Get talking: improving the image of shale gas

Materials World magazine
31 Mar 2017

Steve Kirby discusses the public image of fracking.

I read, with some interest, the opinion piece by Mike Turner, ‘Fracking: a lesson in bad PR?’ (see Materials World, February 2017). Mike makes a valid point that the industry’s public relations, since the Preese Hall incident, are a study in how not to do it.

This comment generally repeats the findings of a study by the University of Nottingham UK, reported by Khai Trung Le in Materials World, December 2016. In summary, the report showed that public support for the extraction and use of shale gas had fallen from over 58% in July 2013 to just over 37% in October 2016.

The fall in public support is down to a number of factors, one of which is certainly the limited PR effectiveness of the various onshore operators’ assertions. Another significant factor is the misinformation put into the public domain by opponents – a ploy now termed ‘fake news’. Unfortunately, Mike’s opinion piece is, in places, an example of such misinformation, as he makes
a number of claims that are not correct.

First of all, he says that fracking with high volumes of water at high pressure has only been done once on land in the UK, at Preese Hall. However, more than 200 land wells have been hydraulically fractured onshore in the UK in the last 30 years. Maybe Mike has a different definition of high volume.

Another point made is that no regulations apply specifically to the hydraulic fracture part of the operation, but the UK in fact has probably the most rigorous legislation on oil and gas activities of any country. UK law is goal-setting, not prescriptive – it lays out the objectives to be achieved, which can be summarised as no accidents, no harm to people and no damage to the environment. It is up to the oil and gas company (license holder) to demonstrate to the regulators, and ultimately the public and NGOs, through their documented submissions, that they have reduced any risks associated with its proposed activities to as low as reasonably practicable levels.

It was the industry that introduced the traffic light system to help achieve these goals – not the UK Government [note from the Editor – the original piece does not actually state that the Government introduced the traffic light system, but it could easily be read as so]. In this system, if specialist seismographic arrays detect local seismic activity is above 0M (Richter) during fracking, the operation is amber and can proceed, with caution. If activity reaches 0.5M, it is red and operations stop. This is well below normally detectable levels.

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) did not disband its Oil and Gas Division in Aberdeen – the Division is alive and well, doing excellent work. The Office of Unconventional Gas and Oil (OUGO) has no remit over safety or environmental issues. OUGO is responsible for encouraging and overseeing energy development in the UK, including licensing oil and gas exploration and production to ensure the best use of available natural resources.

Mike’s comment that attempts to link the cut in Lancashire County Council’s central funding with fracking is disingenuous, as all councils saw such cuts. Finally, produced water from wells is radioactive due to the presence of naturally occurring radioactive materials (NORM) – this is not a function of fracking but an issue common to almost all oil and gas production and dealt with under regulation.

Addressing the real concerns

The question remains as to how the onshore industry can improve its perception in the public domain. I was born and brought up in Teesside, an area of heavy industry consisting of steel and chemical works – think of the opening sequence of Blade Runner. Most of my career has been in oil exploration in the North Sea and abroad. On retirement, my wife and I moved to Ryedale, North Yorkshire. This is a very different country, where enterprise is principally agriculture, light industry and tourism. Though North Yorkshire has been a gas producing area for many years, the residents of this rural area have little or no familiarity with the oil and gas industry.

Fracking is the big issue in the area. Opponents are vociferous, well organised and put forward many legitimate concerns about the process. When asked why fracking is such an issue, many opponents say they object to continued extraction of fossil fuels and that the emphasis should be on renewable energy. Ironically, in Ryedale there are similar groups opposed to wind farms.

The challenge for the shale gas operators is how to engage with the public. Based on the public meetings I have attended, whether arranged by our local MP to introduce the regulators or by the operator, they have failed to address residents’ concerns.

These meetings are typically specialists answering the questions asked, rather than addressing the basis of the questions. By this, I mean that it is fine to explain that independent well examiners review well designs, that the HSE consents to the proposal, or that the Environment Agency requires groundwater sampling 12 months prior to, during and after operations, but the real question is, ‘How do you prevent ground water pollution?’

It would be better to start from the premise of ‘This is what we do to protect the environment’. In this context, operators can explain about double-barrier isolation, two-stage cementing, annulus monitoring and groundwater sampling. 

This, I believe, would enable operators to provide relevant information, to a concerned public, in an appropriate context. Operators should apply the same techniques to the many other areas of concern such as noise, truck movements and produced water disposal, etc.

A good place to start would be the United Kingdom Onshore Oil and Gas (UKOOG) website. In its current form, it is not ‘user-friendly’, especially for people with little knowledge of the industry. It looks like engineers composed it – full of facts and figures but with no understanding of the public’s concerns. It, like its opponents’ arguments, contain some dubious and meaningless comparisons – for example, comparing site truck movements with the truck requirement for dairy farmers for the whole of the UK, or saying that the average drilling rig is around two-fifths the size of the clock tower of Big Ben. 

In summary, I do not think either side of the discussion is presenting its case well. If anything, the responses seem to have become polarised. However, based on the University of Nottingham study, it is clearly time for UKOOG to take a hard look at its public relations efforts.

Steve Kirby BEng CEng MIMMM recently retired after a 35-year career in the oil industry, principally in drilling engineering.