More than 500,000 natural gas wells already exist in the US and May 2013 saw the UK Government lifting its moratorium on hydraulic fracturing — or fracking as it’s become known. We take a look at what fracking really means for the health of the planet, the humans and animals upon it, and why citizen’s groups the world over are so desperately concerned. And, as with any successful human rights campaign, change will be created by consistent and persistent objection from small groups of motivated people, raising awareness about the consequences and empowering others to stand together that will create the change. 2013 has been called the year of community – together we are stronger. 

The global energy crisis

For some years the public has been told that it’s been heading recklessly towards the proverbial brick wall in terms of conventional energy sources. We’ve been told that, by 2050, we may no longer be able to rely on conventional fossil fuel energy sources, with some energy-guzzling countries being worse off than others. One of these power-hungry countries is the USA, which may account for its interest in going to war with countries rich in fossil fuels.  But sourcing energy through the spoils of war is an unsustainable and temporary fix. Central to the energy conundrum is the need to reduce both the tremendous per capita energy consumption and its over reliance on fossil fuels. With the population expected to exceed 9 billion people by 2050, the race is on to either extend the life of existing fossil fuels or tap into alternative, renewable, energy sources of energy.  

The International Energy Agency, which represents the interests of the some of the world’s most powerful countries and corporations, has repeatedly told us in previous World Energy Outlook reports about the energy plight of the USA. But its 2012 report told a different story. The USA was no longer facing the same energy crisis, because fracking had allowed for sufficient natural shale gas to be sourced and used. All of a sudden, fracking appears to resolve the US’s energy woes – however temporarily – and begins to take centre stage in many countries, heralded as the much needed quick fix. But at what cost?

What the frack is fracking?

Simply put, fracking is a process whereby water is combined with sand and chemicals and injected at high pressure into the ground, in order to fracture the shale rocks and therefore release the natural gases.  Just as what goes up must come down, so too must what goes in come out! The ‘flowback’ fluids are stored in surface ponds, some of which are lined so as to protect the land from water that is now laced with toxic chemicals, oils and gases; while others are not.  Lining or no lining, it doesn’t take much to see that fracking brings with it a huge risk of water and air pollution, hence the attendant contoversy. Not surprisingly, citizens are assured by the fracking industry that it is safe and any detrimental effects are not because of fundamental dangers with the process itself, but due to bad implementation!

The earth is pretty reliable at holding harmful toxins in its belly and not damaging itself or its inhabitants, but once resources are plundered and exploited, it’s no surprise that it often unleashes more problems than it solves. The short- and long-term safety of fracking hasn’t been addressed to date, because the focus has been exclusively on extending the life of fossil fuels. However, as the impacts are beginning to register on the environment and those living in the vicinity of the wells, it will be empowered grassroots campaigning by these sufferers and other concerned citizens that will make a difference. 

Flames from a gas well burn off

On the front lines

Right on the front lines of the UK’s fracking conflict is our good friend Vanessa Vine in Forest Row. The ultimate irony is that one of the main places in the UK with abundant deposits of natural shale gas is also one of the main centres of organic and biodynamic agriculture and farming! 

We managed to get a quote from her just before she met reporters today, ready to spend the day onsite in Balcombe.

“Through air, soil and water pollution, the unconventional methane industry poses a huge threat to human health. It introduces carcinogens into the subterranean geology and releases methane and radioactive isotopes that were previously safely locked well below ground. These inevitably leak into watercourses…along fault lines, through triggered seismic activity, through spills and through illegal dumping of waste frack effluent (which is rife in the US and Australia).  The particulate air pollution from the flaring is very dangerous to residents and workers alike, as is the silica sand which causes potentially lethal lung silicosis. Children near coal seam gas (CSG) or coal bed methane (CBM) extraction sites in Australia are developing neurological problems, livestock near shale gas sites in Pennsylvania are getting very sick and dying.  What are they doing to the food chain?  To the wild ecology?  If we let fracking take hold in Europe, what will it do to us?”

The UK appears to be going it alone at the moment on the fracking front, given the extensive yet disappointing efforts in Poland to date, but gas companies are keen to win over Europeans and draw them toward what they claim would give Europe ‘natural gas independence’.  Currently, there are many bans and moratoria across Europe, so it all depends how desperate the need for energy becomes, how persuasive the gas companies can be and how vociferous and persistent citizens groups become at saying "no".

Environmentally friendly? Not so much…

Alongside the clear contamination risks, is the extremely large environmental footprint stomped all over the surrounding earth. Gas wells use millions of gallons of water during the process of fracturing the shale rocks to create the well. But all of this water has to come from somewhere, and requires transport to and from the site of the well. And we’re not talking about a truck or two – we’re talking about 400 tanker trucks! On top of this, approximately 40,000 gallons of around 600 different chemicals have to get to the site, as does the sand. To do this, new roads have to be constructed and numerous trucks utilise many gallons of fuel — all to support a process responsible for releasing copious, volatile, organic compounds in to the air and polluting groundwater. Groundwater that is then used to supply local cities and towns with drinking water, as well as being used to supply neighbouring farmlands.

Even if you manage to avoid the water, it’s nigh-impossible to avoid breathing the air, which may or may not contain a bellyful of toxic fumes. Fumes from substances that have either escaped during the fracking process itself, or that are evaporating from the surface of the flowback ponds. Whichever way you look at it, it’s hard to see the fracking process as anything but an unsustainable environmental hazard.

Also emerging are reports of safety issues regarding heightened earthquake risk. Apparently, the fracking process causes a weakening of the fault lines deep underground, which is what happened in Lancashire in the early days, and why it’s been disallowed in the UK until now. An earthquake in the latter part of 2012 that devastated the Spanish town of Lorca was also attributed to the extraction of groundwater and could therefore have implications regarding the role of fracking activity.

Safe for our health? It seems not…

There have been many reports over the years of deteriorating health among people living near shale gas wells, and continual denial from the gas industry of any sort of responsibility or causal effect. Reported health problems include the likes of vomiting, skin rashes, headaches, dizziness, sinus, respiratory and mood problems.  Studies have demonstrated effects on the brain, and nervous system, liver and metabolism, immune system, cardiovascular system and blood, the sensory and respiratory systems and the endocrine system, which includes reproductive and developmental effects! The reports are brushed off as being anecdotal.  We are apparently to believe that it’s one huge coincidence that people living near gas wells suffer from health problems — , as do their animals, and that those people can also set their tap water on fire.

The fracking industry is, of course, keeping the full list of chemicals used securely under wraps, but evidence has emerged of hydrochloric acid, diesel fuel (which contains benzene, toluene, and xylene) as well as formaldehyde, polyacrylamides, arsenic, and chromates. Given that some of these chemicals are known carcinogens, it doesn’t make living nearby, drinking the water, bathing in it and allowing your children and pets to do the same a very palatable choice. Not to mention the extremely high flammability of some of the gases that ups the domestic fire risk dramatically – particularly when enjoying a relaxing candlelit bath!

Well regulated? Again, that would be a ‘no’…

You may be inclined to think that the government must have your back on this one and be committed to protecting you from having to drink potentially poisonous water, or breathe potentially poisonous air. Unfortunately, in the US, the fracking industry currently enjoys exemptions from much of the key federal legislation that protects air, water and the environment, namely:

  • The Safe Drinking Water Act, which was passed to protect the quality of US public drinking water and aims to protect above- and below-ground water sources
  • The Clean Air Act, established by the Environmental Protection Agency to protect the general public from harmful levels of criteria pollutants
  • The Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, which deals with hazardous waste
  • The Superfund law, which provides broad federal authority to clean up releases or threatened releases of hazardous substances that may endanger public health or the environment
  • The Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, which deals with the disposal of solid waste and hazardous waste
  • The National Environmental Policy Act, which aims, “To declare a national policy which will encourage productive and enjoyable harmony between man and his environment; to promote efforts which will prevent or eliminate damage to the environment and biosphere and stimulate the health and welfare of man; to enrich the understanding of the ecological systems and natural resources important to the Nation; and to establish a Council on Environmental Quality."
  • The Toxic Release Inventory under the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act, which aims to help communities plan for emergencies that involve hazardous substance spills or releases.

As with the US, the UK fracking industry faces little regulation and it’s possible that, if bans are lifted elsewhere, the same will apply across the rest of Europe. Despite vociferous public outcry, it is considered unnecessary that regulations in regard to fracking need revising. There is also concern in other countries as worry grows for the long-term effects of fracking as a method of extraction.

Are things likely to change?

Despite the UK lifting its moratorium, it seems there is movement in the right direction in some areas of the world.  A team of toxicologists from the University of Pennsylvania is preparing to conduct a study concerning the health effects of fracking.  The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is conducting a study on the potential impacts of hydraulic fracturing on drinking water and ground water.  A progress report was released in December 2012 and a draft report is expected to be released for public comment and peer review in 2014. These reports will be keenly scrutinised after it emerged that the Obama administration may have interfered with previous fracking studies.

The numerous campaign groups around the world have now been joined by worried UK citizens, all of whom are working hard to bring this subject to widespread awareness and encourage action that is in the interest of public health and safety.  However, with news that the fracking companies are due to receive notable tax breaks from the UK government, it’s obvious where government allegiances lie.  More than ever, our empowered action as concerned consumer groups has to be both consistent and persistent. 

Some concerned citizens at an anti-fracking protest

If we are to avoid an energy crisis while not destroying our planet in our efforts to squeeze fossil fuel and other resources to their limit, the starting point must involve us being more careful and responsible with our individual energy usage. Secondly, more efficient renewable technologies for carbon capture and recapture, solar, tidal, wave, wind and geothermal energy are evolving all the time.  In the longer-term, there are some exciting developments in the field of clean nuclear energy, especially low-energy nuclear reactions (LENR) including muon-catalysed fusion.

CALL TO ACTION

 

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