SCELG Seminar: Out of sight, out of mind? Law and social sciences in the safe and efficient use of the subsurface

Professor Mike Stephenson, 1 November 2017, 15.00-16.00.

Video recording of Mike's lecture


Mike Stephenson is Director of Science and Technology at the British Geological Survey. He began his career as a schoolteacher in rural Africa and stayed there for nearly ten years but returned to Britain to pursue research in the Middle East and Asia, including highlights in Oman, Jordan, Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan. Mike has degrees from Imperial College and Sheffield University and runs the Science Programme at BGS, the UK's national geoscience and data centre, with 520 scientists and technologists. He has professorships at Nottingham and Leicester universities and has published over seventy peer-reviewed papers, while also acting on the editorial boards of several journals, and as Editor-in-Chief of an Elsevier geological journal.

His recently published book ‘Shale gas and fracking: the science behind the controversy’ won an ‘honourable mention’ at the Association of American Publishers PROSE awards in Washington DC. The PROSE Awards ‘…annually recognize the very best in professional and scholarly publishing…’. His new book ‘Energy and climate change: an introduction to geological controls, interventions and mitigations’ will be published early next year.

Mike Stephenson regularly represents UK science interests in energy, as well as providing extensive advice to the UK Government. For example in October 2013 he was shale gas and carbon capture and storage (CCS) advisor to Sir Mark Walport, Chief UK Government Scientific Advisor, on a fact-finding mission to Texas and Alberta. He gave verbal evidence to the UK House of Lords Select Committee on Economic Affairs inquiry into shale gas in Oct 2013.


We have always used the subsurface: its resources help to sustain life and provide energy. One of the kick-starts to the British industrial revolution was the easy availability of local high calorific coal close to the surface. Oil and gas have fuelled the modern world since the end of the 19th Century. But the use of the underground has expanded considerably so that nowadays cities are as likely to build downward as upward. We are also looking at using the subsurface to store CO2, as well as radioactive waste from many years of nuclear power generation. We may want to store energy underground at grid scale to fill in for the intermittency of renewables.

Geologists will have to understand how these competing uses interfere with each other, and also their single and cumulative environmental effects - and this science should underpin regulation. For the geologist it may mean drawing lines around the spheres of influence of activities as well as understanding the ownership of properties of the subsurface. For example who ‘owns’ the geothermal heat under our cities, how far can a hydraulic fracture go and how close should hydraulic fracturing be allowed to a geological fault or an aquifer? How do we decide when an underground disposal site of carbon dioxide operated by a commercial company is sufficiently safe and predictable to be handed over to a ‘competent authority’? How do we make sure that future generations tens of thousands of years into the future know what a deep geological nuclear waste repository looks like, so that they don’t drill into it by accident?

As I hint at above, the modern energy transition from hydrocarbons to renewables will involve the subsurface - for example for grid scale renewables, geothermal, and minerals for batteries. The subsurface has played a fundamental role in previous global energy transitions for example from wood fuel to coal, and from coal to gas/oil. What can we learn from economics and social science about the non-geological factors that affect energy transitions so that we can encourage a quicker and more efficient transition to renewables in the modern world?

Finally, geologists have another problem. There are many uses that the subsurface can be put to, and even now the subsurface is an underused resource. However communication about the subsurface is difficult. A recent paper mentioned that as regards the general public ‘…cognitive studies confirm a cultural dissonance with the subsurface and highlight lay anxieties about tampering with nature…’. How should geologists learn to communicate about the subsurface better using the expertise of the social science community?