The University of Manchester has received grants for fracking research totalling £657000. Following a leaked letter revealing government intentions to use academics to sway public opinion, The Mancunion has found evidence to suggest such grants are now being awarded to universities situated in contested fracking areas
A report by Fossil Free UK entitled ‘Fracking with education: Public Money, Research and Fracking’ has revealed that for the 2014/15 academic year, the University of Manchester has been awarded grants worth just under £657000 to carry out research into fracking.
The grants have been awarded by the National Environment Research Council (NERC), one of seven UK research councils and a publicly funded, non-departmental government body.
The report shows that just under £4 million in public money has been spent on research into shale gas and that since 2008, 14 universities and four public bodies have received such grants from NERC.
The University of Manchester has received two successful NERC research grants, the first being awarded on the 1st of September 2014 for £74789 and the second on the 30th of November 2014 for a further £582119. Both grants have been awarded to the Earth Atmospheric and Environmental Sciences department.
The grants awarded this academic year to the University of Manchester are the largest fracking research grants to be awarded to a UK university by NERC or any other UK research council. In total the two grants make up 65 per cent of all grant money awarded to universities by various research councils for fracking research during the 2014/15 period—with the total sum of research grants being worth approximately £1006721.
Other universities which also successfully received NERC grants for the purpose of researching fracking this academic year were the Universities of Leicester, Portsmouth, Leeds, Bristol, and Hull.
While the University of Manchester is free to accept and research the purpose of any grant awarded to its various departments, the NERC research grants awarded to all of the six UK universities this academic year might potentially play a role in the Government’s current agenda of pushing through controversial fracking and Coal Bed Methane (CBM) extraction plans.
“All out for shale”
David Cameron infamously announced at the beginning of 2014 that he was “going all out for shale,” with shale extraction techniques such as fracking playing a key part in his government’s long-term economic plan to secure Britain’s future, despite Scottish and Welsh moratoriums on fracking for shale gas.
This policy remains in spite of London Assembly members recently voting in support of a motion to divest over £4.8 billion in pension funds away from fossil fuels.
Besides these statements in January 2014, Cameron also announced additional council incentives to enable fracking within their local areas. He stated that councils who actively enabled fracking would be entitled to keep 100 per cent of business rates from fracking operations, further estimating that from one typical well site, local councils could receive around £1.7 million.
This is on top of an industry pledge by fracking companies to give local councils an initial £100000 payment to enable fracking, as well as an additional one per cent levy from the well-sites, which according to Energy Minister Michael Fallon could be worth around £10 million per wellhead.
This pro-fracking stance has recently been cemented in legislation with the Infrastructure Act, which introduced new provisions to further deregulate fracking by changing trespass laws in England to enable companies to drill under citizens’ homes without needing to notify or seek the permission of the landowner.
Further, amendments to the original bill also enable fracking companies—in unspecified, exceptional circumstances—to drill horizontally beneath national parks and protected areas such as Areas of Outstanding National Beauty, Sites of Specific Scientific Interest and groundwater source protection zones, where the wells start outside the boundaries of these areas.
The Act was granted Royal Assent on February the 12th 2015, despite the Government’s own public opinion polls indicating that the measure was opposed by 74 per cent of the English population.
While the government’s position on fracking is clear, a leaked letter, obtained by environmental group Friends of the Earth in January this year, has called into question the relationship that universities have to fracking giants such as Cuadrilla and IGas Energy.
The letter, dated the 24th of September 2014, was signed by George Osborne and addressed to members of the Economic Affairs Committee. Its content not only lays bare the government’s close relationship with Cuadrilla and its intentions to make rapid progress on implementing plans for the development of the fracking industry, but also explicitly states plans to “build on [the] existing network of neutral academic experts available to provide credible evidence-based views on matters of public concern.”
This statement, outlined within the ‘Recommendations on moving to full exploration’ section of the annex to the letter, suggests the Government is intending to use research evidence obtained by UK universities to push forward fracking plans in areas where fracking and CBM sites are in contention or are still under consideration by local councils.
Universities and NERC
Further research conducted by The Mancunion shows that for the 2014/15 period, NERC fracking research grants were awarded to UK universities that are situated in regions where shale gas extraction and CBM site planning applications are still under consideration by local councils.
The only apparent exception is the University of Leicester, although this falls within an area where the Government has recently opened bidding for fracking companies to argue for planning rights.
The six universities awarded the fracking research grants are, on average, roughly 32.5 miles away from contested sites, whose planning applications where still under consideration during the time period from the 1st of January 2014 to the 1st of January 2015.
This is in stark contrast to NERC fracking research grants awarded for the 2013/14 period, prior to the plans stated by George Osborne to build upon the network of academic experts to push forward the development of the shale gas industry.
For the 2013/14 period, NERC grants were awarded to universities which were on average roughly 82.25 miles from the nearest sites where planning applications were being considered during the time period from the 1st of January 2013 to the 1st of January 2014.
On average, this shows that since government intentions to use universities to provide evidence to sway public opinion were made clear, the NERC grants have been awarded to universities 49.75 miles closer to contested sites, raising the question of whether NERC research grants have been awarded on a basis of merit or location.
Information regarding planning applications were obtained from Frack-Off.org and verified on the relevant council websites.
However Colin Bailey, Deputy President and Deputy Vice-Chancellor of the University of Manchester, speaking as a representative of the university, stated that: “Research grants awarded by the UK research councils, including the National Environment Research Council (NERC), are assessed and awarded based on overall research excellence through a peer-reviewed process involving national and international experts.
“A 2012 report produced by The Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering carried out a review of shale gas extraction, concluding that fracking as a means to extract shale gas could be managed effectively in the UK.
“The university will continue to carry out leading research, and teaching and learning, in the area of shale gas to ensure any future extraction of this precious resource is carried out safely and effectively whilst minimising any effect on the environment. The university also continues the debate on the merits of shale gas within the energy mix in terms of overall carbon and the effects on the environment.
“Meanwhile, we continue apace to research and develop all low-carbon forms of energy, in terms of its source, transmission and use, with the ultimate aim of significantly reducing the world’s dependency on fossil fuels.”
The closest site to the University of Manchester is the Davyhulme site, situated 5 miles away, which IGas Energy is currently attempting to renew its planning application for CBM test drilling in the area.
Coal bed methane extraction
Whilst CBM does not strictly fall under the technical definition of fracking, in November 2014 Trafford Council, following a motion proposed by the Labour group, voted unanimously to ban fracking in the area until “until such time as it can be proved to be safe.”
Yet the safety of CBM, particularly by IGas, has itself been questioned by recent evidence given by environmental expert Dr. Aidan Foley, who found dangerously high levels of contamination, including carcinogenic chemicals, in the earth outside of the perimeter fence of the Barton Moss test drilling site.
Whilst Foley claims that he would need internal access to the site to establish its source was in fact from the test drilling machinery and that drilling mud had been left uncontrolled at the site—in breach of the environmental permit—any such attempts have so far been blocked by IGas, in spite of concerns heard in court that such contamination could proceed to drain into nearby water sources.
The issue of safety is one which Councillor Andrew Western, the leader of the Trafford Labour Group, focused upon when asked by The Mancunion why the Labour group made the motion to oppose fracking:
“Our view on fracking has arisen over a number years and is, essentially, a direct result of the inability of anybody, quite frankly, to prove the process entirely safe.
“There has been talk, in particular, of plans to frack in the Davyhulme area… This is not something we can support given existing pollution levels. The Labour Group would much prefer to see investment in renewable and green energy sources as a means of meeting the UK’s energy needs.”
He continued, “it is clear to me that the Conservatives are keen to promote fracking as best they can. In particular I feel that the incentives offered to councils to allow fracking are totally out of order whilst the science remains unproven in safety terms.”
The University of Manchester
However, although previous work has been done at the University of Manchester in regards to the environmental impact of fracking, the research grants awarded to the university do not appear to consider the issue of human or environmental safety.
The abstract for the largest grant, of over half a million pounds, states that research is to focus upon a range of aspects of shale gas exploitation, with these aspects, and petrophysical properties of the rocks, being essential to the optimisation of production which is necessary for the successful development of a shale gas industry in the UK.
The grant for £74789 gives reference to there being learning required in new well delivery so as to “enable safe drilling and completion planning and execution.” However, on the basis of its abstract the grant focuses mainly upon building upon the existing track record of research at Manchester into the geology and characterisation of UK Carboniferous petroleum systems and associated shale resources.
This would be in line with previous NERC-funded research on shale petroleum systems and potential shale reservoirs undertaken by the university, so as to enable “a step forward in knowledge and capability in the assessment of resource potential and development of UK Carboniferous shale resources.” This is despite fracking yet to be proven conclusively safe.
However, it is notable that previous research done at the University of Manchester which has been funded by NERC was also co-sponsored by oil company Shell USA. Furthermore, there is clear association of many members of that research team with the Society of Petroleum Engineers, a charitable organisation “devoted to safe and efficient exploration and production of crude oil and natural gas resources,” questions the intended neutrality, outlined in the leaked letter by George Osborne, of funded academics.
This issue also arose in regards to research done by Fossil Free into researchers at Durham University in 2013, who were shown to have past ties with the oil and fracking industry. Further, the Durham-led ReFINE research consortium, which focuses on the issue of shale gas and oil exploitation, and in which NERC has invested, was found to be funded by Shell, Total and Chevron, with government environmental agencies participating in an advisory stakeholder capacity.
Speaking to The Mancunion, Andrew Taylor, who investigated the Durham researchers and authored the Fossil Free Report, stated that: “The funnelling of public sector money into fracking research is nothing more than a subsidy for an industry that the majority of the population have turned their back on.
“Students are increasingly challenging the moral case for the fossil fuel industry to be on their campuses, now universities need to start to listen.”
However, speaking to The Mancunion, Dr. Kieron Flanagan, Senior Lecturer in Science and Technology Policy at the University of Manchester and a blogger for The Guardian, said:
“I’m not so worried about academics being funded by certain companies or being members of societies. If you’re an engineer, it is almost expected that you would be and would need to be a member of certain groups as part of your career. The key thing is that it is transparent.
“My real concern is where companies such as Shell sign agreements with publicly funded research councils such as NERC. The issue here is one of transparency and reputation. NERC needs to be seen to be neutral and that its work is in the wider public interest and when companies like Shell are suspected to have privileged access in terms of influencing research agendas then this research might begin to appear biased.
“A problem with criticising those academics who are doing research funded by or associated with companies such as BP or Cuadrilla, is that then on the other side of the spectrum we should also be criticising those academics working with Greenpeace or Fossil Free.
“Otherwise it becomes a tit-for-tat argument, as can be seen now with regards to the sending of Freedom of Information requests in America surrounding climate science, where activists and politicians on both side begin to criticise academics for holding different opinions from their own.
“Whilst it is true that today’s research agenda will shape tomorrow’s technologies, industries and their social, economic and environmental impacts, and that it is legitimate for society to debate these, prematurely closing off research lines now reduces options in the future, for instance for future generations who may have different needs and problems.
“But investigations such as [The Mancunion’s] raise a bigger question in regards to transparency about how research funding agendas are set and what roles economic actors, elected politicians and citizens should play in shaping those agendas.
Some students at the University of Manchester, however, still find the potentially close relationship between their university and the fracking and fossil fuel industry uncomfortable.
One such student is the current Activities and Development Officer for the University of Manchester’s Students’ Union, Joel Smith, also a member of the Fossil Free campaign. In a statement to The Mancunion, Smith stated: “It’s unfortunate that the University is actively supporting a government-driven agenda to grow the fracking industry.
“This approach to energy consumption is incredibly short-termist, the fracking industry is time-limited by our need to drastically cut our carbon output and we should instead be competing for grants to research technology that can last thousands and not tens of years. With extensive investment into this new industry future governments will be obliged to maintain it, locking us into a fossil fuel future for longer than our planet and its people can handle.”
The anti-fracking lobby group Talk Fracking are set to release a new report on Tuesday focusing upon the questionable relationships amid those in academia and the fossil fuel industry and will be launching their national day of action ‘Frackademics Day’.
The Mancunion reached out for a comment from all of the individual Trafford Council party groups, however at present the Labour group are the only councillors who have replied for comment.
More information on the University of Manchester’s past investments in fossil fuel can be found at: A history of fossil fuel investment at the University of Manchester.