Averil Macdonald : Shale Scold

“So, Professor Macdonald”, I hazarded, as the good woman, sporting an alarmingly bright red frock, was fiddling with her bags on her way out of the Energy Live 2015 conference event on 5th November 2015 in the arty Barbican, “I understand that some remarks that you made about women and shale gas have been misrepresented.”

Averil Macdonald politely stopped what she was doing and engaged with me about this issue, which had thrust her abruptly into the limelight, accused of being sexist. She said that she had been misquoted, and her real meaning twisted by the absence of five words from what she’d actually said. I asked her where I could check what she had actually said, and she pointed me at a Guardian newspaper piece, which I think is this one.

I was willing to give her the benefit of the doubt, as I had sat in her earlier stage presentation urging women and girls into STEM careers, amongst other things, and she’d been quite upbeat about energy transition. She said it was going to be a long road to an ultra-low carbon system, and require lots of investment. Although she spoiled this by adding that the investment would need to be in extraction – for fossil fuels, obviously – as well as infrastructure. Her assumption that continued fossil fuel mining is essential, particularly in light of the need to reduce carbon dioxide and methane emissions, was, I felt, quite alarming.

Anyway, back to the evening one-to-one chat. I asked her a little more about how she viewed shale gas exploration, because I said I couldn’t see a good reason for it – especially as industrially manufactured low carbon gas held out more potential. Her argument was a little more detailed than she had made from the platform earlier. She said that “this country” can’t afford new energy investment. I didn’t stop her right there, but I should have. I should have countered with asking about the eye-watering sums of foreign sovereign wealth, taxpayers’ money, billpayers’ money and tax breaks being thrown at supporting new and existing fossil fuel production in the North Sea, and loan guarantees and other subsidies for new nuclear power, besides the huge public budgets for cleaning up decades of nuclear power plant waste and spent nuclear fuel. And then I should have challenged her about privatisation in the energy industry, which has led to companies being hamstrung by their need to provide higher returns to shareholders at the expense of capital investment, a situation that has only been turned around by government promises of public money and guaranteed high power prices to justify boardroom spending on new and renovated assets. The money to invest is there, I should have countered. It’s in the system. It’s just being frittered away on dividends, Contracts for Difference, capacity auctions, and insane projects like new nuclear power. And anyway, if banks are confident of technologies, they can always create debt to finance projects.

Anyway, back to Averil’s take on things. She said that indigenous UK energy resources should be exploited in order to finance the low carbon transition. Again, I should have interjected and prevented her from continuing. When does Her Majesty’s Treasury actually hypothecate revenue, I should have asked her. How would tax take from shale gas production ever be converted into money for renewable energy or building insulation ? She should look at the example of fuel duty, or several other allegedly “green” taxes and see for herself where the pennies have accumulated into budgetary expenditure pounds. Not in Feed-in Tariffs, that’s for sure. I tried to question the potential volumes of shale gas production, and how it would only contribute small revenue streams for the Treasury. I tried to ask her about other indigenous British energy resources, such as the wind and sunshine, and how they are free, compared to the costs of digging up shale gas, but she breezed on.

She said that there was a lot of capital being attracted to the exploitation of shale gas in the UK. She implied that private capital was heavily invested. I should have asked her in-depth questions about this. Intelligent oil and gas companies have steered well clear of the UK Shale Gas project. Large companies like Shell and Total are promising their shareholders that dividends will remain healthy, despite the downturn in the oil commodity price which impacts their profits. Shell won’t be involved in British shale gas, even though Total will, apparently, but evidence suggests that any failure in exploration will mean that Total pulls right out again. So far, UK shale gas experience has been empty holes, and companies withdrawing. What kind of companies apart from those in the existing energy sector would have enough confidence of their knowledge about shale gas and hydraulic fracturing, sufficient to invest on the kind of scale required ? I said that the real investment money for energy in future wasn’t going to come from the government, or from speculators, but from large investment funds. She said that capital was already committed to shale gas. I should have asked more, because I can’t imagine that the very cautious major investors would risk their reputations and credit ratings on shale gas.

I said that I doubted there would be much in terms of shale gas production for the first 20 years. I also said that there are some very good reasons to oppose the development of a shale gas industry in the UK. I said the only reason that the general voting democratic public permit the ongoing extraction of oil and gas in the North Sea is because the ocean disperses most spills. If this drilling were to come onshore, people would see the environmental pollution that fossil fuel production always entails. Averil Macdonald insisted that the UK has one of the best industrial regulatory regimes, and that shale gas production can be done safely and securely. I said that I had been looking at some of the research on gas and oil well integrity, and spills, and about long term monitoring. I should have challenged her by asking her whether she realised that without decades of close monitoring and potentially emergency intervention, shale gas wells could constitute a major environmental risk for a very long time to come.

I should have reminded her of the basic problems with UK shale gas development proposals : that in comparison to the United States, where the federal government sold off massive blocks of open public land for shale development, the UK is densely populated, and that vital environmental resources are packed close together. I should have reminded her that the best estimates are that the potential shale gas resource in the whole of Europe is only ten times or less what it is in northern America. I should have said that the statistical rates of compromised oil and gas wells mean that surface pollution from shale production is inevitable. I should have reminded her that although what’s happening in Gasland USA could be considered “scare stories”, as she clearly thinks, these are real events, and real lives being affected. Whatever she might think about the poor standards in the oil and gas industry in the USA, they too have a regulatory regime for the energy sector, and yet environmental and social abuses are rife. Perhaps it is simply the nature of shale gas and shale oil development that causes problems, regardless of legislation and industry monitoring ? I should have reminded her that the geology of UK shale sediments are different to those in northern America; that it took well over 40 years to develop shale extraction there, and that there are real problems resulting from new underground extraction technologies, including seismic events, water, soil and air pollution and land collapse.

I should have stated the obvious about women in particular, who she accused of taking a position against shale gas without knowing the facts, without understanding the science. First of all, shale gas exploitation is not science : it’s an engineering technology, and technologies fail, and women know this. And secondly, oil and gas production is dirty, and women know this, too. Women get sick and tired of men treading all over the clean kitchen floor in their muddy boots, leaving toxic damp towels on the bed, and not wiping up spills. Women know that onshore oil and gas production will be another bunch of big, strong boys, muscling into your house, promising to do a good job and then behaving like dodgy builders, regardless of the regulations in the construction industry. We don’t want these profiteers tearing up our beautiful countryside to dig leaky, unhealthy holes, and bomb the underside of the Earth just to make a few homes warmer.

Oh, Averil Macdonald knows how to peddle political tales – she posed the usual narrative that it’s fine buying Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) from Qatar, but all the Qataris do with the money is buy Ferraris. I said I’d heard that story before, and I said I found it irrelevant. I should have challenged her about the serious prospects of LNG expansion in Australia and south east Asia. After the Middle East gas is finished, there are more places to get gas from, for at least another 30 years, without blowing up the subsoil for shale gas.

Professor Macdonald, chair of UK Onshore Oil and Gas, tried to sell me the idea that communities who would be prepared to accept the wonderfully small profile shale gas wells would receive generous funds. I suppose she was suggesting that these bribes could then pay for solar and wind power development. But I didn’t get to ask this, as our conversation was terminated by our being shushed by an irritated young privileged white male who wanted to hear the Ed Davey Unplugged interview without interruption, who began impolitely with an angry “excuse me”. Being women, naturally, Professor Averil Macdonald and I both immediately apologised as our gender are culturally trained to do, and continued arguing for only a minute more sotto voce before giving up in the face of amplified male competition. Ed Davey was most entertaining, after all. It almost made up for being scolded about my resistance to and scorn for shale gas development.

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