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Mike Stephenson of the British Geological Survey made an important and fairly definitive contribution to the shale debate yesterday. First the BBC report

It is “extremely unlikely” shale gas drilling in Lancashire could contaminate ground water supplies, a leading geologist has said.

Professor Mike Stephenson of the British Geological Survey said most experts thought the process, known as fracking, was a “pretty safe activity”.

Also from the Press Association.

Professor Mike Stephenson, of the British Geological Survey, said most geologists thought it was a “pretty safe activity” and the risks associated with it were low.

He said the distance between groundwater supplies around 40-50 metres below the surface and the deep sources of gas in the shale a mile or two underground, made it unlikely methane would leak into water as a result of fracking.

There was no evidence in peer-reviewed literature of pollution of water by methane as a result of fracking, he said, adding that the presence of the gas in US water supplies was likely to be natural. But a survey was currently being conducted in the UK, to establish a baseline of any gas naturally found in groundwater before drilling took place.

“If you don’t know what the baseline is, you don’t know if people are running a tight ship. There’s natural methane in groundwater and you have to distinguish between what’s there already and what might have leaked in.”

He said two cases of methane pollution of water in the US, neither of which were due to fracking for shale gas, were the result of mismanagement. The UK has one of the strictest regulatory regimes in the world, he added.

The only newspaper report is in the Guardian, although they mention it in passing:

The chief executive of the company pioneering shale gas “fracking” in the UK is to face his home county critics, as leading scientists urged closer monitoring of new drilling.

Note the language here, trying to sow doubt and controversy even if, as seven paragraphs later:

Peter Styles, professor of applied and environmental geophysics at Keele University, said the chemicals used in fracking in the UK were relatively common, including compounds close to those found in household detergents and contact lenses, and were unlikely to cause problems of pollution. He also said the seismic activity that had been prompted by the Cuadrilla drilling near Blackpool was very small, and similar to that found in coalmining areas. However, he urged monitoring of drill sites and said that if further earthquakes caused problems in the wells drilled – for instance, by cracking the cement casing – then the wells would have to be reformed, a very expensive process.

The Guardian also tries a Peak Oil tactic it’s used in the past, casting doubt on the size of the resource:

The geologists also said Cuadrilla’s estimates for how much gas could be recovered in the UK were many times higher than their own calculations. Last year, Cuadrilla put the potential shale gas resources in the Lancashire region alone at a massive 200 trillion cubic feet – an amount that could supply the whole of the UK’s gas needs for more than five decades.

But over at Bloomberg, the story is entirely different:

The U.K. could have more shale gas the previously thought, Stephenson said. The British Geological Survey is reviewing its estimates for U.K. onshore shale gas resources. The survey originally estimated that there is about 150 billion cubic meters of shale gas onshore, compared with about 300 billion cubic meters of conventional gas resources.

“There is much more shale than we thought under Blackpool,” the British Geological Survey’s Stephenson said at the briefing,

I assume they were at the same briefing, although only Bloomberg thinks it’s important enough to say who organised it, The Science Media Centre.

As far as I can see, every other newspaper including the alleged quality press such as The Financial Times, Daily Telegraph, Independent and The Times didn’t show up. The BBC story is local,not national and appears to be rewrite of the Press Association story. Surprising in that the SMC obviously is a major source of “background” to the press otherwise.  Background, to the uninitiated is research that in somewhere like the US, the press actually do themselves. Here in the UK, it’s far simpler to rewrite background created by other people, catering it to your political outlook as we see in the discrepancy between the Guardian and Bloomberg.  We can expect the majority of the press to continue printing stories about the “controversial” fracking technique illustrated by flaming taps, earthquakes and Blackpool Tower. Why let a narrative be interrupted by those pesky little fact things?

Science at last. But if it doesn’t get printed or gets distorted it shows how much further we still need to travel.

No Hot Air, 11 January 2012