Saturday, 24 August 2013

Fracking for Beginners (Part Two)

In Part One, we examined the basics involved in setting up a well site and the impact on local communities. This time we have a closer look at fracking and the possible impact the process has on the environment. If you have not read Part One and only have a vague idea what happens on a well site, you would be well advised to read that one first then come on back here. I have tried to keep technical terms to a minimum but unless you know what the basics are, some of what follows below may be lost.

As stated in Part One, a well bore is cased and cemented and this is no small thing as the cost of casing is often as much as fifty percent of the entire well. Usually that is enough to prevent sub-surface fluids migrating up the outside of the casing and reaching upper rock layers or even the surface. This is still important whether a well is to be fracked or not. Unfortunately not all cement jobs are tip-top. On a well offshore Angola, I once identified a zone devoid of cement, over which the client intended to perforate the well. If they had done so, at best some oil would have been wasted as it migrated up the outside of the casing and into upper formations. (Not that I got any thanks for telling them of course, you’re welcome). Bad cement jobs can be fixed though. After cement has been allowed to set, acoustic logging tools should be run, which will tell the company whether their casing has a good bond with surrounding rock. If it is found that there is bad cement contact, the well can be repaired (known in the business as a “squeeze job”). Of course, this is an extra expense but given the risk to surface waters, a necessary procedure. Thus the wells used in fracking should be surveyed for cement bonding and repaired if necessary. In addition, it is standard practice that all cased wells should be pressure tested to prior to being perforated to ensure structural integrity. It cannot be emphasised enough as to the importance of the casing and its bond with the formation.

Fracked wells are different from standard wells though insofar that in a usual reservoir, the oil and gas has already migrated from a source rock and have been accumulated naturally. So when a well bore pierces an accumulation, there is only one way for the hydrocarbons to go – up the well. An artificially fractured formation on the other hand releases its gas and it goes in the direction of low pressure – into the well bore again or, if the pressure difference is not enough, upwards. After all, gas and oil are less dense that water and therefore floats, even up through a column of rock unless it meets an impassible barrier. It is suspected that this has been the issue in Pennsylvania where some fracked wells have been accused of polluting water supplies. In those cases, the wells have been extremely shallow, less than half a kilometer deep, so it can easily imagined that extra release of gas would rapidly make its way to surface. One of the problems with the US is that there was no measured baseline that could tell consumers what was in their water before fracking started so it cannot be ascertained what levels of natural gas were making its way to the surface before fracking began. That should not be the case in the UK where water supplies are well monitored and companies ought to know already what is coming out of our taps.

If I might be allowed a digression, I would like to illustrate the point of gas migration. Natural gas (methane) is produced from both shale rich in organic content and coal. As you know, accumulations of methane in a coal mine are extremely dangerous so the British Coal Board used to syphon off the methane and it would end up in the national gas grid, providing the tax payer with a nice little extra income. When the mines closed, so did much of the gas collection associated with them. That means for nearly thirty years now, that gas has just been naturally dissipating up through the surface layers and into the atmosphere. What a waste, especially since methane is ten times more potent than CO2 as a greenhouse gas.

This small tale of woes illustrates however that gas migration is a natural event. With this in view it would be unwise to frack shallow formations. Gas from deeper formations has far more chance of being trapped against higher, impermeable layers of rock. The same can be said for the fracking fluid. A shallow target is far more likely to pollute shallow ground water. It has to be pointed out though that deep ground water has often been down there for millions of years and as a result can be pretty nasty stuff itself, often rich in salts and dissolved metals. Any fluids coming to surface from the well bore will have to be treated as industrial waste. I believe at this time most of it is reused in the drilling / fracking process. Of course, fracking water is unlikely to migrate as quickly as gas but one must be alert to the possibility. Such risks have already been recognized by the British Geological Survey; in their paper THE UNCONVENTIONAL HYDROCARBON RESOURCES OF BRITAIN’S ONSHORE BASINS - SHALE GAS certain potential targets in Midlands have already been ruled out of development owing to their near-surface position. Drawing on analogies from the USA, the BGS have identified that potential target shales should be at the depth of at least 1000m, with most of them being a lot deeper.

Earthquakes have also been fretted over as a potential threat from fracking. Let me be very clear: fracking causes earthquakes. In fact, almost by definition, fracking is the artificial inducement of localized earthquakes but of a magnitude so small as to be undetectable by human senses. The recorded earthquakes caused by fracking activity, those nearby Blackpool in 2011, were of magnitudes 1.5 and 2.3. My theory of what happened is that the fracking pumps introduced additional energy into a system that is metastable. What does that mean? Let me illustrate it by comparing it to settling alight a lump of coal. If one was to strike a match under a coal and expect it to burn, it will be a cold night. There isn’t enough energy to start detaching the hydrogen atoms from the carbon – it is this breakage that releases additional energy in the form of heat. So a fire of tinder then of wood kindling is built up first, then the coal is introduced. The energy now available is enough to set up a chain reaction in the coal and release the energy within. It is the same principle with the Blackpool earthquakes – energy which was stored up in that part of the earth was released when the addition energy from the fracking was introduced. So can it happen again? The answer is yes. It should however be put into context.

A couple of years ago I was in a hotel in Haifa when, closed to ten o’clock in the evening, my bed started to sway gently. At first I thought I was imagining it but no, it really was happening. After ten seconds or so it stopped. I had just survived my first earthquake. It was a magnitude 5.5 with the epicenter in Cypress where it measured 5.9 on the Richter scale. Although no longer used by geophysicists, the Richter scale remains the public benchmark of earthquake intensity. It is logarithmic, which means a magnitude 2 earthquake is ten times more powerful that a magnitude 1, and likewise a 3 is ten times stronger than a 2. So that 5.5 Haifa quake was 2000 times stronger than the Blackpool earthquake at 2.3 on the scale (10x10x10x2). What is accounted as a large earthquake, a magnitude 7, would be 70,000 times stronger and the Tōhoku earthquake in 2011, which led to tragic Japanese tsunami and the destruction of the Fukushima nuclear power plant, was a magnitude 9.1 (8x10x10x10x10x10x10), eight million times stronger that the strongest Blackpool event. The energy involved in such large events are almost beyond human imagination; certainly beyond all nuclear arsenals owned on the entire planet. Wikipedia gives it at 600 million times stronger that the atomic bomb that wiped out Hiroshima and fair play to you if you can encompass that in your imagination because I cannot. I can see though that the energy provided by thirty or so pump trucks used in fracking is miniscule by comparison. That is not to say though that we are totally in the clear however. A recent paper in Science suggests that larger earthquakes far from fracking sites could trigger smaller but still quite powerful (magnitude 4 to 5) quakes around fracking sites, along the principle of the extra energy introduced could lead to greater local instability. If that is the case there is still the possibility of some damage to property. On that basis, it would be sensible for the government to ensure that license holders are suitably insured to cover potential claims.

None of this answers the basic question of “Does the UK need fracking?”

The graph above is based upon figures from the Department of Energy and Climate Change and is worth a moment’s consideration. The first peak in oil production (in blue) coincides with the miners’ strike of the 1980s and the subsequent need to pay the resulting unemployment and disability benefit, as well as replace coal as Britain’s major source of fuel. This replacement of coal also explains the “dash to gas” (in red). Giving up coal though is not a bad thing as far as greenhouse gases are concerned because of all the fossil fuels, coal is the dirtiest. As is painfully clear from the graph, production from the offshore has been consistently falling from the turn of the century and despite the promise of new finds in the future, this trend will continue unless new sources are discovered. At this time, coal still makes up 30% of how our energy is produced and coal imports are rising, as are imports of both oil and natural gas. From its peak in the late 1990s, UK oil production is down 67% and gas has fallen 66%.

New sources should certainly not be restricted to hydrocarbons. In government figures published in 2012, the UK is slightly under-achieving on our renewable targets but I would make the point that if the focus of both private and public investment is switched purely into fracking, the nation will miss the modest target of fifteen percent renewable energy by 2020. The current total of wind and solar is 4.5%, with the remaining five percent being made up by hydro-electricity. Germany on the other hand is looking towards a 35% target for renewables by 2020. Cynics might say “Good! Let Britain compete with cheaper energy costs” but the retort is “what happens when the hydrocarbons run out?” Germany will have already made the investments necessary to keep the lights on and the factories working.

Another important question is will fracking result in cheaper energy? I doubt it; the promise of free electricity was first made with nuclear power in the 1950s. What will definitely happen, if the promised levels of gas can be produced, is that price-rises will be slowed. It is simple economics, demand for energy is rising globally but meeting some of that demand locally will give some counter-balance to that trend. Nuclear power will also have a role to play in the future as it is clear that Britain’s old nuclear power stations are at the end of their respective lives. I am no fan of nuclear energy (mainly for its waste and the weaponisation of by-products) but the new generation seem to offer less waste and there is potential in thorium-based technologies, which is easier to obtain than uranium and far less useful to designers of nuclear weapons.

At this time it is not possible to know how many new jobs will be created due to fracking because, as I pointed out in Part One, it is impossible to know for sure what is down there until the hole is drilled. It is known though that at this time about 85,000 jobs are linked to offshore work and that we are an aging workforce. Certainly those with technical skills, engineering and science-based degrees will be demand by both the fracking and renewable industries. This has the potential to be a golden time for UK colleges and universities but one can be sure if the people here do not possess the necessary skills, the posts will be filled somehow.

The government should not leave it up to private companies to enforce their own safety standards, especially when the results of a large accident are so potentially damaging, in terms of the danger to human life and environment yes, but also in terms of public relations. Few blowouts that occur offshore make it into public consciousness but it would not be difficult to imagine the outcry if images of a well out of control on land would make on the television screens. Cuadrilla, the main player in the infant UK fracking field at this time, claim on their website they are subjected not only to careful planning regulations but also to unannounced site visits. I sincerely hope that public staff in this area has not been cut back in recent years because if the projections for the number of wells are accurate, there will be a need for a knowledgeable and well-funded (no pun intended) governmental inspection regime.

While on the topic of government intervention, I am somewhat nonplussed by the Conservative’s tax break for fracking companies and the reason for my puzzlement is this: despite the fact it is in its infancy, drilling on land is much cheaper than drilling offshore. Rigs are less expensive to rent than their offshore counterparts and the logistics are far easier. So why would companies need large incentives to open up land operations and in comparison making offshore investment less attractive?

During a Twitter exchange and subsequent blog, a friend offered the view that the Conservatives were pushing for fracking purely to preserve the South East from development by renewables such as wind farms. I thought this “wonderfully cynical” until proved wrong the very next day by Lord Howell speaking in Parliament. What is evidently clear is that the whole issue of energy supply is too important for short-term politics. A single technology does not hold the key to securing our energy future. It is vital that as much investment as possible is put into renewables now; to look ahead to 2050 still relying primarily upon fossil fuels would be irresponsible in the extreme. Nuclear too will have a role. When it comes to electricity generation, gas-fired power stations are the cleanest option that fossil fuels gives us so fracking will play an important part in making our greenhouse gas targets by replacing coal. Wide-scale activity such as fracking and renewables could also herald the re-industrialisation of the United Kingdom.

But maybe people prefer to leave the money-making to the City and the global banks nowadays? If that is the case, let me know how it works out.

Friday, 23 August 2013

Fracking for Beginners (Part One)

It has finally happened. I have been threatening to write this blog for some time. Over the years I have visited and worked on a number of land-based rig sites across five continents. I have also been on a total of three fracking jobs, two on land. I think we can ignore the marine survey as neither the Tories of southern England nor Greenpeace / FOE are likely to superglue themselves to Dyce heliport. What happens over the horizon, out of sight of land, is out of mind as far as most of the population is concerned.

I have decided to do this blog in two parts with this, the first part, being based upon my actual experiences of land-based well sites. In the second blog I intend to look at the pros and cons of drilling in the UK, fracking, and where, if at all it fits into the nation’s long term energy and economic needs.

What follows in this first part will be broken down into easy-to-swallow segments. We will first address what the average well site consists of; the amount of disturbance is created in terms of land use, noise and traffic, and also the benefits of being near a well site for communities and local businesses (yes there really are some!). We shall also examine what goes into the creation of a borehole and how it is fracked.

Now I cannot claim expertise in all the fields as each are specialised. In fact that is what few really appreciate about working the oil patch: we are a collection of experts with very few able to perform all the tasks involved. In order to know our own job though, it is necessary to know what the other folks are doing. In the process of making an oil well (technically it is called a bore hole or well bore because most drilled do not contain oil!) there are many variables so those readers who know me professionally, please understand you are not the target audience. Generalisations will be made, processes simplified and technical terms exiled.

The first question that springs to mine is how on earth does a company decide to drill in Location A and not Location B? Especially since Location A maybe in the South East, be in rich farm land near to several quaint villages (with accompanying astronomic property prices) while Location B is some blasted heath in the far-flung corner of the North East, which seems to be the Conservatives preferred location for such industrial activity. Of course, the answer is geology and a technique known as seismic is the most usual method for surveying the sub-surface of the Earth. Now the planet is 1000s of kilometres thick but as prospectors we are only interested in the top five kilometres or so. The reason for this is that as we go deeper into the planet, the hotter it gets; too hot and any oil and gas is literally baked away. Picture the different rocks as layers in a cake; sometimes though the cake layers have been tilted and even bend or broken. These layers can be mapped across the country and linked to where they break the surface. In fact, when it comes to England, the layers are angled so in general they come to the surface in chronological order, with the youngest rocks coming to the surface in the East and oldest in the West of the country. So it is quite possible that in economically poor areas, there simply isn’t the right layer present while those in the South East are once again sitting upon a fortune. Geology doesn’t have a social conscience.

It is possible to target a given layer but until somebody drills into it, it is simply unknowable what it contains. In most cases the contents turns out to be water; sedimentary rocks are saturated with the stuff. On occasion though, oil and / or gas does accumulate and are trapped in certain layers. These are the juicy targets that petroleum geologists are seeking for. Now some people (in fact a surprising number of people) think as an oil accumulation forming in a vast cave underground and that that drilling into it is like pushing a straw into a drinks carton. I’m sorry but it ain’t so. The top layers of the Earth are more like a sponge with the water, oil and gas in the microscopic holes between the solid bits of rock. It is important that these tiny holes are interconnected though; more on this later.

So the oil company have decided where to drill, have paid the lease rights to both government and landowner. This is a problem for companies for the last thing they want to deal with is a host of small-holders each holding out for a fortune. They much rather deal with a few large-scale estates. One well I working upon in the North West of England was leased from a Duke, as the family holdings were extensive and the negotiating process simplified as a result. So the first practical point is that if you are waiting for an oil company to show up and pay you a fortune for drilling in your back garden, you can forget it.

One benefit though of drilling on large estates though is that well sites are often surprisingly discrete. Unless they are positioned right on the side of a road (or somewhere are flat as the Lincolnshire Fens), most people will just notice the occasional obscure sign with an arrow giving directions. Of course, I am the first to agree that if you are in plain view of a rig site, it does nothing to enhance the landscape. There is a lot of traffic movement related to the setting up and running of a well site but drivers, especially those with heavy loads, are given strict routes to follow in order in minimalise disturbance to local communities. It is strange but well sites can be the deuce to find for the first time. Which is all to the good as they are not pleasant places to be. A drill site location has to be levelled and since the average site is the size of two football pitches (roughly 3.5 acres / 1.4 ha) it is no small feat. The site has to be recorded for the intention is to return it to its original condition, including contours, once the drilling is over. But in the meantime activity is twenty-four-seven; the site brightly illuminated at night and generators constantly running. On such a site will be the drilling derrick (the rig), its power supply, a large area of shallow pools for the storage of drilling mud and other fluids, storage areas for drill pipe and casing (more of which later), a narrow elevated platform called a cat walk, reserved zones for specialist vehicles such as cement and wireline trucks, a container park, portable cabin offices, catering (sometimes), some crew quarters and a car park. The zone will be serviced by a heavy-duty forklift and will have a mobile crane either permanently on site or on hire and thus a frequent visitor. The work area will be surrounded by a fence (with emergency access gates) and with have a single entrance in order to keep animals, the unwary and the innocent out. It is an industrial site and strict safety rules are enforced for the protection of all.

A basic drill string consists of a drill bit, a set of weights known as the collars and the drill pipe, which is stacked in sections upright in the derrick. The borehole is actually drilled by rotating the drill string from the derrick. As you will know, dig a hole deep enough and it will start to fill with water. The deeper the hole and the water will fill up the hole with greater force. This is prevented in a wellbore by the use of drilling mud, which stabilises the pressure and keeps the hole from collapsing. Drilling mud is actually clever stuff; it has to be heavy enough to keep the fluids from the Earth coming in but not so heavy that it actually starts to break the rock down. This stuff is pumped through the hollow drill string and returns to surface where it is constantly monitored for contamination by water, oil or gas. If the volume of the mud has found to increase more that would be due to thermal expansion (remember, it’s hot down there) then this could indicate fluid from the well coming into the mud. Known as a kick, this could be the precursor to a full blowout.

Now, I am sure most of you remember the old movies where the old drillers strike oil which gushes up in a fountain, all us rig-monkeys dance around singing “We’ve struck oil! Yeehah!” and the oriental clients shout up to Bruce Willis “You No.1 driller Harry!” Well, if oil starts shooting out of the derrick anywhere near me, you can be sure I would be legging it. That is known as a blowout and is A Very Bad Thing. The drilling mud is the primary defence against a blowout but in case that is not enough, the well can be closed (shut in) by the BOPs – blow out preventers. In the worst case scenario, the whole string can be severed and the well closed in by what is effectively a massive pair of sharpened gates – the shear rams. At this point most readers are going to think of images of the Deep Water Horizon and you would be right. But Horizon was a failure of not just the BOPs but also the cement as well, which we will discuss next.

The well is drilled in sections. A “typical” well may be first opened using a 30” diameter bit, then the next section a 20” bit, deeper still 12.25” then 8.5” and for a really deep or high pressure well (usually deeper than 4.5km), down to a 6” bit. As a gross generalisation, an average well is in the order of two-and-a-half to three-and-a-half kilometres deep. As each section is completed, it is lined with steel casing and this is secured with cement to prevent any fluids returning up the outside of the casing. In the case of Deep Water Horizon, not only did the controls to the BOPs fail but the oil was able to come up the outside of the casing; it was a disastrous triple failure of mud, BOPs and cement.

Before the final bit of casing is run into the hole to secure it though, the well has to be surveyed. Despite what most drillers think, it isn’t all about “makin’ hole!” The geologists are rather keen to know what said hole is being made in. The most certain way to find out is to take a core sample but this is slow and expensive. The well can also be “logged” with a variety of electronic tools that, using electricity, sound, radioactivity and magnetic resonance (same technology as the MRI scanners in a hospital), building up a picture of what the rock properties are, the ratio of solid rock to space, how the spaces are connected and what fluids they contain. Fluid samples and pressures can also be taken. All this information goes into making up a picture of what is actually down there.

We have the geological picture, some oil and gas has been found (if they are not found then the well is cemented back and abandoned), the well has been cased and cemented firmly, so what happens next? The well has to perforated and tested. Perforation means holes are blown through the steel and cement over target zones. The fluids released are then allowed to flow.

You know these pictures of oil wells burning off gas in a big flare? During exploration this most usually happen during the well-test phase. The company has to know the rate of flow and at this stage there isn’t the infrastructure in place to keep any of the hydrocarbons produced so that is why they are flared off.

I just want to pause for a moment and reflect upon some of the information mentioned. As can be gathered, a well site is not a safe place. There is heavy machinery, crane lifts, stacked equipment, radioactive materials, explosives, and fluids under extremely high pressure around. All personnel have to undergo a large amount of safety training. Jobs have to be carefully planned and co-ordinated in order to avoid disasters occurring. The most effect way to stay safe is not to be somewhere you don’t have to be.

I also mentioned some advantages about having a well drilled nearby. The most obvious would be if one was an owner of a small business. While some workers would have accommodation on site, many would not. Hotels, guest houses and owners of property available for rental would definitely benefit, as would local shops, cafés, restaurants, bars and taxi services. Those who would suffer most would be those unfortunate to be on the main trucking routes. The disruption would last in the order of months.

With a standard oil-filled reservoir, that would be the end for that well until in required a work-over. A wellhead would be fitted and the rig would move on to the next location, which may be nearby or far away. But with fracking, that isn’t the end of it. The well is perforated but the difference between a rock that requires fracking and one that does not is the microscopic connections between the voids. In a traditional reservoir, those pathways exist; in a fracked well they have to be created. The primary ingredients of a frack solution are water and sand but, depending on the constituents of target rock, other chemicals such as acids may be added. This solution is forced through the perforated casing, into the rock and breaks up the formation, thus releasing the oil and gas. This is fracking. If the rig pumps are not used (perhaps the rig has moved on to a new location) fracking requires truck-based pumps and there can be a lot of them on site. The site I worked in Quebec had nearly thirty of them. But again, the operation is temporary; both land operations I took part in lasted less than one month.

Finally, a pipeline would have to be laid in order to bring the produced gas from the wellhead to storage and processing. Burial increases the cost of the pipeline but if I was an energy company in the UK (which, by the way, I am not, nor do I represent one) I wouldn’t even consider laying one across the surface. It is important that the countryside is returned to as near to its original state as possible.

This has been a long blog and I appreciate you making it this far. In Fracking for Beginners Part Two, I will be having a closer look at fracking, what can really go wrong, what are the choices we face and recommendations as to what can be done to ensure that the UK has the energy we and our children will need for the century ahead.

Click here to read Part Two

Monday, 12 August 2013

Putin's Fairy Tale

“While welcoming the outrage on gay rights and their suppression in Russia, I just like to remind everybody that this is just part of an ongoing process to suppress all possible centres of opposition to Putin.

“It started with journalism, then the business community, honest politicians and union leaders, feminists (free Pussy Riot!), anti-corruption campaigners, whistle blowers, opposition parties, campaigners for democracy, and anybody else deemed not in the mainstream. Many were murdered, more imprisoned and a vast number terrified into silence.
“So I support the campaign for gay rights in Russia, as I support democracy and human rights campaigners. So should you.”

Putin has finally turned upon the gay communities in Russian and outlawed any literature or broadcasts that support their views or attempts to assert rights. And the uproar in the West has been predictable and sincere, with celebrities like Stephen Fry raising awareness on the issue, Amsterdam city council hanging the rainbow flag of gay pride off every available pole in honour of Putin’s visit to the city and calls to boycott Russian vodka and the Sochi Winter Olympics for 2014.

Very nice, very laudable and every right-minded individual should support human rights wherever they are under attack. But folk, where have you been all these years? The suppression of freedom of expression, debate, to question, protest and the basic right to be “different” in any form has been on-going for years now. It is blatant in today’s Russia. I just offer a few quick examples:

From the media…

Journalism: Mikhail Beketov dies this year after being the subject of a vicious attack in 2008, leaving him with amputations and brain damage. His crime was to raise questions over the conduct of the city council of Khimki and its mayor Vladimir Strelchenko. Strelchenko is able to successfully sue Beketov for slander after the criminal case against the mayor collapses “for lack of evidence.” Following new laws passed by the Duma last year, the mayor would not even have to go to that trouble nowadays. Bringing the reputation of a public official into disrepute is now a criminal offence.

Protest: in 2010 rock star Yuri Shevchuk (Russia’s equivalent of Bono) confronts Putin over dinner about the right to protest. During the exchange (it cannot really be called a debate) Shevchuk asks whether a Dissidents’ Protest, due to go ahead in St. Petersburg will be allowed to go ahead. While saying it is a local matter, Putin hints at liberalisation of freedom of expression. When the demonstration goes ahead, it is supressed with an unusual degree of ferocity with the Guardian reporting 188 arrests being made. The Guardian ( ) tipped its hat to Putin in publishing the entire conversation in English and Russian on the government website but that link has since been taken down. But never fear dear reader, here it is for you again.

And a few personal examples from my own sources…

Vote rigging: Friend of mine votes in the 2011 parliamentary elections. On her way back she is stopped by a young man driving a car, who asks her for directions to the polling station. On the front seat next to him is a stuffed ballot box.

Racism: A family of mixed ethnicity has their son badly beaten in a racist attack and the Armenian mother takes him to the police station to register the crime. The desk officer refuses to take their complaint and threatens them both with arrest unless they leave immediately.

There are many, many more stories that the quickest of trawls through recent Russian history will bring up. Internet freedom is now a thing of the past too. In fact, one state journalist, Vladimir Pozner, claimed in interview that the only place a man can freely express himself is in the privacy of his own toilet. It is worth looking at the interview as a whole because this is not meant to be a criticism of the situation in Russia nowadays, instead it is offered as a world-weary statement of truth. In fact the Pozner interview is a useful summation of the sophistry involved to justify suppression of human rights in today’s Russia. It is the technique of taking truths and half-truths from us in the West and using it to justify the situation in Russia that on one level makes the situation intellectually interesting. For instance, Russian friends looked at me with pity as they asked the question “So you still believe in democracy Martin?” As if I had stated belief in Father Christmas. But it is a digression. The real question is what kind of Russia is Putin building? It has to be asked because while attacking the independence of the courts, parliament and the media (including Internet ) is all in a day’s work for the average one-party state, attacking feminism, gays and ethnic minorities suggests there is more going on.

Friends in St. Petersburg have described Putin the student as not the brightest but methodical, with painstaking attention to detail. I would suggest this is borne out with what he has achieved since then. He has taken Russia from the basket case of the post-communist chaos of the Yeltsin era and bullied it into some kind of shape. This, along with his petty bourgeois taste in nationalism, is the main reasons of his real support in the country. The line is one of clear-eyed, clear-headed realism. Non-conformity is a luxury that Russia cannot afford and in any case is foreign, and thus unwelcome, as are all things foreign are in Russia at the end of the day, whether that is ideas, NGOs or people. Real Russians know their roles in society: mind one’s own business, do not question the state or any of its agents such as police, courts or council officials as they have more information than you and thus know better. Russian men are to work hard, go to the Russian Orthodox Church as their great-grandfathers did, and to be vigorous in their leisure time. Hence the macho pictures of Putin horse riding, fighting, hunting, fishing etc… Women exist to support men and be mothers. A man should not be criticised for having a mistress: look at the dignity that Lyudmila Putina accepted the end of her marriage. Putin is a man’s man, so it is natural for him to take up at the age of 55 with a former gymnast (now MP) 31 years his junior. Personally I think this is the real sin of Pussy Riot was to break the acceptable image of women in the new Russia. Women should dress to please men and not romp and scream, desecrating holy sites in combat boots and knitted balaclavas. Hence Patriarch Kirill’s initial call for the women to have their children taken away and for them to serve seven years in prison. Gay people should not exist at all, and if they do should have the decency to shut up about it.

So what we have here is Putin’s vision of a perfect kingdom. It reminds me of nothing less than the character of Lord Farquaad from the first Shrek movie who, in pursuit of the perfect kingdom, banished all the fairy-tale creatures from it. I believe this is what Putin is attempting to do for Russia; moulding it into his vision of a perfect nation. The only problem is that in doing so he is suppressing human rights, nature, creativity and the potential of more than half the people that make up the Russian Federation.

In the end, while screaming “I will have order, I will have perfection!” Farquaad was swallowed whole by a dragon. Putin too will ultimately fail in his quest to change humanity but at this time his grip on power is so tight it is hard to see from which direction his end will come. One thing is for sure though: humanity has a tendency to be messy when society is overturned. There will be no happy ending to Putin’s fairy-tale.