I listened to Andrew Quarles, Technical Director of Cuadrilla, at the university last night, as he gave an I-SEE talk on his company's exploration for gas from the Bowland shales in Lancashire. For those wanting technical detail, and clarification around process and commercial possibility, it was reasonably informative (at least to a non-engineer like me). For those wanting confirmation of the evil purpose behind it all, it must have been very satisfying.
It was a town 'n' gown sort of audience with a higher than average age for such events. Many were in anoraks (literally and metaphorically), some had dreadlocks, and at least one wore a flat cap – I assumed he'd come from Preston for the day. Many had packed their prejudices along with the sandwiches. There were those against fracking, those seemingly just against technology, those against gas (a lot of those), those against capitalism (and a few, it seemed, against capital as well, which is a quite different thing), and those just against modernity. Others were against water pollution, land despoliation, radioactive waste, and excess traffic – all of which were inevitable (or not), depending on your point of view. Some had brought their favourite paper (ie, the one that supports their preferred views): "Have you read Dobson in the latest edition of the Journal of Anti-fracking Studies?", they asked, and we had a few minutes of paper ping pong that academics so enjoy.
I felt for the speaker at a few points, most notably when he was berated by a councillor from Bath for not knowing enough about the geology of the town's hot springs – it seems someone has plans to dig for coal seam methane around Radstock – though not Cuardrilla. But he didn't need much of my empathy as he's quite used to audiences with pre-formed judgements and minds minimally open to change. Farmers, he said, are much worse than academics – something we all know in our bones.
All in all, it was a good tempered affair with most abuse kept under the breath: "That's a lie! ", my neighbour said (though not to me) more than once, and there was the usual sneering moral superiority in the air. The positive atmosphere was aided by the Chair's strong steer and control. He ensured that questions didn't morph into sermons, and made sure that students and staff got a word in edgeways. Good practice for when Lord Lawson comes to town in a couple of weeks, I imagine (I hear tickets are trading at a premium). It was very satisfying that it was a Bath student who spotted an error in the speaker's presentation of gas yield data.
As for the gas in question, well, there are estimates (with wide error bars) about the amount (measured in trillions of cubic feet), but no feel for whether it can be got out in quantity, and at a cost that could be tolerated – that is, which is price competitive with the natural gas we import from the Middle East (and Russia). This is why the exploratory wells are being dug, of course.
What you think of all this must be influenced by whether you think we need the gas at all. Clearly, many in the audience thought not, presumably seeing that there need be no transition to renewables – just a direct shift. However, if you check today's electricity source data at UK Energy Watch, you will see that coal is providing 36% of this (generating 75% of the CO2). Gas is at 32% (only 25% of the CO2). Renewables (including hydro) are at 9%. Some gap.