Q&A with Nick Grealy

Materials World magazine
13 Oct 2014

Nick Grealy, the voice behind the website No Hot Air, tells Rhiannon Garth Jones his frank opinions on shale gas and the future of the energy industry.

Can you tell me a bit abo ut your background in the industry?
I actually studied Anthropology and Filmmaking at New York University, which is obviously a very different background for this industry, but I worked for Consolidated Edison in New York and then I moved into the UK oil and gas industry in 1991. I have had a pretty varied career path, which has proved both interesting and fun. Most recently, I worked as an energy consultant in the UK, which I would now describe myself as recovering from. I felt that the best way for people to get their energy was at market prices, without having me as a middleman, earning a nice fat commission for advising them to buy into certain tariffs.

Where did you move to from there ?
Back in 2008, when oil prices had risen past US$100 a barrel and were close to US$150, and everybody was concerned about the lights going out, I noticed that the situation in the USA was completely different because of shale gas. I loved that it was so disruptive, which is what we’re now seeing in the UK. Everything in the energy sector is different – gas, oil, nuclear and renewables. Going back to energy consultancy, I think there are a lot of environmental hand-wringers who are making a huge amount of money talking about climate change without actually doing anything about it. That’s why I set up my website, No Hot Air (www.nohotair.co.uk). Let’s just drill and see what’s there, instead of endlessly talking about it.   

What do you think IS causing the debate about shale gas in the UK?
I think most people have an outdated or misinformed idea of what impact a gas or oil site actually has on land, and also that most people have very little connection with the energy they use – they forget about the huge chain from extraction to the socket. This idea that’s so popular in the UK of thousands of drills in people’s backyards is very far from reality. Gas and oil extraction is a very mundane process that few would ever notice, and the challenge for the shale gas industry is to make it seem just as boring to the public.

What do you think is the main problem with the current debate over shale gas?
The facts are out there, but some people simply refuse to be convinced and the industry has to realise how tiny a minority that is. In my opinion, there’s a huge majority in favour or unconcerned.

How do you think that can be counter acted?
I think the various players have to join together and start a public information campaign on energy choices – one that puts all the facts before people. I think the logic of shale gas as a physically deliverable solution is compelling, but we need to put that information out there. We are up against deep-pocketed environmental organisations that have a very simple narrative. The problem on the shale side is that we don’t have simple narratives – we have complex scientific answers to all the objections, but the press often chooses the simple option. I think this is a problem for the whole natural gas industry, actually. A few years ago, one of the problems was the distance between the conventional and shale gas industries, but that is disappearing now. We have been very successful in the UK at the Government level, but then you get campaigns like We Need To Talk About Fracking, with 150 celebrities speaking out against shale gas. These people are entitled to their opinion, but it’s just that – an opinion, and we have to make sure people understand that they aren’t experts.

Do you think shale gas can realistically support the development of renewable energy in the UK?
I think this hangs over everybody – I don’t understand why environmentalists don’t support exploratory drilling, because it’s always going to be in the background of our energy debate, especially with investors, even if we put a moratorium on it. I try to approach this from both an environmental and a common-sense angle. I think we need a combination of renewables, natural gas and efficiency to move forward. We will need to continue using natural gas for 16–50 years while we wait for renewable technology to supply the energy we need, and we might have our own – so why import it? It’s like importing bread. Additionally, natural gas will be able to back up renewable technology until we can store it properly, and it’s a cheaper way of doing that than nuclear. Essentially, I think green opponents are fighting the wrong battle – they should concentrate on getting coal out of the system.

A lot has been said about how well-suited the USA was to adapting to shale, specifically with regards to infrastructure. Do you think the UK is in a comparable position?
As regards infrastructure, the UK is in a far better position as the National Grid reaches 85% of the country. If discovered, the gas can be sold within weeks after building pipelines of less than 50 metres long. This will be much quicker than the first US shale plays, some of which are still waiting to be connected to the gas grid.

Do you think there’s any reasonable argument against shale gas extraction in the UK ?
I think if people want to walk away from this opportunity then that’s fine, but they have to consider how else they’ll keep the lights on.

What would your message be to the oil and gas industry?
It has to fight back against misinformation. The oil and mining industries spend a lot of money on PR and keeping their names out of the papers. They should be spending that money putting their names in the papers. They shouldn’t be ashamed of being in the natural gas industry. I’m not a fan of coal and I think this is an opportunity to get rid of it.

And to the general public?
They need to inform themselves about the reality of where energy comes from, and you’ll see that natural gas is the logical solution going forward.  

What do you think about Nick’s opinions on shale gas? Tweet us @materialsworld

For further information, email Nick Grealy, guru@nohotair.co.uk