Did the earth move for you?

Last week many column inches were devoted to a new report from Prof. Richard Davies at the University of Durham. The catchily titled Induced Seismicity and Hydraulic Fracturing for the Recovery of Hydrocarbons was picked up the press worldwide in what seems to have become the biggest non-story of the year so far.

Earthquake risk

Earthquake risk

As you can see from the above most journalists don’t appear to have read beyond the first line of the abstract which states:

Hydraulic fracturing is not an important mechanism for causing felt earthquakes

This in itself is hardly news. Opponents of fracking have long explained that their concerns about felt seismicity are minimal compared to, for example, the risk of unfelt seismicity affecting well integrity, or the other potential serious impacts on our health, our local economy and our environment.

Cuadrilla’s CEO, Francis Egan predictably welcomed this non-news with the comment “We know that people pay attention to independent, rigorous academic research like this.”

Well hopefully they pay enough attention to the research to read beyond the first line, where they will find that the report also states that:

Fault reactivation due to hydraulic fracturing is well known and readily detected


Hydraulic fracturing will probably induce felt seismicity in the future

Interestingly it also points out that

“The fractal nature of earthquakes induced by human operations is not fundamentally different from that of natural earthquakes, and no case has ever been reported where several tens of earthquakes of a given magnitude have been induced without also producing events a magnitude unit larger.”

This is saying that if you create a lot of minor tremors you will almost inevitably create a bigger one. With Cuadrilla’s success rate at generating tremors so far, this outcome looks as though it is rather likely.

Some critics of the study have pointed out that Prof Davies department and institute are funded in part by energy companies, and have questioned the independence of the study as a result. Whilst the emergence of the “frackademia” phenomenon has caused controversy in the States where industry funded “research” has been published before being discredited and withdrawn on several occasions, we feel that Professor Davies is not actually one of the bad guys here.

His research has now been hijacked twice by pro-fracking PR. Firstly the swivel-eyed now ex Energy Minister, John Hayes, misrepresented Prof Davies by saying “The claim that the water used in fracking gets into the aquifer was categorically refuted by the Durham University study earlier this year”. This caused Prof Davies to issue an instant denial as he had in fact said nothing of the kind in any study.

Now, with this report, the media have seized on a piece of fairly trivial non-news to create headlines like “New Report Boosts Case For Safe Fracking” along with quotes like:

Francis Egan, the boss of Cuadrilla Resources, the company leading exploration work under the county’s countryside which caused a pair of tremors in 2011, said it would act as “further reassurance” to those people living close to proposed drill sites.

Given that most of us were not significantly concerned about felt seismicity in the first place this is about as meaningful as saying that the recent report that shows that 50% of Justin Bieber’s Twitter followers are fake ” would act as “further reassurance” to those people living close to proposed drill sites”.

The tactic of telling us what we are worried about and then debunking it is an old favourite – Prof Mike Stephens (an academic we are not so fond of) uses it frequently if rather ineffectually in his public talks to get a cheap laugh.

We hope that the people of Lancashire aren’t as gullible as Cuadrilla seem to hope they are.

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