Frackademics In UK Pushing Industry Spin


  • New Durham University Pro-Shale Gas Report
  • Highlights University’s Hijacking By Industry PR
  • Authors Have Multiple Fracking Industry Links
  • Durham Energy Institute Controlled By Industry
  • ReFINE: Durham Fracking Propaganda Group
  • Links To Similar Organisations Across Europe
  • Parallels With Frackademic Scandals In US
  • Report Carefully Avoids All The Real Issues
  • No Hint Of The Scale Of Fracking Threat

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No Conflicts Of Interest Here!

The latest fracking PR extravaganza, centred around the publication of an academic paper, Induced Seismicity and Hydraulic Fracturing for the Recovery of Hydrocarbons, highlights the extent to which universities are being hijacked by the industry PR machine. Hype around the paper, whose lead authors are from Durham University, regurgitates the usual industry spin, conflating fracking of conventional wells with the massive slickwater hydraulic fracturing used to extract shale gas and conflating hydraulic fracturing with the whole process of unconventional gas extraction. While attempts by Cuadrilla to get in on the ground floor, establishing a business partnership with Lancaster University, are being actively resisted, some universities have already been co-opted far more thoroughly.

The lead author of the article is Prof. Richard Davies, who spent seven years in the petroleum industry in Aberdeen, London and Houston with ExxonMobil, working on development and exploration projects. Prof. Davies has received over a million pounds in grants directly from oil and gas companies in recent years and is head of the Durham Energy Institute (DEI), who’s partners include UK fracking company IGas in addition to big names like BP, Chevron and Shell. DEI’s Advisory and Development Boards are also stacked with industry figures. Another of the authors, Prof. Peter Styles, works at Keele University who have allowed IGas to drill an unconventional gas well on their campus.

While this may seem bad enough, Durham is also home to ReFINE (Researching Fracking IN Europe), a research consortium involving various European academics. Prof. Davies is head of the Executive Steering Committee. While the source of the funding for ReFINE is not disclosed, the description of its inaugural meeting leaves little to the imagination: The inaugural meeting for the ReFINE consortium was held at Shell Centre (London). The meeting was very successful, with many companies showing great interest in the consortium. Shell, Hess, Statoil, Total, UKOOG, BG-group, Chevron, Shale Gas Europe, DECC and representatives from the Polish Academy of Science were all in attendance and contributed greatly to the discussions. ReFINE is set to launch in the first quarter of 2013.

The main external links on the ReFINE website point to Shale Gas Europe (SGE) and Shale Gas Information Platform (SHIP). Shale Gas Europe are an industry PR outfit, who are are funded by Chevron, Cuadrilla, Halliburton, Shell, Statoil, and Total. Profs. Davies and Styles are both on SGE’s Expert Advisory Panel. The Shale Gas Information Platform at first glance seems somewhat less corporate controlled. It is run by the German Research Centre for Geosciences (GFZ), who are funded by the German government. However the presence among its experts network of lawyers from Eversheds LLP, one of the largest legal firms in the UK, whose interest in fracking raises eyebrows and a little more digging reveals a sister site, Gas Shales In Europe (GASH) also run by GFZ and openly sponsored by Statoil, ExxonMobil, Gas de France SUEZ, Wintershall, Vermilion Energy, Marathon Oil, Total, Repsol, Schlumberger and Bayerngas Norge.

This is just a quick peek into the murky world where academic research and fracking industry propaganda meet in the UK. In the last year the antics of these so called Frackademics in the US has backfired spectacularly in some cases. In October an annual study by Pennsylvania State University was canceled after no faculty could be found who were willing to participate. Previous studies had received considerable criticism after it was discovered they were being paid for by an industry front group, the Marcellus Shale Coalition. In November the State University of New York, Buffalo shutdown its Shale Resources and Society Institute (SRSI) after industry links were exposed. In December heads rolled at the University of Texas, Austin’s Energy Institute after similar revelations. And last month a report issued by University of Southern California (USC) came in for similar criticism. It remains to be seen whether frackademics in the UK have any shame.

Carefully Avoiding The Real Issues

As for the content of the paper itself, since it is not publicly available it is rather hard to tell. As is typical in such situations the media is reporting on an article most of them have not read. The spin that has made its way into the media has a number of elements though. The major issue of the damage caused by the earthquakes to Cuadrilla’s well casing, and the potential that this has for increasing the probability of the well leaking is ignored. So is the fact that while earthquakes caused by fracking are not usually huge, earthquakes associated with frack-waste injection are much larger. The largest earthquake associated with frack-waste injection was a magnitude 5.7 in Oklahoma last year which destroyed 14 homes and injured two people. While earthquakes larger than magnitude 5.0 are rare in the eastern US, their frequency has increased 11-fold in the last few years as fracking has mushroomed.

However induced seismicity is just one of a large number of issues associated with unconventional gas extraction, ranging from leaking methane, water contamination, air pollution and radioactive flowback fluid to waste disposal, well blowouts, pipeline explosions and road traffic. Fundamentally though the main issues are related to the big picture of why fracking is happening and what it means. The easy to extract fossil fuels are being depleted but there are still large amounts that can potentially be accessed via more extreme techniques such as fracking. However these techniques produce much less energy for much greater amounts of effort. The largest conventional onshore gas field in the UK, Saltfleetby in Lincolnshire, had 8 wells. To produce a similar amount of gas an unconventional gas field would require hundreds, if not thousand of wells. Pushing ahead with fracking in the UK means drilling tens of thousands of wells, turning huge areas of the countryside into gas fields, for only relatively small amounts of gas.

Production from unconventional wells declines at up to 70 percent per year, so most of the gas produced will be from the newest wells, and therefore in order to maintain production more and more wells need to be drilled. These wells will leak, create large amounts of waste and occasionally explode but the bigger issue isn’t any single impact, but the cumulative effects of this creeping destruction of what remains of our natural environment. Unconventional gas puts us on a treadmill where we need to drill ever increasing numbers of wells for less and less gas. The even more worrying threat of underground coal gasification is also waiting in the wings. Going down the path of fracking leads to a world where we are setting fire to coal under our feet to keep up with that treadmill. The bottom-line though is that we cannot afford to burn much more than a fifth of remaining conventional fossil fuels without catastrophically destabilising the climate system. Unconventional fossil fuels are extra carbon on top of this, none of which we can afford to burn.

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