Paul Mobbs responds to Verdon’s critique of ‘Frackademics’

Talk Fracking asked the author of the ‘Frackademics’ report, Paul Mobbs, to respond to the critique of this report by Professor James Verdon at Bristol University. Here follows a quick rebuttal. It is not comprehensive and we do not intend to embark on a lengthy program of tit for tat social media discussions. Particularly with someone who is seemingly not prepared to look at the whole scientific body of evidence. We have a much better proposal to settle these issues with Professor Verdon, which you will find at the end of this post.

Paul Mobbs writes:

In his ‘frackland’ blog, James Verdon has consistently attacked anti-fracking groups without ever looking at the shortcoming of the data on his own side. I think there are problems of accuracy on both sides – but his automatic assumption is that the pro side are always correct. Given the number of people I’ve annoyed in the anti-fracking movement precisely on this point, I don’t think the same claim could be made against myself!

If you look at my work – whether in formal reports or even my articles for The Ecologist – you’ll see it always contains extensive references to technical reports/journal studies.

In contrast James Verdon seems to only reference his own blog posts, and so fails to externally reference the points he makes to validate his position.

Without an objective analysis of ALL evidence, we will never be able to say anything substantive in the public debate.

Here follows a rebuttal of a few of the critiques / quotes he has made on the Frackademics report:

# “No one is seriously arguing that we should stop all fossil fuel development immediately – they must be gradually phased out over an extended period.”

This is precisely the whole point – and it’s certainly the point the industry will not acknowledge with regard to ‘stranded assets’. The industry do not believe that governments will ever order them to kerb production, so they carry on regardless, and funding scientific research on improving production and recovery rates is a central part of that programme.

We have less than fifty years to go carbon free (for security we would have to be ‘carbon negative’), and most of those reductions have to be made in the next 20 years. Current research, particularly in the fields of fluvial basis and sedimentation is all about finding new/additional sources of oil and gas, or enhancing/increasing production from existing fields – adding to the stocks we currently know can be extracted, 50% to 80% of which we can never burn.

His point doesn’t address the scale of ‘known’ and ‘producible’ fossil fuel reserves – and the fact that this scale is far greater than it will ever be safe to produce.

# “This means that if we’re to reach a near-zero-emission energy system, carbon capture and storage (CCS) must be deployed to capture emissions from fossil fuel burning.”

The only viable model for efficient CCS would be for power generation. You can’t fit CCS to a road vehicle or a home heating boiler! E.g., take the US data

Most of the world’s carbon emissions do not come from power generation. Arguably on a life-cycle analysis more comes from animal production than power generation. Therefore we either have to massively electrify to displace road fuels/distributed energy use – which creates its own ecological/resource depletion impacts; or we have to decarbonize and reduce consumption – which no mainstream agency wants to discuss because it involves significant lifestyle change.

For example, we know how to cut passenger transport emissions by 50% to 70% compared to the use of cars within minimal investment and using existing technological know-how… it’s called a bus!

# “Finally, even if/when we reach a near-zero-emission energy system, oil and gas will continue to be extracted from the ground. A substantial portion of the oil and gas we produce is in fact used as feedstock for industrial chemical processes, making fertilisers, plastics, and other synthetic materials, for example.”

Define “substantial” – e.g. the on-line OED states the definition as “Of considerable importance, size, or worth”.

In fact “non-energy uses” account for just less than 10% of global petroleum use. And in any case, most of those feedstocks are economic by-products of the refining process – the production of liquid fuels still dominate the purposes of extraction and use.

The fuel that is consumed specifically as a means to produce chemicals is natural gas for fertilizer production, although arguably we’re using two or three times more fertilizer today than is ecologically sustainable – and there are alternatives to the mass use of nitrogen-based fertilizers (but again it’s not “business as usual”/requires economic change).

The greatest problems we will have – arguably more than the production of fertilizer – are the use of cement and the production of steel and other metals. These require use the of dense carbon as a chemical component, in the form of coal/coke.

That’s the whole point. There are solutions, but they require rethinking existing economic models – which is not where James Verdon is heading with his comments.

# “If the RS is so corrupted by industry, as is claimed by TalkFracking”

*No such claim is made*. What the report states, and I quote,

“Today, the major criticism the RS/RAE report is its prematurity.”

He seems unwilling to discuss the prematurity of their conclusions.

# “I suppose that this statement is facetiously true. However, it has no bearing on the issue of shale gas development.”

Classic! Is he saying that it’s not necessary to have the ability to measure the impacts of unconventional gas extraction in order to regulate them?

He can’t seriously mean that.

That’s not science, that’s numerology. It’s an abstraction of reality based upon assumptions of performance (e.g. the industry’s ‘inventory based’ emission studies), not evidence-based analysis (e.g., driving mobile laboratories around gas fields and measuring gas concentrations – and showing them to be completely at odds with ‘inventory based’ emission studies).

# “Most of the risks posed by fracking are little different to the risks posed by conventional oil extraction.”

Again, his statement does not bear any relationship to the actual experience in production areas. For example, as outlined in the US National Academy of Sciences Institute of Medicine workshop study of health impact assessments of oil and gas development.

He resorts to talking about well integrity, and fails to acknowledge the problems of traffic generation, air pollution, and the generation of – compared to conventional gas and oil – large quantities of contaminated effluent which has to be disposed of.

As I’ve always done, I look at the whole development/production system, not just wells or earthquakes. If you do that, then his statement cannot be substantiated.

# “The TF report relies heavily on the well-known papers written by Howarth et al.”

No it doesn’t.

The criticism of Mackay-Stone is based upon evidence from USGS and US DoE on ranges of gas production per well – which is the greatest statistical flaw in Mackay & Stone’s calculations.

The level of fugitive emissions is presently debatable, and for that I refer to data based upon instrumental analysis from the NOAA’s ‘SONGNEX’ programme – not the assumed ‘inventory-based’ studies Verdon alludes to.

He’s citing Howarth because that’s one of the industry’s talking points – precisely because the data is uncertain, it is therefore open to generating the “controversy” they seek to create doubt. I’m citing empirical research by US government departments – and if you want to go wider, Australian universities are also producing similar data to the NOAA over there too.

# “The fact that TalkFracking criticise a charity for the crime of being “a PR agency for science” indicates pretty clearly that TF have a strongly anti-scientific bent.”

No, I cite specific examples where SMC’s quotes are in no way objective – and I’ll happily produce more if required.

I criticise SMC for failing to reflect the uncertainty within the body of available evidence, and therefore representing a false certainty over impacts to the public/environment. That has nothing to do with them being a charity, and everything to do with maintaining the scientific objectivity they claim to support.

# “Our description of the BGS report is entirely accurate… The 1,300tcf figure is the most probable, most likely, scenario as described by the BGS report, and it is therefore entirely appropriate that we use it.”

The principal criticism of the Guardian letter was that it asked lots of geologists/geophysicists to express support for a string of claims which were based upon economics.

The 1,329tcf figure represents the 50% probability from BGS’ report. The 822tcf figure I use in my work represents the 90% probability. Therefore, to quote Verdon, using a probabilistic analysis which is the “most probable” figure of gas to be produced? – it’s not the 50%!

Again, he misleadingly quoting figures in a manner which (I assume) someone in his position should know to be incorrect – and which must therefore be intended to mislead.

# “The newly-created Shale Gas Task Force comes in for similar criticism.”

Again, he’s completely missed the point. The analysis focuses on the role of Edelman, and how that role follows the pattern they have already established in the USA and Canada – which Verdon has chosen to ignore.

The other issue I highlight regarding the panel members is not who they are, but whether they can be considered ‘objective’ arbiters of the public interest. Most of them have previously expressed positions which have endorsed shale gas. Therefore what faith can the public have that they can ‘objectively’ assess the evidence?

Again, Verdon chooses not examine those quotes, or their significance in assessing the impartiality of the panel.

In conclusion:

Verdon’s blog attributes purposes to points made in my report which do not relate to the text nor evidence cited in support of the points made.

In the end all we have is the evidence – and in the case of unconventional gas and oil that evidence is uncertain. He talks of consensus, when in fact recent reviews based upon empirical data, sampled in areas subject to unconventional gas and oil production, is at odds with the picture he paints.

I do not “deny science”. Science is the basis of what I do – and that all begins with evidence. And the assumed certainty with which he expresses his opinions is not supported by the WHOLE BODY of currently available evidence. Studies carried out by reputable universities and government agencies question many aspects of the pro-industry assumptions which underlie the posts in his blog.

I would say in response to his assertions that his failure to accurately cite the points made in my report for Talk Fracking, to consider the sources I cite in support of those statements, and then objectively respond on the basis of that evidence, is of itself a denial of the inherent objectivity of science. ENDS

Talk Fracking was set up to provide a platform for genuine debate between relevant experts on the issues of Fracking, for the benefit of the public.  We organised six separate debates across the UK, inviting a total of 88 leading policymakers, industry spokespeople and academics to represent the pro-fracking perspective. These were free events that were open to the public and held at high profile venues. But of all those invited, only one person had the courage to step forward and speak in support of fracking, resulting in the cancellation of the second London event.

On 16th June 2014, we did send James Verdon an invitation to join the panel for this second debate in London that had been scheduled to take place at Central Hall, Westminster on 14th July 2014.  The delivery report from our email client, ‘Campaign Monitor’ (see snapshot below), shows us that James Verdon did open our email to him on a total of seven separate occasions (including once just last week), yet he did not respond to decline nor accept our invitation.  Why is James Verdon happy to share his views on fracking on his ‘frackland’ blog, but unwilling to debate the subject in public?

We would now like to formally invite / challenge James Verdon to a public head to head debate with Paul Mobbs, on the issues raised within our ‘Frackademics’ report and Mr Verdon’s criticism of it. We will offer to host this debate at a mutually convenient time within the next four weeks, film it and post it on our website.

Will you take up the gauntlet this time Mr Verdon?  Time to put up or shut up!

Talk Fracking