UK fracking policy founded on scientific fraud, misrepresentation and prevarication by Nick Cowern, June 15, 2016, The Ecologist
The key study that justifies the Government’s claim that fracking is a climate change ‘solution’ is based on serious scientific errors, writes Nick Cowern. Not only has the Government failed to correct them, but it is now delaying the publication of a new official report that would reveal the truth – that fracking is considerably worse for the world’s climate than coal.
By delaying publication of the CCC report the government is achieving a fait-accompli with fracking before the science that has been used to justify it is officially and publicly refuted.
Some time early this decade the Tory – LibDem coalition began looking into a possible future onshore fracking industry in the UK.
It seemed a promising way to rejuvenate revenues from the offshore oil and gas industry, which was predicting falling North-Sea output.
It was clear from the outset that fracking would be controversial for many reasons. Among other issues, it would increase the amount of fossil fuel ‘resources’ available, potentially increasing climate change.
It would also compete with emerging renewable energy sources, which were then more expensive and heavily dependent on subsidies. Fracking would need some serious backing.
First, the government requested a report from the Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering, which was published in 2012. Firm conclusions were few, as little reliable science was then available on fracking impacts, but the societies duly reported that fracking with appropriate safe-guards could be undertaken without excessive risks to health, contamination of water supplies, or local effects such as earthquakes.
Although they said nothing about the impact of industrial-scale shale gas extraction on climate, their report has been used repeatedly by government ministers who claim that “fracking is safe.”
The study begins – relative GHG emissions of different fuels
The following year the Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC) instigated its own report on the likely climate change impacts of fracking. The authors – the DECC Chief Scientist, the late Professor David MacKay FRS, and Dr. Timothy Stone – researched publicly available data and produced their own analysis of fracking’s climate change consequences.
The progress of their report was overseen by a DECC Steering Committee, whose exact function was unspecified, and has remained unclear since. The report was immediately followed by a ministerial announcement that fracking would go ahead in the UK.
The main objective of MacKay and Stone’s report, from their perspective, was to report the likely climate effects of fracking for natural gas, and to compare it with the climate effects of other fossil fuels. The key comparisons were with coal, conventional gas (not obtained by fracking), and conventional imported liquefied natural gas (LNG). To make these comparisons they needed to answer two vital questions:
How much CO2 and methane (the two main greenhouse gases involved in global warming) get into the atmosphere when each energy source is produced and then burned in a power station?
What is the global warming effect of methane compared to CO2?
On the first point, the CO2 part of the answer was easy – each carbon atom in the fuel burns to form one CO2 molecule, and in the absence of carbon capture and storage, this ends up in the atmosphere. The methane part was more uncertain, as it was not reliably known how much ‘fugitive methane’ leaks to the atmosphere during production and distribution.
As natural gas is primarily methane along with a small amount of other gases, MacKay and Stone needed to estimate what proportion of the extracted gas escapes to the atmosphere. This is where the controversy begins.
Fix #1 – underestimate methane leakage from fracking
In 2013, only a few scientists had investigated fugitive methane emissions from fracking. The UK and US governments had based most of their estimates on data provided by the industry, which not surprisingly showed low emissions. A smattering of more independent scientific publications showed a wide spread of emission estimates, ranging from low up to very large values.
In the US, Professor Robert Howarth at Cornell University had analysed published data and concluded that up to 12% of the extracted natural gas leaked to the atmosphere.
MacKay and Stone took a cautious line. They produced emissions estimates including all the available data, and presented results with and without including Howarth’s result, which they described as an “outlier”. They implied that Howarth’s result was questionable, but that readers should be free to draw their own conclusions.
The conclusion of the report, however, was based on the analysis excluding Howarth’s data. This produced a low estimate of fugitive methane emissions, favourable of course to a positive recommendation on fracking.
Unfortunately for this recommendation, it has since been found that fugitive methane emissions in several oil and gas fields in the US are closer to Howarth’s estimate than to MacKay and Stone’s. [What are industry’s fugitive methane emissions in frac frenzy Alberta, Saskatchewan and BC?]
In the Bakken and Eagle Ford areas, recent satellite-based studies show that methane emissions have been at around 10% in energy terms. Levels almost as high were found over production areas in Colorado and Utah. Continent-wide and global measurements further support high emission estimates.
It had clearly been a mistake to reject Howarth’s data as an outlier. And it is now an even more serious mistake for the Government not to revise its analysis in line with the best data that’s now available.
Fix #2 – understate the global warming potential of methane
The definitive information source on the global warming effect of methane is the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which reports every five years on fast-evolving climate-change science. In September 2013, the IPCC published its updated estimate of methane’s global warming potential (GWP).
Over a 100 year time-frame, the IPCC estimated that the GWP of methane was not 25, as estimated in their 2007 report, but 36: 44% higher. The new estimate took account of atmospheric chemistry and climate feedbacks which had been researched since the previous report in 2007.
At the same time this was happening, MacKay and Stone were evaluating the likely climate impact of fracking. In their analysis, however, they relied on the previous, low GWP estimate from the IPCC in 2007.
In retrospect – at least – this appears extraordinary. [Not when the oil and gas industry and governments want academics and researchers to promote fracing, and lie about how “safe” it is to get the public and frac’d communities on side. Look to the incredibly pro-fracking, industry controlled frac review panels in Canada, including Dr. John Cherry and his Council of Canadian Academies frac review panel, and the subsequent pimping of it by U of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs!] Much of the data going into the 2013 IPCC report had been published, and it is seems implausible that there would have been no contact between the UK Chief Scientist and the IPCC team during this period, given the key relevance of the methane GWP data.
Whatever the reason, MacKay and Stone omitted a vitally important piece of information from their study. This led to a more than 30% underestimate of methane’s effect on climate, which of course again favoured a positive recommendation on fracking.
The Government’s failure to revise its analysis in the light of the IPCC’s latest estimate of methane’s GWP is not just astonishing. It is arguably a case of scientific fraud, perpetrated on the British people and the global climate.
Result – the precise opposite of the truth [Precisely where the frac industry and its enablers (greedy lazy governments and deregulating regulators) want the result to be?]
MacKay and Stone concluded that fracking was a substantial improvement on burning coal, and was better for the climate than importing LNG. As I will show, both of these conclusions become highly questionable when more realistic, up to date data are used.
First, let’s take their optimistic estimates of fugitive emissions, but apply the appropriate 2013 IPCC data on methane’s climate impact. Now, instead of fracking producing less climate change than LNG, it produces more!
The implications of this are scandalous: Westminster politicians have been led to believe to this day that fracking is needed to combat climate change, that shale gas is preferable to coal and that it can act as a bridge to a 100% renewable energy future, which supposedly lies far in the future. [Even envNGOs spout this nonsense! Because they were after money?]
As an example, Baroness Worthington – who is deeply concerned about climate change – has been misled into appealing to the public to accept fracking because this would reduce greenhouse gas emissions compared to imported LNG. In fact, it would increase them.
Moreover, no amount of carbon capture and storage, which Baroness Worthington says is a prerequisite for acceptance of fracking, could prevent fracking’s upstream methane emissions. [And CCS comes with its own massive bevy of adverse impacts]
Disgraceful prevarication? The Climate Change Committee’s unpublished report
Earlier this year I researched and prepared a report on the climate impact of fracking for the Committee on Climate Change (CCC), in collaboration with a colleague, Dr Robin Russell-Jones. The CCC has a statutory responsibility to advise the government on UK energy and climate policy, and sets the UK’s future carbon targets.
In February the CCC was taking evidence before advising the government on future energy policy in the UK, and we were invited to present our report to them and discuss it with a panel at CCC headquarters in London.
Our report re-analysed the topics addressed by MacKay and Stone in the light of the 2013 IPPC data and the much higher emissions found by independent scientists than had previously been reported by industry.
Most significantly, it found that the climate impact of fracking exceeds that of coal on all future timescales of practical interest.
It is our understanding that much of our submission has been taken on board by the CCC, which has since given its advice to the government (on 1st April 2016).
It is interesting, then, that the government is currently sitting on the CCC report, declining to release it as foreseen in the Infrastructure Bill, which requires the government to publish CCC reports as soon as practically possible. One is drawn to the conclusion that the government is not overly enthusiastic about the CCC’s report.
Without the CCC report, planners are permitting fracking wells
The fracking industry is currently trying to begin exploration and production tests to establish the potential of fracking in the UK and obtain early production of natural gas.
Recently I, among nearly 100 others, gave evidence at a hearing by North Yorkshire County Council, setting out our substantive objections to an application by Third Energy to frack close to the village of Kirby Misperton in North Yorkshire.
Our objections were overridden and permission granted, largely on the grounds that government energy policy had to be taken into account in the planning decision. But now campaigners are considering a legal challenge against the decision, based on the Council’s alleged failure to adequately consider the climate impacts of fracking.
An appeal by Cuadrilla of a decision by Lancashire County Council to refuse permission to frack is currently being heard prior to a decision by the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Greg Clark.
In both these cases, it would have been more than helpful to know the CCC’s advice on future energy policy.
It could be argued that by delaying publication of the CCC report the government is achieving a fait-accompli with fracking before the science that has been used to justify it is officially and publicly refuted.
[Can’t wait to see the Alberta NDP get their frac science started to study the impacts after 200,000 wells have been frac’d, thousands of fracs directly into fresh water zones! Will the post-fracing science initiation include using contaminated groundwater as “baseline?” Perfect frac fraud!]
A spokesperson for DECC told the Guardian yesterday: “The Infrastructure Act clearly requires Government to consider the CCC report properly before responding, and that is what is happening … We are carefully looking at this report to ensure it is given the proper consideration it is due. It will be published as soon as that process is complete.”
The unacceptable risk of fossil fuels
It is clear that renewable energy – now no longer an alternative to fossil fuels, but progressively entering the mainstream – is a strong competitor to fracking. It costs less to produce electricity from onshore wind than from gas, and its climate-changing emissions are close to zero, compared to large emissions in the case of gas.
In contrast, it is becoming increasingly clear that fossil fuels present a threat to humanity’s future that is way beyond acceptable levels of risk. Global warming has just contributed to the strongest El Nino event in recorded history, accompanied by the widespread death of coral reefs which are thousands of years old, all around the world.
Unprecedented wildfires in Canada, a consequence of global warming, are so large that they are contributing to further global warming by increasing CO2 levels in the atmosphere and depositing black carbon onto Arctic ice. Increased melting of Artic sea ice is lowering Earth’s average reflectivity, causing further global warming. In the foreseeable future, arctic methane deposits will begin to release larger amounts of methane – a further and dangerous climate feedback.
Finally, fracking is scarcely even of interest for raising tax revenues. As fossil fuel production moves into its final death spiral, low-cost producers like Saudi Arabia and Iran are intent on selling as much product as they can, while they can. Keeping prices low to kill competition from fracking is a key feature of their policies.
Our government needs to recognise that the time for fracking is over, and set its mind to the infinitely more important matter of combating climate change by investing urgently in energy conservation and renewables. [Emphasis added]
Nick Cowern is Emeritus Professor of Nanoscience / Nanotechnology at Newcastle University and Director of NC Tech Insight Ltd, a scientific consultancy focused on emerging technology and materials, renewable energy, and climate change. His speciality is building fundamental understanding and computer models at the interface between experimental and theoretical science – most recently in the area of renewable energy development and climate change.
In recent months he has given evidence to the UK Committee on Climate Change, spoken at a House of Commons meeting on fracking regulation, and presented evidence on climate impacts of fracking at the North Yorkshire County Council hearing on the application by Third Energy to frack in Ryedale. He strongly supports a revenue-neutral carbon tax (tax the carbon, not the people) – a ‘fee and dividend’ approach that fosters a successful and sustainable economy and incentivizes low-carbon living.
He has been Royal Academy of Engineering Research Chair at Surrey University and has served as group head of the Emerging Technology and Materials Group at Newcastle University.
Pressure mounts over ‘suppression’ of UK fracking impacts report, Campaigners accuse the government of sitting on a potentially explosive report from its official advisers on the impact of fracking for shale gas by Fiona Harvey, environment correspondent, June 14, 2016, The Guardian
Pressure is growing on the UK government to release a report into the impacts of shale gas fracking, which campaigners have accused ministers of suppressing.
The Committee on Climate Change, which advises parliament on meeting the UK’s carbon targets, submitted the report in March. It covers the expected impact of exploiting the UK’s onshore oil and gas resources on nationally set greenhouse gas targets.
It can only be published when the secretary of state for energy has responded.
Green activists suspect that ministers are wary of the potentially explosive impact of the report, which is likely to find that fracking would be an addition to the UK’s carbon dioxide output, if pursued to the extent that ministers support. As well as being a wholly untapped new source of fossil fuel, and thus carbon, fracking has also been found to release more carbon than conventional oil and gas exploration, because of the difficulty of production and the dangers of leakage.
“The government is trying to start a whole new fossil fuel industry and is sitting on a report from its official advisers about the impact,” said Tony Bosworth, campaigner at Friends of the Earth. “It must publish as soon as possible, and certainly before any decision about fracking in Lancashire. If it doesn’t, the suspicions that it is trying to keep the report quiet will continue.”
… All findings by the Committee on Climate Change carry significant weight as it was set up under the Climate Change Act as a statutory adviser to government.
The report is likely to recommend that the fracking industry follow strict guidelines to minimise leakage of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas. [What good will guidelines do? 1) It’s common knowledge in industry that companies can’t control their fracs, never mind their leakage problems; and 2) guidelines, laws and rules are just to make frac’ers look good and make the public give them social licence – guidelines, laws and rules are ignored and violated to maximize profits]
The fracking report was mandated under the Infrastructure Act 2015, which required advice to the secretary of state by April 1 this year. After that, “as soon as is practicable” according to the act, it should be laid before parliament with an official response from the Department of Energy and Climate Change (Decc).
Originally, the committee said it expected a government response in May, allowing for a period of purdah during the local government elections on 5 May. On 11 May, the committee issued a further short statement repeating the legal position that publication must follow “as soon as is practicable”.
Pressure has been growing as the delay has lengthened. Letter-writers to the Guardian have called for publication, and a petition by pressure group 38 Degrees has more than 124,000 signatures.
Robin Russell-Jones, a long-time environmental activist who submitted scientific research to the report showing that methane emissions from fracking were worse than those of coal and that methane was rising because of fracking, wrote to the Guardian: “It would be highly embarrassing for the government if its dash for gas was found to be incompatible with our climate change commitments, agreed by the UN. Embarrassing unless the government accepted the scientific case and announced it was going to abandon fracking and invest in renewables.”
Green campaigners told the Guardian that further delay was indefensible.
“When it comes to fracking this government is about as transparent as a brick wall with no windows,” said Daisy Sands, head of energy at Greenpeace UK. “The impact of fracking on climate change is a major concern for many people. The prime minister who once promised ‘a revolution in transparency’ should release this report and give people a chance to make up their own minds.”
Vanessa Vine, of Frack-Free Sussex, who helped to organise protests against oil exploration in Balcombe, said: “It speaks volumes that this report is being withheld.”
A spokesperson for Decc said: “The Infrastructure Act clearly requires Government to consider the CCC report properly before responding, and that is what is happening. As such, if we had laid the CCC’s report before parliament as soon as we received it we would not have met our legal requirements. We are carefully looking at this report to ensure it is given the proper consideration it is due. It will be published as soon as that process is complete.” [Emphasis added]
[Refer also to:
2015 03 11: UK: Greenpeace appeals to Information Commissioner over redacted fracking report, Argues government is “cherry-picking” and misleading public by refusing to publish findings on how shale gas could impact house prices ]
MUST READ! Glasgow University slated for ‘silencing’ fracking critic by Rob Edwards, June 14, 2016, The Ferret
[Is Canada’s Steve Harper on the Board?]
The University of Glasgow has been accused of trying to silence dissent on fracking after withdrawing online access from one of its prominent professors.
David Smythe, an emeritus professor of geophysics and a leading critic of the fracking industry, has had his university email address cancelled, and his access to scientific journals cut off.
The action was taken without notice by the university authorities in January a few days after Smythe posted posted online a discussion paper critical of fracking safety and regulation in the UK. He has since been attempting to persuade the university to reinstate his access, but so far without success.
Smythe has submitted a series of objections to fracking plans in England, and appeared as an expert witness for community groups opposing plans to exploit coalbed methane near Falkirk in 2014. He has had a bitter public row with Glasgow University’s energy engineering professor, Paul Younger, who has voiced support for fracking.
Smythe, who held a chair of geophysics at the University of Glasgow’s geology department for ten years, was made an emeritus professor and honorary senior research fellow when he retired in 1998. Until January this year, he was allowed to use a university email address and to access scientific articles using a university pass.
The university’s abrupt decision to end his access could breach his retirement agreement, he claimed. He is currently taking legal advice on the matter.
According to Smythe, the fundamental issue was freedom of expression. “Some people at the university do not like my views on fracking, and they are seeking to silence me,” he told The Ferret.
“I am surprised and saddened that my alma mater and former employer is now stooping to such base tactics.”
He questioned whether Younger, who is a member of the university’s governing court, had exercised his influence. This is denied by Younger.
Scientists should be allowed to “slug it out” in public, Smythe argued. “But I cannot now fight my corner since the institution providing me with the essential access to the academic database has unilaterally decided to remove that access,” he said.
“The university seems to be adopting as their corporate view the opinions on fracking promoted by Professor Younger.”
Smythe is planning to publish his correspondence with Glasgow University, and email exchanges between the university, Lancashire County Council and the fracking firm Cuadrilla released under freedom of information law. He said that the documents, which amount to nearly 100 pages and are available below and will be on his website, back up his allegations.
Younger, a former fracking advisor to the Scottish Government, has frequently been quoted on the prospects for onshore oil and gas. Last month he attacked the First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, for taking “flight from reason” by hardening her stance against fracking. [Maybe Younger has future profits pending via a frac patent, like Dr. Maurice Dusseault on all Canada’s Frac Review Panels?]
He was reported in The Herald saying that he was “flabbergasted” that all but one of Scotland’s main political parties were “trashing” an industry that would re-employ North Sea workers “in a far safer environment”.
In 2014 Smythe was told by the university to make clear that his views on fracking were his own and did not represent the university’s current researchers. He was also attacked by Younger for allegedly misrepresenting his credentials as a chartered geologist.
Younger insisted, however, that he had nothing to do with the latest decision to cut off Smythe’s online access. “I have no control over such matters,” he said.
“His allegations are baseless speculation – which sadly is something Professor Smythe specialises in. I was elected to the university court by my peers, and have very specific duties in that capacity.”
Smythe’s name had never come up in his court duties, Younger said. “I have far more important things to do with my time than indulge in the sort of behaviour Professor Smythe fantasises about.”
Smythe was backed, however, by Dr Damien Short, a fracking and human rights expert from the University of London. “The pro-fracking lobby would dearly love to see Professor Smythe silenced,” he said.
“In the interests of open, honest, evidence based academic discussion, I hope the University of Glasgow will ensure that this does not happen and reinstate Professor Smythe’s research privileges immediately.”
He was also supported by the Scottish political satirist, Alistair Beaton, author of ‘Fracked! or ‘Please Don’t Use The F-Word’, a new play to be premiered at the Chichester Festival in Sussex. The play deals with university politics on fracking.
Mary Church, head of campaigns for Friends of the Earth Scotland, said: “It’s remarkable that Glasgow University would risk its reputation by apparently stifling debate and freedom of expression around one of the most important issues of our time…It’s vital that academics who voice concerns about fracking, a new and particularly damaging frontier of fossil fuels, are not silenced.”
The University of Glasgow denied that it was stifling freedom of expression. “Professor Smythe has every right to express his views,” said a university spokesman.
“His email access was terminated earlier this year, as part of a routine review of email accounts in the School of Geographical and Earth Sciences. Professor Smythe left the University in 1998 and, while he retains the title of emeritus professor, he has no continuing practical association with the work of the university.” [Emphasis added]
Access the Background documents
Une université écossaise n’aime pas entendre les critiques du fracking Translation lesamisdurichelieu.blogspot.ca, June 14, 2016
[Refer also to:
2016 06 01: Frac fraud for Scotland? Is University of Edinburgh’s new test to check for shallow groundwater contamination from unconventional gas development, ie fracking, a set-up to blame nature when industry’s biogenic gases migrate into Scottish water wells?