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Another hilarious lesson in why you should pick your advocates carefully

Fracking crash

Fracking crash

Well the pro-frackers are treating us to a succession of “car-crash” interviews of late aren’t they?

Last week it was The Rambling Reverend scaremongering about imminent blackouts if we don’t get fracking underway (ignoring the slight logical problem that an industry which wouldn’t in any circumstances be able to contribute in any major way for the best part of a decade is unlikely to be of much help today)

This week we were treated to yet another feast of confabulation from a certain “Ken Wilkinson from Bristol” on Any Answers on Radio 4 on Saturday 31st January, when he called in to treat presenter Anita Anand, and the world at large, to his thoughts on fracking.

Now Ken has 12 years industry experience, and is a retired physics teacher so his views ought to be worth hearing. Sadly though we know from his postings under various different identities in newspaper comments pages – sometimes multiple identities in commenting on the same articles – that he is a rather dogmatic pro-fracker who will not admit the possibility that the industry he worked for can do any wrong, and who damns anybody who disagrees with him as stupid and deliberately misleading. We don’t mean this in a nasty way, but he does seem to us to be more concerned with demonstrating his intellect than he does with getting to, or telling the truth.

Are we being unfair? Let’s listen: You can hear the interview here

And here’s a transcript with our commentary.

AA: Should permission be given throughout the British Isles for testing fracking.. for shale gas.. what are your thoughts on this? Ken Wilkinson calling from Bristol, hello .. Hello Ken!

KW: Hello, yes , yes can you hear me

AA: Yes I can hear you loud and clear. You’re a retired drilling engineer, is that right?

KW: That’s right yes and teacher yes, physics teacher yup.

AA: OK so tell me what when somebody says fracking what do you think and feel?

KW: Well I’m just really concerned about the misinformation that’s going round and it was alluded to by one of the panel members, and there’s just so much nonsense talked and I could go through some of the key points if you wish…

[This is a favourite theme of Mr W – he accuses anyone who doesn’t agree with him of misinforming the public. I’m so glad my physics teacher wasn’t like that]

AA: very briefly if you will

[We wondered if she had spoken to him before?]

KW: Right OK.  “It’s a massive new technology”, but in fact what people don’t understand is that when you drill a well you drill it horizontally, you divide it up into 30 separate sections and you perform 30 separate um hydraulic stimulations, and it’s no more risky than normal eh fracking. It’s just not an issue and fracking’s been going on for decades.

[Ken isn’t very specific here is he? We presume by “normal fracking” he means the sort of fracking which was done at Elswick. Regular readers may remember that Cuadrilla were censured by the Advertising Standards Authority for making that particular comparison, and that Toni Harvey from the DECC was unequivocal about the fact that trying to draw comparisons between “normal fracking” and the high volume hydraulic fracturing (HVHF) that is planned in Lancashire would be totally misleading as they were much smaller and not into shale.

From enquiries to the operators, we believe that at least 200 did have hydraulic fracturing treatments of some kind, but we would emphasise that these non-shale fracs are not comparable, in the volumes of fluid employed, to Cuadrilla’s operations at Preese Hall in 2011 – the non-shale fracs are much smaller.

In fact Elswick used just over 160 cubic metres of fluid compared to a modern HVHF well requiring some 20,000 cubic metres. Perhaps you can work out why such a comparison might be rather misleading?]

KW:   There’s a massive database of fantastic um safe performance over er in the er US er the wells don’t leak. A few did at the start. There’s been some disastrous places where there have been problems but, on the whole it’s absolutely fine if it’s properly regulated.

[Now we’re not sure that that needs too much comment – There have indeed been some disastrous places where there have been problems. Ken’s point seems to be that although he admits there have been disasters it’s OK as long as you weren’t in the wrong place at the wrong time. Being from Bristol perhaps he feels a little more secure (for the moment) that we do up here in the “Desolate North”? ]

AA: Give us two more er myths as you see them

KW: [Talking over her] Er fantastic

AA: Just two more briefly

KW: Er OK – the chemicals that are permitted over here are non hazardous and er that really says it all. All the scare stories you hear from the States are all about stuff called BTEX which is benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylene. They’re not permitted in the UK under EU law.

AA: Hmmm

KW: So you know you can’t be poisoned by chemicals that aren’t there

[Hmmm indeed. Another of Ken’s favourite themes. He knows that Cuadrilla have admitted on their web site that they will use hydrochloric acid. To say that hydrochloric acid is non-hazardous is ludicrous. He says this (I think) because he knows that in use it will be diluted to a small concentration (< 0.5% probably) . At that concentration of course it will do you no harm. What he chooses to ignore is that the acid has to be brought onto the fracking site by road and will normally be transported in concentrations of between 30% and 35%. To say that HCl at that concentration is not hazardous is extremely misleading. We have told him this several times and yet, for some reason he perpetuates this myth that the chemicals that are permitted over here are non hazardous. We really do struggle to understand why he deliberately misleads about something which is so obviously not true. Oops – and I nearly forgot – Cuadrilla were censured by the Advertising Standards Authority for making exactly this claim, so it’s not just me who agrees with this point.

He is, of course, right that BTEX chemicals are not currently permitted (in the UK)  to be mixed into the fracking fluid injected down the borehole. We think he knows though that the issue which causes concern is the fact that the fracking fluid mobilises BTEX chemicals whilst it is underground and both the returned fluid and the fluid that remains in the well shaft (hopefully) are much more contaminated than the original input fluid.

As we can read on the frackwire website

A more common entry point for BTEX into the fracking process is underground. Crude oil and natural gas are naturally occurring mixtures of various types of hydrocarbons—and BTEX compounds are often among these. When oil and natural gas are released from impermeable rock, so are BTEX organics. BTEX is more often a contaminant of produced water than an additive in fracking fluid.

We feel that Ken is being more than a little disingenuous here. What do you think? Of course maybe he just doesn’t know enough about the subject? Obviously “you can’t be poisoned by chemicals that aren’t there”, but as they are there Ken, your point seems to be null and void.

As to They’re not permitted in the UK under EU law – we don’t think that EU law can actually stop the existence of the BTEX chemicals in the ground, but we could be wrong as the EU is, of course very powerful)]

AA: OK one more?

KW: Well leaks – Did I say well leaks?

AA: [sounding a bit impatient] You said well leaks. You said they don’t really happen. They happened at the beginning. Give me one more.

KW: Er right yes er penetration of the er formation by er fluids coming up into aquifers. Never ever happened. There’s no documented evidence of it ever happening.

[Emily Gosden writing in the Daily Telegraph reported last September that:

In a paper published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, scientists analysed the origins of the gas in contaminated water by shale wells in Pennsylvania and Texas, two of the biggest drilling regions in the US.They found that the fracturing of the rocks was not to blame for the leaks. Instead, botched construction of the wells led to gas or oil escaping through cracks in metal casing or through faulty cement seals.

So clearly there is evidence of aquifer contamination. The industry loves to proclaim that act of hydraulic fracturing does not cause aquifer contamination, talking into their sleeves afterwards as they admit it’s caused by their bad work on the well casing instead. This is a bit like saying that lighting a cigarette does not give you cancer. Anyway – who to trust here – retired physics teacher Ken Wilkinson or the National Academy of Science in the USA. That’s a toughy]

AA: Stay on the line because Stuart Wilkie’s called in form Kings Lynn. Stuart are you hearing Ken? Ken is saying that those people who are saying fracking is dangerous – they are actually peddling misinformation. Are you still on the line?

KW: Absolutely yes!

AA: Stuart tell Ken why you don’t agree.

SW: I have a brother who lives in California near to Fresno. I spoke to him two nights ago and he’s been advised not to drink his water because of a poisoned aquifer.

KW: Er I know about the case. Er I think it’s probably the same case. First of all that’s nothing to do with fracking its to do with disposal of water which is not permitted in the UK. They have to treat the water or reinject it into the same formation. So that is not er anything to do with fracking. I believe the case .. it was ..

[Ken is actually right that the contamination in Fresno was caused by the illegal dumping of a huge volume of fracking waste water.

Almost 3 billion gallons of oil industry wastewater have been illegally dumped into central California aquifers that supply drinking water and farming irrigation, according to state documents obtained by the Center for Biological Diversity. The wastewater entered the aquifers through at least nine injection disposal wells used by the oil industry to dispose of waste contaminated with fracking fluids and other pollutants.

We are not sure how he then draws the conclusion that “that is not er anything to do with fracking” as clearly it is. To be charitable I think he may have been trying to make the point that injection or reinjection is not currently permitted in the UK – or is it? The Royal Society report in 2012 was ambivalent on this topic saying simply that “The use of disposal wells is not regarded as good practice by the environmental regulators or DECC.” and The Independent reported in August 2014 that:

Third Energy, backed by banking giant Barclays, is set to begin working Ebberston Moor in the North York Moors after winning permission to get rid of a vast amount of potentially radioactive waste water – that will come up with the gas – by pumping it back into the ground.

At any rate it would appear that we do have valid and reasonable grounds for concern here unless it is The Royal Society and The Independent who are spreading what Ken likes to call “misinformation”.]

KW: There’s been several cases of dumping water in rivers, there’s been prosecutions, there’s been a lot of bad practice in the states – it’s so badly regulated at times

[Indeed Ken – for once we can only agree with you – presumably all this is documented in that “massive database of fantastic um safe performance over er in the er US”?]

AA: OK well let’s get back to Stuart, so Ken says it wouldn’t happen here

SW: Well the fact er that it’s American companies over here that’d be doing the same work. We’ve had the same issue with waste management companies over here as well. We.. if we’re using American technology and using American firms that have got poor regulation, they should not be working over here in the UK.

[We think that’s probably a fair point, although technically Cuadrilla are a British company, with backers in the Cayman Islands and Australia as well as our own Centrica.]

AA: OK .. [Goes on to ask Stuart another question and says thank you to KW]

So it seems Ken got a little carried away – we are sure he doesn’t really set out to lie deliberately, and we know it’s difficult getting your points across in 2 minutes on the radio. We do think though that his comments are more than a little misleading and wonder whether he shouldn’t maybe make some notes before calling up next time so that what he says makes a little more sense and sticks to the facts.

Anyway – we have decided to honour Ken with this week’s “Pants on Fire” award, if only for the comment that “the chemicals that are permitted over here are non hazardous and er that really says it all

Pants on FirePOST SCRIPT:

Poor old Ken obviously feels hard done to by his public. He posted on Facebook in January 2016
We are, of course at a total loss to explain why that might be, although we do get the distinct impression that he doesn’t like having his misleading statements questioned. It’s probably a vanity thing…

offensive troll

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