Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Fracking Hell

"Natural gas is hemispheric. I like to call it hemispheric in nature because it is a product that we can find in our neighborhoods" - George W Bush

Hydraulic Fracturing (fracking) - a method of extracting gas or oil through fractures in rock induced by highly pressurized liquids - has been attracting increasing media attention. It is a particularly sought after technology as it makes resources beyond the reach of traditional technologies readily accessible. For this reason the 'economic benefits' (read: 'truckloads of cash made by corporations and their shareholders') for energy firms, as well as their lobbyists and 'supportive' government officials, are obvious.

Fracking is commonly used, for example, to reach methane which is trapped in impermeable rock. As the gas cannot be accessed simply by drilling a well (as one can with gas trapped in permeable rocks), the rock must be fractured in order to allow the gas to flow through the fissures and eventually out. As the amount of rock fractured from a single well is quite limited, far larger numbers of wells are required in order to successfully extract significant amounts of the target material.

In a typical fracking operation, high pressure fracture fluid is injected into a wellbore. The pressure must be higher than the so-called 'fracture gradient' of the rock in order for it to create the necessary fissures. This fluid is normally 90% water, 9.5% sand and 0.5% chemical additives, including (pdf) (among other substances) hydrochloric (or acetic) acid, borate salts, sodium and potassium carbonates and disinfectant for the water (for bacteria elimination).

This method of extraction is far more forceful than traditional ones, inevitably leading to negative consequences for the natural environment and human health. These include contamination of drinking water and air, earthquakes and even radioactive contamination. In the case of shale gas (methane trapped in impermeable shale), leakage of the methane can occur in large quantities. As methane is known to be a very powerful greenhouse gas, widespread use of this technique could further accelerate climate change at a time when scientists are becoming increasingly alarmed about potential global catastrophe.

For these reasons it is unsurprising that fracking is outright banned in some nations (like France), with a moratorium in effect in Quebec in Canada and in some US states. In May 2012, the US state of Vermont became the first in the nation to outlaw it. Many other countries apply strict regulations upon its use.

Fracking has recently aroused controversy in the UK with a stand-off between residents and activists and the fracking company Cuadrilla Resources in the West Sussex village of Balcombe. Around 100 police officers have been trying to escort rigging equipment into the area but have met stiff resistance. A few dozen people have been arrested in the protests. A number of campaign groups have sprung up in response to the threat of this technology, the largest being Frack Off, whose website provides a wealth of relevant information and resources.

Cuadrilla Resources was granted a license for shale gas exploration along the coast of Lancashire in 2007. Its first application of fracking on the mainland came in March 2011 near Blackpool. However, as earthquakes of magnitude 2.3 and 1.5 were felt as a result, the company voluntarily suspended its activities until a report released in 2012 found the risk of earthquakes due to fracking to be 'low'. Scientists said the 'maximum seismic event' from the fracking would be magnitude 3, described as 'minor, often felt, but rarely causing damage'. Durham University researchers say (pdf) that most seismic events from fracking are below magnitude one, with only three 'larger' events felt so far (in British Columbia, Oklahoma, and Lancashire, England).

Regarding another area of obvious concern, the British Geological Survey says that water contamination occurs not due to the nature of shale gas operations, but rather due to poor well design and construction. This is unlikely to comfort worried residents with access to data recently displayed on the Frack Off website.

From the site:

This data set shows groundwater contamination at many fracking sites in Pennsylvania (PA), including 19 where the operator failed to "prevent gas and other fluids from lower formations from entering fresh groundwater".

Now we can see why the residents of Balcombe are upset...and quite understandably.

The UK government now supports fracking and has signed off on its safety after a review by the Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering. The chairman of the review states: "Well integrity is of key importance but the most common areas of concern, such as the causation of earthquakes with any significant impact or fractures reaching and contaminating drinking water, were very low risk."

These official assurances should calm no one. The world knows all too well what can go wrong despite guarantees by public and private officials of safety to the environment and its denizens. To cite a recent example, the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill of 2010 occurred, according to the US government's report, due to defective cement. It also cited a series of cost-cutting decisions that led to defective components being used, reserving blame not only for BP but also contractor Halliburton and rig operator Transocean.

Negligence - human error - call it what you will is always going to occur. Despite all assurances, why would any member of the public or any resident of an affected community trust the words of private corporations after the long and tragic line of environmental catastrophes they were at direct fault for in the past? Public officials can not be trusted either, given the propensity of some to have financial links to connected private corporations like this fine senator.

As is so often - if not always - the case, profit will trump human welfare or environmental concerns every time, not only in poor nations that cannot defend themselves from well-funded and organized corporations, but also in nations where big-money lobbyists hold great power over policy decision-makers. The very aptly-named Frack Off and other groups need our support as only well-organized campaigns can hope to prevail in these times when large corporations employ PR firms to confuse the public and demonize protesters and campaigners.

Contaminated groundwater and possible earthquakes in nations where buildings are not designed to withstand them (as they are in Japan) are causes for extremely serious concern for everyone. Educate yourself, spread the word and get involved. Do not let the corporations win yet again - their interests are always antithetical to yours.

Twitter: @simonwood11

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