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University of Glasgow 1651
Founded in 1451, University of Glasgow at 199 years in 1650

The recent comprehensive study by Chernov and Sornette (2016) on the concealment of risk information in contributing to man-made catastrophes suggests that the US shale industry experience to date is such a catastrophe in the making, both from an environmental and a financial perspective. There is no sound reason to risk such a repetition in the UK, or anywhere else in Europe.” (Dr. David Smythe, 27 Jan., 2016) [NB: The same is even more true for the nuclear industry, which legally leaks long-lived lethal radionuclides into air and water on a routine basis and throughout the entire nuclear fuel chain.]

Shortly after Dr. David Smythe, Professor Emeritus of Geophysics at the University of Glasgow, published “Hydraulic fracturing in thick shale basins: problems in identifying faults in the Bowland and Weald Basins, UK, Solid Earth Discuss., doi:10.5194/se-2015-134, 2016 Manuscript under review for journal Solid Earth Published: 27 January 2016, the University of Glasgow cut off his university email address, as well as access to academic journals. (See: https://theferret.scot/glasgow-university-silencing-fracking-critic, by Rob Edwards, 14 June 2016; includes original documents.). See too: https://mariannewildart.wordpress.com/2016/06/16/repression-of-dissent-professor-david-smythe-and-glasgow-university/
James Watt by von Breda
James Watt by Von Breda
This is the loss of a long proud history: “The University of Glasgow (Scottish Gaelic: Oilthigh Ghlaschu, Latin: Universitas Glasguensis) is the fourth oldest university in the English-speaking world and one of Scotland’s four ancient universities. It was founded in 1451. Along with the University of Edinburgh, the University was part of the Scottish Enlightenment during the 18th century… Alumni or former staff of the University include philosopher Francis Hutcheson, engineer James Watt, philosopher and economist Adam Smith, physicist Lord Kelvin, surgeon Joseph Lister, 1st Baron Lister, seven Nobel laureates, and two British Prime Ministers. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/University_of_Glasgow
Watt Beam Engine model Glasgow museum
Watt Beam Engine model Glasgow museum

Of course, maybe they are simply stingy and cancelled his email and access to academic journals because they are tight-fisted with their money, as the saying goes… But, how much could it cost them to give him access? It doesn’t have to do with research funding does it?

A few pages of excerpts from the 45 page study “Hydraulic fracturing in thick shale basins: problems in identifying faults in the Bowland and Weald Basins, UK“, by David K. Smythe follow:
There are many examples of potable water contamination alleged to be due to fracking, sensu latu, in the USA, but few details have been published in the scientific literature to date. The peer-reviewed studies that do exist concern fugitive methane in the vicinity of wells. However, a recent study by Llewellyn et al. (2015) proves beyond reasonable doubt that contamination of drinking water was caused by passage of frack fluid and/or produced water in part through the geology. Up till now only faulty well construction has been implicated in the contamination process in the many US water contamination case histories.

5.3.1 Bradford County, Pennsylvania well contamination

Here is a brief summary of the history and results of the research. Chesapeake Energy, one of the major operators in the Marcellus Shale play of Pennsylvania, drilled five wells in Bradford County, NE Pennsylvania, in 2009 and 2010. Contamination of private water wells in the vicinity (1200 m away) started almost immediately. In May 2011 the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection fined the company $900,000. Chesapeake promised to pay for water treatment equipment on selected wells while maintaining that the problems arose from “pre-existing detectable levels of methane”. The company had previously drilled three new water wells to replace three existing wells, but the contamination continued in these replacement water wells. In June 2012 the homeowners won a civil case against the company, which had to buy the properties and compensate the owners. The five gas wells were identified as the probable source of the stray gas.

The consultant hydrogeologists acting for the former homeowners are co-authors of the new research. They used a sensitive analytical technique, novel in the field of environmental forensics, to identify the source of the contamination, which included white foam in the water wells, vapour intrusion in the basement of a house, and bubbling of gas in the Susquehanna River. The new technique identified a specific compound called 2-BE, used in drilling additives, as well as organic unresolved compound mixtures (UCMs) in the impacted wells, whereas no detectable levels of these compounds were found in the background and comparison samples. The analysis rules out the possibility of surface spills of drilling products or naturally occurring methane as sources of the contamination. The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has recently suggested that 2-BE could be a useful indicator of contamination from fracking activities.

5.3.2 Hydrogeology at the Bradford County site

Figure 10 shows a schematic cross-section of the geology in the locality, redrawn and simplified from Llewellyn et al. Vertical exaggeration is about 2.5. The authors discuss how the contamination from the fracked layer, the Marcellus Shale, could have reached the water wells. The geological layers above the shale are gently folded, and a low-angle thrust fault (the solid red line in Fig. 10) is interpreted from seismic data to run from the surface south at an angle of about 16º to sole out into the Marcellus Shale.

The water wells lie in a narrow linear valley, one of two such parallel features seen on very high- resolution digital elevation models (DEMs) and interpreted by the authors as fracture zones, but not previously mapped on published geology maps. The fracture interpretation may appear on its own to be somewhat weak; however, a pump test showed that the water flow pattern in the district is aligned along one of the valleys. This suggests a deep structural control such as the putative fracture zone. The authors cite the evidence of small-scale joints seen in the rock exposures at the surface, also trending in the same direction. In addition, but not mentioned by the authors, there are small normal faults elsewhere in Pennsylvania trending in the same direction, and occupying the same structural location, on the foreland just in front of the Appalachian thrust belt, as this part of Bradford County. The two fracture zones identified by Llewellyn et al. are therefore probably minor normal faults.

The authors rule out the thrust fault as being a conduit for the contamination, even though it intersects three of the five offending gas wells below the level of the casing shown schematically in blue in Fig. 10. This is because the dip of the fault is low, so that vertical rock stress will tend to keep such a fault held tightly shut. In addition, the rate of progress of the contamination would be very slow along such a feature. The thrust fault is an interpretation from seismic data which are not publicly available.

However, this interpretation is, in any case, questionable, because elsewhere in NE Pennsylvania the few published interpretations of the subsurface faulting suggest that the thrust faulting is divided into two zones; (1) an upper set of shallow-angle thrusts which sole out downwards into the Tully Limestone (the light blue layer in Fig. 10), and (2) a deeper, steep set of thrusts or reverse faults which cut the Marcellus Shale. In conclusion, the thrust fault, even if it has been accurately identified, is not suspected to be a pathway.
Fig. 10. Schematic cross-section to illustrate the salient features of the contamination pathways identified by Llewellyn et al. (2015) in Bradford County, Pennsylvania.
Fig. 10. Schematic cross-section to illustrate the salient features of the contamination pathways identified by Llewellyn et al. (2015) in Bradford County, Pennsylvania. The profile is about 10 km long. Vertical exaggeration is about 2.5 to 1. A NNW-SSE fracture zone (one of two identified) is shown by the vertical dashed red line. It is not known how deep it penetrates. The thrust fault is interpreted from unpublished seismic data. The schematic well (one of five) penetrates vertically to the Marcellus Shale, but is only cased (thick blue line) to about 300 m below the ground surface. Gas bubbling was observed in the Susquehanna River (SR).

5.3.3 Conclusions on the contamination pathway

Birdsell et al. (2015) have recently stated, in their review of frack fluid migration, that Llewellyn et al. conclude that “if fracturing fluid did contaminate the shallow aquifer, it is much more likely that the fluid came from a surface spill or from a shallow subsurface leak rather than from the Marcellus”. This statement is completely wrong and misleading.

In fact Llewellyn et al. conclude that the most likely pathway for the groundwater contamination is initial passage up the wells from the Marcellus, followed by lateral passage along bedding planes, inclined gently upwards to the south, and finally by travelling vertically upwards along bedrock joint planes and fractures. Overpressured gas well annuli are also implicated as a possible driving mechanism. The approximate pathway lengths from the Marcellus Shale to the surface are: 1500-1700 m vertically up the uncased wells; 1200-2500 m sub-horizontally along bedding; 0-500 m vertically up faults” (pp. 28-30)
[…]
UK shale exploitation is still at a very early stage, with only one shale well having been fracked to date; that is why this study has focussed on the only two basins where preliminary unconventional exploration has been carried out; the Bowland Basin in Lancashire and the Weald Basin of SE England.

One well, Preese Hall-1 in Lancashire, was fracked in 2011 by Cuadrilla Bowland Limited to test the shale. The fracking triggered earthquakes. Analysis of two independent datasets – a 3D seismic survey and wellbore deformation – demonstrates that the fault on which the earthquakes were triggered by fracking was transected by the wellbore. This contradicts the conclusion of the operator (Clarke et al., 2014), who determined that the triggered fault lies some hundreds of metres from the wellbore. In short, the operator failed to identify the fault even though it had drilled through it.

Cuadrilla Balcombe Limited, the operator at Balcombe, Sussex (Weald Basin), obtained planning permission to drill and frack in 2010, but subsequently dropped the plans to frack. In 2014 it drilled a vertical well, Balcombe-2, beside an existing conventional dry well, Balcombe-1, and then sidetracked the hole into a horizontal well (Balcombe-2z) along a 40 m thick limestone sandwiched between two oil-prone shale layers, the Kimmeridge Clay. The drilling was blind in that it did not have a pre-existing image to follow. I have shown that the new wells intersected two normal faults, neither of which were foreseen by the operator, even though the shallower fault is known from BGS mapping.

Another operator in Sussex, Celtique Energie, used the same 2D seismic example to illustrate geological structure in two separate planning applications, for wells some 16 km apart. The seismic section, overlain by the operator’s interpretation of unfaulted horizons, had been reprocessed with the result of smearing out the faulting clearly present on the original version of the data.

The Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) regulatory guidance that has been published (Harvey, 2013) requires that any future unconventional shale gas or oil development should identify, in advance of drilling, all faults which have the possibility to be (a) triggered by fracking, or (b) conduits for upward flow of fluid. But DECC does not suggest how this can be achieved, nor to what scale and precision the faults need to be identified. It is evident from the case histories described above that current legislation and oversight is not competent to prevent shale operators from committing serious errors.

It is going to be very difficult, using current exploration and seismicity-monitoring technology, to identify faults in any thick shale basin. However, a full-azimuth wide-angle, high resolution 3D seismic survey with 3-component acquisition (‘3D-3C’) to help resolve imaging problems due to velocity anisotropy, as has been used over the Marcellus Shale in Pennsylvania (e.g. Rebec et al., 2011) and Eagle Ford Shale in Texas (e.g. Treadgold et al. 2011), might go some way to resolving the fault imaging problem.

In the UK there is as yet neither legislation nor guidance on the what should be the minimum (‘respect’ or stand-off) distances from faults, vertically and horizontally, of both the wellbores and the fracked shale volumes. Other countries such as Germany have concluded that fracking should not be permitted in areas of faulted basins where the faults penetrate the full thickness of the overburden (Kissinger et al., 2013). It would therefore be prudent not to undertake further unconventional exploration in the UK shale basins until the following problems are addressed:
1. New techniques need to be developed for imaging faults within thick shale sequences.
2. Objective, evidence-based criteria for faults which may be fluid conduits (e.g. Lunn et al., 2008) need to be agreed.
3. Respect, or stand-off, distances to avoid triggering of earthquakes and to minimise the possibility of faults acting as conduits must be defined.

The operators themselves must:
1. Carry out the necessary geophysical surveys (which will probably have to involve some advanced method of 3D-3C imaging) in advance of shale drilling.
2. Drill deep monitoring boreholes and to monitor them for a minimum of one year, to set a baseline before shale development starts.
3. Incorporate a passive marker into the frack fluid so that any fugitive fluid may be identified.
4. Monitor microseismic activity during fracking (this requirement is already obligatory).
5. Not be permitted to reinject produced water, due to the risk of triggering or inducing high-magnitude earthquakes.
6. Put up a bond to cover the costs of decommissioning, faulty well remediation, and compensation for possible pollution of water resources, depreciation of land and house prices, and earthquake damage.

The current UK regulatory system is over-complex and not fit for purpose. Its government has adopted a laissez-faire approach, in which the exploration companies are trusted to operate and report back to the regulators both honestly and competently; the examples discussed above show that neither is always the case; in short, the operators are acting with impunity. Since the unconventional hydrocarbon industry remains adamant that it causes negligible environmental or third-party economic damage, then insurance for the proposed bond system (item 6 above) will cost very little. What will be unacceptable would be a repetition of the derisory bond system in place in the UK coal industryThe recent comprehensive study by Chernov and Sornette (2016) on the concealment of risk information in contributing to man-made catastrophes suggests that the US shale industry experience to date is such a catastrophe in the making, both from an environmental and a financial perspective. There is no sound reason to risk such a repetition in the UK, or anywhere else in Europe.

In conclusion, the complex faulted geology of the UK shale basins does not favour exploitation by unconventional means. A moratorium of, say, five years would permit the necessary advances in fault understanding and imaging to take place. If fracking of shale is ever to proceed in the UK on a safe environmental basis, far more rigorous regulation of the operators is also required than is current practice“. (pp. 37-39) Excerpted from: “Hydraulic fracturing in thick shale basins: problems in identifying faults in the Bowland and Weald Basins, UK“, by David K. Smythe, Solid Earth Discuss., doi:10.5194/se-2015-134, 2016 Manuscript under review for journal Solid Earth Published: 27 January 2016 c Author(s) 2016. CC-BY 3.0 License. http://www.solid-earth-discuss.net/se-2015-134/se-2015-134.pdf (Emphasis our own; See original at link.)