We stand by our conclusions on methane emissions and fracking


Financial Times, 14 March 2016:

Dr Euan Nisbet (Letters, March 7) takes issue with Dr Robin Russell-Jones (Letters, March 4) over the sources of increasing atmospheric methane. Dr Russell-Jones pointed to a review paper which he and I recently presented to the Committee on Climate Change, which shows that fracking in the US has produced such high emissions of methane that natural gas is a worse source of climate-changing gases than coal. Dr Nisbet briefly points to recent research by the US Environmental Defense Fund showing lower emissions in one oil and gasfield in the US, the Barnett Shale, as evidence that our estimate is too high, and goes on to stress the importance of “natural” emissions from tropical sources such as wetlands in Africa.

In fact, both fossil and natural methane emissions have an important bearing on Earth’s future. Concerning fossil methane, the Barnett Shale region does indeed emit less methane than most other unconventional oil and gas producing regions, probably because it is a mature field with a much lower rate of well completions (fracking) than in many other regions. Still, we believe the Environmental Defense Fund paper underestimates Barnett Shale emissions by about 40 per cent owing to its neglect of infrequent emission events of magnitude greater than about 1 tonne per hour, which, because they are rare, could only be picked up by long-term measurements beyond the timeframe of the Fund’s study. The importance of such events is underscored by the recent Aliso Canyon accident in California which emitted methane at the rate of 60 tonnes per hour, equivalent to emissions from an entire gasfield, for a period of several months. Taking into account the best oil and gas methane data currently available, and data from coal production, we concluded that methane emissions from the fracking industry are high enough to reverse the supposed benefit of natural gas over coal, and we stand by that conclusion. This is an absolutely key point for decision makers contemplating the future of energy generation in the UK.

Concerning natural methane sources, it is clear from satellite data that there has been a rise in atmospheric methane emissions at latitudes that intersect the Sahel region of Africa. Industrial activities such as hydroelectric projects, as well as human induced climate change, are damaging the wetland ecosystems of the Niger delta and this is clearly another significant climate threat. I entirely concur with Dr Nisbet on the critical importance of continuous atmospheric monitoring during a period of rapid climate change, and on the value of isotopic measurements. Data, modelling, understanding, and well-informed decision-making are all now vital to our future.

Prof Nick Cowern
Oswaldkirk, N Yorks, UK


The low price of oil will affect Middle East environmental efforts

Times of Oman, 7 March 2016:

There is a creeping, devastating problem that flows from the low price of oil and is potentially catastrophic for the Middle East: the effect on plans to mitigate climate change.

In 1989 a then young medical doctor, Dr Robin Russell-Jones, wrote an editorial for the Lancet entitled “Health in the Greenhouse” It concluded as follows :

“Any strategy to combat global warming must be conducted on a global scale and is bound to involve enormous investment in energy conservation, re-afforestation, renewable sources of energy and changing patterns of agriculture and transportation This approach will require a new agenda for world leaders, a new role for the United Nations Environmental Programme, and a new awareness of man’s fundamental reliance on the integrity of world ecosystems. The expense may be considerable, but the cost of doing nothing is incalculable.”

Twenty seven years later nothing much has changed except that annual emissions of carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas, have risen by 60 per cent. Continue reading

Fracking : An English duck that will never fly

Times of Oman, 11 March 2016:

After reading the article by ‘The low price of oil will affect Middle East environmental efforts’ (March 7) by Richard Galustian last week on the impact on the environment of low oil prices, I felt compelled to raise another very important subject.

Fracking has aroused huge controversy in the UK, mainly in England, as there is a moratorium on fracking in Scotland and Wales. There is very little public support for fracking and virtually no local support with anti-fracking groups springing up wherever fracking companies apply for permission to drill.

Indeed to get the programme off the ground the UK government has taken away responsibility for permission to drill from the local councils and has had to offer generous tax incentives to fracking companies to make the industry financially viable. That was before the price of gas fell to one third of its peak value last year.  Continue reading

Methane: the focus on fracking is a distraction



Financial Times, 7 March 2016:

Robin Russell-Jones (Letters, March 4) argues that fugitive emissions of methane from gas production remove the global warming advantage of natural gas over coal. Recent published studies and our own measurements suggest a more nuanced view. Methane leaks from gas production are typically over 1 per cent, as Dr Russell-Jones states, but coal mining also emits methane. Our own work measuring carbon isotopes in methane in air from China in winter suggests coal is an important contributor to East Asian methane.

Turning to shale gas, Dr Russell-Jones suggests methane losses average 8 per cent of production, with an upper limit of 13 per cent. This contrasts with the meticulous work of the US National Oceans and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the US Environmental Defense Fund. In Utah’s small Uintah basin, high leakage was indeed measured, but in the major Barnett Shale basin in Texas, methane emissions attributed to fossil sources were 1.3-1.9 per cent of production. Gas-fired electricity in this region would cause less climate forcing than coal-fired. A few “high emitters”, for example in storage and collection systems, have a disproportionate impact. Our own work in the UK and Australia similarly shows the importance of high emitters, that our mobile vehicle-mounted analyser easily pinpoints. These sites presumably represent financial loss and safety risks, and should relatively easily be controlled.

The focus on fracking distracts attention from the remarkable global methane rise since 2007, exceptionally strong in 2014 and 2015, which seems mainly to be from tropical sources. The rise has been accompanied by a carbon isotopic shift that suggests the increase is not primarily from fossil fuels but from tropical wetlands responding to meteorological events. Is this the result of a large but “normal” decadal-scale weather oscillation, or is methane the canary that warns a profound tropical change is occurring? We simply do not know. Tracking tropical emissions depends on a very few remote marine sites. Satellite data are not accurate enough, nor can they use isotopes to identify sources. Our instrument on Ascension Island has recently failed, and is so old that the manufacturer is soon withdrawing service support. Ascension’s air integrates a wide tract of the Southern Hemisphere: for want of £5,000 we risk losing the 2016 record of methane and CO2 during the current great El Niño. Many of our international partners in greenhouse gas measurement are suffering similar budget challenges. This illustrates a wider point: the greenhouse debate is like an inverted pyramid, with a vast top layer of opinion interpreting underlying computer models, that in turn depend on a tiny basis of direct in situ greenhouse gas measurement.

Dr Euan G Nisbet
Royal Holloway,
University of London, UK

TTIP In or out, TTIP is a threat to democracy


The Guardian, 3 March 2016:

I can understand why Unite is concentrating on the NHS, which it hopes will be exempt from TTIP, but the implications go far wider (Report, 22 February). Few commentators seem aware of the negative effect of TTIP on our ability to tackle climate change. Suppose in 10 to 15 years that several fracking firms were operating in the UK and the government decided the continued extraction of shale gas or shale oil were incompatible with our climate change commitments. Under TTIP, those companies could sue the British government and the result would either be massive compensation or the repeal of the UK’s Climate Change Act. The decision will not be taken by politicians, but by unaccountable lawyers meeting in secret and applying the terms of the trade deal.

It is significant that Cameron and leaders of the out campaign are united in their admiration for TTIP, but fail to appreciate that it will involve a huge transfer of sovereignty to unaccountable officials. EU plus TTIP will persuade a lot of voters to leave. Cameron needs to look again at this dreadful piece of legislation.

Dr Robin Russell-Jones
Stoke Poges, Buckinghamshire

Boris Johnson and London’s toxic air

The Guardian, 1 March 2016:

Your editorial underlines the indifference of the mayor of London to air pollution which, according to the Royal College of Physicians and the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, causes 40,000 premature deaths annually in the UK. But there are equally serious effects at the other end of life.

Small particulates (PM2.5) can cross the placental barrier and are associated with a number of negative outcomes including low birth weight. The WHO limit for small particulate is 25 micrograms per cubic metre of air, a level that is regularly exceeded in most UK cities. However, foetal effects are without threshold and are seen at levels below 25 micrograms.

It is not just the overall weight that is affected. Brain development is also compromised, and several studies link exposure to particulates, and oxides of nitrogen (NOx) to delayed neurocognitive development and lower IQ (See pages 34-41 of the RCP report).

Toxic metals like lead and small particulates like PM2.5 can cross the placental barrier, designed to protect the unborn foetus from harm. Our negligence has resulted in the replacement of one potent neurotoxin, lead, with another, PM2.5, derived almost exclusively in places like London from diesel-powered vehicles. It is equally dangerous, equally insidious and equally deserving of a total ban.

Dr Robin Russell-Jones
(Former chair, Campaign for Lead-Free Air)
Stoke Poges, Buckinghamshire

Gagging scientists isn’t new

The Observer, 28 February 2016:

I am not the least surprised to learn that the Cabinet Office is seeking to censor scientists who unearth findings that might prove inconvenient or embarrassing to  Government Ministers (Scientists alarmed at bid to “muzzle” their findings.Feb 21). These same strictures have applied to members of the medical profession for at least 10 years. Hospital doctors are not permitted to comment on NHS policy as a representative of the Trust by whom they are employed; instead they are obliged to write in a private capacity and even then they may not be immune from censure, which is why many letters from consultants are anonymous.

In 2003 I wrote an op-ed piece for the Times which stated “The NHS is the last refuge of Stalinist practices in the West. It has a central command and control structure whereby politically inspired initiatives filter to front-line medical staff through layers of managers and bureaucrats, most of whom have no medical qualifications”.  The Times put my hospital, St Thomas’, at the end of the article and it wasn’t long before I was called in by management and told in no uncertain terms that any repeat of this episode would lead to  disciplinary action. Scientists can express their views. They just need to be careful about their affiliation.

Dr Robin Russell-Jones
Stoke Poges, Buckinghamshire



Lead shot

Independent on Sunday, 28 February 2016:

Why on Earth are we still arguing about lead shot? (Hunters retain lead shot despite danger to food Feb 21) In 1983 the Ninth Report of the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution, Lead in the Environment, recommended : “Lead shot from spent cartridges and lead fishing weights poison wildlife. We recommend that as soon as substitutes are available, the Government should legislate  to ensure their adoption and use” (Para 8.35) The  only reason this has not happened is because of the rearguard action fought by groups such as the Countryside Alliance who represent the most extreme reactionary elements in rural society. Thus they are  prepared  to ignore the toxic effects on wild-life and potential harm to children eating game,  just so long as their membership can continue practices that have remained largely unchanged since the 18th century.

Sadly this is true of many such organisations that profess concern for the environment but whose main aim is  conservation at all costs. The Campaign for the Protection of Rural England, for example, has produced some sensible policy statements on renewable energy, but  local CPRE groups ignore national policy in favour the Daily Mail or the Sunday Telegraph, and adopt the same unthinking approach to onshore wind, the cheapest form of renewable energy.

Rather than spoil the view of their well-heeled members, they ignore the effects of climate change which will wreak far more havoc than any number of wind turbines. When your farm land is under 10 feet of water, what price then the view  or the land value?

Dr Robin Russell-Jones
Stoke Poges, Buckinghamshire