“Frackademics” – Case study 2: Academic involvement in major shale gas studies

Case study 2: Academic involvement in major shale gas studies

Can the public have trust in the statements made by leading academics?; or do potential conflicts of interest warrant some element of suspicion, requiring that we test the validity of that information? What matters here is evidence. Not just the evidence of effects, but evidence that regulators have the capacity to monitor and regulate the impacts of these processes.

The Government’s case in support of unconventional oil and gas is largely based upon four scientific reviews commissioned by Government agencies:

If we contrast these reports, whilst their content differs their conclusions are broadly similar – that the risks can be safely managed if the operations are properly run and regulated.

Various criticisms can be made of these reviews. For example, the RS/RAE review. Today, the major criticism the RS/RAE report is its prematurity. Compared to what we know of these processes today, there was little evidence of impacts to consider when this report was produced. This can be demonstrated if we count the search results for “shale gas” from academic search engines over successive years [23] – most of references listed occur during or after 2012.

Practically we can only regulate that which can be managed; and we can only manage that which can be identified and measured. Without the ability to measure impacts effectively, there can be no regulatory process. This has been highlighted by a number of recent research papers [24].

The main conclusion of these reports – that, whatever the impacts, these can be controlled through ‘appropriate regulation’ or by applying ‘best practice’ – is difficult to substantiate with evidence. None of these reports can cite actual evidence as to how such ‘appropriate regulation’ can function within Britain – nor that such regulation has worked effectively elsewhere.

For example, as was stated in the British Medical Journal [25] in relation to the PHE review –

…the report incorrectly assumes that many of the reported problems experienced in the US are the result of a poor regulatory environment. This position ignores many of the inherent risks of the industry that no amount of regulation can sufficiently remedy.

Why do the UK ‘experts’ reviewing the evidence in these reports have such a high opinion of regulatory action – when other expert agencies, arguably closer to the problem in North America, take such a different view? For example, the recent reviews of safety in Quebec [26] and New York State [27] have determined that the process must not be allowed to proceed. They consider that there is not enough evidence to show that the impacts can be appropriately controlled, and therefore managed and regulated. As stated in the recent New York State review –

In assessing whether public health would be adequately protected from a complex activity such as high volume hydraulic fracturing (HVHF), a guarantee of absolute safety is not required. However, at a minimum, there must be sufficient information to understand what the likely public health risks will be. Currently, that information is insufficient.

This is where the issue of the potential conflicts of interest arises between the advisory role of academia in helping decision-makers, and the increasing involvement of business interests in funding those roles. As public funding falls, and business takes a greater role in deciding research priorities through awarding grants to institutes, can academia retain its objective detachment?

A good example is the University of Newcastle, and its professional association with underground coal gasification (UCG). Professor Paul Younger has worked on both the RS/RAE review and the Scottish IESP. He is also the co-author of a recent paper [28] which argued the Government’s proposed controls over earthquakes from fracking were too stringent, and another paper critical [5] of the recent study from ReFINE on well failure rates. He is also a director of Five Quarter Energy, along with other senior figures from the university, which has UCG licences along the North East coastline, and has received financial support from the government to further their project.

Taking expert opinion in forming policy is very important. However, in order to guarantee that this ‘opinion’ is free from bias, it must be always based upon objective, empirical evidence. Without evidence to substantiate their words, the views expressed by ‘scientists’ are no more valid than those of any other well-informed individual. And vice-versa, where the public use evidentially-based research to substantiate their claims, that evidence should be considered in the debate.

In the case of the expert reports commissioned by Government, they each review varying levels and ranges of evidence. To varying degrees, it is possible to make various criticisms of how the academics involved have reflected the whole body of evidence available, and how those conclusions stand given the knowledge gained through more recent research studies.

However, their common conclusion – that we can regulate away the problematic aspects of these processes – is not based on evidence. It is based upon assumption and hearsay. They cite untested codes of practice, or claims that the process will be different here in Britain. If regulatory agencies in other states are unable to eliminate the environmental and health problems created by these processes, it is unreasonable, without evidence, to assume that things will happen differently here.

[19]    Shale gas extraction, Royal Society, 2012 – https://royalsociety.org/policy/projects/shale-gas-extraction/report/

[20]    Potential greenhouse gas emissions associated with shale gas production and use, David MacKay and Tim Stone, DECC, 9th September 2013 – https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/potential-greenhouse-gas-emissions-associated-with-shale-gas-production-and-use

[21]    Review of potential public health impacts from shale gas extraction, Public Health England, 26th June 2014 – https://www.gov.uk/government/news/review-of-potential-public-health-impacts-from-shale-gas-extraction

[22]    Independent Expert Scientific Panel – Report on Unconventional Oil and Gas, Scottish Government, August 2014 – http://www.scottishscience.org.uk/article/independent-expert-scientific-panel-report-unconventional-oil-and-gas

[23]    This analysis is described at length in The Environmental Risks of “Fracking”: A submission to the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee Inquiry, Paul Mobbs/Mobbs’ Environmental Investigations, December 2014 – http://www.fraw.org.uk/mei/archive/eac_submission-the_environmental_risks_of_fracking.pdf

[24]    Understanding exposure from natural gas drilling puts current air standards to the test, Brown et al., Reviews on Environmental Health, vol.29, 29th March 2014 – http://www.fraw.org.uk/files/extreme/brown_lewis_2014.pdf

Potential Public Health Hazards, Exposures and Health Effects from Unconventional Natural Gas Development, Adgate et al., Science of the Total Environment (undated preprint), March 2014 – http://www.fraw.org.uk/files/extreme/adgate_2014.pdf

Air Impacts of Increased Natural Gas Acquisition, Processing, and Use: A Critical Review, Moore et al., Science of the Total Environment (undated preprint), March 2014 – http://www.fraw.org.uk/files/extreme/moore_2014.pdf

Public Health England’s draft report on shale gas extraction: Mistaking best practices for actual practices, Law et al., British Medical Journal, vol.348 g2728, 17th April 2014 – http://www.fraw.org.uk/files/extreme/bmj_2014.pdf

[25]    Public Health England’s draft report on shale gas extraction: Mistaking best practices for actual practices, Law et al., British Medical Journal, vol.348 g2728, 17th April 2014 – http://www.fraw.org.uk/files/extreme/bmj_2014.pdf

[26]    Issues relating to shale gas exploration and exploitation in the St. Lawrence Lowlands, Bureau d’audiences publiques sur l’environnement (Quebec), November 2014 – http://www.bape.gouv.qc.ca/sections/rapports/publications/bape307_Chap13_ENG.pdf

[27]    A Public Health Review of High Volume Hydraulic Fracturing for Shale Gas Development, Department of Health, New York State, December 2014 – http://www.fraw.org.uk/files/extreme/ny_doh_2014.pdf

[28]    Quantification of potential macroseismic effects of the induced seismicity that might result from hydraulic fracturing for shale gas exploitation in the UK, Westaway & Younger, Quarterly Journal of Engineering Geology and Hydrogeology, vol.47 no.4 pp.333-350, 2014 – http://eprints.gla.ac.uk/96201/

[29]      Discussion of “Oil and gas wells and their integrity: Implications for shale and unconventional resource exploitation” by Davies et al., Thorogood and Younger, 2015 – http://eprints.gla.ac.uk/96049/


Case study 1: University funding and NERC’s CDT for Oil and Gas

Case study 2: Academic involvement in major shale gas studies

Case study 3: The Mackay-Stone shale gas climate impacts study

Case study 4: The Science Media Centre and the ‘seeding’ of articles

Case study 5: Guardian ‘open letter’ from academics

Case study 6: The interrelationship between the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Unconventional Gas and Oil and The Task Force on Shale Gas

Appendix: Information sources for case study diagrams


This report has been commissioned by Talk Fracking

Produced February 2015 by Paul Mobbs Mobbs’ Environmental Investigations
3 Grosvenor Road, Banbury OX16 5HN – http://www.fraw.org.uk/mei/

© 2015 Paul Mobbs/Mobbs’ Environmental Investigations
Released under the The Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial Share-Alike 2.0 Licence (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 UK) – England & Wales – http://www.fraw.org.uk/files/fraw/by_nc_sa-uk-2.html

All Internet links listed in this report were accessed during late January/early February 2015.

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