“Frackademics” – Case study 3: The Mackay-Stone shale gas climate impacts study

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

When the Mackay-Stone report [30] was released by DECC in September 2013, it generated the kind of headlines which the Government were looking for in the wake of the Balcombe protests in Sussex. For example, from the BBC[31] – “Shale carbon footprint ‘small’, according to new report”.

This issue begins with the publication in 2011 of a paper by Robert Howarth [32] on the emissions of methane from shale gas operations. It stated that over a 20-year time frame the impact of shale gas was worse than coal. This paper was followed up by subsequent publications in 2012, and Howarth’s most recent paper [33], using new evidence, replicates those results.

Due to Howarth’s research, DECC needed a scientific case to respond to the criticisms of the climate impacts of shale gas. In mid-2013 they commissioned two DECC advisers to write a report:

  • Professor David Mackay was Chief Scientific Adviser to DECC from 2009 to 2014. He is the Regius Professor of Engineering at Cambridge University, and is the author of the book, Sustainable Energy Without the Hot Air [34].
  • Dr. Tim Stone was DECC’s Senior Advisor to the Secretary of State until mid-2013. He is a non-executive director of Horizon Nuclear Power, Anglian Water, and is the expert on the board at the European Investment Bank. He was previously the expert chair of DECC’s Office for Nuclear Development, the global senior advisor at KPMG Corporate Finance, and a director/manager at S.G. Warburg, Chase Manhattan and Arthur Andersen.

This pairing flags up a recent change, encouraged since the beginning of the coalition government in 2010. ‘Non-academics’ from industry are serving on policy review panels. For example, it was disclosed in 2011 [35] that energy companies had supplied over 50 staff to Government – which raises questions regarding corporate influence over state institutions [36].

The results of the Mackay-Stone study suggest that shale gas could produce less emissions than current North Sea gas production. To produce that figure they took a value for the gas which leaks during the productive life of a well, and divided it by the amount of gas the well produced – creating a value for emissions per unit of gas which was compared to other natural gas sources in Britain.

In order to produce those figures Mackay and Stone used arguably unrepresentative data to feed into their calculations. Their process of calculation is valid – it’s their data that is questionable.

Their figure for emissions uses industry ‘inventory data’ – which over recent years has been shown to be a statistically poor method of demonstrating the levels of fugitive emissions [37]. They also made reference to a then unpublished paper which, they claimed, would demonstrate that emission levels were low. That paper, when published, contained flaws which invalidated that claim. For example, it was a non-randomised study of 0.1% of the wells drilled in the USA, which is not an objectively representative sample. The publisher also had to correct the article a month later, as the authors with conflicts of interest had not declared them at the time of publication.

On the other side of the equation, the figures Mackay and Stone used for gas production per well are too high. Currently there is a great deal of debate over how much gas and oil unconventional wells actually produce [38]. Recent studies suggest that resource estimates need to be downgraded, now that we have sufficient statistical data of what is actually being produced in the field [39]. There is no specific source for Mackay and Stone’s figures, but their modelling assumes levels of gas production which are roughly twice the value determined by the US Geological Survey [40] and the US Department of Energy [41].

The easiest way to explain the flaw in Mackay and Stone’s reasoning is this: The method of calculation was correct. However, they took a figure for the emissions from gas production which may be half what it should be. This was divided by a figure for gas production which was twice as big as it should be. The result was that they produced an estimate for emissions which was one quarter of what it should have been. More representative data would have produced a very different result from that which energy ministers and industry figures promoted as ‘fact’ to the public.

The production of the Mackay-Stone review enabled DECC to carry out a public relations offensive which used the alleged low emissions from unconventional gas to promote its virtues. That DECC’s role has become largely an issue of public relations is unsurprising. Much of the policy side of DECC’s work is not coming from the responsible minister, Ed Davey. It is coming from George Osborne at the Treasury – DECC is being bypassed. For example, the white paper on investment [42], set not only the energy policy framework for shale gas, but also directed the Environment Agency and local planning authorities to expedite developments more quickly.

DECC is notable in that it has a high level of “revolving door” [43] involvement between government and public relations companies – many of whom are fronting campaigns on behalf of energy industry clients. What is of interest are the links between DECC and the PR companies Edelman – which will be considered later in case study 6 – and Hanover Communications. Both these companies have worked for the most vocal fracking company, Cuadrilla.

The Mackay-Stone report is an exemplar of the strategy to use ‘scientists’ to front the national policy for unconventional gas and oil. However, when we pick apart the report’s findings, what we find is a result that is somewhat different – and which contradicts the message communicated by DECC at the time. Was the report an objective consideration of the climate impacts of unconventional gas, or was it designed to use ‘science’ to deflect criticism of Government policy. The high level of ‘revolving door’ relationships between DECC and  PR companies should lead the public to question whether DECC serves them, or other vested interests.

[30]    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

[31]    Shale carbon footprint ‘small’, according to new report, BBC News, 9th September 2013 – http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-24018319

[32]    Methane and the greenhouse-gas footprint of natural gas from shale formations, Robert W. Howarth et al., Climatic Change, June 2011 – http://www.fraw.org.uk/files/extreme/howarth_2011.pdf

[33]    A bridge to nowhere: methane emissions and the greenhouse gas footprint of natural gas, Robert W. Howarth, Energy Science and Engineering, May 2014 – http://www.fraw.org.uk/files/extreme/howarth_2014.pdf

[34]    Sustainable Energy Without the Hot Air, David Mackay, 2008. Available on-line – http://www.withouthotair.com/

[35]    Energy companies have lent more than 50 staff to government departments, Damian Carrington, Guardian On-line, 5th December 2011 – http://www.theguardian.com/business/2011/dec/05/energy-companies-lend-staff-government

[36]    The network of global corporate control, Vitali et al., PLOS One, October 2011 – http://www.fraw.org.uk/files/anarchism/vitali_2011.pdf

[37]    Methane leaks erode green credentials of natural gas, Jeff Tollefson, Nature, 3rd January 2013 – http://fraw/files/extreme/tollefson_2013.pdf

[38]    A reality check on the shale revolution, David Hughes, Nature, 21st February 2013 – http://fraw/files/extreme/hughes_2013.pdf

[39]    Natural gas: The fracking fallacy, Mason Inman, Nature, 3rd December 2014 – http://www.nature.com/news/natural-gas-the-fracking-fallacy-1.16430

[40]    Variability of Distributions of Well-Scale Estimated Ultimate Recovery for Continuous (Unconventional) Oil and Gas Resources in the United States, Open-File Report 2012-1118, U.S. Geological Survey, U.S. Department of the Interior, June 2012 – http://www.fraw.org.uk/files/extreme/usgs_eur_2012.pdf

[41]    Updated Fugitive Greenhouse Gas Emissions for Natural Gas Pathways in the GREET Model, A. Burnham et al., Energy Systems Division, Argonne National Laboratory, October 2013 – https://greet.es.anl.gov/files/ch4-updates-13

[42]    Investing in Britain’s future, Cm8669, HM Treasury, June 2013 – http://www.fraw.org.uk/files/ukgov/hm_treasury_2013.pdf

[43]    Wikipedia: ‘Revolving door (politics)’ – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Revolving_door_%28politics%29


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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