Get talking: Fracking – a lesson in bad PR?

Materials World magazine
1 Feb 2017

Mike Turner CEng FIMMM gives his thoughts on how fracking has been communicated to the public. 

I read the article ‘A rock and a hard place’ (see Materials World, December 2016, page 6) with great interest. Allow me to present a different narrative. Fracking with high volumes of water at high pressure has only been done once on land in the UK, at Preese Hall near Blackpool, in 2011. The public relations since are a study in how not to do it. 

At the time, local people (of whom I am one) were not implacably opposed, but sought reassurance, given bad experiences in the USA, that the process would be done properly (as the engineers among us knew it could be). No regulations applied specifically to the hydraulic fracture part of the operation, nor do they now. It was accepted that there was a portfolio of regulations that could apply to the rest of it. The Government made it clear that it would not introduce any new regulations except for a ‘traffic light system’ in response to the earthquake issue. Attempts by those who knew what they were talking about to engage in debate were heard, but firmly rebuffed. 

In addition to regulations, there is monitoring and enforcement. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE), Environment Agency (EA), Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC), communities and local government all had a role, and each reported to a different cabinet minister. DECC refused to see the potential conflict of interest, being both a promoter of shale gas and its principal regulator. HSE and EA had no permanent presence anywhere near the frack site. HSE disbanded its oil and gas division in Aberdeen – the only group that had a clue about the process. The Government’s solution was to set up within DECC the Office of Unconventional Gas and Oil, staffed by a team lacking oil and gas, or even engineering, experience. At a public meeting in May 2014, the then chair of the Parliamentary Science and Technology Committee admitted that this structure was intellectually strange. Utterly dysfunctional is a better description.

You can see how confidence in the initial support, based on ‘doing it properly’, is ebbing away. It is even more infuriating because it could have been so different. The vital functions of an F1 car can be measured in real time and transmitted directly to the garage. Instrumentation specialists have told me that it is no massive ask to apply this technology to fracking.

It gets worse. Local people were given the false claim that more than 60,000 jobs would be created, but while fracking is labour-intensive when it is being set up, it can then proceed with a small staff. Moreover, the specialist skills required to establish the process are not local and probably not even British. Eventually, it was proposed to set up a special training facility in Blackpool. 

The Government decided to try what local people rightly perceived as bribes. We were promised no fracking in national parks – now this is OK, as long as the frack site is outside the park. The House of Commons Library states, ‘The Infrastructure Act 2015 includes provisions to streamline the underground access regime, including horizontal or lateral drilling, and make it easier for companies to drill for shale gas. It also provides a number of new “safeguards”. On 16 December 2015 regulations were approved by the House that provide some protection against fracking at depths shallower than 1,200m in protected areas. Following a consultation, the Government announced in June 2016 that further protections would be introduced through the licencing process.’ 

A derisory sum of the profits was promised to Lancashire County Council, while we are bombarded by stories about how profits can be disguised by clever finance arrangements. Lancashire County Council has had hundreds of millions cut from its central government funds over the years we have been looking at fracking. 

At Preese Hall, the EA took seven measurements of the water that comes back up to the surface after fracking, revealing radioactivity between 1.2 and nine times the acceptable level for discharge without treatment. The Government claims that ‘dilution’ is an acceptable treatment and the logistics of handling such volumes can be resolved. Those statements are plainly absurd. We are talking about 100 movements of the largest tankers permitted on British roads to deal with water problem from one frack site, but one official mouthpiece claimed this was no different from the milk tankers that trundle round country lanes. 

I write this from a public perception, rather than a refined technical position. The technical literature is copious, as my own files testify. Hopefully you can see that any educated resident, regardless of their engineering skills, can develop the opinion that the conflict of interest within DECC is firmly on the side of the industry and not the population (DECC no longer exists, but that changes nothing).

The public in frack-potential areas is reluctant to believe either the Government or the operator. It is going to be very hard, if not impossible, for the fracking industry to row back from a PR disaster of its own making. What would be surprising is if public approval were any different.

Dr Andrew Sturgeon CEng FIMMM, Chair of the IOM3 Oil and Gas Division, responds:

A reliable energy supply at an acceptable price is essential for the UK economy to prosper and for society needs to be met. This is achieved in today’s energy market by a balance of traditional and new energy sources, combined with an increasing drive towards reducing environmental impact. As regularly highlighted in Materials World and other media, every source of energy has downsides and critics. For example, regular visitors to the Scottish Highlands are no longer returning as wind turbines blight the stunning scenery – this may have major consequences for remote communities that rely on tourism. Numerous articles and protests have been staged against nuclear reactors and nuclear waste depositories. The recent anniversary of the Aberfan disaster is a tragic reminder of the many lives lost or maimed through coal mining activities. Offshore incidents such as oil tankers running aground have caused significant environmental impact.

As indicated by the previous article, effective government regulation plays an important role in promoting the requirements of safe practice and minimising environmental impact, and further improvement in this area is to be encouraged. Likewise, the companies involved in energy production, including fracking, are acutely aware of the importance of these requirements to the local population and environment. This is not least due to the tremendous negative impact to company reputation and business should failings occur. The energy sector as a whole, from extraction, production, transportation, storage and through to usage is therefore driven by a priority for safe operation and a concern for the environment.

It is in this context that shale gas, as a UK-sourced energy supply, must be considered. When making a judgement on shale gas, the UK Authorities and the public at large must decide how the cost, safety and environmental impact of shale gas compares to other sources of energy.

Mike Turner CEng FIMMM retired in 2003 following a long engineering career, beginning with studying metallurgy at the University of Birmingham, UK in the 1950s and ending as a consultant for TWI based in Australia. He has covered various multinational, academic and industrial projects, navigating the technical-political frontier and chiefly working in offshore applications.