Fracking, Gender, and the need for Open Science

I can’t resist commenting on some of the issues raised by Professor Averil MacDonald’s recent pronouncements about hydraulic fracturing (“fracking” for short). I know Averil MacDonald a little bit through SEPNet and through her work on gender issues in physics with the Institute of Physics and I therefore found some of her comments – e.g. that women “don’t understand fracking, which is why they don’t support it” – both surprising and disappointing. I was at first prepared to accept that she might have been misquoted or her words taken out of context. However she has subsequently said much the same thing in the Guardian and, worse, in an excruciating car crash of an interview on Channel 4 News. It seems that having lots of experience in gender equality matters is no barrier to indulging in simplistic generalisations; for a discussion of the poll which inspired the gender comments, and what one might or might not infer from it, see here. For the record, Professor MacDonald is Chair of UK Onshore Oil and Gas, an organization that represents and lobbies on behalf of the United Kingdom’s onshore oil and gas industry.

Before I go on I’ll briefly state my own position on fracking, which is basically agnostic. Of course, burning shale gas produces carbon dioxide, a greenhouse agent. I’m not agnostic about that.  What I mean is that I don’t know whether fracking is associated with an increased  risk of earthquakes or with water contamination. I don’t think there is enough reliable scientific literature in the public domain to form a rational conclusion on those questions. On the separate matter of whether there is enough shale gas to make a meaningful contribution to the UK’s energy needs I am rather less ambivalent – the balance of probability seems to me to suggest that fracking will never provide more than a sticking-plaster solution (if that) to a problem that which reach critical proportions very soon. Fracking seems to me to be a distraction; a long-term solution will have to be found elsewhere.

The central issue in the context of Averil MacDonald’s comments seems to me however to be the perception of the various risks associated with fracking that I have mentioned before, i.e. earth tremors, contaminated water supplies and other environmental dangers. I think it’s a perfectly rational point of view for a scientifically literate person to take to be concerned about such things and to oppose fracking unless and until evidence is supplied to allay those fears. Moreover, it may be true that most women don’t understand science but neither do most men. I suspect that goes for most of our politicians too. I’ve commented many times on what a danger it is to our democracy that science is so poorly understood among the general population but my point here is that the important thing about fracking is not whether men understand the science better than women, but that there’s too little real scientific evidence out there for anyone – male or female, scientifically literate or not – to come to a rational conclusion about it.

I’ve yet to see any meaningful attempt in the mainstream media on the actual science evidence involved when surely that’s the key to whether we should “get behind” fracking or not? It struck me that quite a few readers might also be interested in this issue to, so for them I’d recommend reading the Beddington Report. The problem with this report, however, is that it’s a high-level summary with no detailed scientific discussion. In my opinion it’s a very big problem that geologists and geophysics (and climate scientists for that matter) have not adopted the ideals of the growing open science movement. In particular, it is very difficult to find any proper scientific papers on fracking and issues associated with fracking that aren’t hidden behind a paywall. If working scientists find it difficult to access the literature how can we expect non-scientists to come to an informed conclusion?

Here’s an exception: a rare, peer-reviewed scientific article about hydraulic fracturing. The abstract of the paper reads:

The widespread use of hydraulic fracturing (HF) has raised concerns about potential upward migration of HF fluid and brine via induced fractures and faults. We developed a relationship that predicts maximum fracture height as a function of HF fluid volume. These predictions generally bound the vertical extent of microseismicity from over 12,000 HF stimulations across North America. All microseismic events were less than 600 m above well perforations, although most were much closer. Areas of shear displacement (including faults) estimated from microseismic data were comparatively small (radii on the order of 10 m or less). These findings suggest that fracture heights are limited by HF fluid volume regardless of whether the fluid interacts with faults. Direct hydraulic communication between tight formations and shallow groundwater via induced fractures and faults is not a realistic expectation based on the limitations on fracture height growth and potential fault slip.

However, it is important to realise that, as noted in the acknowledgements, the work on which this paper is based was funded by “Halliburton Energy Services, Inc., a company that is active in the hydraulic fracturing industry in sedimentary basins around the world”. And therein lies the rub. In the interest of balance here is a link to a blog post on fracking in the USA, the first paragraph of which reads:

For some time now, proponents of the controversial practice of hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” have claimed there was little or no evidence of real risk to groundwater. But as the classic saying goes: “the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence” of a problem. And the evidence that fracking can contaminate groundwater and drinking water wells is growing stronger with every new study.

I encourage you to read it, but if you do please carry on to the comments where you will see detailed counter-arguments. My point is not to say that one side is right and the other is wrong, but that there are scientists on both sides of the argument.

What I would like to see is a proper independent scientific study of the geological and geophysical risks related of hydraulic fracturing, subjected to proper peer review and publish on an open access platform along with all related data; by “independent”, I mean not funded by the shale gas industry. I’m not accusing any scientists of being in the pockets of the fracking lobby, but it may look like that to the general public. If  there is to be public trust such studies then they will have to be seen to be unbiased.

Anyway, in an attempt to gauge the attitude to fracking of my totally unrepresentative readership, I thought I’d relaunch the little poll I tried a  while ago:

And if you have strong opinions, please feel free to use the comments box.

4 Responses to “Fracking, Gender, and the need for Open Science”

  1. Phillip Helbig Says:

    “I think it’s a perfectly rational point of view for a scientifically literate person to take to be concerned about such things and to oppose fracking unless and until evidence is supplied to allay those fears.”

    I think that this is the essential point. Of course, the default position when the data are not sufficient should not be “do nothing” (though that is the correct choice when the decision is to start fracking, assuming that data on potential adverse affects are lacking), but rather “do that which looks less harmful”.

  2. Phillip Helbig Says:

    Shouldn’t such statements immediately disqualify her from any official work on gender issues within the Institute of Physics?

    Of course, had a bloke made similar comments which were publicly known, he would already have been (rightly, in this case) dismissed. 😐

  3. ‘I don’t think there is enough reliable scientific literature in the public domain to form a rational conclusion on those questions’

    There is practical, i.e. evidential, knowledge from both Australia and the US that water is contaminated, air is polluted and people get sick – watch ‘Voices from the Gasfields’ or ‘Fracking Nightmare’ on the web – what do you mean ‘reliable scientific literature’ – do you mean industrial-sized lies???

    • telescoper Says:

      Please give me some references to proper scientific literature! Many things other than fracking can contaminate water and make people sick.

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