urban mythsSometime over the next few days we are promised an assessment of shale resources in the Weald Basin of the Southern UK, similar to last summer’s much delayed British Geological Survey Bowland Basin resource assessment. Word is that this may concentrate on oil resources instead of gas and once that happens, it may -or may not - galvanise the shale debate.

What the media should do, and probably won’t, is to open up a debate about the true controversy of UK shale gas and oil: Why are some groups so eager to slow it down, and what role does the media play in helping them?

“Controversial” has been the adjectival evil twin of shale gas in  the UK press. The news flow then goes to planning officers and other journalists alike. Journalists with little or no knowledge of geology, chemistry, hydrology, seismology are easily led by green organisations who know a lot about psychology. In short, they know which buttons to push. The end result is not a controversy so much as an urban myth: Everyone knows shale gas is bad even if no one can provide a concrete example of exactly why. 

Certainly, from a scientific perspective, proof of any damage is lacking. Despite multiple scientific studies from home and abroad, the overwhelming evidence points towards problems that are as minor as they are solvable. Which leaves us with the “controversy” over why it is “controversial” at all.  

In the UK, we have three basic “controversies”. Two are legitimate concerns over climate change and local impact and the other is a rag tag remnant of the Occupy movement who latched on to the shale gas “controversy”. What is truly bizarre is how some misguided people ally themselves with the Occupy Movement, a political tendency bursting with contempt for private property, but which trie and convince Tory and UKIP voters that their home will decline in value. This anarchist/Daily Mail demographic occasionally tries to intersect in places like the laughable Greenpeace Wrong Move, but scientists in the responsible climate NGO’s are becoming increasingly divorced from opponents. The “Protectors” as the Occupiers ominously call themselves, perhaps proving how close they are to the illegal occupier/protectors of Crimea, are becoming increasingly desperate to the point of self-parody.

The Protectors of Barton Moss, who seemed just as eager to disrupt traffic leaving the site as entering it, showed themselves to be truly incompetent last weekend when they gave out a call for help:

A group protesting against fracking for shale gas at Barton Moss have been left a little red-faced after making an urgent appeal – for gas.

The camp’s supply ran out Sunday morning and they tweeted from their account @BartonMoss “#bartonmoss URGENTLY needs water and gas for the cooker if anyone can help”.

Between 10 and 20 people live there at the moment, with more people attending daily protests, and they use the gas for cooking.

Once they were left cold and thirsty, they also found themselves homeless, and so desperate for a new cause they went chasing ghosts:

Anti-fracking protesters have set up camp at a site in Cheshire despite an energy company saying it has no plans to drill there.

Protesters set up a camp at Upton near Chester over the weekend.

They said they want to get on to the site before any test drilling starts.

Frack Off seem now to have descended into farce as they go chasing even the thought of natural gas. First, Protectors, now the Thought Police. Don't even think of drilling.

Frack Off’s marginalisation was mirrored at a council by election in Fylde Lancashire ground zero of UK shale. The Protectors would have us believe that their community protection scheme is simply a reflection of an anti shale surge. Not so in this case as the Green Party Stop Fracking Now candidate came last at 4.3% of the vote.

BAMFORTH, Mark Elliott Fylde Ratepayers 804 - Elected

BLACKSHAW, Brenda The Conservative Party 205

DENNETT, Robert Green Party Stop Fracking Now 53

GILLIGAN, Carol Josephine Liberal Democrat 62

WOOD, Timothy Davies UK Independence Party 100

The environmental debate over natural gas among NGO’s is evolving as we see from this report from the UK Energy Research Centre, which describes itself as carrying out world-class research into sustainable energy systems. I doubt any report that took two years of research informs us about what shale gas will look like in the UK today or next year, but the fact that UKERC can even bring themselves to discuss the subject is certainly a positive sign. But as I continually point out, positive developments, i.e non "controversial" rarely make the transition as reporters don't actually show up at these events, they only read the press release.

This interesting and evolving viewpoint comes from of all people, in a big switch, Caroline Lucas, the UK's only Green MP:

For Lucas, the big problem with fracking has nothing to do with the risk that it will cause earthquakes, contaminate the water table or pollute the soil. In fact, she thinks it possible that stringent regulations could minimise those risks. "It's not that fracking itself is necessarily worse than ordinary gas extraction. It's the fact that we're just about to put into place a whole new infrastructure for a whole new fossil-fuel industry, at exactly the time when we need to be reducing our emissions." The problem, in other words, is climate change.

This is a problem with climate change.Not UK natural gas.As Mike Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus of the  put it in the NYT:

Together with catastrophic rhetoric, the rejection of technologies like nuclear and natural gas by environmental groups is most likely feeding the perception among many that climate change is being exaggerated. After all, if climate change is a planetary emergency, why take nuclear and natural gas off the table?

This echoes Lord Deben’s view that environmentalists can’t expect people to accept the science behind climate change when the FoE’s of the world depend on unscientific and emotional alarmism about natural gas from shales. Yet, the Friends of the Earth and Frack Off Alliance continue to spout nonsense - and the local press especially simply repeat it unfiltered.

A more rational question worth both asking and answering is are we creating a whole new global fossil fuel industry by drilling for oil in the UK? Or are we simply substituting something that has no alternative except imports? Isn’t it better to use our own properly regulated oil instead of displacing the damage to Nigeria, Ecuador, The Arctic or even the Canadian Tar Sands? Simply moving fuels across continents has significant CO2 implications. But those who invariably support local food, rarely mention what David MacKay pointed out last year, that local energy is by definition low carbon sustainable energy.

The question over shale needs to turn, and quickly, to the other “controversy”. Why are we going so slow in even exploring for it? Isn’t it controversial that we need a four year process or more to even see if the resource exists? Why isn’t it controversial that David Cameron says Britain is open for business, but not in the case of onshore oil and gas? Isn’t it controversial that markets are willing to invest a billion dollars in Argentina shale gas and oil potential but not ours?

Why isn’t it controversial to ask why the UK needs 4 years of consultations to drill a well that takes less than two weeks? The industry has to undertake an environmental impact process that takes over a year to allow hydraulic fracturing - a process that often takes less than an hour per frac stage. Why is there no controversy surrounding that?

What isn’t controversial is that we need to drill and explore before we can produce. What is controversial is that there could be easily over a billion pounds in investment in this small stage alone. Why isn’t it controversial that local governments can’t see the connection between the governments shortage of tax revenue and the spending cuts they have to endure year after year?

What should be controversial is the the UK press’s inability to cover any story that may be actually optimistic. Why do the local, national and broadcast UK press, consistently represent the shale process, supported by all major political parties, and given a clean bill of health by scientists worldwide, as open to debate? Why isn’t that “controversial”?

The press is left frothing at the mouth at the only controversy remaining: This is the impact described in a recent letter Cuadrilla sent local residents in Lancashire

We recognise that transport is a key concern for local residents and so have undertaken an assessment of a number of potential routes from the M55 to the proposed new site. During the busiest first two years of operations the average number of HGVs travelling a long the approved route would be approximately seven per day; with a maximum of approximately 25 per day during peak periods.

Assuming a ten hour work day, where is the controversy in a truck passing every 85 minutes or even the worst case of a truck passing someone’s house once every 24 minutes? Isn’t the controversy that the local “risk” of a truck every 24 minutes would outweigh the national  risk of losing several billion pounds in tax revenue and economic benefit?

This gives me an chance to put the UK small minded press controversy in perspective.  Geoffrey Lean of the Daily Telegraph worries about a truck distrubing the sylvan splendour of Tory Hobbitshire every once in a while. But in the US, Harold Hamm of Continental Resource put it like this:

We have changed the world

Here's the billboard Hamm mentioned.



This isn’t a case of shooting the messenger. This is a case of asking the UK press to ask questions of itself. That may seem controversial to the writers. But it needs to be asked by the readers first. But perhaps first it needs the European onshore bypassing the manic depressive, passive aggressive press and start buying some billboards. If that isn't too controversial.

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  • Moneybags11

    Nick, as usual a good summation of the issues that the UK faces. The press continues to flog the horse named "controversy" and despite the UK govt telling everyone that they support Shale we see no real progress.<br />How is it that the planning process can stop everything? Can the UK Govt simply legislate and side step the local planning? It seems that local councils hold all the power and nothing happens without their vote. Very much the case of the tail wagging the dog!

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  • Nick Grealy

    There is something about vital national infrastructure, which is rarely used, but sometimes necessary to build motorways, pipelines, airport etc.<br />The government talks the talk but seems to think given a choice between perpetuation of the planning industry and other benefits of oil and gas, they take the "uncontroversial" route.

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  • RedTickAlert

    I still have 2 questions, about the negative comments in general that this would cause Earthquakes. The first is that usually an Earthquake is defined as a sudden violent shaking of the ground, typically causing great destruction, as a result of movements within the earth's crust or volcanic action......fracking WILL NOT cause this, otherwise we would have so called earthquakes near every oil and gas producing installation around the World. So secondly, the term earthquake is misleading - my view is that whilst we are pumping in a liquid whilst taking predominately gas out, the surface is adjusting or settling. If you take this view, then we can allow for that in the calculations of what and how much of something we pump in. Water and gas injection is similar in oil fields so why do we have the problem. Why use sand that could block the reservoirs for instance.

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