Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Sure – don't trust the Oil and Gas Industry… but do find out the facts!

A few years ago I went to County Mayo in Ireland to study and report upon the Corrib Gas project. The report I wrote detailed the culpable mismanagement of the project by the Oil companies involved – primarily my old employer Shell – and by successive Irish governments. It did not criticise the project itself nor, except in a few small particulars, did I support the protestors' view that the project was potentially damaging to the environment of the area or to the rights of the local community to enjoy a life unchanged by the fact of having a major hydrocarbon project on their doorstep. My criticisms were mostly directed at the oil industry (and Government) failure properly to engage with the residents of the area from the start.  2718577o

Failed community engagement is a charge that can be laid at the door of the Oil/Gas industry in Ireland but we should be wary of trusting the industry unequivocally for other reasons as well. In Nigeria Shell has still frankly not got its act together and the stories of community victims and health, safety and security dysfunctionality are well known.  And the scandal of BP’s disastrous Deepwater Horizon project should make us wary of believing anything a multinational oil company ever says!

So how should we regard the plans for the exploitation of Britain’s Shale Gas reserves and in particular the project at Balcombe which has led to such strong protests? This is what the company, Cuadrilla, says they are doing:

“Cuadrilla plans to drill and take samples of the underground rock in a vertical well drilled to approximately 3,000 feet. A possible horizontal leg of 2,500 feet may also be drilled from the vertical well, dependent on the results of sampling in the vertical. Neither the vertical nor the horizontal well will be hydraulically fractured.”

So there is no production and certainly no fracking at Balcombe. The process underway is common practice in virtually all oil/gas exploration sites around the world b(including dozens in the UK). It is part of the information and data gathering that takes place before any commitment to operational drilling takes place. Cuadrilla has permission to do what they are planning to do – it would be absurd if they did not. It poses no threat to anybody. Cuadrilla does not have permission (nor have they asked for it) to move beyond the exploratory well phase. If there is an economic case to do this then the company will have to satisfy the regulators and the planners that it is the right thing to do. Such a possibility is years away.

So the protestors, at least those who have bothered to inform themselves about the project, are being disingenuous – and those who haven't bothered are being ignorant. A dangerous combination!   What they are doing is using the fact that a company is drilling a test well in a location that may just be commercially viable for Gas production as an opportunity to protest about Shale Gas in general and fracking in particular. In a democracy that is their right so long as they stay within the law of course but what is underway, with its “Celeb” protestors and its violence and abuse adds rather more heat than light!

For me, and I am hardly a spokesman for “Big Oil” (!) , what is wearisome is that as in County Mayo and elsewhere the Shale Gas debate is being utterly polarised. I believe that there will be Shale Gas projects that are utterly uncontroversial in every way (there are already dozens of them) and projects which should not be allowed to go ahead for environmental, community, safety or other reasons. In other words the Orwellian “All Shale is Bad” or “All Fracking is bad” is nonsense – as is its opposite. I am also prepared to accept what (for example) Shell says about Shale Gas and fracking: 

“A recent study conducted by the Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering on behalf of the UK government concluded that fracking is safe “as long as operational best practices are implemented and robustly enforced through regulation”.

Other research, such as the European Parliament report on the environmental impacts of shale gas and shale oil extraction activities and a study conducted by the Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering on behalf of the UK government, support these findings.

The technology has been developed and refined over 60 years, and is today used in drilling thousands of wells each year.”

When I say “accept” I do not mean “believe”. I do not think that Shell would say this if they did not sincerely believe it to be true. The key point is in the first paragraph. “Best practice” and “regulation” – as the Royal Society puts it. So my position and what I would recommend to others is to campaign vigorously not against Shale Gas and Fracking but for its regulation. The Prime Minister has said

“The regulatory system in this country is one of the most stringent in the world. If any shale gas well were to pose a risk of pollution then we have all the powers we need to close it down.”

This statement should be challenged and the media, the environmental movement and Parliament itself needs to make sure that what Cameron says actually happens. Indeed the campaign should not be to ensure that we  “close down” such wells but to make sure that they are never approved at the planning stage. That would be better use of all of our time than the rent-a-crowd protests in Balcombe.


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