An open letter to Scotland’s Green Party: this will not do

Fracking

From poster for Prof Shipton’s talk (see below)

I write as a scientist, with strong Green sympathies, who has been warning against the dangers of global warming for decades, and has published on the subject. I am impressed that you, alone among political parties, are aware that growth-based policies are unsustainable if they imply increasing exploitation of limited resources, and that the only purpose of growth, and economic policy in general, is to increase well-being.

 I am, however, dismayed that you say: “Scotland can ban fracking once and for all. The scientific evidence is compelling” [your emphasis]

This is not what I hear from the Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering. Nor is it what I heard (at Glasgow Skeptics in the Pub) from an acknowledged local expert, Zoe Shipton, Professor of Geological Engineering in the Department of Civil Engineering at Strathclyde University, who was involved in drafting this report.

Environmental regulation in Scotland (and indeed in the rest of what we still call the United Kingdom) is much tighter than it is in the US, and so it should be. If you think that, nonetheless, regulation is inadequate, you should be arguing about the specifics, and would attract widespread public attention by doing so. If you are arguing that we should not be fracking because fracked gas is a fossil fuel, I would remind you that per unit of energy, gas generates considerably less CO2 than coal, or even North Sea oil. Thus refraining from fracking means more CO2, not less. If you can produce a policy that would leave us completely free from fossil fuel use by the time that fracking would have paid off, I would be delighted to learn of it.

Meantime, unless you can produce evidence for your claim that there is compelling [sic] scientific evidence for a ban on fracking, I will be forced much against my will to the melancholy conclusion that you are not interested in distinguishing between genuine science-based policy-making, and the greenwash of anti-scientific Luddism.

This is an expanded version of a message sent to the Scottish Green Party, in response to their campaign materials

Appendix: key findings, verbatim and complete, from Royal Society Final report on shale gas extraction

“The key findings of this review were:

  • The health, safety and environmental risks can be managed effectively in the UK. Operational best practices must be implemented and enforced through strong regulation.
  • Fracture propagation is an unlikely cause of contamination. The risk of fractures propagating to reach overlying aquifers is very low provided that shale gas extraction takes place at depths of many hundreds of metres or several kilometres. Even if fractures reached overlying aquifers, the necessary pressure conditions for contaminants to flow are very unlikely to be met given the UK’s shale gas hydrogeological environments.
  • Well integrity is the highest priority. More likely causes of possible contamination include faulty wells. The UK’s unique well examination scheme was set up so that independent, specialist experts could review the design of every offshore well. This scheme must be made fit for purpose for onshore activities.
  • Robust monitoring is vital. Monitoring should be carried out before, during and after shale gas operations to detect methane and other contaminants in groundwater and potential leakages of methane and other gases into the atmosphere.
  • An Environmental Risk Assessment (ERA) should be mandatory. Every shale gas operation should assess risks across the entire lifecycle of operations, from water use through to the disposal of wastes and the abandonment of wells.
  • Seismic risks are low. Seismicity should be included in the ERA.Seismicity induced by hydraulic fracturing is likely to be of smaller magnitude than the UK’s largest natural seismic events and those induced by coal mining
  • Water requirements can be managed sustainably. Water use is already regulated by the Environment Agency. Integrated operational practices, such as recycling and reusing wastewaters where possible, would help to minimise water requirements further. Options for disposing of wastes should be planned from the outset. Should any onshore disposal wells be necessary in the UK, their construction, regulation and siting would need further consideration.
  • Regulation must be fit for purpose. Attention must be paid to the way in which risks scale up should a future shale gas industry develop nationwide. Regulatory co-ordination and capacity must be maintained.
  • Policymaking would benefit from further research. The carbon footprint of shale gas extraction needs further research. Further benefit would also be derived from research into the public acceptability of shale gas extraction and use in the context of the UK’s energy, climate and economic policies.”

About Paul Braterman

Science writer, former chemistry professor; committee member British Centre for Science Education; board member and science adviser Scottish Secular Society; former member editorial board, Origins of Life, and associate, NASA Astrobiology Insitute; first popsci book, From Stars to Stalagmites 2012

Posted on February 18, 2016, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 14 Comments.

  1. The simple fact of the matter is that if we burn all the fossil fuels that we currently know about, life on the planet as we know it will be catastrophically compromised. There is scientific consensus on this, as you no doubt know better than most. Fracking is about discovering new fossil fuels. How anyone with even an inkling of understanding of climate science can support the exploration – using any methods whatsoever – for new sources of fossil fuels, is a source of some confusion to me.

    The arguments about its safety are a diversion. I think the Greens are right on this one.

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    • If the fuel found by fracking would be added to what is otherwise being burnt, your argument would stand. But the case for fracking is that the natural gas can successfully compete with coal (or indeed oil), economically as well as environmentally, meaning less CO2

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  2. Seems I can’t reply to a reply here Paul. I’m at http://www.talkingmince.wordpress.com

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  3. Thank you for this Paul, seems there are many of us frustrated by the lack of detail.

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  4. As someone who has been involved in drilling for ten years here are my thoughts. You’re assuming that all the compliance you laid out will be followed. Anyone who works in the oil industry can tell you that corners are cut all the time. Regulation is a box ticking exercise and oil companies are experts at finding ways to tick the boxes despite the fact that operations are not safe. It’s all about saving money, especially in the current climate.

    An accident is never one thing going wrong. Most of the time it requires ten things to go wrong. If you cut corners in everything eventually all ten things will go wrong at once.

    Risk assessment is all about likelihood and severity. If you drill in the central belt the severity of any accident is going to be high. Oil companies simply cannot be trusted to reduce the likelihood to a low enough level to make things af e enough to proceed.

    Liked by 1 person

    • This is the level of discussion that we need; can we enforce regulations that bring risk levels (always present in major activities) down to tolerable levels. But the Greens instead give us a blanket policy based on unspecified science, and contrary to the best scientific advice that I could find.

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      • I think that all sides are guilty of placing too much emphasis on scientific evidence from people who get their information second hand and not enough on the opinions of people who work in the industry. I’ve worked with people who are involved in fracking and they think it’s crazy to do it in densely populated areas.

        The problem is that it is difficult for people who work in the industry to speak out publicly. Being a whistle blower has never been a good career choice.

        However, you are right. The Greens have never been great at getting their message across. I find that I often agree with their policies but cringe when I hear them arguing for them.

        Liked by 1 person

    • Hello John, I hope I don’t come across as rude here, but your comment stands out as something I think isn’t being discussed enough. Because of my complete frustration with the lack of expert detail being given and Patrick Harvey’s response to me on Twitter I started a blog. I’m wondering if you or anyone you know from the industry might be willing to put their thoughts / experience across? At the moment Ian Cowan an environmental lawyer is writing his second post for it from his legal knowledge standpoint. It would be great to have more people speaking from different angels of expertise.

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  5. Did you submit this to a national newspaper for publication?

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  6. Reblogged this on Peddling and Scaling God and Darwin and commented:
    An excellent blog by a research chemist

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  7. Good stuff. This should help to change everything. I cannot disagree with anything you say.

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