Fracking: Just what are the risks?

Shale gas: mining the data.

In the early 1990s the oil and gas industry in Texas started to produce gas by drilling into deeply-buried shale layers. They found that creating underground fractures in the layers, later coined ‘fracking’, increased the rates of production and their investments started to make money. This was the start of the shale gas industry in the USA which may now grow in Europe, China and elsewhere around the world.

Hydraulic fracturing is far from being a new technology; it’s been carried out in many wells since the 1940s. But in the last 10 years, its widespread use for recovering gas from shale has led to it becoming extremely controversial.  A tipping point may have been when the filmmaker Josh Fox was asked to lease his land for drilling, it resulted in him making the documentary ‘Gaslands’ (2010), with footage of gas coming out of taps being ignited. The potential link between fracturing and the contamination of water supplies with methane was thus made.  More followed in 2011 when the UK’s first shale gas well was drilled near Blackpool in northwest England and triggered earthquakes up to 2.3 in magnitude. ‘Fracking’ has quickly become a catch-all term for any shale gas operations. 

But what do we actually know about the geological risks? Can fractures created underground really travel much further than we anticipate, intersecting water supplies and polluting them as ‘Gaslands’ suggested? Could the pumping of thousands of cubic metres of water underground cause damaging earthquakes? How much of what we read in the press is scientifically sound?  The debate is polarised with claim and counter claim. 

There is a lot we already know. Hydraulic fractures can form entirely naturally when pressure builds up as rock is buried over millions of years. Underground seams of minerals in fractures have of course been mined for centuries and the processes involved in fracture formation have been well understood since the 1960s.  In the last decade, chimney-like subterranean hydraulic fractures extending vertically for hundreds of metres have been found in many parts of the world. 

‘Unnatural’ or stimulated hydraulic fractures are generated by pumping water and chemical additives into rock layers. The orientation of fractures that grow can be predicted approximately. But it’s a little like smashing a pane of glass: where exactly the cracks occur is different every time. It is difficult to predict whether a fracture will extend beyond the intended geological layer.  Nor is it feasible to calculate whether or not pumping fluid underground to create fractures will cause small earthquakes that could be felt at the surface.

But what we do have is data – and lots of it.  Thousands of fracturing operations have already been completed in the United States and the dimensions of the hydraulic fractures recorded at least for the last ten years. So we can adopt an empirical approach to understanding the chances of a fracture extending further than ever before.  Our analysis shows that the chances of a fracture extending further than 500 metres vertically are very small. There are also hundreds of examples of induced earthquakes caused by activities other than ‘fracking’: the filling of dams, fracturing for geothermal energy, injecting water to maintain oil fields pressure and because of subsidence triggered by mining of oil and gas.

It is claimed that companies involved in shale gas are not releasing data about operations – but in fact there are hundreds of papers in the public domain that can be accessed and I’ve spent months pouring over them while producing a paper on the topic.  The compilation and reviewing of 20 years of shale gas activity will give us a pretty good steer on the chances of something extraordinary happening. It is the sort of data mining task one of our undergraduates would excel in – some studies have been published, but in the surrounding media hysteria, a lot of basic information has been missed. This would go a long way to informing not just the broader public who are often misinformed by the media, but also industry, academic geoscientists and engineers, regulators, non government organisations and publics about safe shale gas operations in a hyperbole-free way.

Richard Davies is Director of Durham Energy Institute.

Fracking vehicles, Getty images.

Richard Davies is Director of Durham Energy Institute.

GARY WATERS
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In defence of expertise: it’s time to take the heart out of “passionate” politics

What we need is cool logic.

We are living through a bonfire of the experts. During the EU referendum campaign, Michael Gove explained that people had had enough of them. A few weeks later, his fellow Tory MPs took him at his word and chose a relative ingénue to run against Theresa May.

After declaring for Andrea Leadsom in the Tory leadership race, Michael Howard was asked whether it might be a problem that she had never held a position higher than junior minister. Howard, whose long career includes stints as home secretary and opposition leader, demurred: “I don’t think experience is hugely important.”

Even in this jaw-dropping season, that comment caused significant mandibular dislocation. I thought: the next Tory leader will become prime minister at a time of national crisis, faced with some of the UK’s most complex problems since the Second World War. If experience doesn’t matter now, it never does. What does that imply about the job?

Leadsom’s supporters contended that her 25 years in the City were just as valuable as years spent at Westminster. Let’s leave aside the disputed question of whether Leadsom was ever a senior decision-maker (rather than a glorified marketing manager) and ask if success in one field makes it more likely that a person will succeed in another.

Consider Ben Carson, who, despite never having held elected office, contested the Republican presidential nomination. He declared that Obamacare was the worst thing to happen to the United States since slavery and that Hitler may have been stopped if the German public had been armed. Yet Carson is not stupid. He is an admired neurosurgeon who pioneered a method of separating conjoined twins.

Carson is a lesson in the first rule of expertise: it does not transfer from one field to another. This is why, outside their domain, the most brilliant people can be complete dolts. Nevertheless, we – and they – often assume otherwise. People are all too ready to believe that successful generals or entrepreneurs will be good at governing, even though, more often than not, they turn out to be painfully inept.

The psychologist Ellen Langer had her subjects play a betting game. Cards were drawn at random and the players had to bet on whose card was higher. Each played against a well-dressed, self-assured “dapper” and a shabby, awkward “schnook”. The participants knew that it was a game of chance but they took more risks against the schnook. High confidence in one area (“I’m more socially adept than the schnook”) irrationally spilled over into another (“I’ll draw better cards”).

The experiment points us to another reason why we make poor judgements about competence. We place too much faith in social cues – in what we can see. As voters, we assume that because someone is good at giving a speech or taking part in a debate, they will be good at governing. But public performance is an unreliable indicator of how they would cope with running meetings, reading policy briefs and taking decisions in private. Call it the Boris principle.

This overrating of the visible extends beyond politics. Decades of evidence show that the job interview is a poor predictor of how someone will do in the job. Organisations make better decisions when they rely on objective data such as qualifications, track record and test scores. Interviewers are often swayed by qualities that can be performed.

MPs on the Commons education select committee rejected Amanda Spielman, the government’s choice for the next head of Ofsted, after her appearance before them. The committee didn’t reject her because she was deficient in accomplishments or her grasp of education policy, but because she lacked “passion”. Her answers to the committee were thoughtful and evidence-based. Yet a Labour MP told her she wasn’t sufficiently “evangelical” about school improvement; a Tory asked her to stop using the word “data” so often. Apparently, there is little point in being an expert if you cannot emote.

England’s football team is perennially berated in the media for not being passionate enough. But what it lacks is technique. Shortly before Wales played England in the European Championship, the Welsh striker Gareth Bale suggested that England’s players lacked passion. He knew exactly what he was doing. In the tunnel before kick-off, TV cameras caught the English goalkeeper Joe Hart in a vessel-busting frenzy. On the pitch, Hart allowed Bale to score from an absurdly long range because he was incapable of thinking straight.

I wish there were less passion in politics and more cool logic; less evangelism and more data. Unthinking passion has brought the Labour Party to its knees and threatens to do the same to the country. I find myself hungering for dry analyses and thirsting for bloodless lucidity. I admire, more than ever, those with obscure technical knowledge and the hard-won skills needed to make progress, rather than merely promise it.

Political leadership is not brain surgery but it is a rich and deep domain. An effective political leader needs to be an expert in policy, diplomacy, legislative process and how not to screw up an interview. That is why it’s so hard to do the job well when you have spent most of your time in boardrooms or at anti-war rallies.

If democratic politicians display contempt for expertise, including their own, they can hardly complain if those they aspire to govern decide to do without the lot of them. 

Ian Leslie is a writer, author of CURIOUS: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It, and writer/presenter of BBC R4's Before They Were Famous.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt