Concerns over fracking are “not as bad as people may think”, but suggesting the technology is safe is “ridiculous”, according to a leading shale gas expert.
Professor Richard Davies, a petroleum geologist at Newcastle University, is used to engaging in difficult debates. He has repeatedly come under fire from both sides of the fracking debate for trying to shed light on the environmental and social impacts of shale gas exploration.
Today, it has been announced that he is to receive commendation for the John Maddox Prize. The prize, handed out by campaign group Sense About Science, aims to recognise the work of individuals who promote science and evidence on matters of public interest despite facing difficulty or hostility in doing so.
His research, which he described as “uncomfortable” for both the fossil fuel industry and environmental activists, previously linked the eruption of a volcano spewing steaming mud to a blowout caused by gas drilling and compared the seismic activity caused by fracking to no more than the energy produced by someone jumping off a ladder.
He has no intention to take sides in the fracking debate, Davies told DeSmog UK, but nonetheless, “I think I have something to add to the conversation about fracking that can be useful.”
“The methane emissions were so insignificant that the word leakage is actually misleading.”
Davies admitted fracking is “a difficult topic” for a scientist, having worked on the topic since 2012.
His project ReFINE, an international research consortium, was set-up to address misleading information about fracking and carry out impartial research to inform the public debate.
“To say fracking is ‘safe’ is ridiculous because nothing is safe but we need to know which part of fracking is going to have the most impact and we need to do the science to assess that impact,” he said.
Davies recognised that members of the public were “asking good questions” about fracking and said that his role as a scientist was to address those concerns.
His findings showed that the process of fracturing rocks was “not likely” to pollute underground water, a claim often used by anti-fracking activists.
Earlier this year, the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) said Friends of the Earth had agreed not to repeat “misleading claims” that fracking chemicals could pollute drinking water, cause cancer and implied the process increases rates of asthma following complaints from shale gas firm Cuadrilla, which owns licences to frack in the UK.
Davies said underground water can be contaminated by fracking because of poorly cemented wells, which he says is what happened in cases in the US, but refutes some other common complaints of anti-fracking campaigners.
Davies told DeSmog UK that his research showed 30 per cent of fracking wells in the UK were leaking but that they were releasing such small amounts of methane that it was “equivalent to sheep grazing on a patch of land”.
“The methane emissions were so insignificant that the word leakage is actually misleading,” he added.
He also argued that the technology could cause small earthquakes that people could feel but the likelihood of that happening in the UK was “extremely low”.
Although Davies said his research showed that “some areas of concerns are not as bad as people may think,” his work has also been unpopular with fracking companies.
Davies and his team are working on establishing the overall carbon footprint of fracking, and many questions over the impact of the technology on both the environment and the health of communities remain unanswered.
“We know a lot more now than five years ago but there is still an element of uncertainty. There are fracking fluids that are injected underground and do not come back up to the surface. No-one can be absolutely certain what happens to them,” he said.
“As academics there are questions that we cannot answer. We are working to fill some of the research gap but this does not mean that fracking is risk free.”
Another issue that could affect the burgeoning fracking industry if it scales up is decommissioning.
Davies’ research team highlighted the fact that more than half of the 2,152 conventional onshore oil and gas wells drilled in the UK between 1902 and 2013 have unclear ownership, an issue which has largely been attributed to decommissioning.
Davies added that having hundreds of wells not being properly looked after increased the chances of leaks and meant no-one could be held responsible in case of environmental damage.
“There are 633 wells that were drilled by D’Arcy which later became BP but it is unlikely that BP will see these wells as their responsibility. This type of research is uneasy for the industry but also for the UK government,” he said.
“Companies pulled out of the project because we did what we said we would do: we are being absolutely independent and neutral.”
Having worked eight years as a geologist drilling wells for oil giant ExxonMobil, Davies’ links with the industry have often come under attack.
His research project ReFINE has in the past been financed by a host of some of the world’s biggest oil and gas companies including Shell, Total, Chevron, GDF Suez, Centrica.
Ineos is now the only company still backing his research project. The company claims to be “the world's largest manufacturers of chemicals and oil products”, and holds the largest number of shale gas exploration licences of any organisation in the UK.
But Davies insists his research is fully independent: “Because we had industry funding we have been accused of bias. But companies pulled out of the project because we did what we said we would do: we are being absolutely independent and neutral.”
“We are just doing the science but we are being criticised from all sides”.
Davies is familiar with his work causing controversy.
When the Lusi “mud volcano” erupted in East Java, Indonesia in 2006, swathes of mud and water buried entire villages. More than 40,000 were displaced and 20 people died according to some estimates.
Following the disaster, Davies led an international team of researchers which argued that the eruption had been caused by drilling rather than by the earthquake that occurred two days before. The oil and gas exploration company Lapindo Brantas denied responsibility but eventually paid $550m in compensation and reparations.
Davies said people continue to contest his research to this day.
“My personal opinion does not matter. I am just doing the science.”
Despite his industry experience and extensive research on the subject, Davies told DeSmog UK he would never give a personal opinion over whether fracking should go ahead in the UK.
“I am never going to say ‘it’s okay, go ahead and frack’ because there is always going to be an impact on the environment. This is a decision about whether we want to be producing fossil fuel in the 21st century and that is not a decision for me.
“That is a decision which has to be taken by people, local authorities and the UK government. I have a scientific opinion, my personal opinion does not matter. I am just doing the science.”
Main image credit: Samuel Mann via Flickr CC BY 2.0