Canterbury debate: Dr Nick Riley MBE

Director of Carboniferous, formerly at the British Geological Survey, with experience of large infrastructure projects and in oil and gas.

Edited transcript of his presentation

It can be a good thing to produce our own energy and a diverse energy resource is also a very good thing. Shale gas is no magic bullet, nor are renewables, nor is nuclear, nor is importing. We need a diverse mix of various energy technologies.

Climate change I see as real. I have been involved a lot in carbon capture and storage. I have been a government advisor to the previous administration and to the coalition on carbon abatement technology. One of my earliest jobs in southern England was at Southampton’s thermal borehole, the only deep geothermal borehole that is providing heat in Britain at the moment.

I am a scientist. I work from the evidence base. There are few facts that I want to get across, particularly to the audience, because there is an awful lot of rhetoric as you have heard already tonight. I am quite disappointed how the media represents these issues as well. I acknowledge that the public are concerned. They are bound to be because of all the fear messages that they are given. And also because there is a deep mistrust in governments. And that is understandable, particularly after the banking crisis.

The bare facts are from America that no one has yet proved that a frack has contaminated ground water and that is from the very latest, peer-reviewed papers, both in shales that have faults running through them, in the Marcellus, and also from standard shale gas formations like the Barnett. And that is using the latest techniques. There are about eight clusters of water around some of these wells which is due to well integrity issues. It is nothing to do with the fracking. It is all to do with the conventional parts of the wells. And some of those wells were built under old legislation. They didn’t have the well completions that we now have.

Also there is nothing said about the impact on people of those contaminations of ground water. You hear stories like “We will have our groundwater contaminated forever”. That’s not true. You can remediate groundwater naturally.

Legislation in this country has already been pushed out. It is very high – it is higher than America. In fact it is tightening up all the time, as we are learning all the time. On the Environment Agency website you can go to a consultation about their permitting procedures.

Fracking has been going on for a long, long time in this country. It is going on right now and it will go on in the future. So really the debate’s closed on that.

I agree that if we go to production we are talking about larger volumes cumulatively and we are talking about genuine issues about disruption to the people who live near these sites. But these things have to go through planning applications like any other surface issue. I’ve had several planning applications around where I live. All the issues about impact on residents: noise, light, traffic, all these things apply to shale gas as well.

The right to trespass law that is being changed: if you look at the clauses in there it also endorses and maintains very tight regulation on people drilling at very great depth beneath us – more than 300m below you, with horizontal wells, etc etc. And we’ve already done horizontal wells. There’s one near my house, in the fields behind me and it produces about ¼ m barrels of oil and most people don’t even know it’s there: a horizontal well in the carboniferous Bowland shale.

So a lot of the scaremongering, and it is scaremongering, is confusing the public. What we need to do in this country now is to see whether we can even produce gas from our shales. We are not even at the stage that we know whether we can do that. So at least allow the exploration to go ahead. I know many of you may be worried that shale gas could be developed here or shale oil. But we actually don’t know whether it can. It may be that people drill an exploration well here and nothing will come up.

We have to look whether we can produce safely and in economic conditions under the permitting legislation in this country. I believe we can do that. We have to have exploration wells and we have to have frack tests. It is a wonderful opportunity for this country and I would hate it to be lost because of misinformation from certain campaigners. And by the way, I am pro-renewables as well.

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