House of Commons Cmte. Outsources Important Report on Shale to Activists
Earlier this week, the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC), one of the nearly 50 parliamentary committees within the UK House of Commons, issued a report calling for a moratorium to be instituted on the utilization and deployment of hydraulic fracturing technology in Britain.
According to the EAC, natural gas development is “inconsistent” with the UK’s carbon reduction obligations – and potentially dangerous too, notwithstanding “assurances” it had received from several UK environmental agencies confirming that the “environmental risks can be safely accommodated.”
Obviously, the UK is a bit far afield from where EID typically focuses its research efforts, but we couldn’t help but notice (and be horrified by) some of the primary sources of information that members of this panel relied upon to reach their conclusions. And we’re not the only ones, apparently – here’s how one major London paper is covering some of the more questionable elements of (and apparent contributors to) the report (emphasis added):
“Monday’s EAC report acknowledges that the [UK] Environment Agency had said no hazardous substances will be permitted if they might pollute groundwater. But the [panel said] that ‘despite this assurance, concerns remain,’ citing evidence from campaign groups Frack Off Fife and Greenpeace.
“The EAC also notes that Public Health England (PHE) found potential health risks from fracking ‘will be low if the operations are properly run and regulated,’ but contrasts this with concerns from the Green Party … The EAC also cites evidence from Paul Mobbs, a self-described ‘freelance campaigner, activist, environmental consultant, author, lecturer and engineer’ and former ‘electrohippie,’ who runs a ‘dysorganisation’ called the ‘Free Range Activism Website.’”
So, to recap: on one side, we have U.K environment and public health agencies testifying to the fact that oil and gas development from shale can be done safely, and that no permits will be issued for those activities absent clear and demonstrable evidence that the proper safeguards and precautions are in place to ensure the air, water and surrounding environment is protected.
And on the other side, we have the views of an “electrohippie,” whatever that may be. Following up on the great rebuttal to the report issued this week by Ken Cronin, chief executive of UK Onshore Oil & Gas, below we attempt to supplement that with some additional research points that may be relevant to the ongoing debate over shale currently taking place in the UK.
However serious the EAC perceived the safety and environmental protection issues associated natural gas development to be, the panel’s primary justification for issuing a recommendation in favor of a moratorium is largely based on concerns related to climate change. Here’s how the EAC describes those concerns in its report:
“Extensive production of unconventional gas through fracking is inconsistent with the UK’s obligations under the Climate Change Act and its carbon budgets regime, which encompasses our contribution to efforts to keep global temperature rise below two degrees. Shale gas, like ‘conventional gas’, is not low carbon, and the objective of government policy should be to reduce the carbon intensity of energy whatever its source.”
And who does the EAC cite as its source for this claim?
“Greenpeace believed that: ‘Gas extracted in the UK won’t displace other gas that’s already been earmarked for extraction—it will just add to fossil fuels already being burnt, which we can’t afford to do … A mature shale gas industry producing gas for domestic use would push the UK’s carbon budgets to breaking point [sic].’”
Yes, Greenpeace. The same group that caused irreparable damage to Peru’s world-renowned Nazca lines as part of a publicity stunt directed at UN delegates in Lima. Greenpeace has (of course) also called for a ban on hydraulic fracturing in the UK, and conducted a number of over-the-top PR stunts such as erecting a “frack site” at Prime Minister Cameron’s house.
But you know what? Greenpeace’s position on shale is so marginalized these days that even the group’s former executive director in the UK, Stephen Tindale, is now encouraging his fellow environmentalists to embrace natural gas. In a blog post last year entitled “The climate case for shale gas,” Tindale wrote that “climate campaigners should support fracking for shale gas,” owing its ability to reduce carbon dioxide emissions in the energy system.
Instead of relying on the claims of an acknowledged anti-oil and gas group, the EAC could have paid a bit more attention to what the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) – the world’s most prominent climate scientists – had to say about the environmental benefits of natural gas. Speaking of the recent dramatic decline in greenhouse gas emissions in the United States, IPCC explained:
“A key development since AR4 is the rapid deployment of hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling technologies, which has increased and diversified the gas supply… this is an important reason for a reduction of GHG emissions in the United States.” (emphasis added)
The IPCC isn’t the only independent agency arguing that hydraulic fracturing and natural gas continue to play a huge role in reducing emissions, either. Here are a few more for you:
- The Paris-based International Energy Agency reportedthat the “decline in energy-related CO2 emissions in the United States in recent years has been one of the bright spots in the global picture. One of the key reasons has been the increased availability of natural gas, linked to the shale gas revolution.”
- The Energy Information Administration (EIA) foundrecently that the “increase in natural gas-fired generation…substantially reduced the carbon intensity of electricity generation in 2012.”
- The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has credited the increased use of natural gas as the primary reason CO2 emissions from U.S. power plants “were 23 percent lower in 2012.”
- The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) found in its latest Greenhouse Gas Inventory that natural gas was responsible for major greenhouse gas reductions. As the EPA puts it,
“In 2012, total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions were 6,501.5 Tg or million metric tons CO2 Eq. Total U.S. emissions have increased by 4.4 percent from 1990 to 2012, and emissions decreased from 2011 to 2012 by 3.3 percent (225.0 6 Tg CO2 Eq.). The decrease from 2011 to 2012 was due to a decrease in the carbon intensity of fuels consumed to generate electricity […] with increased natural gas consumption.” (emphasis added)
Research institutions in Europe have also noted the clear climate advantages of natural gas. The UK Department of Energy and Climate Change has stated on numerous occasions that natural gas from shale has clear GHG advantages over other fuels, while the UK’s Committee on Climate Change concluded that shale and renewables have the potential to thrive together. To wit:
“UK shale gas production would reduce our dependence on imports and help to meet the UK’s continued gas demand, for example in industry and for heat in buildings, even as we reduce consumption by improving energy efficiency and switching to low-carbon technologies.”
Additionally, the House of Lords Economic Affairs Committee found in a recent report:
“We consider that development of shale gas in the UK is compatible with the UK’s commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. There is an acknowledged role for gas in the UK’s energy mix as it moves towards fulfilment of its commitments.” (emphasis added)
As Tom Crotty, director at INEOS, put it in an interview this week with a Scottish TV station, “we need shale gas to meet those climate change targets. We’ve learnt from the US, this is now a safe process.”
Part of the EAC’s conclusion about climate change also rests on the opinions of Paul Stevens, a peak oil enthusiast who recently penned an op-ed in the States droning on about the supposed dangers of shale development in the UK. Mr. Stevens has also been called in by activists to “debate” those in favor of local energy development, and he’s always happy to oblige. Here, the EAC report picks up on something Mr. Stevens said in 2013 and uses it as the basis to make sweeping claims about the relationship between natural gas and renewables.
“Any pressure on carbon budgets from shale gas extraction will be exacerbated if that coincides with a squeeze on renewable energy. Professor Paul Stevens concluded in 2013 that: ‘There is a serious danger that UK consumers, growing increasingly concerned about their domestic energy bills, may press for shale gas to substitute for renewables which they see (probably incorrectly) as being responsible for these higher energy bills. This would be bad news for carbon reduction targets if it had an impact on the drive for renewables.’”
Activists have long claimed that shale could crowd out renewables. But here’s the thing about that: not even the renewables industry seems to agree with them. As Rhone Resch, CEO of the Solar Energy Industries Association, has explained, “Natural gas and renewables complement each other very nicely.” That’s because natural gas provides baseload power that renewables currently cannot. Univ. of California-Berkeley Professor Richard Muller put it best in a report explaining why environmentalists should embrace hydraulic fracturing and natural gas:
“Yet cheap natural gas can also make it easier for solar and wind energy to further penetrate electricity markets by providing the rapid back-up that those intermittent sources require. In addition, natural gas is the only base load fuel that can be downscaled into microgrids and distributed generation networks to provide that same flexibility and reliability for solar energy on rooftops and in buildings, expanding the market for urban solar systems. Particularly for areas focusing on distributed generation, natural gas can be an enabler of wind and solar.” (emphasis added)
The results of this are on full display here in the United States. As President Obama stated in his recent State of the Union address,
“We believed we could reduce our dependence on foreign oil and protect our planet. And today, America is number one in oil and gas. America is number one in wind power.”
In other words, the United States is in the midst of an unprecedented oil and gas resurgence – and it’s also number one in the world in wind power generation. How could that be the case if what Stevens is saying were true?
Climate change isn’t the only issue on which the EAC relies on bad data and activist groups to arrive at its conclusions. Here are some more goodies we found in the report, these ones specifically focused on public health:
“Greenpeace referred to the concerns of UK medical health campaign group Medact that fracking is an inherently risky activity with associated pollutants including ‘carcinogens, mutagens, teratogens, respiratory irritants and neurological, endocrine and haematological disrupters/toxins’ and ‘industrial-scale fracking would pose unacceptable risks to the health and well-being of local residents.’”
But a report by Public Health England (PHE), the agency actually in charge of protecting public health, came to exact opposite conclusion:
“The currently available evidence indicates that the potential risks to public health from exposure to the emissions associated with shale gas extraction are low if the operations are properly run and regulated.” (emphasis added)
While the PHE suggested that some air emissions could come from the engines powering the operations, it still concluded:
“However, on a site by site basis, these emissions are relatively small, intermittent and certainly not unique to shale gas extraction and related activities.”
This PHE report corroborates numerous agency analyses released in the United States – including ones from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE), the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, and the Pennsylvania and West Virginia Departments of Environmental Protection – that have all found no credible health risks associated with shale development.
While the EAC report does mention the PHE study, it does so only in an attempt to undermine its findings:
“In June 2014 Public Health England concluded that the ‘currently available evidence indicates that the potential risks to public health from exposure to the emissions associated with shale gas extraction will be low if the operations are properly run and regulated.” Nonetheless, Dr F P Rugman alerted us to a recent study that found ‘high air concentrations of potentially dangerous chemicals near on-shore fracking sites in the USA,’ including benzene, formaldehyde, hexane, and hydrogen sulphide.”
The report that “F P Rugman” is referring to is a study by a well-known American anti-shale activist named Theo Colborn. While the EAC points to that research as proof that natural gas development is bad for the air, it forgets to mention that even the authors of the Colborn air report were forced to concede that “the chemicals reported in this exploratory study cannot, however, be causally connected to natural gas operations.” Further, many of the measurements that they made showed emissions levels that were not high enough to trigger public health concerns.
Far from finding a risk to public health, numerous studies have concluded that shale development is helping to improve air quality, not worsen it. Here are just a few examples:
- Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) recently released its latest emissions inventory and found a dramatic reduction in emissions thanks to hydraulic fracturing and natural gas. The benefits of decreased air pollution was valued at “between $14 billion and $37 billion of annual public health benefit,” according to DEP.
- In another study, Pa. DEP also found that over 500 million tons of emissions have been removed from the Commonwealth’s air, thanks in large part to the increased use of natural gas.
- An environmental think tank, The Breakthrough Institute, found that the increased development and utilization of natural gas has “dramatically reduced emissions across Pennsylvania.”
- Berkeley physics professor Richard Muller published a reportconcluding that “both global warming and air pollution can be mitigated by the development and utilization of shale gas.” Muller’s report focused heavily on particulate matter, and how shale gas can help slash that specific type of air pollution, locally and worldwide.
Considering all this, it’s no wonder that EPA administrator Gina McCarthy has credited natural gas for major pollution reductions across the United States. As she recently said:
“The pollution that I’m looking at is traditional pollutants as well as carbon. And natural gas has been a game changer with our ability to really move forward with pollution reductions that have been very hard to get our arms around for many decades.” (emphasis added)
On the question of groundwater safety, the EAC report cites an organization called “Frack Off Fife” (a group which describes itself as “passionately against fracking”) as one its primary sources of information on hydraulic fracturing’s relationship to underground sources of drinking water. And what did these esteemed, demonstrably independent researchers from Frack Off Fife have to say about the topic to the EAC?
“It is without doubt that each of these [underground extraction] processes pose a threat to our water supplies…Water’s natural ability to permeate rock means the contaminated waters will eventually find clean/natural/ground waters and thus, contaminate them.”
Of course, what the EAC leaves out of the discussion is any mention of the report on this subject issued by Public Health England, including:
“Contamination of groundwater from the underground fracking process itself (i.e. the fracturing of the shale) is unlikely.”
Hydraulic fracturing has been extensively studied in the United States, and the overwhelming scientific and engineering consensus is that it does not, and cannot, contaminate groundwater. The U.S. Department of Energy recently published what the AP called a “landmark study” in which the researchers injected tracers into hydraulic fracturing fluid. After 12 months of monitoring, they found no signs of migration into groundwater.
The U.S. Geological Survey, the U.S. Government Accountability Office, the Ground Water Protection Council, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and dozens of state regulators have shown that hydraulic fracturing does not pose a significant risk to groundwater. Two peer-reviewed studies even found that water contamination from the hydraulic fracturing process is “not physically plausible.”
On the issue of well integrity, the EAC consults (who else?) activists from Friends of the Earth. For anyone who isn’t aware of where that group happens to stand on the issue, here’s what one of its spokespeople recently had to say: “The only way to safeguard our climate, local communities and their environment from the fracking threat is to halt shale gas completely.” From the EAC report:
“Friends of the Earth directed us to evidence from the United States that ‘found failure rates in newly-drilled shale gas wells in Pennsylvania to between 6.9% and 8.9%.’”
Friends of the Earth actually cites itself to make that point, but in reality, a typical well consists of four to six layers of steel and cement, which are designed to protect groundwater. In order for the well actually to leak, every one of those barriers would have to crack and fail. As you’d expect, such instances are exceedingly rare.
Researchers at Cape Breton University in Nova Scotia recently released two reports finding that the risk for well integrity failure is exceedingly low. As one study puts it, “[t]here is a low likelihood of casing integrity loss.”
The Associated Press also recently completed an investigation which shows a well failure rate in Pennsylvania of only about one-third of one percent (0.33 percent) of all the oil and natural gas wells drilled since 2005.
In 2011, the Ground Water Protection Council looked at more than 34,000 wells drilled in Ohio, between 1983 to 2007, and more than 187,000 wells drilled in Texas, between 1993 and 2008. The GWPC data reveal a well failure rate of 0.03 percent in Ohio and only about 0.01 percent in Texas. Those figures were also collected before new, stronger well construction rules were put into effect, to the praise of environmental groups.
Of course, any instance of well integrity failure means there’s room for industry to improve, but a failure rate of a less than one percent is a far cry from what Friends of the Earth would have folks (like the EAC) believe.
Activism Over Science?
In sum: Instead of going through the trouble of conducting its own independent investigation of the challenges and opportunities associated with shale development in the UK, the EAC decided to essentially outsource that important work to outside pressure groups like Greenpeace, Frack Free Fife, and Friends of the Earth.
And even more stunning than that? They actually admit to it in the report – and lay out the details of the collusion so matter-of-factly that one wonders whether they even understand (or care) that another side of this debate, and massive body of research that undergirds it, even exists.
Fortunately, the House of Commons voted overwhelmingly (308-52) this week to reject an amendment to the infrastructure bill that would have instituted a moratorium on hydraulic fracturing – a clear signal that the EAC’s “report” wasn’t considered particularly persuasive by the vast majority of policy-makers in Parliament, irrespective of party affiliation.
The bad news? The same groups that influenced each stage of the EAC report development process are working harder than ever (and spending more than ever) to construct an alternative reality around the alleged risks of developing oil and gas in the UK. And if they can snooker the EAC into believing that they’re credible and knowledgeable on the subject, who’s to say they won’t be successful at convincing others?