Event Summary: ‘Shale Gas and Fracking: The Science behind the Controversy’


TIME: 12:00-13:00, Wednesday 6th July 2016

VENUE: Committee Room 10, House of Commons, Houses of Parliament, London, SW1A 0AA

SPEAKER: Professor Michael Stephenson, Author, Shale Gas and Fracking: The Science behind the Controversy, and Director, Science and Technology, the British Geological Survey

For a full transcript of this event click here

By Tom Field
On the 6th July, by kind invitation of Kevin Hollinrake MP, Professor Michael Stephenson, Director of Science and Technology at the British Geological Survey, gave a lecture on his new book Shale Gas and Fracking: The Science behind the Controversy. Professor Stephenson’s lecture focused on pros and cons of shale gas from the European and American perspectives.

Professor Stephenson began his lecture by describing the widespread scientific misunderstandings surrounding fracking that had motivated him to write his current book. He explained that debates over whether shale gas was a more environmentally friendly energy source than coal, as well as fears over fracking causing gas pollution of local water sources and earthquakes, must be addressed through rigorous scientific study. In order to achieve this, Professor Stephenson emphasised the importance of peer-reviewed scientific journals as their results and methods are independently verified by other members of the scientific community.

Professor Stephenson then went on to outline that shale was the most common sedimentary rock on earth and that hydraulic fracturing (fracking) was the process by which natural gas could be released from shale deposits deep beneath the earth. Professor Stephenson explained that there were a great number of scientific studies on different aspects of shale gas extraction but that for this lecture he would focus on two key areas: the potential of fracking to contaminate ground water and whether shale gas was a lower carbon emitting energy source than coal.

Professor Stephenson explained how scientific studies had been able to develop an increasingly clear understanding of fracking’s effect on ground water through studies in Pennsylvania, a particularly good case study due to its widespread fracking industry. A 2011 paper had found higher concentrations of gas in ground water but a further study in 2013 demonstrated how these levels were naturally occurring. Meanwhile, another 2013 study’s discovery of natural gas levels that were six times higher than expected were discovered to be from a small sample of faulty wells by a 2014 study. Professor Stephenson concluded that such pollution appears to be restricted to Pennsylvania and that further studies in other areas of the US had shown no such issues.

Professor Stephenson then went on to explain the scientific research into whether natural gas was a more environmentally friendly energy source than coal. Coal releases twice as much CO2 into the atmosphere than natural gas when used as a fuel but there had been some concerns over the extraction methods of fracking and instances of accidentally releasing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. A paper written in 2011 argued that 3-8% of all shale gas extracted was released into the atmosphere. However, a 2012 report from the same university dismissed these claims as unrepresentative of the entire fracking industry as the previous report only sampled a small selection of wells. Consequently, a particularly detailed report sampled more than 100 wells and found that 0.5% of natural gas appeared to be accidentally released into the atmosphere. Professor Stephenson concluded that a recent paper in 2015 found that this figure may need to be revised by a multiple of between three and five due to issues with measuring equipment.

Professor Stephenson concluded his lecture by considering what a shale industry in the UK may look like in the future. As UK shale deposits are often under heavily urbanised areas in Northern England significant environmental safeguards and assurances would need to be made to local people. Nevertheless, Professor Stephenson felt that a UK shale industry would look very different from the US industry due to the more rigorous environmental safeguards in place. As a result shale wells would likely be built on brownfield sites and could be semi-covered and linked to main energy lines. Ultimately, Professor Stephenson  highlighted that fracking has very similar issues to many other industrial processes carried out within the UK and should be subject to similar engineering and environmental regulations.


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