Hall, Preston in June 2015.

Smythe was prof of geophysics at Glasgow and left in 1998 shortly after giving evidence for friends of the Earth over the Nirex plans to deposit nuclear waste in Cumbria. (D Oldroyd; Geol Soc Memoir No25, Earth, Water, Ice and Fire, p271-288.  (This chapter is useful as it gives background on how Smythe and Haszeldine were consultants for Friends of the Earth  in the 90s.)


Since then he has not been employed professionally as a geologist but has given evidnece for environmental groups most notably on fracking, gaining the accolade of fractivists.

Controversy came in 2014 when the Geological society of London told him to stop using the letters C. Geol (Chartered Geologists) after his name as he had not paid his dues since 1996, nor refreshed his skills. (Thus I cannot use the letters A.M.I.M.M. as I am long lapsed.)


In June 2015 he made a deposition to the Lancs County Council hearings in County Hall, when Cuadrilla’s applications were rejected. Several fractivist speakers cited his material, even though it went against all other geologists, e.g. the CPRE speaker. Dr James Verdon blogged against his views of Lancashire geology here  http://frackland.blogspot.co.uk/2013/09/professor-david-smythes-critique-of.html 

More recently Smythe has started a blog, almost aping the title of Verdon’s blog.

blog http://www.davidsmythe.org/frackland/

His blogs are relatively few but one is devoted to attacking fellow geologists  “The insolence of Office”, eching critics on fracademics.


It is difficult not to see this as pure vitriol against leading geologists like Riley, Rutter, Davies, Lord Oxburgh, Selley, Shipton , Styles, Verdon, Younger. I have met and discussed matters with several of these. Incidentally Lord Oxburgh was one of my geological teachers, and very good was he – and entertaining in the pub at Horton in Ribblesdale, where he was teaching us geological mapping.


Most odd was his post in July 2015, The Mysterious case of Frack-free Witney  http://www.davidsmythe.org/frackland/?p=162 , why discusses why the Prime minister’s constituency of Witney was not up for shale gas exploration. The reason was implicit – that Cameron did not want fracking in his constituency. This idea gained traction among fractivists.  The location of Witney is clear from the map copied from his blog.



However note that the area to the east of Witney is not available for exploration. It seems very suspicious until one considers the geology. The sub-surface Carboniferous strata below that area are much thinner than elsewhere as in Carboniferous times that area which stretches over to Belgium, known as the Brabant High was mostly a landmass and thus very little deposition took place. Thus to an oil/gas prospector it is moose pasture i.e. nothing there and not worth drilling. Smythe and I had a twitter exchange on this and he seemed unaware of the Brabant High, knowledge of which is no more than second year geology. (He got narked with me and told me to simply organise bible studies!! He does need to learn some geology! )

In January 2016 Smythe offered a paper   Hydraulic fracturing in thick shale basins: problems in identifying faults in the Bowland and Weald Basins, UK  to the journal Solid Earth Discussion. This was posted to their website http://www.solid-earth-discuss.net/se-2015-134/ for comment and review.

Hydraulic fracturing in thick shale basins: problems in identifying faults in the Bowland and Weald Basins, UK

David K. Smythe 1College of Science and Engineering, University of Glasgow, Scotland
*now at: La Fontenille, 1, rue du Couchant, 11120 Ventenac en Minervois, France

Abstract. North American shale basins differ from their European counterparts in that the latter are one to two orders of magnitude smaller in area, but correspondingly thicker, and are cut or bounded by normal faults penetrating from the shale to the surface. There is thus an inherent risk of groundwater resource contamination via these faults during or after unconventional resource appraisal and development. US shale exploration experience cannot simply be transferred to the UK. The Bowland Basin, with 1900 m of Lower Carboniferous shale, is in the vanguard of UK shale gas development. A vertical appraisal well to test the shale by hydraulic fracturing (fracking), the first such in the UK, triggered earthquakes. Re-interpretation of the 3D seismic reflection data, and independently the well casing deformation data, both show that the well was drilled through the earthquake fault, and did not avoid it, as concluded by the exploration operator. Faulting in this thick shale is evidently difficult to recognise. The Weald Basin is a shallower Upper Jurassic unconventional oil play with stratigraphic similarities to the Bakken play of the Williston Basin, USA. Two Weald licensees have drilled, or have applied to drill, horizontal appraisal wells based on inadequate 2D seismic reflection data coverage. I show, using the data from the one horizontal well drilled to date, that one operator failed identify two small but significant through-going normal faults. The other operator portrayed a seismic line as an example of fault-free structure, but faulting had been smeared out by reprocessing. The case histories presented show that: (1) UK shale exploration to date is characterised by a low degree of technical competence, and (2) regulation, which is divided between four separate authorities, is not up to the task. If UK shale is to be exploited safely: (1) more sophisticated seismic imaging methods need to be developed and applied to both basins, to identify faults in shale with throws as small as 4–5 m, and (2) the current lax and inadequate regulatory regime must be overhauled, unified, and tightened up.

Citation: Smythe, D. K.: Hydraulic fracturing in thick shale basins: problems in identifying faults in the Bowland and Weald Basins, UK, Solid Earth Discuss., doi:10.5194/se-2015-134, in review, 2016.

Several geologists responded and most were very critical. Click on “discussion” on the page to read the responses.

CO Editor

Interactive discussion Status: final response (author comments only)
AC: Author comment | RC: Referee comment | SC: Short comment | EC: Editor comment
[Login for Authors/Topical Editors][Subscribe to comment alert]Printer-friendly Version – Printer-friendly version      Supplement – Supplement
SC2: ‘Comment on “Hydraulic fracturing in thick shale basins: problems in identifying faults in the Bowland and Weald basins, UK” by D.K. Smythe’, Rob Westaway, 05 Feb 2016Printer-friendly Version
AC9: ‘Interim reply to Dr Westaway’, David Smythe, 31 Mar 2016Printer-friendly VersionSupplement
SC18: ‘More rhetoric rather than substance’, Rob Westaway, 01 Apr 2016Printer-friendly Version
AC11: ‘Regrettable re-insertion of citation of a tabloid press article’, David Smythe, 01 Apr 2016Printer-friendly Version
EC1: ‘EC on SC2’, Federico Rossetti, 09 Feb 2016Printer-friendly Version
SC4: ‘Advocacy-Based Science’, Terry Engelder, 16 Feb 2016Printer-friendly Version
AC2: ‘Conjecture and refutation; author’s response to Dr Engelder’, David Smythe, 22 Mar 2016Printer-friendly VersionSupplement
SC13: ‘In a tangle over philosophy of science’, Rob Westaway, 28 Mar 2016Printer-friendly Version
SC14: ‘In a tangle over philosophy of science – ii’, Rob Westaway, 29 Mar 2016Printer-friendly Version
AC3: ‘Water well contamination case history: Bradford County, Pennsylvania’, David Smythe, 22 Mar 2016Printer-friendly VersionSupplement
SC6: ‘TYPOS CORRECTED SC5: ‘Erroneous assumptions lead to fundamentally flawed hydrogeological conclusions”, Paul L. Younger, 18 Feb 2016Printer-friendly Version
AC8: ‘Reply to Professor Paul Younger’, David Smythe, 31 Mar 2016Printer-friendly VersionSupplement
SC20: ‘Rejoinder to Smythe’s response on hydrogeological issues’, Paul L. Younger, 14 Apr 2016Printer-friendly Version
EC2: ‘removal of SC3 and SC5’, Federico Rossetti, 19 Feb 2016Printer-friendly Version
SC7: ‘This paper shows a poor understanding of the hydraulic fracturing process’, James Verdon, 19 Feb 2016Printer-friendly Version
SC8: ‘Correcting formatting issues in Verdon comment SC7’, James Verdon, 19 Feb 2016Printer-friendly Version
AC7: ‘Reply to Dr James Verdon’, David Smythe, 31 Mar 2016Printer-friendly VersionSupplement
SC9: ‘Reply to “Hydraulic fracturing in thick shale basins: problems in identifying faults in the Bowland and Weald Basins, UK”’, Huw Clarke, 02 Mar 2016Printer-friendly Version
AC5: ‘Reply to Huw Clarke of Cuadrilla Resources Ltd’, David Smythe, 24 Mar 2016Printer-friendly VersionSupplement
SC10: ‘Some additional thoughts on Preese Hall’, Rob Westaway, 04 Mar 2016Printer-friendly Version
AC1: ‘Failure by Dr Westaway to incorporate well data released in April 2015’, David Smythe, 05 Mar 2016Printer-friendly Version
SC12: ‘Diversity of stratigraphic interpretations for the Preese Hall-1 well and surroundings’, Rob Westaway, 10 Mar 2016Printer-friendly Version
SC11: ‘Misunderstanding of the Literature and Expanding the Discussion of Fracturing Fluid Migration Modeling’, Daniel Birdsell, 04 Mar 2016Printer-friendly Version
AC4: ‘Response to Daniel Birdsell and co-authors’, David Smythe, 22 Mar 2016Printer-friendly VersionSupplement
RC1: ‘Smythe se-2015-134 Review’, Andrew Aplin, 29 Mar 2016Printer-friendly VersionSupplement
AC10: ‘Reply to review by Professor Aplin’, David Smythe, 01 Apr 2016Printer-friendly VersionSupplement
SC15: ‘Comment on use of data and figures in Smythe paper’, Andrew Kingdon, 29 Mar 2016Printer-friendly Version
SC16: ‘Clarification of Affiliation’, Andrew Kingdon, 29 Mar 2016Printer-friendly Version
AC6: ‘Thanks for new PH-1 image data; faulting on 3D seismic not ambiguous; nothing missing from Balcombe logs’, David Smythe, 31 Mar 2016Printer-friendly VersionSupplement
SC17: ‘Preese Hall-1 bedding dip’, Rob Westaway, 31 Mar 2016Printer-friendly Version
EC3: ‘regarding SC18 and AC11’, Federico Rossetti, 02 Apr 2016Printer-friendly Version
SC19: ‘About SC18’, Fabrizio Storti, 04 Apr 2016Printer-friendly Version
RC2: ‘Review’, Stuart Haszeldine, 15 Apr 2016Printer-friendly VersionSupplement
RC3: ‘Review of Hydraulic fracturing in thick shale basins: problems in identifying faults in the Bowland and Weald Basins, UK’, Anonymous Referee #3, 10 May 2016Printer-friendly VersionSupplement
RC4: ‘review’, Anonymous Referee #4, 12 May 2016Printer-friendly Version
EC4: ‘decision on SE Discussion paper’, Federico Rossetti, 14 May 2016Printer-friendly Version

Apart from Haszeldine ( aformer student) the responses were very critical.Finally on 14 May Rossetti made a decision not to publish on the grounds of 3 out of 4 referees rejecting the paper http://editor.copernicus.org/index.php/se-2015-134-EC4.pdf?_mdl=msover_md&_jrl=431&_lcm=oc108lcm109w&_acm=get_comm_file&_ms=49101&c=106184&salt=14965404591990297433

F. Rossetti (Editor) federico.rossetti@uniroma3.it Received and published: 14 May 2016
Dear Dr. Smythe,

your ms. has been now evaluated by 4 independent reviewers. Based on the resulting reports (3 negative over 4), I regret to say that we can not go forward with this ms., since too much work is needed to render it potentially suitable for final publication on SE.

My decision is therefore to discourage submission of a revised manuscript.

Yours sincerely,

federico rossetti

This is a sharp response, especially the last sentence.


I find this a strange story, and would be more sympathetic if he did not get some basic geology wrong i.e. unaware of the Brabant High, and did not try to trash so many eminent scientists, whose work I have got to know.

There do seem to be close parallels with Mike Hill, who also opened himself up to be discredited, yet both are held in high regard by fractivists.

I am left rather baffled why both Hill and Smythe have followed their courses of action.



2 thoughts on “David Smythe – anti-fracking geologist

  1. Paul Braterman

    Too speciaised for me to reblog, and also dependent on knowledge in an area where you are an expert and I am not. But I’m reminded of the creationists parading Denton and Behe, and the climate change denialists parading Lindzen



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