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Sunday, 9 March 2014

The UK Government’s Fracking Report

Now to the matter of this so-called evidence-based, engineering thinking …

In my blog from last week (See-through Engineering and Fracking), I mentioned that I was in the process of studying a report that the UK Government commissioned in 2012. The report was prepared by bodies that would claim to be independent, objective, rational, unbiased … The bodies concerned are the Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering. If you believe that they are truly independent etc. – this is a choice that everyone is free to make. They do however, like the Institution of Mechanical Engineers mentioned in last week’s blog, very much look to be lobby groups. They will probably say that they are not, but there is no accounting for the silly things that scientific and engineering types say – a rose is a rose by any other name.

For those wishing to read the report it is called: Shale gas extraction in the UK: a review of hydraulic fracturing. It is available at the following web sites: royalsociety.org/policy/projects/shale-gas-extraction and raeng.org.uk/shale.

Having worked for several decades in preparing reports, some for government agencies, one thing I have learned – no one is independent when it comes to working with governments, civil servants and politicians. All have an agenda, and I am no different to anyone else. What marks me out is that I do not seek to hide my agenda, nor do I engage in delusional statements about being unbiased.

As for the report, its brief was set by the Government’s Chief Scientist (at that time Beddington). The brief was very limited. Specifically, the terms of reference of the review, were: (i) to identify the major risks associated with hydraulic fracturing as a means to extract shale gas in the UK, including geological risks, such as seismicity, and environmental risks, such as groundwater contamination (ii) to establish if the risks can be effectively managed, and if so how.

In my blog of February 23 2014 (See-through Science) I wrote about a report from a Think Tank called DEMOS, that was advocating upstream public engagement in science (in policy making, research strategy development, funding decisions, etc.). The report discusses how governments can manipulate circumstances to their own interests, by setting briefs for so-called independent studies, and picking the right people to undertake the work, so that the conclusions reached are those that the government wants. Here is a case I believe that well illustrates this manipulative behaviour.

The brief that was set for the study has led to a report that is nothing more than a collection of historical facts, information about regulations and technologies, and tutorials about such, etc. It is the kind of material that typically, in a high quality report, would be included in an appendix. But in this case, if such material had been placed where it belongs, in appendices, then the main body of the report would be very thin indeed!

And if you ask two bodies that represent the interests of groups (scientists, engineers and technologists) whose thinking, which is deeply embedded in their cultures (in the form of biases, values, vested interests, beliefs, etc.), is that the risks can be managed, what do you expect their conclusions will be? They are a safe bet to come up with the answer that is sought: that the risks can be managed.

It will not therefore come as a surprise to learn that this is the conclusion reached. The report states (on page 4): “The health, safety and environmental risks associated with hydraulic fracturing (often termed ‘fracking’) as a means to extract shale gas can be managed effectively in the UK as long as operational best practices are implemented and enforced through regulation.”

Was it ever going to reach any other conclusion? This you must decide for yourself. What I here offer is an observation that the material in the report does not convincingly support this conclusion.

The most striking aspect of the content of this report is the uncertainty, unknowns, lack of factual information, and, lack of detailed knowledge about sites where fracking might take place. This report is full of words and phrases such as: if …, the most likely cause …, this explanation does not necessarily apply to …, one possible explanation …, an alternative … explanation has been provided …, very little is currently known about …, there is greater uncertainty about …, large uncertainties in quantifying …, where possible …, it may be possible …, it is difficult to predict …, there is a lack of …

I looked at the report trying to find an analysis of consequences that will follow, when, as we all know will be the case, the risks turn out not to be manageable. This, you might reasonably expect, would centre significantly in such a report. Better think again, for you will not find these considerations which are an essential part of any serious and professionally conducted risk analysis. Associated with risks there are consequences, and these too should be stated. They are not, and it is consequences that concern the public, but evidently not the Government, the Royal Society or the Royal Academy of Engineering.

With so many unknowns, uncertainties, and lack of consideration of consequences, the most professional conclusion to have reached would have been:

“Given the lack of information and specific details, it is not possible to state with a high degree of confidence that the health, safety and environmental risks associated with hydraulic fracturing (often termed ‘fracking’) as a means to extract shale gas can be managed effectively in the UK, even if operational best practices are implemented and enforced through regulation.”

An alternative wording would have been:

We believe that the health, safety and environmental risks associated with hydraulic fracturing (often termed ‘fracking’) as a means to extract shale gas can be managed effectively in the UK as long as operational best practices are implemented and enforced through regulation, even though the evidence for such is not fully convincing.”

Here I also mention that there is reference in the report to an explanation of why natural gas prices have fallen in the USA as a result of exploitation of shale gas. The explanation is quite simple and predictable: supply is greater than demand. So the next time David Cameron or George Osborn start beguiling people with vague promises about lower energy prices, ask them about the scale of fracking that would be needed in the UK to achieve a circumstance where supply exceeds demand, and if indeed there is enough exploitable shale gas in the UK to achieve such a situation. Bear in mind also, as a number of people have observed that there is as yet no certainty that there are sufficient exploitable shale gas deposits to be sure of any significant impact, both in terms of prices and security of supply. As I have mentioned before, exploiting shale gas has all the signs of addicts desperately seeking that which they are addicted to!

And now to draw the blog to a conclusion I mention that those invisible Promethean chains once more can be heard clanking. What the Fracking Report demonstrates is that there are still far too many people, those who call themselves scientists, engineers and technologists, who are willing to participate in processes and modes of thinking that belong in the past. Here in this report one sees an attitude that regards plundering the earth of its natural resources as an acceptable economic activity. Here one also sees discussions that accept as a given, the idea that dumping industrial waste in holes (man made and natural) in the plant, is a legitimate activity.

In the report one will also find a very disturbing statement. On page 70, it is stated: “Members of the Working Group acted in an individual and not a representative capacity, and declared any potential conflicts of interest.” No-where in this report does it say, “and we can confirm that none of the members of the working party declared any conflicts of interest”, or “we carried out independent checks to verify that the working party had no conflicts of interest.” I am not saying that they did have conflicts of interest just that the level of professionalism in this report is such that this is not convincingly proven, which is important, as the next matter shows.

I mention the above to draw to your attention just how out-dated and out-of touch with the modern world many scientists, engineers and technologists, and their lobby groups are. Not here will you find any role modelling to show to others the changes in behaviour that are needed to achieve Responsible Research and Innovation, which is what the See-through Science report addresses.

The Fracking report mentions that there is a lack of trust in the government to act in the public interest and ensure adequate regulatory oversight. What the report does not mention is that there is also a lack of trust in scientists, engineers and technologists. And the reason for this lack of trust is to be found in this report. And the appropriate public response to this is exactly what is happening: peaceful protest and opposition, reflecting what is at stake here: bringing under control powerful vested interests that are combining together to create a future for our children that will be a nightmare. And part of this response should be to work to ensure tighter regulation of scientists, engineers and technologists, and their lobby groups, which I would propose should include a good dose of individual and collective legal liability, both civil and criminal, for those who participate in the type of exercises that lead to reports such as the one discussed here.

It is time to put an end to this sort of nonsense, time for a different approach to dealing with these types of highly controversial issues, which place the public on one side, and the rest, the vested interests, on the other. Time also to start recognising that the legacy we leave to future generations, who will have to deal with the consequences of this desperate rush to extract and destroy the remnants of the earth’s fossil fuels, is just as important as dealing with our own needs. If we had the vision, the courage and the imagination to do this, then we would I am sure, end-up with a far better set of circumstances than that which prevails in the modern world. This is also why I wrote my (about to be published) novel, Moments in Time, for it explores the damage that results from the risks can be managed mind-set.

There are actions that people can peacefully take to ensure that a better circumstance is brought about. And about this I will have more to say in future blogs. But first however I want to follow-up on a number of issues that arise from the blogs that I have written over the past few weeks, and these I will deal with over the coming weeks.

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