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Special Digest


20/12/2013

Professor Smythe and the Lords Select Committee, evidence dated 11th November.

Professor David Smythe, Emeritus Professor of Geophysics, University of Glasgow, written evidence to the Lords Select Committee on Economic Affairs.

Professor Smythe is a geophysicist and structural geologist with forty years' experience. He has previously given evidence against his ex-employer Nirex regarding application for nuclear waste dumping at Sellafield, and more recently gave evidence to DECC regarding the Managing Radioactive Waste Safely programme and delivered public lectures in West Cumbria which helped to persuade Cumbria County Council to withdraw from the MRWS process in January this year.

The full evidence he gave to the Lords committee as published by them can be found along with other written evidence here.

Summary

1 The geology of the US shale basins is fundamentally different from that in western Europe.
2 The UK shale basins are heavily faulted, from the shale layer right to the surface, in contrast to those of the USA.
3 Pre-existing faults provide a potential fast-track pathway for fracking fluid and produced gas to escape upwards into drinking water aquifers and even to the surface
4 This fault-leak problem associated with fracking has been recognised in France and Germany, but not in the UK.
5 The current UK regulatory regime is ill-equipped to deal with this problem.
6 Fracking for gas or oil should be banned in areas of complex faulted geology; in effect this means an overall ban in the UK.
7 There will be no 'shale gas revolution' in the UK because in complex geology the production process is uneconomic.


Summarised evidence detail

The Royal Society report into hydraulic fracturing ('fracking') concentrated on the risk of induced earthquakes. The problem of pre-existing faults (pathways for pollution migration) was barely discussed, even though it was introduced as a subject for concern by the Geological Society of London. A report from the US from Halliburton, which argues that fracking per se cannot affect near-surface groundwater resources, was accepted uncritically, whereas in reality that study was flawed and in any event to transferable to the UK for geological reasons. Professor Smythe found evidence of only around twenty wells out of half a million which were within 1km of a natural fault. The crucial difference between the US and UK shale basins is that the latter are pervaded by faults extending from the shale layer all the way to the surface.

There is no perfect rock-cap seal above UK shale formations. If fracking takes place on an industrial scale over large areas, it is likely that in areas of complex geology fugitive methane and perhaps fracking fluid will eventually contaminate aquifers.

The weakest point of the UK regulatory system is the Environment Agency. Its advice on planning applications is based only on the applicant’s Environmental Statement placed before it, and whteher that appears reasonable. It acts on a reactive rather than a proactive basis. The EA is ill-equipped to cope with the new demands of unconventional hydrocarbon exploration.

Professor Smythe warns of lack of competence shown by three potential operators, Cuadrilla, Celtique and Dart Energy. The overall impression of the work done to date is that it is frequently hurried and based upon poor-quality data and interpretations. The most serious failing is that the faulting which pervades all the licence areas examined has not properly been taken into account. Equally serious is the fact that the companies seem to be getting away with presenting such work.

The above is my edited and summarised version of Professor Smythe's evidence. E&OE

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