The spectre of fracking is coming closer to the USA and the UK, write Maddy Harland. With all the talk of an energy gap in the UK, there is little mention of conserving energy, developing micro-renewables, or community scale renewable energy solutions. Instead we have former Prime Minister Gordon Brown's brother, Andrew, working as a pro-nuclear lobbyist (he has been Head of Media Relations in the UK for the French-owned utility company EDF Energy since 2004), whilst many Conservative and New Labour MPs have connections with the nuclear industry, and the prospect of more wind farms in the Shires is still a savagely fought subject.
Instead, the current British government has stopped subsidising domestic renewables and has also lifted a moratorium on hydraulic fracturing, known as fracking, at the end of last year. This has opened the way for companies to begin drilling wells and tap into shale resources that made the U.S. the top natural gas producer. Cuadrilla's Bowland Basin in northwest England holds about 200 trillion cubic feet of gas, the company has said, although only a fraction of that will be recovered.
We hear through Bloomberg.com that Cuadrilla Resources Ltd. is in advanced talks to sell a stake in its UK shale gas operations, according to shareholder AJ Lucas Group Ltd.
"Cuadrilla's negotiations with leading energy companies are at an advanced stage," Sydney-based AJ Lucas, said in a presentation this month. Definitive documents are being finalised, it said. 20th February 2013 is the last day of the Environment Agency public consultation into an application by Cuadrilla to manage fracking waste disposal in the UK. If you want to give feedback here's how.
Meanwhile in New York State protesters have fought off the frackers for the time being, winning a significant victory. Regulators have delayed a final decision on the controversial natural gas production method, but it looks increasingly clear that it will be a year - if ever - before drilling begins again. Governor Andrew Cuomo missed a deadline for completing a report on the environmental impact of fracking that was to form the basis for new drilling rules. As a result, a now-four year moratorium on shale gas drilling in the Empire State could extend into 2014 forcing companies such as Chesapeake Energy and a host of smaller independents to sit on their idle land leases and wait but the pressure from the industry in both countries is huge to push for licenses.
There are many mythologies around fracking, so we asked environmental journalist Zion Lights to summarise facts about the subject:
Myth #1 – Fracking Makes Water Flammable
Whenever fracking is mentioned the discussion usually turns towards water catching fire, but this is actually an unlikely scenario in the U.K. It’s true that it has happened in a few instances in the U.S., but only on homesteads or farmsteads where wells and boreholes become contaminated by locally based fracking sites. A similar scenario does not, therefore, apply to general water usage across the U.S. or the U.K.
Myth #2 - Fracking Causes Earthquakes
There is much discussion regarding seismic activity and fracking, partly due to the fact that highly unusual tremors in Lancashire last year were linked to local fracking. Mainstream news headlines ran titles like ‘Drilling for gas caused earthquake which rocked Lancashire’, but the tremors were barely felt and caused no long-lasting damage. They are also extremely rare occurrences and the least of our worries when it comes to the fracking industry.
Myth #3 – Fracking is a Sustainable Option
Don’t let anyone tell you that fracking is anything but carbon heavy. You’d think the green movement would be discussing this, but sensational myths such as the two above usually steal the limelight. There’s no question that taking hydrocarbons out of the ground and burning them increases global emissions. Recent evidence suggests that the carbon impact of fracking is far higher than companies have claimed, and that methane leakage from fracking is unacceptably high, as much as 9 per cent at a plant in Utah U.S.A.
The fracking process requires vast quantities of water, which depletes local ecosystems and places a strain on the U.K. water system. Also, mass construction is required to create fracking sites, which includes road construction to transport drilling equipment, pipes, pump trucks and tanks to drilling areas. According to the film Gasland, each well requires 400-600 tanker trucks to transport the water needed, 20-25 truckloads for the sand needed, and 200-300 truckloads to remove the end product or ‘flowback’.
Low-level ozone is normally associated with fumes from automobile exhausts, but fracking generates so much of it that Sublette County has ozone levels equal to Los Angeles, despite the fact that there are less than 9,000 residents living in the county.
Myth #4 - Fracking is Safe
Since fracking is not strictly regulated, and there are many risks that have not been considered, oil companies are keen to push ahead with fracking sites without restraint. In fact, most of the research available has been linked to Big Energy companies.
The aftermath of fracking wells means that the resulting toxic residue is left to sit in a pit while it awaits collection, and during this time there is the risk that it will seep back into the ground. This ‘flowback’ mixture is highly saline and mildly radioactive, a risk to soil health and local water channels, wildlife and local plant health and growth. Many companies have been accused of poor disposal of this dangerous waste that results from fracking, yet strict regulations have not been put in place to prevent potential environmental catastrophes from occurring.
People, trees and animals have to be displaced in order to build gas rigs, pipelines and roads to complete the process. Infrastructure has to be built in order to deal with the aftermath of the process, offsite, in a near-by location. Toxic residue has to be transported away from the site and dealt with elsewhere, which means it has to travel through people’s living quarters, where they might rear animals or grow vegetables, and local air and water pollution risks from this undertaking are high
The toxic mixture that fracking creates is recognised as a hazard to human health because it contains a cocktail of chemicals that are known to cause certain types of cancer in humans. At least 596 chemicals are used in fracking, but the corporations that use them are not required by law to disclose them all. Independent research has found a typical concoction of flowback to include chemicals such as methanol, naphthalene, lead, hydrochloric acid, N,N-dimethyl formamide which can cause birth defects and cancer, and ethylene glycol which is lethal.
In 2010, the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture quarantined 28 cattle that came into contact with toxic residue from fracking. The cows were exposed to dangerous concentrations of barium, chlorine, magnesium, potassium, and radioactive strontium. In Louisiana, 16 cows that drank fluid from a well that had been fracked began foaming and bleeding at the mouth, then dropped dead.
Many deposits that oil companies want to frack are buried under aquifers and are therefore sensitive to damage from the drilling process. The concrete sheets that surround them often break, which releases toxic chemicals into the aquifers and cause methane leaks on a large scale; enough to cause fires and explosions. Cuadrilla is a company that has drilled only a few wells so far yet has already broken the terms of its planning permission. Unbelievably, there is little or no regulation of how many gas wells a company decides to frack in one region, which means that it could be happening near your home and you wouldn’t even be told about it. When pressed for answers many corporations have not been able to state how many they are fracking at one time. Yet they also claim that their sites are safe. Does this sound like safe industry practise to you?
Earlier this year, 500 gallons of drilling mud contaminated an Appalachian stream in Pennsylvania. The Dunkard Creek spill occurred when the company had been drilling under the creek for a pipeline. The impact on aquatic wildlife was tremendous; 14 species of freshwater mussels residing in the river died out and at least 2,000 fish washed ashore, some of them mutated. A report claimed that golden algae was to blame for the strange changes, even though this algae cannot survive naturally in freshwater; it requires a saline environment in order to thrive. The toxic flowback created by fracking tends to be highly saline.
In addition, Emily Wurgh of Food and Water Watch is concerned about the potential impact it will have on our food supply. Wurgh has tried and failed to get members of Congress to request studies into the impact of fracking on agriculture.
Myth #5 - Fracking Sites Look Nicer Than Wind Farms
Fracking is blotting the world’s landscapes and these changes to the land and soil are not reversible. Some fracking sites are so big that they can be seen from the moon. In the U.K., extraction sites are often located in national parks or areas of outstanding beauty.
Take a look at these pictures and then consider whether you prefer fracking sites over wind farms. Here is a photo of the storage units required for the fracking process, and this is Jonah Gas Fields in Sublette County, Wyoming, which is one of the largest gas sites in the U.S. Should we really be worried about wind turbines in our back gardens, when fracking is blotting the horizon?
Myth #6 - Fracking Will Boost the Economy
While fracking creates temporary jobs for workers who are exposed to dangerous chemicals to destroy the U.K. landscape, it offers a finite resource that will, one day, run out. Then we will be back at square one. Fracking will not provide the boost to the economy that investing in green energy sources such as wind farms and solar panels could do, yet Big Oil has many more investors to push its agenda forward. There’s no question that creating green jobs would be far more sustainable and beneficial for the economy.
Myth #7 - Fracking is a Popular Choice
Fracking is not going ahead because people want it; in most cases the connection between oil consumption and the fracking process are not made by individuals. The general public wants and needs a source of energy, but there is growing demand for green energy too.
The Guardian’s energy editor, Terry Macalister, says: ‘In 20 years, I’ve never come across such heavy lobbying than I have for shale gas. It’s a pity renewables can’t get that financial muscle.’ In the U.S., a clause Dick Cheney created that has become known as The Halliburton Loophole specifically exempts fracking from regulations by the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Clean Water Act, and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations. It also states that corporations do not have to disclose specific information about fracking sites or processes, which means that there is no assessment of risks and hazards surrounding fracking sites.
The EPA is currently undertaking a large-scale study of the fracking industry, but the full report will not be available until 2014. In the meantime, energy companies continue to frack, despite widespread opposition against the industry.
Myth #8 - Fracking Can’t Be Stopped
Just this month, the state of New York decided to put fracking on hold until experts have a chance to study its health impacts on the public.
The key to challenging the fracking industry is to think globally but act locally. Case studies in the U.S. are helpful but they aren’t always relevant to U.K. conditions. It’s important to discuss fracking without the myths and hysteria that cloud public perception of the industry. It’s also essential that we move towards and support energy alternatives that will challenge the global surge towards the dangerous and polluting fracking industry. If you know any N.I.M.B.Y. supporters, now is the time to rally them against fracking.
If you haven’t already, try to reduce your dependence on oil; sooner or later this change is inevitable anyway. Invest in a green energy supplier for your electricity needs at home. Buy less and instead take part in the sharing economy. If fracking is happening in your local area, write to your MP, rally the green groups, protest and challenge the companies that invest in fracking and want to bring it to your turf.
But most of all, keep up the discussion without spreading the myths. Because there’s really no need to exaggerate certain claims about what is clearly a dangerous, poorly regulated, polluting and unsustainable industry, for the reasons outlined above.
Zion Lights is an environmental journalist based in Devon. She is a columnist for One Green Planet and The Huffington Post. You can find her other articles via www.zionlights.co.uk or on twitter @ziontree.
Keep in touch with BIFF (Britain & Ireland Frack Free) on Facebook.
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