Letter to Glasgow University in support of Professor David Smythe

The letter reproduced below was sent from CCoF to Glasgow University on 13th September 2016, in support of Professor David Smythe who was an expert witness at the Dart Energy Public Inquiry

Dear Mr Newall,

We are dismayed to learn that Glasgow University in January 2016 abruptly terminated Emeritus Professor David Smythe’s access to the university research data base and removed his email address. It is also disappointing that the university has not relented subsequently. The whole saga raises troubling questions, notably about academic freedom of expression.

Much correspondence relating to the situation is now in the public domain, allowing people some opportunity to consider the background and circumstances.

We are disturbed to see that (on 15 August 2014) Professor Paul Younger forwarded to yourself and two other staff members a copy of part of the final summing-up from QC Gordon Steele at the 2014 Falkirk Public Inquiry. Here is a link to the most readily accessible online source; the email from Professor Younger is at p.7, the document at pp.11-16.

Paul Younger erroneously stated in his email to you that the Public Inquiry in question was in Sussex. It was, in fact, in Falkirk, and related to Dart Energy’s application commercially to extract Coal Bed Methane (Unconventional Gas Extraction) in this area. We are the community group, Concerned Communities of Falkirk, known as CCoF, named in the document, and for whom Professor Smythe was one among a number of expert witnesses. CCoF was one of four parties opposing the planning application, along with Falkirk and Stirling Councils and Friends of the Earth Scotland. CCoF’s legal team also represented thirty-one farmers, nine of Falkirk’s Community Councils, and the West Fife and Coastal Villages Community Council Forum.

Professor Younger has extracted a section of a concluding statement, taking it out of context and apparently using it to help build a negative case against Professor Smythe. The extract from the QC’s statement does not, of course, present an independent or unbiased view of Professor Smythe. Gordon Steele QC was employed by Dart Energy, paid to make a case on behalf of Dart Energy and to undermine the case made against Dart’s application. For these reasons he was deliberately critiquing Professor Smythe, one of our experts, in his closing submission. The extract from the QC’s statement needs to be understood within a larger framework. Contrary to suggestions made by Gordon Steele QC, Professor Smythe stood by his essential arguments. A key section (42) of the final summing-up made on behalf of CCoF would provide further balance in the view of the arguments rehearsed at the Public Inquiry.

The document can be found on the CCoF website here.
Further information can be found at: www.faug.org.uk/inquiry.

Professor Smythe’s voice was not a lone one in suggesting that Dart Energy had provided inadequate assessment of the local geology, and that there could be risks of methane migration. Dr Shaun Salmon and Dr Trevor Parkin, both of Amec, had been engaged by Falkirk Council to advise them on hydrogeological aspects of the proposal, and had provided a first version of a technical note in May 2013, before CCoF had even contacted David Smythe (the Amec experts went on to provide subsequent versions). Dr Salmon, a hydrogeologist and Expert Witness for Falkirk Council, thus addressed key issues independently. Nevertheless, at the Public Inquiry, Dr Salmon’s view of the risks posed by the Dart Energy application coincided in some key respects with the interpretation offered by David Smythe (though Dr Salmon addressed the hydrogeology more specifically). These two experts were in broad agreement, critical of Dart Energy’s application, and concerned about the identification of potential fugitive gas emission and their impact on ‘receptors’ (including local residents).

From the beginning of our association with David Smythe he made clear that he was retired, that he worked from his home-base in France and did not speak ‘on behalf of’ Glasgow University.

Professor Smythe explained the main areas of his interest and research (notably geological faulting). He undertook work for CCoF at short notice and without expectation of payment; he had no vested interests, and was extremely generous with his time and energy, especially as he expanded on his initial research for us. We found him consistently calm, polite and rational, even under pressure. Concerned Communities of Falkirk remain grateful to Professor Smythe for being prepared to undertake difficult, time-consuming work on behalf of local residents previously unknown to him. Engaging critically with a powerful industry, he was willing to ask difficult questions and probe uncertainties, with our safety and well-being potentially at stake. Professor Smythe undertook to act for us because he felt it important and not for any personal gain of any kind. Indeed, he has been subjected to the most unedifying personal criticism from various quarters in the course of his efforts, by Professor Paul Younger and Dr Rob Westaway in particular, in language best described as at times intemperate.

Despite assertions to the contrary by those who support fracking, the science relating to ‘fracking’ and unconventional gas extraction more generally, is still contested and not fully settled. Indeed, there is not one single science at stake; there are many aspects to the industry. Although Professor Younger insists that David Smythe is not a relevant expert, we respectfully suggest that there is room for more than one perspective on this industry.

The unconventional gas industry has taken less hold in the UK than in some other countries, and much of the research and discussion to date occur where the technologies have been pursued at scale. Contrary to what proponents of fracking often assert, there is continuing argument and debate about many aspects of the industry. It is not yet at all clear that ‘fracking’ is safe, whatever its proponents assert. A study for New York State Health department, involving hundreds of research papers and studies, concluded that the risks are too great, leading to a ban in the state:  

High-profile American academic critics of fracking include some distinguished academics such as Professors Anthony Ingraffea and Robert W. Howarth of Cornell University.

It is surely essential that scientists in the UK are allowed to discuss and debate controversial new technologies, especially when our environment and the safety and well-being of the public could be at stake. Very recently, in August 2016, the American EPA (Environment Protection Agency) has been criticised by its own Scientific Advisory Board. Here are just two reports of this situation:

Evidently there is not full agreement on everything relating to fracking, even in the USA.

Historically, academic institutions have not just tolerated but encouraged debate and discussion. Is Glasgow University unwilling to permit differing views among academics associated with them, whether teaching or not?

It is well known, though perhaps not to the general public, that in some branches of academia (science and engineering, for instance) staff may have close links with industry. Funding and careers are key elements in this situation. On 23 July 2014 Paul Younger states in an email to yourself, now made available for the public to view, that: ‘Various industrial research partners have suggested an open letter to major newspapers making clear he does not speak for us’. This can be seen at p.23 on the link given previously. (Context suggests that ‘he’ is David Smythe.) This implies that industry seeks to influence the actions of academics, although it seems no such ‘open letter’ was published. Who the ‘industrial partners’ are, and the full implications of all this, we must leave for others to decide. The context appears to be unconventional gas extraction.

Professor Younger, an adviser with the Scottish Government’s Independent Expert Scientific Panel on Unconventional Gas in 2014, has attracted some attention in recent years, including for his past connections with energy company Five-Quarter.

There seems to have been at least some informal contact, over time, between two Glasgow academics, Dr Rob Westaway and Professor Paul Younger, and the company Cuadrilla, who sought (and still seek) to pursue Hydraulic fracturing in Lancashire.

The organisation Spinwatch has discovered correspondence via Freedom Of Information, which appears to show that Dr Westaway emailed Cuadrilla, drawing attention to Professor’s Smythe’s submission to Solid Earth Discussion, and pointing out that comment could be made by external commentators. Huw Clarke of Cuadrilla then submitted critical comment on David Smythe’s piece.

We would like to believe that universities seek truth, through impartial research in the sciences. It is worrying to see an academic denied the opportunity to pursue his research, and to see him vilified.  History will judge the rights and wrongs of this situation. In the meantime, we ask respectfully that Professor David Smythe’s access to research databases, and his university email be restored.

This letter will be published on our website, www.faug.org.uk.

It may also appear via The Ferret.

Yours Sincerely,

Carol Anderson
Jamie Mackenzie Hamilton
Mike Miller
Maria Montinaro
Vivien Murchison
Fiona Williams

On behalf of Concerned Communities of Falkirk.

Publication date: 

Thursday, September 15, 2016