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Thursday, 29 August 2013

Pimbys have been spotted in Balcombe?

It was bound to happen.

Sixty of the residents of Balcombe are protesting against the shale gas protestors. After weeks of leaving the protestors their right to peaceful protest, some Balcombe residents have had enough. 

In an anonymous letter they express their "strong disapproval of the recent & continuing protests", while not believing that "exploratory drilling or properly regulated further exploitation will unduly damage our environment".

Are these people a rare sighting of that friendly, timid but stubborn bird, the PIMBY, with its mellifluous call which sounds something like "Please in my back yard"! 

Cynics have said that, with the promise of parish councils benefitting in cash from drilling and production, the PIMBY is thinking about feathering its nest. 

I prefer the simple explanation that common sense, as exemplified by the Balcombe Parish Council's clear evidence-based report on fracking, will win out in the end for the good of all. Farmers that have been shown around oil and gas production facilities in Canada return home as converts; not because they have been bribed with money, but because they have been shown it as it actually is, and not how extreme shalegasophobes paint it.

Importantly the authors warn "Let other communities be warned that our hitherto friendly village has suffered not only from the protesting crowds but prior to that from the intemperance of self-appointed  “ activists”, unfair abuse of our Parish Council, politicisation of the village fete, unsightly banners and, above all, spreading of unwarranted fear.

How many other parish councils will be reading this with trepidation, I wonder?

The authors' plea has gone out for "the Government, Local Authorities & the Industry to provide clear and easily understood  information on the rationale for developing a British shale oil & gas industry".

We, of course, try to do that in this blog, and all concerned academics ought to be part of the dissemination of such understanding. In particular, the call for public disclosure of data to the Prime Minister, and its follow-up, and in the Issues raised and discussed in the blog (e.g., earthquakes).

Issue 12: Fracking pours thousands of gallons of acid into the earth

Yes. This is completely true. The acid is designed to react with the rock in order to make it easier to create fractures. The acid is completely used up in that process. Problems would arise only if there were a spillage of the acid at the surface or near the aquifer.

Hydrochloric Acid

It is often said that thousands of gallons of hydrochloric acid are in fracking fluid. This is sometimes the case. If the shale that is to undergo hydraulic fracturing contains a reasonable proportion of calcite or dolomite, it is very likely that hydrochloric acid will be used to help the fracking process. Indeed it is sometimes used without fracking.

Hydrochloric acid  (HCl), the acid found in your stomach, reacts with the calcite  (CaCO3) in limestone to give Calcium Chloride (CaCl2), water and CO2. The breakdown of calcite to calcium chloride promotes fracture formation and the CO2 adds to the pressure of fluid in the fractures. Although a lot of HCl is put down-hole, because there is so much calcite, all of the acid is turned to water and CO2.

The process is similar if there is dolomite in the rocks, with water and CO2 being produced, but this time with CaCl2 and MgCl2

Hydrochloric acid is usually used in a 15% by weight solution. In this form, 5000 litres of HCl will react fully with 1.1 tonnes of calcite, which is about 0.4 m3 of that mineral. However, the well is surrounded by millions of cubic metres of calcite containing rock. Hence, although the acid volumes seem large, they are actually quite small compared to the rock's ability to neutralise it, and the acid is completely used up in the process.

Does that mean its safe?

Largely, Yes. All the acid reacts to form water and CO2, which stay in the reservoir or are recouped in the flow-back fluid.

However, there is a small chance that some of the initial acid might be involved in a surface spill. Rigorous procedures should be put in place to avoid this, and UK regulations are already in place. However, if a spill occurs it is unlikely to affect a large area because soil is extremely good at buffering acids.

Other Acids

In fact hydrochloric acid is not the only acid to be used in the acidification during hydraulic fracturing. 

Other acids include Acetic acid (CH3COOH, vinegar, 10%), Formic acid (HCOOH), Hydrofluoric acid (HF, 3% usually with HCl) and sulphamic acid (H3NSO3).

The first two are relatively mild and tend not to corrode steels, aluminium or chrome plate at well temperatures and pressures. 

By contrast, hydrofluoric acid is extremely dangerous and can eat glass, cause flesh burns that are painless and extreme, and interact with calcium in the blood leading to cardiac arrest. It is one of the most nasty chemicals of which I know. We impregnate rocks with epoxy and then place them in HF for the acid to eat the rock away leaving the epoxy showing where the pores are and how interconnected they are. Hydrofluoric acid reacts very quickly and should not be used in limestones, but only in sandstones. In fact it is hardly ever used in Europe.

Sulphamic acid is probably better for the environment because it can be brought to the well-head in a powder form, which reduces the liklihood of surface spills. However, it is only about a third as effective as hydrochloric acid (volume per volume) and is correspondingly more expensive to use.

In summary, acid (usually hydrochloric) is part of the fracking mix. However, it poses no danger to the environment because it is all used up in the process of making the fractures. The only slight concern is for surface spills, which are rare and fully covered by UK regulations,.

Wednesday, 28 August 2013

Wind, shale gas, HS2, badgers and the Aarhus Treaty

(28th August 2013) According to The Independent:

"The United Nations Economic Commission Europe has declared that the UK flouted Article 7 of the Aarhus Convention, which requires full and effective public participation on all environmental issues and demands that citizens are given the right to participate in the process."

The Aarhus Convention (in full here in English, in full here in many other languages) aims in its 22 Articles 

" contribute to the protection of the right of every person of present and future generations to live in an environment adequate to his or her health and well-being, each Party shall guarantee the rights of access to information, public participation in decision-making, and access to justice in environmental matters in accordance with the provisions of this Convention."

It is becoming clear that the UK government has not ensured that every person has been given access to information about wind farms or been able to partcipate in the decision-making process from an environmental point of view. We will see what impact the ruling has.

The big question is whether the Aarhus Convention applies to other current environmental issues.

Shale gas 

The Convention does not explicitly cover the production of oil or gas (See Annex 1 of The Convention), which is too much of an oversight to be other than deliberate. It does, however cover oil and gas refineries and installations for gasification and liquefaction. It may cover those plants which gather shale gas together before pushing into a gas pipe network.

However, The Convention does cover groundwater abstraction where the annual volume of water abstracted is equivalent to or exceeds 10 million cubic metres and also covers pipelines for the transport of gas, oil or chemicals with a diameter of more than 800 mm and a length of more than 40 km.

Moreover, The Convention does state (Annex 1, Paragraph 20) that any activity not covered by paragraphs those activities that are mentioned explicitly in Annex 1, but where public participation is provided for under an environmental impact assessment procedure in accordance with national legislation, fall also under the Aarhus Convention.


The Convention covers explicitly "Construction of lines for long-distance railway traffic".


Unfortunately for badgers, not only has The Convention nothing to say about the management of wildlife, it contains an exclusion for short-term research and development under which current badger culling would probably fall.

In summary, we have a UN Convention, to which the UK is fully signed-up, that guarantees "rights of access to information, public participation in decision-making, and access to justice in environmental matters".  

In my view that means plentiful, accessible and factually accurate data and interpretation backed-up by scientific research, together with procedures to ensure public participation. This goes further than the recent call for public disclosure on shale gas developments that was made to the Prime Minister and its follow-up.

Tuesday, 27 August 2013

Do shale gas companies floccinaucinihilipilificate?

Floccinaucinihilipilification - the act of deliberately minimising the importance of something, is the longest non-technical word in the English language, beating antidisestablihmentarianism by one letter.

It is also what oil and gas companies are doing with shale gas and fracking. They are playing down perceived risks.

Most people will not take the companies seriously until they start taking the responsibility to address the risks honestly and to take ownership of them.

Trust will only come if we believe that risks are being managed well rather than being played-down, and where companies have enough to lose if there is a mistake.

Perhaps the Prime Minister ought to draft laws ensuring that companies involved in shale gas exploration and production have to arrange for a public bond as security for the environment.

Risk, shale gas and fracking

The risks involved in hydraulically fracturing wells are probably small, and certainly difficult to pin down.

It is certain that there is the potential for gas producers to damage the environment and human health, but we do not know how great. Earth science academics, like myself, understand the subsurface well enough to know that some of the threats are truly negligible, while life scientists point out that our ground and surface waters and surface habitats are tremendously fragile. Oddly, not much is heard from engineers!

The big question has recently been stated by John Kemp at Reuters  -

"Should oil and gas producers be allowed to hydraulically fracture wells even if there is a small but hard-to-quantify risk to the environment, property and human life?"
  • The UK government has said YES for energy security and the greater good of all.
  • Most environmentalists have said NO, based on distrust of commercial interests backed-up by often unsubstantiated data from the USA, where a totally different E&P regime exists.
  • Local residents have said NO - that is the vocal one's have, but increasingly we hear of the silent ones that quietly support shale gas.
  • Most journalists are behaving in an unbiased fashion, though one suspects that they are more interested in the social tension than the actual outcome - a bit like watching King Lear for the hundredth time.
  • Some oil and gas companies have said YES, but many have said NO, regarding shale gas as too risky, but from an economic point of view.
  • Academics have tried to pull the extreme views towards the middle ground where uncertainty is recognized and rationality derives from evidence. Unfortunately, in doing so, they have become stretched both ways, as if by bulls. This is not a happy or dignified position for the academic who only seeks reasonable debate.

Photograph modified from original by Lin Chun-Chung

There are worries that risks exist to ground-water, surface water, and ecosystems, or might cause air pollution, earthquakes, subsidence, massive release of  methane as a potent GHG, as well as cause nuissance by increasing traffic and industrial noise, or bring radioactive minerals to the surface, or by attracting protestors themselves, who may also be disruptive.

As John Kemp puts it -

"For their part, oil and gas producers insist all energy production is associated with some level of risk but fracturing has a good safety record and fears about it are exaggerated."

The problem is that no matter how small, there are perceived risks with all of these issues, and, importantly, these are risks that most people do not see the industry taking on responsibly.

The general population will not trust the E&P companies until they stop mindlessly minimizing the risks, but addressing them honestly, and putting themselves clearly in the position where the general public can see that the company will be in financial straits if anything goes wrong.

Perhaps we need large E&P bonds from companies before they are allowed to explore and produce from gas shales?

Monday, 26 August 2013

American raccoons protest in support of British Badgers

Latest photographs from the USA and Canada are showing widespread support for the British Badger from the North American Raccoon.

A spokesraccoon for the Alberta Raccoons Support Europe, which does not seem to have an acronym, said yesterday "Britain without Badgers will be over-run by the wild-wooders, and Toad Hall will be in danger once more."

While a leader of the Badger community told us privately that he was not in a pensive mood, but just thinking. He added 

"TB, or not TB, that is the question:
Whether 'tis Nobler in the mind to suffer
The poison and ordnance of outrageous farmers,
Or to argue cogently against a Government of idiots,
And by opposing end them."

Methane, climate change, cows and badgers

"Methane emission from ruminant livestock is currently estimated to be around 100 million tonnes of methane each year and, after rice agriculture, represents the biggest man-made methane source."

Badgers produce tiny amounts of methane by comparison.

Maybe we should save the badgers and exterminate the cows for the good of climate change?

Follow-up to Letter to the Prime Minister

Several points have been thrown-up in response to my suggestion that we should have a factual clearing-house for data in order to allow us to judge the dangers to the environment and health which shale gas exploitation has the potential to cause.  

Data, Interpretation and Impact Mike Jones (@GroundWaterMike)and others suggested that there is more of a need for "interpretation and consolidation to give clear articulation of risk (and) to inform". I thoroughly agree that interpretation of impact and its clear communication is of the highest importance. However, there is a plethora of opinions out there ranging from the extreme shalegasophobe to the greedy commercial enterprise. Most people, governmental representatives, journalists and companies occupy some part of the middle ground. Who to trust when factual data is scarce or locked-away in company reports or academic journals? People currently lack, and desperately need, access to data so they can check the interpretations and decide which are somewhat over-egging the pudding and which to trust. Nobody seems to care about providing the general population with real information; the general population is constantly being underestimated. Well, at the end of the day, it will be the general population that has the best balanced view and will leaver that view politically. As for the interpreters and opinionators (of whom I am one), what none of them have is they also have no access to plenty of incontravertible data regarding shale gas and fracking. That means their interpretations have to be made in a mist of uncertainty. They would also benefit from a set of high quality data, especially as they would be able to refer to data that anyone could access at the click of a mouse.  

Accessibility Whatever engine that is used to provide the data should be as easy to use as possible. This has not been the traditional strength of governments, but is the strength of some software companies.  

Who would control the database All data required for regulatory processes as well as monitoring and testing data should be available. There should be a group containing representatives from government, academia, industry, protest groups and the general public overseeing the accuracy and clarity of the data. It must be independent and would probably benefit from being managed by a publishing company.  

Timeliness The data we have currently is rubbish. The USA is only now beginning to gather good scientific data. A process which has been impeded by the lack of regulation, secrecy and well-entrenched lobbying groups. However, preliminary data on health from Pennsylvania is coming in and the quality of groundwater studies is increasing. There is very little data available for the UK precisely because we have done little high volume fracking. However, that puts us in an extremely good position to start with a proper plan for making all data accessible. Already companies such as Cuadrilla have shown openness in having pre-tests carried out that will allow post-drilling and post-fracking tests to be compared with a back-ground level. These data are already available publicly. We need to ensure that there is more of the same for every site. The world is waking up to shale gas (e.g., Israel, the Netherlands, South Africa). The UK ought to be at the forefront of showing how it can be done safely and responsibly for the good of all.

Saturday, 24 August 2013

Letter to the Prime Minister: Public disclosure on shale gas

Dear Mr. Cameron MP

So far there has been no production from hydraulically fractured shale gas wells in the UK. That will change in the next few years. I would strongly recommend that the UK government institutes an information website for the population of the UK to use. The website should include:

  1. Searchable well locations
  2. Well parameters (depth, geology, casing and cement plans, number of laterally and reach etc.)
  3. Pre-drilling ground and surface water test results, and air test results.
  4. Well integrity results.
  5. Post-drilling and post-fracking ground and surface water test results, and air test results.
  6. drilling and fracking fluid recipes and links to the materials data sheets for each component.
  7. Summary of microseismic monitoring of the fracking process.
  8. Summary inspection reports.
  9. Links to regulations, license applications and a guide to whether each well has fulfilled its regulatory requirements
 I feel strongly that, if shale gas is to be a success in the UK, it must happen in a transparent manner. Information will help build trust.

Some companies provide some of this information already, but it is important that the information is readlily available to all for the sake of transparency and due diligence. are developing something similar for the USA.

We have the potential of doing something better as we are at the start of our developments. It would be a way of letting the UK lead Europe in the responsible development of this important resource.

Yours sincerely,

Prof. Paul W.J. Glover

Professor of Petrophysics

University of Leeds, UK

Friday, 23 August 2013

Did the oil industry save the whale?

The Brooklyn Daily Eagle for December 15, 1902 carried an article about whaling and its decline. One of the quotes from it states:

And here lies the prime cause for the decline of the whaling of the whaling business; the gradual decrease of demand for whale oil as other oils came into more general use, and also as whales became more scarce. … The whalers killed "the goose that laid the golden egg" when they pursued the whale with 800 ships until he retreated for safety beyond the reach of their harpoons.”

Oil wells have been drilled since at least 347 AD in China. These wells had depths of up to approximately 240 m (800 feet) and were drilled using bamboo poles. The ancient records of China and Japan are said to contain many allusions to the use of natural gas for lighting and heating.

However, the first ‘commercial’ well is generally considered to have been drilled in 1859 in the USA by Edwin Drake. Within ten years production had risen from 2000 barrels to 4.12 million barrels, and by 1906 126.5 million barrels had been produced.

The new oil filled almost all of the uses once filled by whale oil.

It may be said that the rapid development of the oil industry in the USA between 1859 and 1806 saved the whale just in time. Without the new source of oil, the whale would have surely been hunted to extinction, rather than the small current stocks that are now recovering fairly robustly.

It is well known that overexploitation by the whaling industry led to serious declines in many of the world’s populations of whales, although thankfully no species was brought to extinction and many are now in the process of recovering, although not all.”

The IWC makes the cause of the whales' decline explicit, and goes on to say that:

In fact only two species of large whales can be considered in danger of extinction, the North Pacific right whale and the North Atlantic right whale, both of which were severely depleted by pre-20th century whaling.”

The irony is clear. When it comes to saving the whale the prize goes to the early American oil industry, and we should recognise it publicly.

The remaining whales, of course, are under continuing pressure from the modern world and Save the Whales the IWC and other organisations continue to do a sterling job.

A Fairy Story: The little girl and the marvellous liquid

Once upon a time there was a land which was very rich.

It had a marvellous liquid from which the people could make millions of different things. Some of the things were small but very important because they helped keep the people well and cured their illnesses. 

Other things that were made from the marvellous liquid helped the people move from city to city, or talk to one another, or teach their children. The things also helped make their food, go on holiday, or entertained them, making them laugh. Very often the useful things that were made with the liquid could not be made from anything else.

The marvellous liquid could also be burned to keep warm in the winter, or to propel carts so the people could move around. It was a truly wonderful liquid.

And so the people lived long, happy and fulfilling lives, and began to take the marvellous liquid for granted. They had parties in their gardens under the waxing moon and even burned the marvellous liquid to take the chill out of the air while they arranged their deck-chairs.

The trouble was that the marvellous liquid was running out. Everyone in the land knew it was running out, but no one wanted to think about it. The people were so happy with their interesting and useful things that they imagined the marvellous liquid would last forever. They were so dependent on the things that were made from the marvellous liquid that they could not think of a life without them; it frightened them too much, so they put it out of their minds.

And the people kept on consuming the marvellous liquid, especially by burning it in their houses and carts. 

And the reserves of the marvellous liquid got lower and lower and lower.

Then one day, somewhere in the very back of a small house, in a tiny street of one of the most minor towns of that land, a little girl called Mantissa was crying. She had just broken her favourite toy, which like all toys in the land had been made from the marvellous liquid. Her mother warned her that they could not replace the toy because the marvellous liquid was so rare now, that it was extremely expensive.

So the little girl said:

If the marvellous liquid is so useful for making so many different, necessary and useful things, why do we waste it by burning it in our homes and carts when we could burn something else instead?

So her mother went to the Mayor and said:

Why are we wasting the marvellous liquid by burning it, when we could burn other things instead?

So the Mayor went to the minister of state and said:

Why not burn other things to keep us warm and to power our carts so we can conserve our marvellous liquid for making all those things upon which our life depends?

And the Minister of State, well she went to the king, who thought it was a really good idea He discussed it with his plants (because he found that they gave good advice), and then passed it to the Prime Minister to do something.

And so all the homes and carts in the land were converted to run on gas, and no longer was the marvellous liquid wasted anymore by simply being burned.

But of course there was so little of the marvellous liquid left by then, that it was a real shame. There were no more toys made out of it, but that did not matter because there was just enough left to keep the people well and cure their illnesses.

Travel became slower and rarer and the people remembered how to write and sent letters to each other again instead. The people had holidays at home, taught their children in the traditional way and grew their food locally. Oh, and by the way, they entertained themselves, and laughed just as much as they ever did.

And they all lived pragmatically ever after.

Thursday, 22 August 2013

Opinion: The Two Minute Rule

In response to my last posting some have said that they are not addicts to oil and gas. With, respect, this is twaddle - we are all addicts. Without oil and gas we would be no better off than a primitive tribe.

There would be no transport, no health service, no communications. Every article of modern life would be missing, radically different, much more expensive and difficult to obtain. Our life would be rural rather than urban, and there would be no aspiration to equality and liberty, merely to survival.

Is this harsh? Perhaps. But be careful before one signs up to the renewables mantra. It will not arrive for 100 years and depends upon rare earth elements such as gallium and neodymium that produce toxic and radioactive waste every bit as dangerous for the environment as what renewables are supposed to be replacing.

I could list all those things that require oil or gas to make or transport, but that would be a very long and boring list.

Instead, try the TWO MINUTE TEST - Stop yourself every two minutes and write down the first thing that you see. I will guarantee that it will be made from oil or gas or depend upon it in some way (transport, manufacturing tools etc.).

Try it for one hour (30 items) - it gives a perspective that is missing in our modern urban lives - then decide what you can do without, and recycle it.

(Please send your Two Minute Test lists of 30 items to and I will collate and analyse the data.)