A Book Report

What should have been a bit of light reading during the holidays turned out to be less recreational and more like my day job, when I selected ‘Not Forgetting The Whale’ by John Ironmonger. I had no idea it would have so much to say about supply chain resilience.

Joe Haak is a city analyst, working for a department that specialises in short selling: profiting from the decline in a company’s share price. He leads a team developing a computer program that monitors the news media in order to predict the market consequences of reported events. It works remarkably well, allowing them to find many profitable ‘shorts’, but one of the bank’s partners demands that he use the software to discover something else:

How will civilisation end?

Over the course of several meetings with the doomsaying partner Lew Kaufmann, Joe learns that civilisation is surprisingly fragile… and that it all hinges upon effective supply chain management.

Have a look at this excerpt from the book:

“How do you feed a city of ten million people, Joe? How many lorry-loads of food do you need every day? How much fuel?’ He turned to the younger man. ‘How do you feed London? Who organises it all?”

“I don’t suppose anyone does.”

Lew Kaufmann was nodding. “Quite right. Nobody does. It works because of a hundred thousand supply chains. Because thousands of people in two hundred countries get up in the morning and do exactly what they did yesterday morning, and the morning before, planting and harvesting and packaging and transporting, flour and sugar and cocoa and coffee and a great long list of foods and fuels and machine parts and devices. We know this, don’t we, Joe? We know this because that is what we do, you and I. We follow the supply chains, looking for weaknesses.”

“We do,” Joe said.

“Have you ever been to a mega-city, Joe?” Kaufmann turned away from the window and sank back into his chair. He didn’t wait for an answer. “Of course you have. London is a mega-city now. Twelve million people, but we’re way down the list. There are twenty-five cities bigger than London now. Rio is bigger. Lagos is bigger. Tokyo has almost thirty-five million citizens. I once sat in a traffic jam in Jakarta trying to get to the airport. There are twenty-five million people in Jakarta, Joe. How many of them do you think keep a larder?”

“Not many, I should imagine.”

“No. I don’t suppose they do. There are half a billion people living in mega-cities now, and most of them live pretty hand to mouth. Even here in London. What happens, Joe, when the supply chains fail? What will happen when twenty million people in Guangzhou or Cairo or Tehran or Paris begin to starve?”

“I’ve never really thought about it.”

“Not many people do.” Kaufmann gave a long whistling sigh.

The troubling thing about this chain of reasoning is that I can’t actually find anything wrong with it.

In the book, the ‘perfect storm’, that disrupts our global supply chains and threatens to bring about a new dark age is a combination of two factors, a flu pandemic and a disruption in the oil supply. Kaufmann is particularly scathing about oil:

“It is the craziest thing in human history, Joe. We’ve built the greatest society that mankind has ever known – a global society. We communicate across continents, we think nothing of jumping on an airliner for a meeting in Zurich or Seattle or Shanghai. And yet all of this, everything we have created, rests upon a finite fluid resource that we’re busy burning away.”

It’s not just the expenditure of oil for jet fuel that bothers these men, modelling the end of the world: it’s the difficulties that agriculture faces, without oil. Farmers can’t grow food, they can’t harvest it, and whatever diminished quantity they manage to produce can’t be transported before it spoils.

Again, the logic is faultless. In fact the hardest thing to believe in the whole book is how sensible and cohesive the people in the story are. I suspect that elsewhere things will have been a lot uglier – but ‘Not Forgetting The Whale’ isn’t about that grim struggle. It’s a very gentle, British take on the ‘prepper’ mindset.

An array of ‘prepper’ tools

A ‘prepper’ toolkit. (What, nothing for use against zombies?)

Nonetheless, we are assured that anarchy ensues.

“… the instinct for survival won’t recognise that the man people are mugging in the street for his last litre of fuel is a driver distributing food. No one will stop to ask if the woman they just robbed of her last loaf is an engineer in a power plant.”

Again, I can’t fault the logic. (I really have to write about the Tragedy of the Commons sometime…) Nothing in this world is worth any more than a person is prepared to pay for it, and what we are prepared to pay is dependent upon everything else still being in demand. I’ve seen farming areas where the principal crop is mustard: that’s fine while transport is working and trade can happen, but if trade is interrupted, you can’t exactly eat the mustard yourself, can you? (Well, not much of it…)

Mustard crop

Mustard. It’s what’s for dinner.

Economies of scale make money, but perhaps they’ve built a kind of fragility into 21st century supply chains, of a kind that we didn’t have to worry about years ago. Another threat, overshadowing that of running out of food, and even the global pandemic, is simply other people.

“Hell is other people,” as Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980) observed. Hungry people: desperate people. And what will you do when they come calling?

Kaufmann and family head for the Azores on a yacht, while Joe seeks refuge (apparently at random) in the fictional village of St Piran, Cornwall, where he uses his life savings (and his knowledge of what’s about to happen) to build up a secret stockpile of foodstuffs, while the modern world collapses slowly, but inexorably.

Joe’s store of food is enough to provide for the village for several months, and the villagers use an excavator to block the single road into the village… but where do twelve million Londoners go? We don’t learn their fate, since this is a character-driven book about the people living in a small Cornish fishing village, and as such it works well.

It isn’t a textbook on supply chain resilience. That’s just a happy accident… but it makes one wonder just how perilous the situation could be. Truth through fiction – and reference to Thomas Hobbes’ (1651) ‘Leviathan’, with its discourse on the social contract, and the role of the state in preventing anarchy.

“… by the time you finish reading there might be a few more tins of beans in your cupboard than there were when you started,” wrote one reviewer at GoodReads.

Businesses know all about safety stocks, and maybe it’s time for us to bring the same thinking home. That “few more tins of beans” needn’t be a financial burden on the household, if bought in bulk and rotated properly. Money might actually be saved…

Or, there’s the alternative. Choosing to believe that “thousands of people in two hundred countries get up in the morning and do exactly what they did yesterday morning,” … every day, for the rest of your life.

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Imagining a World Without Rainfall

Back in 1965, Frank Herbert told a story of humanity’s thirst for the ‘the Spice Melange’, a substance essential to travel and commerce, more than eight thousand years in our future. The spice can only be found in one place: an inhospitable desert peopled by much-persecuted, fanatical natives. His award-winning tale was, of course, an allegory for our own dependence on petroleum.

Let’s leave aside, for now, the idea that the motive power for our economy depends upon a scarce resource found beneath desert sands… and focus on the other precious substance in the story.

Frank Herbert’s book takes its name from the desert planet itself: Dune. It’s a place of extremes, neatly summarised in the early scenes of David Lynch’s 1984 film adaptation by statements such as “Precipitation: none. Weather: see storms.”

Not one drop of rain. Can you imagine living in a society where water is essentially a non-renewable resource, like oil? In a sense, this kind of thinking has already begun.

I was in Kenya back in 2013, when the discovery of two new aquifers in the drought-hit Turkana Basin was announced. It was estimated that the new water source held some 250 billion cubic metres of water: an astonishing windfall for a country that currently gets by on three billion cubic metres of water a year. The government announcement said that the discovery could supply the country for seventy years, although you might wonder if the perceived abundance of the new supply might increase the amount consumed – and there’s population growth to think about as well.

The textbooks say that water is a renewable resource. After all, moisture evaporates and evaporation leads to precipitation… so when did we start thinking of water in terms of years’ worth of supply before it’s gone? In a sense, this foreshadowing of the day when supplies will run out is a good thing: if water below ground is thought of as mineral wealth, to be used wisely, perhaps it won’t be wasted, but employed in such a way as to secure a lasting return on investment.

Long-time readers of Capacify might recall my article on embodied material, describing how a kilo of cucumbers embodies 350 litres of water. If that seems like a shocking amount, bear in mind that 15,400 litres of water goes into every kilogram of beef that is prepared. With accounting like that, it’s clear that the water supply can be strained to breaking point, even when large quantities are still there to be had, below ground.

When I looked at the problems of drought in Botswana, I wondered what a society does when confronted with a lack of water. The short answer seems to be that you do without: you endure interruptions in service, quality problems, and high prices… and you hope for the situation to improve over time.

What would bring about an improvement, though? Sharing with neighbours is nice, but those neighbours are all too likely to have growing populations of their own. Some of the people that I spoke to felt that technology held the answer. Desalination was mentioned a few times: not an obvious choice for a landlocked country, but there remains the possibility of a deal with a neighbouring country, I suppose. Personally, I’m concerned that the energy requirements for desalination mean that it becomes an exercise in turning oil into water. That can be done, for a time, but only at the cost of resource depletion and further climate change. It’s not an answer for the long term.

I had a look at solar-powered desalination, but found that it’s mostly being done on a very small scale. A few thousand litres of water a day is so minor a contribution as to be readily dismissed as a drop in (or more accurately, out of) the ocean.

Frank Herbert had a lot to say about the preservation of moisture: the people who live on Dune and harvest the spice wear ‘stillsuits’: fitted garments that trap the wearer’s sweat and separate out the salt, recirculating the water into catchpockets where it can be consumed again and again.

Principal characters in David Lynch’s Dune (1984)

Stillsuits in the 1984 Dune film. “Urine and faeces are processed in the thigh pads,” Dr Kynes explains. Er… OK. Lovely.

To a person in the present day that technology seems implausible, because anything that interferes with the body’s natural process of sweating would probably cause the wearer to collapse from heat exhaustion… but closed-loop systems are possible – in the plant kingdom.

Did you ever attempt to cultivate a bottle garden? I had one, in my teens. I can’t say that it was a huge success, because one species quickly squeezed out all the rest… but what remained proved surprisingly resilient to the neglectful ownership of a young person not blessed with green fingers.

David Latimer did rather better, and he had a head start, too: his bottle garden was planted in 1960, and has only been watered once since then, back in 1972.

David Latimer and his bottle garden

David Latimer and his remarkable bottle garden

The experiment began with a single seedling. This neatly sidesteps any question of one species edging the others out, leaving us with the intriguing possibility of a managed monoculture in a sealed environment, where evaporation and transpiration don’t represent a loss to the system, but simply copy the natural cycle, with dew forming on the walls of the vessel in place of rainfall. You’d still have to ‘pay’ for anything that you removed from such a system, but only what is removed. Thus you’d want to pop in some extra minerals and water, to reflect what was harvested, but a kilo of (hypothetically) cucumbers taken out would demand no more than kilo of water in, not the current third of a tonne… and you’d have no phosphates leaking into rivers, lakes and seas as agricultural run-off, because it would remain in the ‘bottle’ until you chose to extract it. (And since you’re paying for those fertilisers, why allow them to leak away?)

Now, I’m not saying that agriculture can really take place in bottle gardens. For one thing, the cost of putting vast areas of land under glass would be prohibitive. For another, it might be extremely unpleasant for a grower to work inside such a closed environment – almost as bad as wearing a stillsuit. Even so, I wonder how long we can go on accepting the current bad bargain of embodied water.

Degradation in polythene sheeting, seen in Zambia

Polytunnels offer some advantages, but don’t fare well under strong African sunlight, as I saw at the National Resource Development Centre in Zambia

Back when I worked at the University of Nottingham, I proposed a research project in ‘zero emissions manufacturing’: basically allowing nothing in but electricity (on the assumption that this could be clean energy from a sustainable source such as sunlight) and then using only materials and technologies that wouldn’t produce waste that would accumulate and degrade the system over time. I had in mind that the project would exist in several phases: a first phase in which a theoretical system was specified via environmental accounting, to identify sources of entropy, a second phase in which a ‘virtual company’ was operated, offsetting problematic wastes that caused entropy by finding practical uses for them… and a third phase in which a demonstrator sealed facility was constructed, making a sample product with nothing going up the chimney, no effluents, and no solid waste. This is a very demanding brief, because it limits the manufacturing technologies that can be used: conventional milling and grinding are out because sooner or later you’d wear away your cutting tools and want to throw them out. Likewise, deformation (bending, pressing) is preferable to cutting, because you don’t want to be generating a lot of swarf.

“Impossible,” said virtually everyone I spoke to. “You can’t have manufacturing in a closed system!”

“Really?” I said. “We’re living in one.”

Planet Earth

Fracking: an Inside Story

(Part III in a series on ‘fracking’. See parts I and II here.)

While it arouses considerable loathing, fracking is in some senses an absolute gift to protestors. The slogans practically write themselves: ‘no fracking way’, ‘frack off’, ‘Lancashire’s not for Shale’, etc. In this regard the anti- brigade are shooting fish in a barrel. They also benefit from a home team advantage at public meetings, where their concerns about the quality of drinking water and the risk of earthquakes seems very reasonable, compared to the position of ‘big oil’.

"Get the frack out of Sussex"

I hope this gentleman is sufficiently clothed, but… um…?

Fracking has an interesting but hardly admirable pedigree. Consider the story of the three businessmen who, in 1864, formed the Dramatic Oil Company: they took out a lease on a property in Pennsylvania, hired staff and set about drilling an oil well. All did not run smoothly, but presently oil was struck and a modest amount was obtained. Seeking to increase the yield, the investors decided to ‘shoot’ the well – to detonate a large amount of gunpowder at depth in order to fracture the surrounding rock. That’s what you did back in 1864, hydraulic fracturing being unknown until 1949… but the blast ruined the well, and ended oil production at the site. This would be nothing but a tiny footnote in the history of the US oil industry, but for the identity of one of the three investors: John Wilkes Booth, who would soon assassinate President Abraham Lincoln. If he hadn’t lost the modern-day equivalent of $90,000 on his oil venture, perhaps he’d have stayed in Pennsylvania, and away from Ford’s Theater.

When gunpowder didn’t pack enough punch for the ‘shooting’ of oil and gas wells, there was nitroglycerin: a ‘torpedo’ containing perhaps a couple of hundred litres of the substance would be lowered down the well, and detonated. Nitroglycerin continued to be used until 1990. There were also three experiments in releasing gas from shale through the use of nuclear devices. First there was Project Gasbuggy (29 kilotons) in December 1967; then came Project Rulison (43 kilotons) and Project Rio Blanco (three devices at 33 kilotons each). Conducting twenty-seven nuclear tests between 1961 and 1973 for the purposes of demonstrating non-combat uses for nuclear explosives, Operation Plowshare certainly marks an interesting phase in US history… and one that I’m glad I didn’t have to witness. The three tests that were done for the purposes of fracking showed a very poor return on investment – and yielded a short-lived, radioactive gas supply that was never used commercially.

I learned about John Wilkes Booth’s history as an oil investor, and about atomic fracking, courtesy of John Midgley at a meeting of the Craven & Pendle Geological Society last week. His presentation ‘Fracking – a Geological Perspective’ contained much else besides, and our interest is in hydraulic fracturing rather than in more exotic, explosive solutions to wells running dry… but I enjoyed the history lesson all the same.

Now, I’ll attempt to reproduce more of what I learned from the speaker…

Mr Midgley’s stated aim was not to promote or condemn fracking, but to talk about “how it sits in the current energy landscape”, and as such it matched my hope to learn more about the science and engineering involved.

The speaker had a lot of experience in the industry, and had been fracking overseas more than 25 years ago. One example that he gave involved fracking with acids, to stimulate oil wells by dissolving carbonates, in the Middle East. As I have written before, not all fracking involves shale gas; in fact Mr Midgley reported that “you can frack any well” (and sometimes it happens unintentionally).

He was careful to distinguish between resources and reserves, and commented that the media often fail in this regard. Resources are estimates of the total quantity of oil and gas physically contained in a deposit, while reserves are the subset that can be extracted, subject to technological and economic constraints. Thus, we need to be careful with language when discussing the UK’s shale deposits.

So how big is this gas bonanza that we can anticipate? The shale deposits in the USA are massive, compared to ours. It’s a big country (obviously) with thick seams that are easy to access both physically and legally. Gas quality was also said to be better in the US. Basically, every attempt to prospect for shale gas in the UK has been a disappointment, and the UK has yet to see a single fracked gas well that is commercially viable. Between our less generous deposits and more difficult legislative environment (including far-reaching company liability) UK shale gas looks like something of a hardscrabble proposition.

The UK has three main areas where shale gas might be mined: the Weald basin in the south of England, the Bowland-Hodder formation in the North, and the Midland Valley in Scotland. In the same way that Murphy’s Law dictates that military operations inevitably take place at the intersection between two maps, each on a different scale, studies of the UK’s shale beds seldom use the same unit of measure, but Mr Midgley did his best to interpret the data for us, juggling “barrels” and “trillion cubic feet”. His assessment was that the Weald Basin wouldn’t be exploited because it’s relatively small and “too many policymakers live there”, and that the Bowland-Hodder formation (in what Lord Howell of Guildford called the “desolate north”) was the most promising of the remaining pair, for reasons of logistics, although it in no way resembled the attractiveness of the US gas fields.

Prospective shale gas fields

Anticipated shale gas in the Bowland Basin (BBC news)

Is it worth doing at all? Mr Midgley reported that fracked gas has a good calorific value and requires very little post-processing. In response to an audience question along the lines of “Should we leave it in the ground until later?” he felt that the time was right to commence fracking as it offered a supply of gas for approximately 50 years – if used to top up declining volumes from the North Sea and “keep the lights on” as politicians like to say. Thirty years, he felt, would be sufficient to buy time during which a new generation of nuclear plants could be constructed.

Amid these sometimes gloomy assessments, the audience learned a great deal about the business of drilling for oil and gas, such as how you steer a drill bit, and gauge its position below ground, and what you can and can’t do at the bottom of a very deep hole. We learned about the differences between biogenic and thermogenic methane (something it’s very important to understand before taking everything in Gasland at face value) and about the super-hard, super-expensive form of concrete that is used to line a bore, and how very difficult it is to control (and measure) the integrity of that bore. No apologist for the industry in this regard, Mr Midgley frankly admitted that over time, all wells will leak. He weighed this knowledge in terms of social need versus social impact.

shale gas pad drilling

The presenter scoffed at the idea of drilling ever being as precise as this…

I was interested to see Mr Midgley make reference to the Triple Bottom Line (Elkington, 1994) and the idea that an acceptable near-future energy mix must be socially just and environmentally bearable, as well as commercially sound. While many people have expressed concerns about the environmental pedigree of fracking, the speaker observed (based on his own career in the oil and gas industry) that much of Britain’s gas comes from nations with highly questionable politics and human rights. This is an interesting thought; we talk about “conflict diamonds” but there is no equivalent dialogue about “conflict gas” and we are quite happy to buy our energy from countries that aren’t democracies. All we tend to hear are the oft-voiced concerns that the present deteriorating relations between the EU and Vladimir Putin’s Russia might result in limitations being placed upon the gas supply from that country.

The audience, of course, consisted primarily of geologists. (Interestingly, the older ones tended to occupy the lower tiers of the auditorium: is this merely expedient, due to hearing loss, or do geologists instinctively mirror the formations that they study?) Anyway, there were some highly pertinent questions from the audience, including one about NORMs: Naturally Occurring Radioactive Materials. When you liberate something from below ground, you will often acquire a side-order of radiation. That’s troubling enough where gases such as radon tend to migrate out of the Earth’s crust over time and build up in your basement, but radiation is also a significant issue where fracking fluid is concerned. After the fracking operation, much of the liquid comes burping back out of the ground when you release the pressure, but what do you do with what the industry calls “produced water”? Of the 16,000 cubic metres of water invested in a well, you might expect to get 12,000 back… complete with chemicals such as salts, friction reducers, scale inhibitors, biocides, gelling agents… and a dose of radiation. While some of these things can be removed, Mr Midgley reported that the radioactivity of the fluid was not addressed on site – although it might be diluted, or used in an application where radioactivity is not considered to be an issue. (The example given was that if used in roadmaking, any contamination in the water will be moot since it will be mixed with a naturally radioactive shale material.)

In terms of the quantity of water expended to obtain gas, Mr Midgley dismissed it as “about half what’s used by a golf course in a year”. I’ve heard this analogy before: Brian Dunning reported something similar, although it would appear that a US golf course gets through more water. I think I’d like to know more, though: presumably the water sprinkled on a golf course is a reasonably wholesome runoff, and it remains a part of the water cycle; it doesn’t get locked away far below the water table. But do we even want to get used fracking water back? I simply don’t know. This article suggests we need to do more, though.

Not everything our speaker had to say was accurate, though, if I’m any judge. For example, in endorsing a nuclear future he dismissed wind turbines on the grounds that they “require more carbon than they sequester”, and said that the construction of solar panels was impractical because of the rare earths required for their construction.

With CO2 emissions for wind power ranging from 14 to 33 tonnes per GWh of energy produced (White, 2007), and a typical Energy Return on Investment of 16:1, this blanket dismissal of wind energy was simply wrong. The claim that solar panels require rare earths in their construction is likewise garbled: you might well raise a concern that manufacturing masses of wind turbines is going to require vast quantities of neodymium, the rare earth used in their magnets… but solar panels require silicon (which is relatively abundant, and not a rare earth). I don’t expect a person to be an expert in every field, but a speaker from the oil industry doesn’t do himself any favours when he stumbles like this in his assessment of alternative technologies.

Make of that what you will, but it was a very interesting and at times entertaining evening, and I’m glad to have attended. There were one or two things to be taken with a pinch of salt, but I was impressed with Mr Midgley’s frankness on key issues such as well integrity, and the short useful life of a well.

 

References:

Elkington, J. (1994) Towards the sustainable corporation: Win-win-win business strategies for sustainable development, California Management Review, Vol. 36, no. 2, pp. 90–100

White, S. W. (2007) Net Energy Payback and CO2 Emissions from Three Midwestern Wind Farms: An Update, Natural Resources Research, Vol. 15, no. 4, pp. 271–281

Fracking by Numbers

Part II of a series on High Volume Well Stimulation, or ‘fracking’…

At a training and strategy event organised by Friends of the Earth (see Part I, here) I’d heard some of the concerns and objections to fracking, but I had yet to make up my mind on the subject. In fact, that’s still the case. On the one hand, the natural gas would be very useful to a nation that’s just beginning to suffer from quite a bad hangover as the party that was North Sea oil and gas winds down. Against this, it’s a fossil fuel energy source (so it’s finite, and a contributor to climate change) and the methods used for extraction are causing people anxiety for a number of reasons.

If I’m going to come down off the fence on this important issue, I’m going to need to base my decision on evidence, and good science. That has called for quite a bit of research.

One thing that I learned early on came as a surprise: that fracking appears to have been common in North Sea oil and gas extraction since the 1970s, and has been used onshore about 200 times in British oil and gas wells since the early 1980s. I should clarify that its use when going after shale gas is relatively recent.

Now, fracking can cause earthquakes. This particularly well-known ‘smoking gun’ in the case against fracking comes from two earthquakes that occurred in April and May of 2011, close to the Cuadrilla Resources’ Preese Hall drilling site near Blackpool, UK. They were of magnitude 2.3 and 1.5 respectively. To people who live in an area not known for its earthquakes, that sounds pretty scary. We know what an earthquake of magnitude 6.3 did to the beautiful city of Christchurch, New Zealand, in the same year. People (including the news media) need to understand, though, that the Richter magnitude scale is a base-10 logarithmic scale; thus a 4.0 wouldn’t be twice as bad as a 2.0, but a hundred times as bad. The two Blackpool earthquakes were tiny. (Cuadrilla’s Mark Miller was on the BBC in November 2011: see what you think of his assessment here.)

Independent newspaper: Blackpool earthquake

The Independent, June 1st 2011

A fact in favour of fracking is that the burning of natural gas has less potential to cause climate change, if the alternative is burning coal. I looked up DEFRA’s carbon dioxide conversion factors in an effort to get a definitive figure here. Using net calorific value in an effort to compare like with like I learned that the greenhouse gas emissions (expressed in kg CO2e per kWh, including the emissions resulting from extraction, transport, storage and so on) for natural gas are 0.22674 kg CO2e/kWh. In comparison, coal-fired electricity generation comes in at 0.39988 kg CO2e/kWh… which is to say 75% higher.

Liquefied natural gas (LNG), tankered in from elsewhere, is associated with emissions of 0.27750 kg CO2e/kWh, which argues that using locally-produced gas is the better choice, all other things being equal. What a shame that DEFRA currently make no distinction between gas obtained by conventional and unconventional means. I believe that gas produced via a fracking operation would have a somewhat greater carbon footprint, given the technology involved and the energy that must be invested before gas flows; more CO2e per kWh out. Exactly what the figure might be, I have not been able to determine, but if fracking takes off in the UK I bet that a future edition of the DEFRA conversion factors will include it – and I very much doubt that it will approach the climate change potential of coal. (We know that with cheap shale gas edging out coal in the USA, that country’s greenhouse gas emissions have fallen – something that Kyoto, Copenhagen, Cancún, Durban, Doha and all the other talks failed to do.)

A problem with any calculation based purely on greenhouse gases released, of course, is that it says nothing about other issues related to gas exploration such as traffic congestion, impacts on the tourist trade, water consumption, concerns about toxicity, etc.

Gasland

Gasland, a 2010 independent documentary, prompted a lot of dialogue about fracking… but it’s no less biased than the industry’s own efforts. Who do you believe?

“Once you frack, you can’t go back,” one of the activists I met had warned me. To hydraulically fracture a shale bed you use a fluid that’s perhaps 90% water, with the bulk of the remainder being proppants (the material injected to hold fractures open; originally sand, but sometimes something more exotic such as sintered bauxite or zirconia silicate), and certain chemicals. It’s typically the chemicals that have the activists up in arms, and it’s true that there have been a bewildering number of different ones employed in the USA – although those available for use in the UK are significantly reduced by legislation. It seems that exactly which chemicals are used, and what happens to them afterwards, will be a major determinant in the acceptance (or not) of fracking in the UK.

That’s about as much as I had learned before yesterday. Last night I attended a talk by John Midgley of Energy Geoscience International Ltd., hosted by the Craven & Pendle Geological Society, and learned some interesting things about the history and science of fracking – which I’ll share in part III.

An Evening with the Deep Greens

As a part of my efforts to gauge public opinion on sustainability topics, I follow a lot of groups and individuals on Twitter. (If you want to say hello, I tweet on @Capacified…) A recent announcement caught my interest, and led me to Burnley, Lancashire where Friends of the Earth were running a training and strategy event for people concerned about gas extraction via hydraulic fracturing, or ‘fracking’. I went along primarily as an observer: somebody from out of town, not a member of Friends of the Earth, and not entirely sure where I stand on shale gas extraction. On the one hand, it appears to offer a solution to the gloomy refrain of my adult life, that North Sea oil and gas are running out; on the other, I know that giving our present-day economy access to more fossil fuels could be analogous to buying an alcoholic a bottle of whisky.

The path to meeting these folks did not run entirely smoothly. When I followed the link to register my interest (using the Eventbrite service) it acknowledged my booking but generated a ticket that gave the date and address for a similar event in Preston, twelve days later and at a different time. Fortunately, I checked my facts, and went to the right one… although I waited by the front entrance while all the regulars knew to go around the back. Things are a little ad-hoc, it seems.

My ticket

Misleading ticket: check.

While my students would crucify me for such vagaries, this is actually kind of cool. Gaining admittance to the meeting felt like slipping into a prohibition era speakeasy, or contacting a resistance movement – which is basically what it is. I had passed the test, if test it was, and gained admission.

Ultimately, there were thirteen of us, who I will attempt to categorise (with apologies if I misrepresent anybody’s position, but this is how it seemed to me…) as two staffers from Friends of the Earth, nine ‘deep green’ citizens from various groups, a geologist who described himself as “ambivalent” on fracking, and your humble narrator. We all introduced ourselves. Nobody tried to lynch me or the geologist. So far, so good.

Now, people who care enough to give up their evening for campaigning tend to be the passionate ones. They’re vocal, and they don’t always follow the agenda. Organiser Tim Atkinson did a good job of keeping things more-or-less on topic, but it wasn’t always easy. People wanted to talk about the evils of fracking in general (with the exception of the geologist) and didn’t always follow instructions when asked to participate in activities. At one stage, a roleplaying exercise saw our group selecting and briefing a ‘local councillor’ who would meet with representatives from the other group, the anti-fracking campaigners. Our guy would talk about local employment, “keeping the lights on”, and so on… but few of the people on our side wanted to come up with any arguments in favour of the exploratory fracking that’s now taking place. This is understandable, but I feel that one should at least try to anticipate the likely arguments of the ‘bad guys’, even if you can’t condone their position.

There was an elephant in the room, too: that of party politics. There seemed to be a consensus between all present that the political left were inherently well-disposed to listen, understand and do the right thing. This is borne out by the fact that the Green Party of England and Wales are socialists in a big way, and allies of the anti-fracking movement. For example, Green Member of Parliament Dr Caroline Lucas was arrested during a protest against Cuadrilla Resources’ fracking operations in Sussex – and subsequently found not guilty. It should be noted, however, that the Green Party have a relatively minor influence in UK politics: Dr Lucas provides the only representation in the House of Commons.

The Arrest of Caroline Lucas, MP

Arrest of Caroline Lucas, August 2013 (The Times)

It’s true that the current Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition have granted licenses to drill for shale gas, but on a local level some Conservative councils have ruled against shale gas exploration on their patch. Fylde Borough Council’s development management committee decided to oppose an application the same day I met with the activists. Can a Conservative voter or public servant not be a ‘green’, at least as far as this issue is concerned? Will they always protect big business at the expense of citizens? I’m troubled by this “four legs good, two legs bad” simplifying of the political spectrum: when I think of all the environmental catastrophes of Soviet era heavy industry, it really doesn’t follow that socialism can always be equated with environmentally sound policy. Are the anti-frackers potentially turning away a lot of support because they combine the issue with a wider political one? I don’t know.

That said, the resistance movement has achieved a great deal, despite its volunteer roots, limited budget and the immense funding of their rivals. In August this year a council consultation saw an unprecedented 14,000 objections to Cuadrilla’s plans. One thing that impressed me about the protesters I met was that nobody appeared to be there only to ensure that their own hillsides and waterways should be defended: although organised into local groups, the aim is national and even international.

“Not NIMBYs but NOMPs,” our facilitator told me: “Not On My Planet”.

Where fracking proposals have been defeated, I am told, activists transfer their support to campaigns in other counties. In the face of such opposition it seems that the energy companies can’t hope to emulate the rapid uptake seen in the USA. Instead, it’s going to be an uphill battle, of the kind that makes investors nervous. The British respond instinctively to the plucky underdog; it’s part of our national myth, going back to the days of the Spanish Armada; maybe further. The group aroused in me a sympathy of the kind that you get for the rebels in Star Wars (1977) in their rag-tag struggle against the brute force of the Empire.

Star Wars (Lucasfilm)

It really is just like this. Only with chocolate biscuits instead of lasers.

They’re real people, but they’re not ordinary people; ordinary people don’t understand the legislative landscape. Most folk couldn’t name their local councillors, nor tell you how to get an item onto the agenda at a public meeting. I suspect that the average ‘man in the street’ knows very little about the legal and civic processes of lobbying. I know I don’t: I’d have to think hard to remember the name of my MP, and I certainly couldn’t tell you who represents us in Europe. My own interests are centred upon establishing the sustainable supply chain by example – I want to make companies better because being less wasteful is more profitable. I regard legislation as flawed, in that it often solves the wrong problems, or gets derailed, or closes the stable door long after the horse has bolted. In this I think I share Jonathan Swift’s opinion of politicians:

“…that whoever could make two ears of corn, or two blades of grass, to grow upon a spot of ground where only one grew before, would deserve better of mankind, and do more essential service to his country, than the whole race of politicians put together.”

– Jonathan Swift, ‘Gulliver’s Travels’ (1726)

There’s a dichotomy developing, as we see that ‘ordinary people’ have greatly increased ability to broadcast their thoughts, courtesy of the Internet… but a lot of the population seem to think that clicking ‘like’ on a Facebook page means they’ve done their bit. (This limited degree of involvement is called Slacktivism, and with good reason.) Apathy is a double-edged sword, though, because in an age when so few people take an interest in local affairs and politics, a small group can achieve a great deal. If a local councillor or Member of Parliament gets a hundred letters on a subject, it’s very influential. Such a postbag could be very persuasive, even though it might be achieved by mobilising a group of people attending just one large school or church. This was the key message of the training event: that each person should propagate the message, not simply taking part in events, but persuading others to take an interest.

By providing contact details for the relevant legislators, plus form letters for those who are struggling to express their concerns clearly, Friends of the Earth do what they can to make it easy for citizens to object.

But.
Are those objections reasonable?
Are they based on good science?

I don’t know, yet. Some of the evidence against fracking – eloquently and passionately shared though it was – appeared to be only anecdotal. For example, I was told that a UK contractor was “caught fly-tipping used fracking fluid” – apparently they dumped a tanker-load or two into a canal? Well… that would be sensational. That would be a ‘smoking gun’, and the national newspapers would be all over it. And since used fracking fluid is a soup of unusual chemicals, often made mildly radioactive by its trip below ground, I’d expect to be able to prove that claim with ease, even weeks later.

For now, the only comment I can offer on that story is that Google doesn’t seem to want to share any such news item with me. Prove me wrong; send me the links I haven’t been able to find… but for now, I can’t endorse that particular part of the case against fracking. Meanwhile, in an effort to get some hard facts, a quick look on one of our library databases revealed 284 peer-reviewed academic papers that contain the word “fracking”.

It appears that I’m not going to be short of reading material for a while.