VISIT ALSO: http://frackingfreeireland.org/global-fracking/global-shale-gas-liescorruption/
Big Gas companies: never let a crisis go to waste
see also his call for a ban on fracking –
Tom White and the Sunday Independent
THE Press Ombudsman has decided that the Sunday Independent made an offer of sufficient remedial action to resolve a complaint by Mr Tom White that an article on fracking published on 14 July 2013 was in breach of Principles 1 (Truth and Accuracy) and 2 (Distinguishing Fact and Comment) of the Code of Practice for Newspapers and Magazines.
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Mr White complained, inter alia, that the opinions expressed by the writer of the article had no factual basis, that inferences he made were misleading, that he distorted the true picture in relation to fracking, and that he inaccurately described the petroleum licensing process. He also complained that the links between the company with which the writer was associated and fracking had not been sufficiently clarified, and that he was identifiable from the article as an “activist”.
The newspaper responded that the article clearly identified the writer as a significant figure in the energy business, and that there would be no doubt in readers’ minds that he clearly favoured fracking. It said that everything in the article represented the writer’s clear opinions and that, even if the complainant disagreed strongly with the opinions expressed, this did not make them deliberately misleading. The newspaper said that it would consider publishing a reasonable response from the complainant, subject to the usual editorial and legal constraints. The offer was turned down by Mr White.
Newspaper articles — particularly opinion articles, as this is — rarely if ever embody unchallengeable accounts of complex scientific and environmental matters of substantial public controversy, and the remit of the Press Ombudsman does not extend to investigating such controversies to a conclusion. This is particularly the case when — as here — publications are prepared to afford space to opposing views published in good faith. Although the complainant provided persuasive evidence to disprove the writer’s contention that there had not been “one single case of proven pollution out of hundreds of thousands of shale wells in the US,” neither this, nor other issues raised by the complainant were, in the context of the article as a whole, of sufficient significance to justify upholding the complaint, and the Press Ombudsman therefore decided that the newspaper’s offer to publish a reasonable response from the complainant was sufficient to resolve the complaint.
Mr White also complained that the author of the article had failed to disclose his financial ties to a particular fracking proposal in Ireland or to his company’s financial interests in fracking and shale gas in Poland. This has to be set beside the explicit connection made in the headline between the article’s author and San Leon Energy, and in the context of the author’s unmistakably partisan approach to the whole fracking debate. Nobody who read the article would have remained for very long under any misapprehension about which side of the debate the author was on, or about the significance of his connection with the named company. For these reasons, this part of the complaint is not upheld.
IMPACT and RESEARCH GROUP LEITRIM
The Impact Research Group, Leitrim in a press release to The Leitrim Observer, 30 January 2012.
Expressed concern that the proposed Shale Gas Extraction/Hydraulic Fracturing in Ireland, will have serious implications for the region and the country. In our own region, one of the licenced companies, of which there are three to date, has been making varying assertions which need scrutiny.
Tamboran Resources has made much of the alleged financial benefits of hydraulic fracturing for Ireland. In fact, the company’s CEO Richard Moorman continues to repeat the industry mantra that fracking will bring unprecedented prosperity to the affected area. Of course, once one scrapes beneath the surface of the excessive claims and false smiles that characterise this industry, it is found that the economic advantages of shale gas production for rural communities often fall between the minute and the non-existent.
In an article published in the Huffington Post last October, world-renowned environmental lawyer Robert F. Kennedy Jnr. condemned the industry, not only on the well-documented grounds of water and air pollution but also for concealment of the truth regarding chemicals used in fracking and for making exaggerated claims about the value of their projects. In his concluding paragraph he writes: “Gas fracking flacks routinely make extravagant promises about bringing jobs and income to depressed rural communities.” Moreover, he points out that industry frequently inflates statistics on the quantities of gas extracted at wells to hoodwink investors, landowners and the public on the feasibility of shale gas production. To further this point Kennedy states that the US Geological Survey has more recently downgraded the estimated shale gas reserves by 80%, from the original figures which were supplied by the Industry and which are now discarded by Government.
Kennedy wrote in support of a series of New York Times articles on hydraulic fracturing that uncovered the frightening truth behind the propaganda of one of America’s most powerful industries. Naturally, balanced investigative journalism and gas company CEO’s are frequently at loggerheads and an impressive campaign of misinformation has been launched by t he pioneers of fracking in an attempt to discredit the NY Times. Indeed, the accusations levelled at the New York Times for honest reporting are reminiscent of Richard Moorman’s scathing attack on the justifiably alarmed residents of this region. In a tirade by giants of the shale gas world, the NY Times have been labelled with big-business’s favourite denunciations; anti-capitalist and anti-development. Oddly enough these are exactly the terms used by Mr Moorman in a statement to Shannonside Radio last week. He was referring to what he calls “a small group” of “protestors”. By “small group” he meant the comfortable majority of councillors in counties Leitrim, Roscommon, Longford, Sligo and Donegal, a host of T.D.’s and senators from all parties and the thousands of people who have now signed an online petition to ban hydraulic fracturing in Ireland.
It is important to examine the motives of a company like Tamboran Resources Ltd. It would appear that its resources are very limited indeed. At the moment Tamboran is a speculative company floating on the stock exchange and hoping to attract investors. To date they have produced absolutely no shale gas anywhere yet the people of this area are expected to believe that they are capable of doing what industry giants like Chesapeake and Exxon have failed to do; extract natural gas without causing air and water pollution. It seems a tall tale to say the least, but why would they lie?
The answer is very simple. Tamboran is what Robert F. Kennedy Jnr. refers to as one of the “bottom feeders” of the industry; a group of speculators hoping to cash in on energy shortages by enticing investors with promises of vast quantities of gas and billions to be made. Should the project fail or should our water and air be polluted, our health affected and our landscape destroyed, Tamboran as a Limited company can walk away without being legally bound to clean up its mess. In fact, Kennedy in his article includes a claim by the gas industry there that they do not have the funds to repair damaged local roads and this cost is being left to local taxpayers. Like their big brothers in America, the Tamboran speculators have tried to sweet-talk local communities into welcoming their toxic machine of heavy industry. Seeing that this was not working, Richard Moorman has become increasingly bullish as his comments to Shannonside Radio demonstrated.
Mr Moorman’s figures for predicted employment in the Republic of Ireland have fluctuated from an optimistic 350 to an unlikely 600 to the ambiguous, absurd and slightly desperate “thousands of jobs” he spoke of on Pat Kenny Live in early January. The latter two predictions can safely be discarded as “extravagant promises” that will never come to fruition but the figure of 350 jobs should be analysed a little closer. First of all, Tamboran made these predictions for the Republic of Ireland long before they decided that the large tract of Cavan which it had intended to frack was not commercially viable. That’s roughly half of the initial project that they have lost interest in. Therefore one can assume that the number of jobs to be created would be halved correspondingly. That means the figure is something in the region of 175 jobs. Independent studies predicting the number of direct jobs to be created in New York State by hydraulic fracturing found the figure to be roughly 22% of what industry claimed. That’s not to suggest that the number of direct jobs to be created by hydraulic fracturing in Leitrim is 22% of 175 (that’s roughly 39 jobs). On this one we can probably give Richard Moorman the benefit of the doubt but one should probably refer to a study by Food and Water Watch on the potential fracking of New York State which stresses that “many of the high-paying industry jobs created would go to transient, out-of-state workers with shale gas industry experience”. And with Tamboran pulling the plug on the employee training deal with IT Sligo that never existed, according to the Institute, it seems inevitable that most of the skilled jobs will go to imported employees. Who knows how many direct jobs that leaves f or locals but it would likely be very few.
The ‘promise’ of energy security has been cited by the Irish Government as validation for the possibility of allowing fracking to commence. The very fact that our EPA are to be advised by the University of Aberdeen, an institution funded by oil and gas giants including Shell and Halliburton, on the viability of fracking speaks volumes about the Fine Gael/Labour coalition’s position on shale gas extraction. But one must wonder what exactly constitutes energy security as the gas Tamboran plans to force from beneath our feet will not belong to the Irish people. In fact, the gas already belongs to Tamboran under the terms of its options license. If the gas is extracted, we will have a chance to buy it back but only, to use Richard Moorman’s own words, “at market price”. This can only be understood to mean Irish shale gas will be no cheaper than imported gas. In any event, this could only be a short-term contribution, putting off the inevitable need to develop alternative energy sources.
The boys of Tamboran are trying to sell the unsellable. They want us to risk a burgeoning food, agriculture and tourism industry, currently accountable for roughly 13 billion euro of Ireland’s annual national income, and over 500,000 existing jobs, for a handful of short term new jobs, a polluted ecosystem and inevitable damage to human and animal health. Farcically, in a Tamboran video on the company’s website, Tony Bazley suggested that tourists to North Leitrim would find hundreds of gas wells “interesting”. Who knows where Tony likes to holiday but frankly an industrialised zone wouldn’t be the preferred destination of most people.
In relation to Agriculture, this country must consider its strategic need for food security, a growing concern across the world.
Caution is advisable in relation to investment and job creation by shale gas companies. Leaving aside the hazards of this dirty business, it is prudent to consider the motives of these companies and what they stand to gain by exaggerating the alleged benefits for Leitrim.
By all honest accounts, they will be considerably less than claimed.
Given all the alarming evidence available to date, the Impact Research Group, Leitrim, calls upon the State to ban this process, and to request Northern Ireland to do the same.
The Secretary Joseph Keaney concluded.
The sale of Coillte land was never on the table, as can be seen from the original Dáil answer in 2011. The statement from Pat Rabbitte in the RTÉ news report below is very misleading here. At no stage has the Government ever ruled out not proceeding with this action.
Other Questions – Coillte Assets
Thursday, 6 October 2011
6. Deputy Willie O’Dea
Deputy Simon Coveney: Although Deputy O’Dea is not present, I will read the reply into the record. Coillte was one of 28 commercial state bodies reviewed by the review group on State assets and liabilities, chaired by Mr. Colm McCarthy, which reported in April 2011. There were three recommendations in the section dealing with Coillte, one of which was that the State should initiate the disposal of Coillte’s forest and non-forest assets but not its forest land. My Department has considered the recommendations in the report and I also asked Deloitte on a pro bono basis to examine the recommendations in the McCarthy report as they apply to my Department, including Coillte. The analysis and possible outcomes from this work will be considered by the Government, along with the future of other assets, in the context of the work of NewERA.
Coillte was established as a private commercial company under the Forestry Act 1988 and currently manages some 442,000 ha of land, of which some 390,000 ha is under forestry. It also plays a significant role in the provision of forest recreational activities, which was evident from the participation in National Trails Day last weekend. Given its extensive forest holdings and its role as main supplier of timber to Irish sawmills, it is a key player in the Irish forestry business. The group’s two panel processing companies, Smartply Europe Limited and Medite Europe Limited, also export significant volumes of wood panelling. The review report recommends the disposal of Coillte’s forest and non-forest assets but not its forest land. However, there are still a number of considerations and options arising from that recommendation.
As I outlined to the House in an Adjournment debate on this issue in June, it is essential to maximise the information available to the Government to make an informed, sensible and well-thought out decision that will not compromise the State’s core asset, which is the land Coillte manages on behalf of its shareholders, amounting to some 7% of our land mass. NewERA can play an important role in this process. To assist in its examination of options for the possible disposal of assets in general, the Government has requested the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, in consultation with relevant line Departments, such as my own, and NewERA, to consider a number of possible candidates for disposal. The Government will be advised on the appropriate valuations to be placed on the assets in question, and on the most appropriate method of disposal, likely timeframe and economic impact of any such disposal to inform any further decisions that the Government may wish to make in this regard. Deputy Michael Moynihan:
Since the Forestry Act 1988 and before it there was a drive in some parts of the country to take on forestry. In my own part, over 50% of some parishes are under forestry. There is a significant concern about the issue and it is vital to make a distinction between the Minister’s comments and the notion debated on the public airwaves and elsewhere that Coillte land is for sale. Whatever the recommendations from the various bodies reporting on the sale of assets, it is vital that the land be kept in State ownership. It was sold to Coillte for minimal prices 20 or 25 years ago and it was never envisaged that the land would go to outsiders. I caution against such action. The Minister should also take account of what such action would mean to peripheral regions in the country which have given, in some cases, more than 50% of the land to afforestation.
Deputy Thomas Pringle:
Will the Department consider that forestry is a national asset as well as the land? There will be a future need to develop a wood biomass industry within the country to offset oil consumption and usage. Will the Minister give this consideration in making a decision? I hope he will make the right decision and not dispose of the assets.
Deputy Mick Wallace:
We do not have to go into the argument of the merits or otherwise of selling a State asset. Some 18 million visitors use Coillte land every year and I imagine if it was sold for private purposes, there would be some serious insurance issues arising from the public using the land which is currently a magnificent facility for the people.
Deputy Simon Coveney:
I wish to be absolutely clear on a number of issues. No one is considering selling Coillte land and that is off the table. When I asked Deloitte to consider the matter, I stipulated that there should be no consideration of the sale of Coillte lands. I appeal to people to be responsible on the issue if and when we must discuss the matter at some stage in future.
It is true to say that the forests which Coillte manage are also valuable assets. One may argue about the valuation of a crop of 390,000 ha of woodland but the idea considered in the Deloitte report was that a crop, or asset, could be sold through harvesting rights for the next 20 or 50 years, depending on how much value we want. At the end of the process, the land would revert to the State, with a requirement in place for re-afforestation and replanting. Essentially, the asset of the forests and land would come back to the State at some time in future.
That is the kind of option we are considering but I stress that no decision has been made on the sale of Coillte as a company or in terms of forest assets. Any sale will take account of the issues raised by Deputy Wallace with regard to ensuring public access to recreational land and so on. There is a significant portion of Coillte land that is not accessed by anyone and we are considering all the options now, including valuations. We will make some decisions as a Government in the not too distant future.
|Last Updated: 08/03/2013 18:26:50|
28 November 2012
Sale of Coillte forests will restrict public access and place up to 12,000 Irish jobs at risk
Government plans to sell the rights to harvest Coillte forests for up to 80 years will “destroy the character and quality of Irish forests and limit countryside access for walkers, cyclists, school groups and the general public,” according a new report launched today (Thursday). Save Our Forests: The social, economic and environmental case against selling Coillte assets also says the plans could jeopardise up to 12,000 jobs in the Irish forest products sector, which is currently worth €2.2 billion a year including €286 million in exports.
Today’s launch, by the Coillte Branch of IMPACT trade union, was attended by representative groups including Mountaineering Ireland, the Irish Orienteering Association, the Society of Irish Foresters and the Woodland League, along with representatives of teachers concerned at the potential impact on school projects and events. IMPACT also launched a campaign website – www.saveourforests.ie – and said it would work with interested organisations to alert the public to the issue and convince the Government to change course.
The Government is developing proposals to sell Coillte harvesting rights – the right to fell and sell timber – to private operators. Save Our Forests says prospective buyers, set on the commercial exploitation of timber, would be unlikely to agree to maintain “safe and optimum” access to forests without significant incentives “which are unlikely to be affordable at present.” This would severely restrict countryside access in Ireland, which has no public ‘rights of way’ over private land, and where 18 million visits are made to Coillte forests each year. This could also have a major impact on the tourism sector.
Drawing on the limited privatisation experience of New Zealand, the publication says: “commercially-driven owners or concessionaires could not be relied on to interpret access liberally, or to undertake the expenditure necessary to maintain forest land for safe and optimum recreational use. It is impossible to imagine how the State could maintain public access to Coillte lands after harvesting rights were sold to private companies.”
Outside of tourism, concerns over the employment consequences of a sale of Coillte assets – particularly to companies based overseas – focus on the supply and quality of timber to the Irish forestry products sector. Save Our Forests says international logging companies tend to export wood in unprocessed log form and can easily circumvent contractual requirements for local processing or supply of timber.
“This means that there is no certainty that the Coillte wood supply would continue to be available for purchase by Irish processors if foreign buyers take up harvesting concessions. Coillte does not withhold supply from Irish businesses regardless of market conditions. Private concession holders, on the other hand, are unlikely to place wood on the market when prices are low. They are likely to divert supplies to higher priced destinations when opportunities arise,” it says.
The publication also says selling forestry rights would put Coillte’s internationally-recognised Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification at risk, which could undermine the quality of – and prices for – Irish wood products.
Save Our Forests also outlines a range of environmental risks that could arise from the sale of Coillte harvesting rights, and highlights the difficulty and cost of regulation of re-forestation, tree species mix, forestry inventories and the maintenance of State expertise in these areas. “Once lost, it will not be possible to rebuild Ireland’s reservoir of forestry experience on which the future viability of Irish forestry depends,” it says.
Speaking at the launch of the publication, IMPACT general secretary Shay Cody criticised the Government for failing to consult with stakeholders including rural communities and the people who make 18 million visits to Coillte forests each year. “This publication outlines the disastrous economic, environmental and social consequences of the proposed course of action, including the likely erosion of public access to forests. It also makes the compelling case that, in current market conditions, these consequences are entirely disproportionate to the relatively small sums of money the Government could hope to raise from a sale,” he said.
Read the full document and get more information from www.saveourforests.ie
Coillte privatisation ‘unlikely’ – Rabbitte
A MUST READ OPINION FROM OUR CAMPAIGNER – Thom White
After researching the shale gas industry in the US I have come to the conclusion that rather than asking ‘how do we regulate this industry’, we in Ireland should be asking ‘why are we soliciting an industry that is mired in debt?’ Because, if we’re not careful, we could end up bailing out the shale gas industry here.
The shale gas industry in the US and elsewhere is facing cash flow issues with many companies spending twice as much as they are making: UK exploration company Cuadrilla has had to raise more cash than anticipated; and Chesapeake — the second largest natural gas producer in the US — is paying over 8% to refinance at a time when interest rates are at historic lows.
This is not a well industry (pardon the pun), and given the grave concerns about environmental damage; risks to public health and threats to a profitable agri-business, tourism and angling industries, it appears sheer lunacy to even consider fracking in an Irish context.
But then addicts — and we are addicted to fossil fuels — often make irrational decisions. Even if one argues there would be an economic benefit, it would be short-lived, as shale gas, being near the bottom of the resource pyramid, is not a revolution but a retirement plan for fossil fuel. The industry admits this, but prefers the term ‘bridge fuel’.
With conventional gas, one well alone could theoretically drain a large reservoir of one trillion cubic feet or more; however a number of wells are sunk to allow sufficient gas flow rates. With shale gas, the gas trapped in the shale layer has to be released through hydraulic fracturing. This entails drilling many more expensive (horizontal) wells — often up to 1,000 per TCF of gas.
The shale gas industry has really only existed since 2000. It was believed that shale was uniform, but over time it became apparent that there are ‘sweet spots’ and even those are variable. In some ‘plays’ 80% of shale wells are uneconomic.
Industry models predicted well lives of 30-40 years but these are now discredited as shale wells deplete rapidly. The average economic life of a Barnett Shale well is a mere seven years. Last August, the United States Geological Survey (USGS) published figures on predicted gas production per well in all US shale ‘plays’ which showed large variance with industry estimates.
Analysing Tamboran’s business model in light of the USGS findings and applying appropriate costs as per recent EU reports would entail drilling 1,100 wells to produce one TCF of gas at a cost of €12.1 – 18.7bn ($US15.5 – 23.8bn).
Gas is trading at approximately $US10bn/TCF in Europe. To be profitable, Lough Allen gas would have to trade at around $US20bn – 30bn/TCF. At these prices renewables are competitive. The US experience has shown that even with lax regulation or even no regulation at all; financial incentives; extensive infrastructure; a skilled workforce and landowners willing to lease land, shale gas is not profitable.
What chance has this industry of producing a profit in Ireland?
A non-profitable industry will have difficulty adhering to regulations and might even leave the taxpayer to underwrite any environmental damage. It raises the risk of abandonment.
Imagine the consequences of starting a project like this and it failing halfway. Irish taxpayers are already bailing out the banks. They would be unable to bail out a gas industry and pay fines for pollution and clean up costs.
The country would also risk greatly reduced income from tourism, and losing hard-won market share in the agri-food business. Most importantly, shale gas would compete for funds for the new renewable energy infrastructure that even the shale gas industry says is where we want to be and which is vital to future economic prosperity.
Tom White is a telecommunications professional who returned to the area after working abroad, and counts economics, cycling, local history and genealogy among his interests
Let’s make sure ‘frackademia’ has no place in Ireland
We tend to assume that science equals ‘truth’ – but when fracking is the issue this isn’t always the case, writes Sian Cowman.
WE TEND TO assume that science is truth. Recently this has been proven false. In February of this year, those following the controversy around the natural gas drilling technique known as fracking saw headlines proclaiming ‘Study reveals fracking does not cause water contamination.’
Here was a study that gas industry officials could tout as proof that claims of contaminated water due to fracking are nonsense.
Until it emerged that the chief investigator of the study, Charles G. Groat, sits on the board of a Texas fossil fuel company, owns extensive shares in that company, and failed to disclose his conflict of interest.
The study was funded by the Energy Institute at The University of Texas. On their website, the Institute states that it “funded an independent study of hydraulic fracturing in shale gas development to inject science into a highly charged emotional debate.”
But according to the Public Accountability Initiative, who disclosed the conflict of interest, “the report was released as a rough draft and not ready for public release, and… the university’s press push around the report significantly mischaracterises and oversimplifies its findings.”
In fact, the section that contains the main finding of the report, that fracking does not contaminate groundwater – “Environmental Impacts of Shale Gas Development” (pdf) – says on the first page “This section is still in draft form.”
As well as that, the PAI stated that the central claim of the study – that fracking does not contaminate groundwater – “relies on a highly-specific and misleading definition of fracking.” What they mean by this is that the terms ‘hydraulic fracturing’ and ‘fracking’ can be understood in different ways.
To the industry, the terms mean the actual process of pumping fluids into the ground. When they talk about fracking they don’t include all the other associated processes, such as drilling, setting off explosions, storing waste water in containment ponds, injecting waste water into underground storage wells, transporting waste or gas, burning off gases, and more.
Even though the terminology used in Groat’s study may be a grey area, I believe that we should be able to trust in the impartiality of science. Unfortunately this kind of industry co-opting of scientific studies is becoming more common than you’d think. In some places university research that involves fossil fuel industry money or experts with industry ties has been dubbed ‘frackademia’.
Are we safe from frackademia in Ireland? In 2011, the Irish Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) commissioned a report on fracking from the University of Aberdeen, which was subsequently published in May of this year. Concerns have been raised about the impartiality of the university.
In a debate in the Oireachtas, Deputy Patrick Nulty asked Minister Pat Rabbitte for “his views on whether the university’s research will be impartial in view of the fact that this university is the hub of the oil and gas industry for the North Sea and also receives generous funding from the same industry; and if he will make a statement on the matter.”
Minister of State Fergus O’Dowd defended the university, saying that: “There is no question of getting a biased or one-sided report […] Aberdeen University and other high quality universities are objective.”
The University of Aberdeen EPA report had one author, Dr David Healy. A quick search on the university’s staff pages reveals that two of Dr Healy’s research funders are Total E&P UK and BG International. Total E&P UK is part of Total Group, one of the largest oil and gas companies in the world, and BG International is “a world leader in natural gas”.
Dr Healy has said that while he does have some research projects funded by the hydrocarbon industry, he also has other funding sources, including national research councils and charitable bodies. “There is no bias,” he said.
It’s impossible to know if his report for Ireland was biased or not. But his report for the EPA did reference the compromised U of T study extensively, quoting it as one of “few published, peer-reviewed scientific reports into the potential environmental impacts of fracking,” when it was anything but. Even before the revelation about Groat’s conflict of interest, this study should not have been used as a source for the Irish report, given that sections are marked ‘draft’.
On the plus side, Dr Healy’s report said that Ireland’s geology would require extensive study before fracking could take place. He also recommended extensive and careful monitoring in Ireland if fracking were to go ahead. But how would this be possible with the moratorium on hiring civil servants and the chronic under-funding of bodies such as the EPA?
The EPA are now in the process of commissioning a second report on fracking in Ireland. They responded to the recent calls for research free of industry influence by saying it “would be unlikely that anybody commissioned to write a thorough report on fracking in Ireland would not have some knowledge or experience of the fossil fuel industries.”
What they say is true – any researcher into fracking would have to have knowledge of the fossil fuel industry. But the issue is with researchers who are funded by industry.
There is a possible way to do this. German officials are dubious about fracking, and in North-Rhine Westphalia, officials have commissioned a study into fracking and are making researchers sign an affirmation (link in German) that they do not have any ties to the fossil fuel industry. The Irish EPA should do the same. Let’s make sure science is truthful.
25 September 2012
Sian Cowman works with Young Friends of the Earth, a network of environmental activists that work to take action together to solve the environmental and social justice crises our planet faces. If you would like to get involved or learn more, you can contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article was originally published in thejournal.ie
Science is broken. Psychology was rocked recently by stories of academics making up data, sometimes overshadowing whole careers. And it isn’t the only discipline with problems – the current record for fraudulent papersis held by anaesthesiologist Yoshitaka Fujii, with 172 faked articles.
These scandals highlight deeper cultural problems in academia. Pressure to turn out lots of high-quality publications not only promotes extreme behaviours, it normalises the little things, like the selective publication of positive novel findings – which leads to “non-significant” but possibly true findings sitting unpublished on shelves, and a lack of much needed replication studies.
Why does this matter? Science is about furthering our collective knowledge, and it happens in increments. Successive generations of scientists build upon theoretical foundations set by their predecessors. If those foundations are made of sand, though, then time and money will be wasted in the pursuit of ideas that simply aren’t right.
A recent paper in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences shows that since 1973, nearly a thousand biomedical papers have been retracted because someone cheated the system. That’s a massive 67% of all biomedical retractions. And the situation is getting worse – last year, Nature reported that the rise in retraction rates has overtaken the rise in the number of papers being published.
This is happening because the entire way that we go about funding, researching and publishing science is flawed. As Chris Chambers and Petroc Sumner point out, the reasons are numerous and interconnecting:
• Pressure to publish in “high impact” journals, at all research career levels;
• Universities treat successful grant applications as outputs, upon which continued careers depend;
• Statistical analyses are hard, and sometimes researchers get it wrong;
• Journals favour positive results over null findings, even though null findings from a well conducted study are just as informative;
• The way journal articles are assessed is inconsistent and secretive, and allows statistical errors to creep through.
Problems occur at all levels in the system, and we need to stop stubbornly arguing that “it’s not that bad” or that talking about it somehow damages science. The damage has already been done – now we need to start fixing it.
Chambers and Sumner argue that replication is critical to keeping science honest, and they are right. Replication is a great way to verify the results of a given study, and its widespread adoption would, in time, act as a deterrent for dodgy practices. The nature of statistics means that sometimes positive findings arise by chance, and if replications aren’t published, we can’t be sure that a finding wasn’t simply a statistical anomaly.
But replication isn’t enough: we need to enact practical changes at all levels in the system. The scientific process must be as open to scrutiny as possible – that means enforcing study pre-registration to deter inappropriate post-hoc statistical testing, archiving and sharing data online for others to scrutinise, and incentivising these practices (such as guaranteeing publications, regardless of findings).
The peer-review process needs to be overhauled. Currently, it happens behind closed doors, with anonymous reviews only seen by journal editors and manuscript authors. This means we have no real idea how effective peer review is – though we know it can easily be gamed. Extreme examples of fake reviewers, fake journal articles, and even fake journals have been uncovered.
More often, shoddy science and dodgy statistics are accepted for publication by reviewers with inadequate levels of expertise. Peer review must become more transparent. Journals like Frontiers already use an interactive reviewing format, with reviewers and authors discussing a paper in a real-time, forum-like setting.
A simple next step would be to make this system open and viewable by everyone, while maintaining the anonymity of the reviewers themselves. This would allow young researchers to be critical of a senior academic’s paper without fear of career suicide.
The aim of the session is to find practical solutions to these problems that science faces. It will involve scientific researchers, journalists and journal editors. We’ve made some suggestions here, but we want more from you. What would you like to see discussed? Do you have any ideas, opinions or solutions?
We’ll take the best points and air them at the session, so speak up now! Let’s stop burying our heads in the sand and stand up for good science.
Pete Etchells is a biological psychologist and Suzi Gage is a translational epidemiology PhD student. Both are at the University of Bristol
Fracking in Ireland and Being Dependent on Halliburton’s Mud
by Greg Palast
On the 20th of April 2010, the Deepwater Horizon oilrig blew out in the Gulf of Mexico, killing eleven men instantly, then destroying 600 miles of coastline. On 9 September 2010, a natural gas pipeline exploded in San Bruno, California, burning eight to death, one of several recent pipeline explosions in the USA. In 1992, in Chicago, a gas pipe leaked and 18 houses exploded, incinerating three people.
What do these deaths have to do with plans for “fracking” for natural gas in Ireland?
Everything. It was my job to investigate these three explosions, the Deepwater Horizon and California explosions as a reporter for the UK Channel 4’s Dispatches, the earliest as a US government investigator. In all three cases, the deaths were preceded by the same reassurances about the safety of drilling and piping that I read now in the debate about fracking in Ireland.
First, the Deepwater Horizon. Eleven men died when the ‘mud’ – drilling cement meant to cap the wellhead – failed and methane gas blew out the top of the pipes and exploded. The Shannon Basin is not the Gulf of Mexico, but your safety will be just as dependent on Halliburton’s mud.
Can we trust Halliburton’s reassurances? The owners of the Deepwater Horizon have told a US court that they’ve discovered that Halliburton hid critical information that the well cement could fail. Halliburton denies the cover-up. But cover-up or not, the cement failed as it has several times recently in the US in wells drilled for fracking. In all cases, including the contamination of water supplies in Pennsylvania (where some residents could set their tap water alight with a match), drilling was preceded by mollifying studies indicating that all was safe. But they failed to see all the looming dangers.
In Ireland, you haven’t even done the studies. The University of Aberdeen study for the Irish Environmental Protection Agency has been played as some kind of endorsement for charging ahead with fracking in Ireland – but this is not the case if you actually read the study. The University study is, in fact, a long series of warnings that proposed drilling methods, the local geology and the potential impacts on water quality all require studies not even begun. It also points to the necessity of creating a regulatory system not now in place which can cope with watching thousands of explosive, toxic well-sites.
The Shannon river basin is a truly eyebrow-raising place to blindly drill thousands of wells. It’s located in proximity to one of Irelands few major aquifers (your drinking water supply) and the drilling will be relatively shallow. Where I live in the State of New York, the government, though a major booster of fracking, has banned the fracking of shallow shale deposits and banned the process from all locations near our aquifers. The US experience is not comforting.
Horizontal fracking (as proposed for Irish deposits) requires explosive charges to be fired along miles of pipe underground (and under houses and water supplies) followed by the pumping of fluids at high pressure through these pipes. The result has been man-made earthquakes. Buildings don’t fall down, but cracks bring hydrocarbon poisons into the aquifers. In the vast uninhabited wastes of the American Dakotas, we simply abandon water systems. Where in Ireland can you do that?
And then there are the pipelines. The fracked gas doesn’t get to market by carrier pigeon. Ireland has had virtually no discussion of the difficulties, danger and cost of running hundreds, and ultimately, thousands of miles of gathering pipes. I’ve been investigating the horror of pipeline explosions for three decades now and the problem is exponentially worsened by the new web of lines created by fracking.
Highly explosive transport systems require an elaborate system of on-site government regulation which Ireland does not have and cannot now afford. And it’s simply too easy for the PIGs to cheat.
A PIG is a Pipeline Inspection Gauge, a robot that looks like a mechanical porker with wire whiskers that crawls through pipes hunting for corrosion, cracks, leaks and trouble. When the PIG ’squeals’, the pipes must be dug up and replaced. And that’s frightfully expensive.
It especially frightens the executives who have to pay for pipe replacement. So, what I’ve found and reported is that the providers of software and its users are aware that the PIGs’ diagnostic computer code, which converts the squeals of the PIG into warnings, has flaws which understate dangers. And the results have been horribly predictable: Despite the reassuring noises from the PIGs, pipes have leaked, polluted, exploded and killed.
Is there a safe way to frack? Probably: but not profitably; and certainly not within the geology of a little emerald isle. I am weary of appearing at scenes of death and destruction when cement fails, pipes crack and tremors spew poisons only to hear a gas or oil company executive’s PR flack issue an apology. I doubt those apologies will sound better in Gaelic.
Greg Palast is the author of Vultures’ Picnic (Penguin 2011), which centers on his investigation of BP, bribery and corruption in the oil industry. Palast, whose reports are seen on BBC-TV and Britain’s Channel 4.
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All aboard the fossil fuel train – http://thegasmancometh.wordpress.com/2013/01/16/all-aboard-the-fossil-fuel-train-next-destination-terminus/