Shale Gas and Fracking: The science behind the controversy by Michael Stephenson, Elsevier, 2015. Michael Stephenson is Director of Science and Technology at the British Geological Survey.
Anyone looking for a comprehensive review of the controversies associated with fracking is going to be disappointed by this short book. After having ploughed almost all of its 170 pages I found, near the back, the following sentence:
“I won’t go through all of the contested issues, because the chapters in the book provide a basis to carve out your own analysis looking at some of the main peer reviewed papers”.
So the message is that if you want to make up your mind about shale then go to the peer reviewed literature. The implied message in this, made explicit at times, is that many opponents of the shale gas industry don’t do this and many members of the public rely too heavily on rumour and panicked reports leading to what Michael Stephenson claims is a low quality to the public policy debate. The public policy debate needs to be guided by academic scientists in peer reviewed papers…..like him.
As he writes, towards the end of this book:
“In this book I hope I have shown how a controversial subject can be tackled with science. There are various definitions of science around. One that I like is “…a systemic endeavour that builds and organises knowledge in the form of testable explanation and predictions about the universe.”
“I like the word endeavour because it implies that a lot of science is slow and may be painstaking. I also like the bit about testable explanations and predictions. Most science is a long journey, which sometimes goes in the wrong direction, but this element of testable explanation, usually means it gets back on the right track….If it is properly funded, if the scientists are listened to and if their results are out there for all to see then the public debate is better, and policy and regulation are better. ” (p 145 )
While reading this particular passage, sitting in the library of the British Geological Survey in Keyworth near Nottingham, I had to suppress the urge to blow a raspberry.
A lot of science is slow and painstaking Stephenson tells us, and it sometimes goes off on the wrong direction but don’t worry, with more time it will get back on track.
Well, how much time do we have, Professor Stephenson? Leaving aside for now which side of the issue he would come down on, would Professor Stephenson not agree that the stakes are incredibly high? The stakes are high because they concern whether people are to have their living environment and their health ruined, or not. They are high because they concern whether shale gas contributes to triggering runaway climate change, overshooting 2 degrees above pre-industrial temperatures, or not. So how much time do we have to solve these problems?
The facts are uncertain and in dispute and there is a lot at stake and Professor Stephenson is telling us that the process must be slow and painstaking. Yet the government had already made up its mind by 2012. It had taken all the important decisions about pushing this industry – with people like Stephenson giving it cover. By January of that year Stephenson had already published an article in New Scientist titled “Frack responsibly and risks and quakes are small.”
So if science is slow and needs time for scientists to debate things based on the evidence from peer reviewed articles – how come Mike Stephenson already knew 3 years ago that “responsible fracking” had low risks? What about all the evidence gathering that was so necessary to come to that conclusion?
As it turns out three quarters of the available studies on the impacts of shale gas development were published in the two years 2013 and 2014. The number of peer reviewed studies doubled between 2011 and 2012 and then doubled again between 2012 and 2013 while in 2014 there were at least 154 peer reviewed studies. The bad news for Mike Stephenson is that almost all reveal problems with fracking. Might it be that Mike Stephenson came to a provisional conclusion 3 years ago and assumed that he did not have to change his mind? Or might it be that he has not been keeping pace with the literature since then?
I don’t know the answer to these questions but it seems fair to me to ask. If you are going to profile yourself as an advocate for scientific research and peer reviewed articles deciding policy, after having “raised the quality of public debate”, then it seems to me you ought to regard yourself as also being under corresponding ethical obligations. These include:
(1) not finally deciding before the evidence is in, or at least taking pains to explain that your opinion is provisional and might be revised with more information;
(2) attempting some coverage of all the major controversial issues rather than just choosing a small sample of issues for your review of the peer reviewed literature and then covering other issues in a less thorough way or not mentioning them at all;
(3) making an effort to take in and accurately presenting points of view that are not your own;
(4) staying up to date on the scientific debates in dispute.
In this review I intend to show that Mike Stephenson has not done these things. As already pointed out he wants to say – you must do your own peer review process of the controversial issues. Well, anyone who wants an in depth understanding will indeed have to but it’s a very convenient approach for the author to deal with some issues and then not to deal with the others. A casual reader with little time could easily read this book, and assume that by doing so they have got the gist of the main arguments, and that they do not need to read further. If they did do this it is my contention that they would be left with an extremely misleading impression. Many problems with fracking that are now emerging in peer reviewed articles would remain unknown – out of sight out of mind. They would be unknown unknowns.
Nor do I think that Stephenson has done a very good job of presenting alternative viewpoints – particularly in the debate about climate policy. He relies heavily on an approach to climate policy advocated first of all several years ago by S. Pacala and R. Socolow of Princeton University, the so called “stabilisation wedges” approach. This is an approach, in case you did not know it, that is sponsored by BP. It is also NOT about reducing global emissions but is about keeping emissions “flat” over the next 50 years. It is about stopping emissions growing until such time as the world has developed the capacity for carbon capture and underground storage.  Such a policy would, of course, be another great job creation scheme for geologists for it is they that would have to identify the safe places for underground storage. At the same time the fossil fuel industry, having played the major role in digging or pumping carbon out of the ground would now be able to make big money pumping the CO2 back into the ground.
The problem with this approach of course is that the world does not have time to stabilise emissions according to the agenda of BP. Emissions have to fall and very fast indeed if the world is to have any chance of not overshooting a 2 degree temperature increase over the pre-industrial. Leading climate scientists like those of in the Tyndall Centre are quite clear on this. Scientists like Kevin Anderson of Manchester University had repeatedly made submissions to parliament making this point drawing on the peer reviewed science that they have done. In a blog that Anderson put on this own website in January of this year he explains :
“Shale gas within 2 degrees C carbon budgets. The development of a UK shale gas industry is incompatible with UK’s equitable share of the IPCC’s carbon budget for a “likely” chance of not exceeding the 2 degrees C obligation. This remains the case even if shale gas can be combined with carbon capture and storage (CCS) technologies. The CO2 emissions from gas CCS are anticipated to be 5 to 15 times greater per kWh of electricity generated than are the emissions from either renewable or nuclear. Add to this the timeframe for developing a mature UK shale gas industry and, even with CCS, shale gas can have no appreciable role in the UK energy mix”.
Now let’s turn to the issue, mentioned in the book, of “fugitive emissions”. As Stephenson acknowledges, the real killer for any argument that natural gas is better for the climate than coal is evidence about so-called “fugitive emissions”. This is a phrase used to describe the leakage of natural gas or methane into the atmosphere during the production and distribution of natural gas. Since natural gas is mainly methane and since methane is a very powerful greenhouse gas, much more powerful that CO2, a high level of leakage would completely undermines the case for shale gas. If fugitive emissions are high then the argument for natural gas is lost – if they are low then there is a case that natural gas is a lower carbon energy source (although whether it is low enough, given the need to rapidly reduce emissions, is another question). So what’s the situation and how does Stephenson describe it in this book?
As Stephenson says there are two ways of trying to measure fugitive emissions – the bottom up method, measuring leakage in and through equipment and the top down method from aircraft, towers and so on. The two methods of measurement give very different results and if the airborne measurements are the more accurate ones then the verdict goes against natural gas on climate grounds. So this is a crucial question – and what concerns me here is how well the author tells this particular story and presents the evidence.
In my judgement – he does not do a very good job. He presents just one study about airborne measurement by Scott Miller et al. which does not fit his preferred view and then tries to dissuade the reader about the top down measurements:
“Are these broad brush atmospheric measurements more reliable than the patchy measurements from actual well operations? Perhaps, but can we be sure that the aircraft measurements are attributing methane to the right sources, after all swamps and municipal waste dumps produce methane – as do cattle. And cattle are common in Texas” (p 117)
Later the reader is again leaned on as to how to interpret the balance of the literature. On page 144 we are told
“Now taking the issue of whether shale gas is lower carbon than coal the conclusion of a balance of peer reviewed articles is that it probably is. Although shale gas does come with fugitive emissions, these probably don’t offset the ‘carbon savings’ that you get by using shale gas rather than coal in a power station. But the conclusion is tentative because it does step from a rather small number of measurements that suggest that fugitive emissions aren’t particularly large and does go against one study (Howarth’s group at Cornell University) that suggests large fugitive emissions”.
Note that by this stage in his book the top down airborne emissions measurements have disappeared from Stephenson’s presentation of the issues. No mention of Scott Miller here. Has Scott Miller been dismissed because he and his team might be measuring cattle burps after all?
Cattle that burp propane…and missing studies that don’t make it into this book
When I read this I went off in search of the Scott Miller article and an academic friend easily dug out a few more articles about the airborne measurement of emissions from the academic literature. Surprise surprise – Scott Miller et al were well aware of cattle, municipal waste dumps and other sources of methane. In fact their paper was not just about oil and gas field sources of methane. It was arguing that there is a general underestimate of methane emissions, including from cattle. It was also about tracking down the different sources and in regard to confusing cattle emissions with gas field ones his article says this:
“Texas and Oklahoma were among the top five natural gas producing states in the country in 2007and aircraft observations of alkanes indicate that the natural gas and/or oil industries play a significant role in regional CH4 emissions. Concentrations of propane (C3H8), a tracer of fossil hydrocarbons, are strongly correlated with CH4 at NOAA/DOE aircraft monitoring locations over Texas and Oklahoma (Fig. 5). Correlations are much weaker at other locations in North America ( to 0.64). “
So what is going on here Professor? Do Texas cattle burp propane?
As I wrote earlier, if you’re going to argue for peer reviewed science settling issues then you really are going to have to do a literature search to see if there are other relevant articles. In this case there are. For example, there is an article by Anna Karrion and team in the Geophysical Reserach Letters in 2013 
Their article is titled “Methane emissions estimate from airborne measurements over
a western United States natural gas field”. It was published in August 2013 so there are no excuses for not finding and citing it. The measurements were taken over the Uintah gas field in Utah in February 2012 where 6.2 to 11.7% of production was found to be leaking. This level of methane leakage is a disaster for the climate – and a disaster for the argument of Professor Stephenson too.
But perhaps this was cattle burping? However the Karrion research team did adjust their measurements for cattle and natural seepage. These adjustments were based on a study of methane emissions from free range cattle combined with census data of cattle for this region, available from the US department of Agriculture. Another study of methane seepage was also taken into account. It is interesting to compare the magnitudes. The research team only shaved 2.5% off their measured gas flux to correct for cattle and natural seepage – with the rest of the measurement being oil and gas field related. The other 97.5% of the gas was from the field.
There was no excuse for not mentioning this. In fact there have since been other studies.
I do not know when Stephenson’s book went to press but 6 months before its recent release there was another study by Schneising et al. that used satellite data for the Bakken and Eagle Ford formations. Scientists from Germany, the United Kingdom and the University of Maryland show 10.1% (plus or minus 7.3%) and 9.1% (plus or minus 6.2%) for the Bakken and Eagle Ford formations respectively.
Flaws in the inventory measurement of methane emission rates
To complete that argument let’s look closer now at the sources that Professor Stephenson bases himself on – the studies by MacKay and Stone and by Allen et al at the University of Texas. Here I am relying heavily on free lance researcher Paul Mobbs because he has done a study a critique of MacKay and Stone, which contains a critique of the Allen paper too. Basically Mobbs argues that the figures that MacKay and Stone use for leakage are too low and the figures that they use for gas production are too high. Thus the percentage of gas production leaking is miscalculated . Let’s walk through this argument.
Firstly, Mobbs points out how the inventory method of measurement of leakage that MacKay and Stone use has been challenged. He cites an article in Nature which refers to the Colorado measurements from airplanes plus a new study in press of the Denver–Julesburg Basin conducted with scientists at Picarro, a gas-analyser manufacturer based in Santa Clara, California. The later study relies on carbon isotopes to differentiate between industrial emissions and methane from cows and feedlots, and the preliminary results line up with the earlier Colorado findings .
Mobbs also criticises the Allen paper on leakage referred to by MacKay and Stone and finds it to be flawed. It is a non randomised study of 0.1% of the wells drilled in the USA so cannot be taken as a representative sample.  The companies concerned volunteered themselves for measurement and if they did that it is probably because the companies were reasonable confident that measurements for their installations would be low. It is also relevant to point out, as Mobbs does, that the publisher had to correct the Allen article after initial publication, because the authors had not declared conflicts of interest.
“On the other side of the equation, the figures Mackay and Stone used for gas production per well are too high. Currently there is a great deal of debate over how much gas and oil unconventional wells actually produce . Recent studies suggest that resource estimates need to be downgraded, now that we have sufficient statistical data of what is actually being produced in the field . There is no specific source for Mackay and Stone’s figures, but their modelling assumes levels of gas production which are roughly twice the value determined by the US Geological Survey  and the US Department of Energy .
“The easiest way to explain the flaw in Mackay and Stone’s reasoning is this: The method of calculation was correct. However, they took a figure for the emissions from gas production which may be half what it should be. This was divided by a figure for gas production which was twice as big as it should be. The result was that they produced an estimate for emissions which was one quarter of what it should have been.”
How much production, now and in the future?
It will be noticed here that Mobbs makes reference to a debate about how much oil and gas unconventional wells produce. This leads me to another aspect of Stephenson’s book that needs critical appraisal. A reader will not find any inkling of this debate in the pages of the book. Stephenson uncritically takes the viewpoint of the United States Energy Information Agency (EIA), including its projection of future production. He appears to be unaware that, for some time now, a number of authors have been warning that the shale boom in the USA is a bubble that would burst and that it would all end in tears. There has been what has been called a “battle of the forecasts” but Stephenson makes no mention of it.
Straight from pages one and two Stephenson is telling us that shale gas will provide half of US domestic production before long. Increasing volumes will be exported to Mexico and Canada. Not only that – manufacturing is returning to the USA because of cheap fuels and bulk chemicals and primary fuels in particular are booming. It is all a wonderful success….
…or, alternatively, the kind of hype that is typical of an economic bubble.
So what can we learn from academic studies based on peer review? Here’s what Mason Inman says in that Nature article already cited :
“To provide rigorous and transparent forecasts of shale-gas production, a team of a dozen geoscientists, petroleum engineers and economists at the University of Texas at Austin has spent more than three years on a systematic set of studies of the major shale plays. The research was funded by a US$1.5-million grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation in New York City, and has been appearing gradually in academic journals and conference presentations. That work is the “most authoritative” in this area so far…
If natural-gas prices were to follow the scenario that the EIA used in its 2014 annual report, the Texas team forecasts that production from the big four plays would peak in 2020, and decline from then on. By 2030, these plays would be producing only about half as much as in the EIA’s reference case. Even the agency’s most conservative scenarios seem to be higher than the Texas team’s forecasts…..”
Oh dear – there are the peer reviewed forecasts and there are the assertions of Professor Stephenson. Speaking for myself the academic studies that have been appearing in peer reviewed journals seem more thoroughly researched than the forecasts derived uncritically from the EIA. (5 peer reviewed articles are mentioned in the Nature article).
Bubble economics – in a gold rush, sell shovels
Mike Stephenson has written a book about shale gas but has omitted to mention, perhaps because he did not notice, that most of the US shale oil and gas industry has not actually made any money. In fact it has lost a lot of money. Sure it has produced a lot of oil and gas and that has (probably temporarily) arrested the decline of the oil and gas sector in the USA. Sure this has brought oil and gas prices down – and in the last year it produced a glut that has led to a price crash. Sure, it has been a veritable bonanza for oil and gas equipment and logistics companies like Halliburton, Schlumberger and Baker Hughes. As the saying goes, “in a gold rush – sell shovels”. However, the exploration and production companies have been losing money year after year.
In a study presented to a recent industry forum in Heuston and available on YouTube a consultant called Art Berman gives free cash flow figures for a sample of 40% of US exploration and production companies in this sector. He shows negative cash flow of $13.5 billion in 2013 going up to a negative of $14.26 billion (annualised from 3 quarters) in 2014. As a result debt in the sector has risen from nearly $165 billion in 2013 to $172.5 billion in 2014. 
Note that most of this is before the recent crash in oil and gas prices – a crash produced by a glut in the market. And where did this glut come from? The answer is not from Saudi Arabia or the other producers, but from the shale sector in the USA. If the sector could not produce a profit last year and in 2013 how is it going to now? A number of authors have been arguing for several years that the shale oil and gas boom was a bubble. Was Professor Stephenson unaware of their work?
The fact is, and this is another thing that Stephenson does not discuss – the shale boom in the USA did not occur in an economic vacuum. Ultra- low interest rates brought about by “quantitative easing” after the economic crash of 2007-2008 meant that banks and institutions in the finance sector were looking for somewhere to put their money that would actually make money. There was a “hunt for yield” and a lot of that money went into junk bonds and capital for shale exploration and production companies which were prepared to borrow money at high rates of interest. This was based on their assumption and expectation that, at some point in the future the rising prices of gas and oil would start paying big time for their expensive to finance exploration and production frenzy.
As in every bubble the confidence that it would pay off, if not now, but eventually, has kept the process going….and kept the merchants of hype turning out the “good news” that people like Stephenson have swallowed uncritically.
All of this matters – for it is key to the Stephenson argument that there is a balance of risk and reward and if the shale gas story is not going to last and is economically unsustainable anyway then the rewards will be small or non-existent for the production companies and for consumers. This is not to deny, of course, that some companies will have made a lot of money. As I have said these are the services companies like Halliburton, Schlumberger and Baker Hughes who have “sold the shovels” in this particular “gold rush”. Such subtleties are not to be found in this book and Stephenson writes about risks and rewards without ever reflecting on the fact that those who get the rewards and those who get the risks loaded onto them are different people.
Professor Stephenson as Goldilocks – looking for just the right amount of regulation
If the shale gas boom is not going to last and is unsustainable then there are problems with another part of the Stephenson book – the bit about regulation. On pages 125-126 he opines:
“This book is about risk and reward in shale gas. The reward is jobs and growth – maybe cheap energy. The risk is damage to the environment and human health. In countries where shale gas is being developed how is this balance between risk and reward being struck? The answer is mainly through regulation. Regulation can’t be too stringent such that it completely stifles the ability for a company or a driller to try different techniques – but at the same time it can’t be too lax, such that that it doesn’t completely protect the public and the environment”
It’s all rather like Goldilocks and the porridge that was too hot, the porridge that was too cold and the porridge that was of just the right temperature. But what is lacking in this banal idea of trade-offs is the possibility that there is no such “just right” balance – that the level of regulation that would effectively protect the public would be so costly that it would stifle the industry – whereas the level of regulation that would enable the industry to operate profitably would be so weak that it would be highly dangerous to public and the environment. What is also lacking in this banal presentation of the issues is the possibility that some of the processes are not amenable to regulation anyway. As a peer reviewed guest editorial in the British Medical Journal, which was critically examining a report by Public Health England, puts it :
“…the report incorrectly assumes that many of the reported problems experienced in the US are the result of a poor regulatory environment. This position ignores many of the inherent risks of the industry that no amount of regulation can sufficiently remedy, such as well casing, cement failures and accidental spillage of waste water.”
So tell us this Professor Stephenson – how does one regulate for traffic accidents and accidental spills? You can re-route heavy goods vehicle traffic – but tell us how you can you re-route the exhaust emissions from the large numbers of heavy vehicles or the other equipment? Also, you can regulate but tell us how you can you guarantee that companies will keep to the regulations? We’ve already had experience in Nottinghamshire, where I live, of one drilling company breaching several planning conditions and it was local people who noticed, not the regulatory authorities because they only have one enforcement officer for ALL planning issues in the whole of Nottinghamshire.
If “no amount of regulation” can sufficiently remedy problems of the industry then the argument that risk and reward can be balanced through regulation is purely and simply wrong. Or if I am wrong then it is up to Professor Stephenson to prove it using peer reviewed evidence. In his book he cites a study of a varying amount of regulation in different US states – but that is not engaging with the core issue. Prove that regulation makes enough difference Professor!
In fact I think Professor Stephenson will find that peer reviewed literature is beginning to suggest the opposite of what he wants us to believe. There is evidence that tighter regulations do not have an impact. A recent study from Colorado shows that even with tighter regulations air pollution that is damaging to health has increased. This was because emissions per well improvements were overwhelmed by the increased number of wells. 
What this makes clear is that while Stephenson waves the flag for looking at the scientific evidence in peer research articles there are lots of points in this book where his opinions, for that is what they are, are not backed up by peer reviewed research at all.
The Shale Gas Factory and things “we” must put up and cope with
This is particularly the case in the chapter called “The Shale Gas Factory” where he has his work cut out as an apologist. He is honest enough to acknowledge that a fracked gas field is (in his words) “unpleasant” to live close to, most of all in the drilling phase. He mentions the industrialisation of the countryside, the high volumes of traffic, the enormous size of the trucks, the fragmentation of the countryside into parcels, the tremendous noise, the effect on local wildlife. But his argument that people will have to put up with all of this is not based on peer reviewed science – it is the pleading of a gas industry advocate, pure and simple. For example, he writes:
“But all of these are nuisances that are associated with other industries and oil and gas activities. I don’t mean to minimise them, but they are the sort of things that we can cope with. Trucks can be re-routed; noise can be put up with, land can be reclaimed just like it can after any industrial activity like quarrying.”
I especially liked the “I don’t mean to minimise them, but they are the sort of things we can cope with”. Who is this “we” exactly? His entire book is an exercise in minimising the dangers and unpleasantness.
Note here the assumption that if the problems associated with fracking are the same as problems of the oil and gas industry in general then somehow they don’t matter so much and “we” will just have to be put up with them. All over the world the oil and gas industry works hand in glove with military dictatorships and autocracies and is implicated in human rights abuses because it operates with the assumption that it can enter other people’s space, other environments and the people who live there will have to put up with it. All over the world people are expected to “put up” with damage to their living environment and expected to “cope”.
But people all over the world do not want to put up with the damage done by the oil and gas industry. Which is why, when people start to oppose them the oil and gas companies use their connections in government and the big money that they earn to bribe politicians, hire mercenaries and/or work with military dictators to buy off opposition or repress it violently. For example, when Ken Saro-Wiwa campaigned against environmental devastation caused by Shell and other oil companies in Nigeria he and 8 other leaders of the Ogoni tribe was hanged with the connivance of the oil and gas companies like Shell. Closer to home the Shell to Sea campaign in County Mayo in Ireland shows another community that rejected the assumption that it should just put up with the construction of a natural gas pipeline through its parish. In that case the community formed links with the Ogoni campaigners in Nigeria. 
The oil and gas sector has a culture of its own – it is used to working against opposition. As the film Gaslands II shows, when people in the US started to campaign against fracking they found themselves dealing with people with expertise in counter-insurgency.
Here’s some more to reassure the reader:
“Will these activities be dangerous? They might be. Trucks might spill chemicals, waste tanks might overflow in a stream. But these are industrial installations that engineers are good at managing and have been managing for a long time. In many ways there is no difference from building sites.”
More nuisances that the Professor “does not mean to minimise”
Once again the professor “does not minimise” the dangers. But don’t worry. We are dealing with engineers. They wear hard hats so they must know what they are doing……
But have you got a peer reviewed article to back that up Professor Stephenson? Because here’s some information from a peer reviewed journal called the American Journal of Industrial Medicine from July of last year which actually compares oil and gas field fatalities to that on building sites. The research was into health and safety needs associated with drilling and fracking and was by researchers from the Colorado School of Public Health and the College of Health Sciences at the University of Wyoming. What they found was high injury and mortality rates among gas and oilfield workers. The occupational fatality rate was 2.5 times higher than the construction industry and seven times higher than that for general industry.
Curiously, while the fatality rate was higher than on building sites the injury rates were lower than those of the construction industry. This suggests that injuries were under reported. Again I do not know the reasons for this but I speculate that it is because it is not so easy to hide a death but I suppose, as Professor Stephenson might say, people in the industry have learned to cope and put up with mere injury. Other problems that the researchers found that the workers coped and put up with were crystalline silica levels above occupational health standards as well as particulate matter, benzene, the noise and radiation.
The point I would wish to make at this point is that corresponding to the things that Mike Stephenson thinks “we” have to put up with there are statistics of accident rates, hospital admission rates, deaths. It is possible to see evidence of trends affecting professions working in fields like industrial medicine, health and safety and public health which eventually leads to informal studies and then to peer revewed studies.
After 2006 when the Shale boom hit the Bakken region in the USA, the Mercy Medical Centre in Williston and the Tioga Medical Centre in neighbouring Williams County saw their ambulance runs increase by more than 200 per cent. Tioga’s hospital saw a staggering leap in trauma patients by 1,125 percent. Mercy had a 173% percent increase.” Drugs (including overdoses of prescription drugs, methamphetamines, and heroin) explain many of the cases, with oilfield related injuries such as “finger crushed or cut off, extremity injuries, burns and pressure burns” accounting for 50% of the cases in one of the region’s hospital emergency rooms. 
Why is this such a dangerous and brutalised industry?
Now if you are a Professor Stephenson this is something to be put up with but other people might ask how it comes about that alcoholism, drug addiction, sexually transmitted diseases, violence and accidents suddenly shoot up when the oil and gas industry comes to town?
Might it be that the industry has a largely mobile workforce that arrives and has no attachment and hence no loyalty to the people and the areas that it moves through? Might it be that the workforce puts up with the noise, the fumes, the accidents and so becomes brutalised and indifferent to the people who live in the places that they rip apart and then move away from? Might also be that a highly mobile and partly international workforce who are dislocated like this, permanently transient, are desensitized emotionally and that that is what makes them turn to drugs and alcohol? It might be that this is an industry whose culture desensitises them and then they expect local people to put up with the destruction of the places that they move through? (These are my hypotheses for peer reviewed research with a workforce with undeniably high rates of drug, alcohol and violence problems).
On the other side of this process the people who have to put up with the industry, feel disempowered by the likes of Professor Stephenson, the politicians and his friends. They become understandably stressed and anxious and their mental health suffers – particularly when it is expected that these “are the sort of things that we can cope with”. Speak for yourself Professor.
Some would say “home is where the heart is” but, for Stephenson, a loyal advocate for the industry that always just moving through on route to the next oil and gas field, an industry from which so much money for the BGS comes, it’s all a matter of personal preferences.
Here he is, “not minimising” again:
“As for industrialisation of the landscape and the shale gas factor, there’s no doubt that for a period of time that could last for as much as a year there will be intense industrial activity. After this, during production, activity is less intense and obtrusive and after abandonment there is no activity. Whether you think that the landscape is scarred and tainted with industry at this stage depends on your point of view. It’s true that access roads will still divide up the land after the wells are plugged and clearings in the woods will still be visible for a long time after. Some will say that’s what our landscape looks like already – a particular pattern of past uses of the land. Others will say it’s unacceptable” ( p108)
Well we know what Stephenson would say….unless perhaps if it was about where he lives, I don’t know. What I do know is that this has nothing to do with peer reviewed science. What I also know is if this sort of thing happens it leaves measurable scars on the people and the places that live there and this turns up eventually in statistics and then in peer reviewed articles about health.
As the Concerned Health Professionals of New York state “ public health problems associated with drilling and fracking are becoming increasingly apparent. Documented indicators variously include increased rates of hospitalisation, ambulance calls, emergency room visits, self reported respiratory and skin problems, motor vehicle fatalities, trauma, drug abuse, infant mortality, congenital heart defects and low birth weights”. (                )
Note the infant mortality rates. Young children are being killed by this industry.
The case for the precautionary principle – criteria for where ‘enough is enough’
But let’s continue. If you are going to use peer reviewed articles to reveal what the issues are then it assumes that the industry will be able to go ahead anyway because you can only learn about the issues in real life by looking at the retrospective record. This indeed is the assumption of Stephenson’s book. You will not find in it any criteria for deciding that the health or environmental damage has exceeded some threshold level where Professor Stephenson thinks the government should cry “enough – this industry must be closed down as too dangerous to public health and/or too dangerous to local environments and/or too dangerous to the climate system.” Why Professor?
Of course there is a paradox in all of this – you can only gather evidence of whether something is safe or not, or can be made to be safe or not, through the actual doing. We can only say something like this in retrospect. You can only test your explanations and predictions about fracking by doing fracking – and if the doing of fracking shows the explanations and predictions that the risks are low to be wrong then it advances your science all right but, in the meantime, environments may have been damaged, you may have hurt a lot of people and you may have set off runaway climate change. Great for the science – but too late if you have created an industry, invested a lot of capital in it, built the gas fired power stations to burn the gas….and triggered a runaway process.
That, of course, is the case for the precautionary principle. While I read this book I looked out for mention of the precautionary principle and, towards the end looked in the index to check I had not missed it somewhere. It’s not in this book. Why not? Of course the precautionary principle is a damage avoidance strategy to be used to prevent things happening that might be very dangerous before the full evidence is in. It is supposed to be embodied in EU policy but in practice the powers that be and industrial interests never think in these terms because it restricts their freedom of action. Their attitude is – so what if there are risks if the industry and government can make other people and places carry these risks? Those are the sort of things that “we” – in other words those unlucky enough to be living in a gas field “can cope with”.
Of course in this case we in the UK are lucky because we have the experience right across the USA to help us decide whether to ban fracking or not. All the evidence is still not in – but we have a fair amount to go on. In this respect books like those of Mike Stephenson, which are powerfully misleading to the public and politicians can do a lot of damage. It is true that at £70 a copy not many people will read it but it will help to cover the backs of the decision makers and gives the appearance that they are following the evidence of their scientific advisers. No doubt it will also help the BGS show loyalty to its friends in the oil and gas industry. This will help to keep pulling in the money and contracts which pay for such a very large percentage of what the BGS does. It will keep the government sweet too.
Conclusion – the central idea of this book is banal and naive
In conclusion, the central theme of this book – that “science can be allowed to decide through peer reviewed debate” is at best innocent in the naive sense, pious and misleading. It evokes a world where issues are decided on by politicians and the public guided by neutral scientists who deliver the facts. But this fairy tale for the children begs all the difficult questions.
Firstly it takes time for the facts to emerge and, in the meantime there is uncertainty about how dangerous the industry is or is not. To find out what the situation is you have to let the industry proceed in at least one or more places but what you might find is that it does a lot of damage. So you find out when the damage has already been done – when, for those places it is too late.
Secondly what you are likely to find out if and when there is damage done is that a lot of resources get put into a cover up and massaging the truth. The clash of ideas is inevitably “polluted” by public relations strategies used particularly by the most powerful actors to influence which interpretations are presented and which get noticed in public debate.
Thirdly, the way issues are framed makes a huge amount of difference and it is possible to choose some issues and some papers about them and ignore or dismiss others in a way that is incredibly misleading.
Fourthly generous resources are available to present and research some avenues of inquiry while not being available at all to investigate others. The idea that there is ‘no evidence’ for a problem can be presented as proof that the problem does not exist whereas it may be proof that no resources have been made available to look.
Fifthly, narratives of risk and reward can ignore the way that some people might be rewarded while everyone else, including future generations, can lose badly. This can lead to a further paradox – the winners in public policy debates may be the people with the greater resources. But their greater resources may be because they are the beneficiaries of a process that others suffer from, and are impoverished by. There is then an asymmetry in the resources different groups bring to the public policy debate as well as an asymmetry in access to the “corridors of power” and the detailed policy making process.
In the end this leads to a situation in which the people who write the policy are the people who benefit from the policy – this includes the frackademics of course who get lots of money and are feted with lots of attention by high ranking politicians. Then places like the British Geological Survey keep raking in the money and the research grants – though quite why a geological institution should be a lead agency to research multi-dimensional issues of public health and environmental damage is itself debatable. Sure they have a role – but as a lead agency? Might it be because they are already closely tied into “collegiate” relations with the oil and gas industry so can be trusted by a government and officialdom that has also been co-opted by the industry? As Stephenson puts it:
“…if its properly funded, if the scientists are listened to and if their results are out for all to see then the public debate is better and policy and regulation are better…” (p145)
Yes, he would say that wouldn’t he?
Most, though not all, of the literature referred to in this review are taken from the compilation of the concerned health professionals of New York which is downloadable at www.concernedhealthny.org
You can see Paul Mobbs’ scalable diagram of the political, academic, PR and industry connection which Stephenson is in at http://www.fraw.org.uk/mei/archive/fracktured_accountability/frackogram_2015.svg.
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(7) http://www.fraw.org.uk/files/extreme/decc_2013-2.pdf ; http://www.theecologist.org/News/news_analysis/2417288/fracking_as_bad_for_climate_as_coal_uks_dodgy_dossier_exposed.html ;
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 “Variability of Distributions of Well-Scale Estimated Ultimate Recovery for Continuous (Unconventional) Oil and Gas Resources in the United States”, Open-File Report 2012-1118, U.S. Geological Survey, U.S. Department of the Interior, June 2012 – http://www.fraw.org.uk/files/extreme/usgs_eur_2012.pdf
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