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Fracking: avoiding the GM trap

Mike Stephenson has some advice for frackers

Mike Stephenson has some advice for frackers.


The protests in Balcombe this summer about fracking (hydraulic fracturing) were a surprise to many geologists because the company involved wasn’t intending to frack, and wasn’t even looking for shale gas.

Feelings amongst protestors about water contamination and earth tremors ran high and continue to be a concern to many people in the country at large, but geologists and engineers can’t understand what the fuss is about. They say the risks are low and can be managed. The fact that people don’t believe them shows that they don’t think the technical specialists are competent to manage the situation: in other words there’s a credibility gap.

Bridge to low carbon

Quite apart from water contamination and earth tremors, there are serious questions about whether we should be taking up another fossil fuel in a big way. But many experts think that shale gas could have a role in the next few years as a bridge to low carbon, especially if it displaces coal-fired electricity.

If we decide we do need shale gas, how do we avoid another out-of-hand rejection of this new technology, in the way GM food was rejected?


Nick Pidgeon’s article ‘Public values underlying future energy production and use’ in September’s edition of this magazine suggested that researching public opinion is important because it helps us understand resistance to change and how public dialogue can be improved by understanding how people think.

I think we have to be much more radical. This is more than about how the public think. It’s about credibility.

Most geologists and technologists are confident that shale gas - and for that matter carbon capture and storage (CCS) and underground nuclear waste disposal - can be done safely, and the weight of scientific evidence backs these views up. But that appears not to be enough to reassure people.

Canadian experience

Last month I visited tar sands and shale gas operations in Alberta, Canada. Alberta is sitting on enormous resources but there is a big challenge in selling their sustainability to Canadians because both oil sands and shale extraction have impacts on atmosphere, wildlife and water.

The new ‘Alberta Environmental Monitoring Agency’ will monitor environmental effects in detail providing real time data that is scientifically credible, accessible, open and independent from companies. It’s hoped that this flow of data will reassure the public that resource management is within sustainability limits and will immediately show if something has gone wrong.

Same for Britain

I think Britain needs a similar national monitoring network so that the environmental impacts of shale gas, CCS and radioactive waste disposal, such as earthquakes, groundwater and subsidence can be monitored and displayed in real time.

In this country we have an advantage over areas like Texas and Pennsylvania where shale gas development (for example) has already started, in that we can establish the baseline or natural levels before development. This means subtle changes from the norm - signalling problems - can immediately be seen and acted upon.

A good start

Parts of a national monitoring network already exist in the form of the British Geological Survey (BGS) seismic network and methane groundwater survey, but not enough for intensive subsurface usage like shale gas exploitation.

To understand the full range of possible environmental change we would have to increase the density of such measurements but also include real-time measurements of fugitive methane emissions, subsidence using interferometric synthetic aperture radar (INSAR), and temperature and chemistry of deep saline aquifers measured in deep boreholes.

Only through monitoring like this will we be able to see if operations are truly going wrong, in which case we’ll have to shut them down

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Mike Stephenson
Mike Stephenson is the Director of Science and Technology at the British Geological Survey. His new book ‘Returning carbon to nature: coal, carbon capture and storage’ is published by Elsevier.
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