New Internationalist

Fracking the world

Issue 442

Big oil is on the move. there’s a rush to exploit new sources of ‘unconventional’ natural gas via hydraulic fracturing – or ‘fracking’. The environmental price tag, as Joyce Nelson reports, is steep.

www.gaslandthemovie.com
Warning: drink at your peril! Tap water drawn from aquifers that have been contaminated by fracking is so full of toxic chemicals that it can be set alight. www.gaslandthemovie.com

Antony Benham, Business Development Manager at the British Geological Survey, could smell trouble brewing. As he displayed a map at the Shale Gas World Europe conference in Warsaw, Poland, last November showing sites in Britain earmarked for future gas exploration, he warned his audience: ‘Activists are keen to stir up trouble wherever they can. It’s important that we communicate better with the general public and address their concerns, outline the pluses and the minuses, because if you don’t give them information they’ll be against it from the start.’

According to its website, the Shale Gas World Europe conference ‘was born out of extensive research with key players in the industry, who have expressed an urgent need to formulate strategies, understand technologies and foster relationships that will result in development of this new sector’.

But shale gas has become extremely controversial in Canada and the US where it was first developed. The industry is planning to go global quickly before the controversy spreads.

As conventional natural gas supplies dwindle, resource companies are going after ‘unconventional’ sources that depend on the new technologies of hydraulic fracturing (‘fracking’) and horizontal drilling to get the gas out of shale rock and coal-bed seams. The number of countries and regions that have been targeted for ‘unconventional’ natural gas development (shale gas, tight gas, and coal-bed methane) reads like a world atlas. Companies are already moving into these countries to buy or lease land where there is shale gas potential.

Tony Hayward – the ex-CEO of BP who fumbled last year’s Gulf of Mexico oil spill disaster – has been a big supporter of unconventional gas production. In a November 2009 op-ed for The Washington Post, Hayward opined: ‘We can’t afford to wait… BP believes there is the potential to find and develop tight gas and shale gas in North Africa and the Middle East, Europe, China and in the southern cone of Latin America. There’s also potentially high-quality coal-bed methane in Australia and Southeast Asia.’

This January, however, scientists at the Tyndall Centre of the University of Manchester called for the British government to impose an immediate moratorium on shale gas development to allow ‘the wider environmental concerns to be fully exposed and addressed’. In France, where at least 10 companies are vying to drill for shale gas and oil beneath the rich farmland of the Paris Basin, the government has said it will delay test drilling until it has determined the environmental impacts.

Caution: flammable water

I was getting horrible burns and rashes from taking a shower and then my dogs refused to drink the water...

In North America, shale gas has become increasingly controversial because of fracking. Huge volumes of water are mixed with sand and dozens of toxic chemicals like benzene, toluene and xylene, and then injected under extreme pressure to shatter the underground rock reservoir and release gas trapped in the rock pores. Each ‘slick-water frack’ uses nearly 20 million litres of freshwater. The toxic chemicals mixed in the water endanger groundwater aquifers and threaten to pollute nearby water-wells. With horizontal drilling, a well can be fracked more than a dozen times, making the fractures extend several kilometres.

The little town of Rosebud, Alberta, knows a lot about the dangers of fracking. At least 15 water-wells in the community have gone bad since EnCana Corporation fracked into their aquifer in search of shale gas in 2004. Says Rosebud resident Jessica Ernst: ‘EnCana told us they would never fracture near our aquifer.’ By 2005, she says, ‘my water began going bad. I was getting horrible burns and rashes from taking a shower and then my dogs refused to drink the water. That’s when I began to pay attention.’

In 2006, Ernst decided to go public, showing reporters how she could set fire to her tap water, and speaking out about the industry. Ernst says she heard from ‘at least 50 other landowners the first year’ and she continues to get calls. Groundwater contamination from fracking ‘is pretty widespread’ in Alberta, she says, ‘but they’re trying to keep it hidden’.

Filmmaker Josh Fox found the same thing happening across the US in many of the 34 states where fracking is taking place. His feature-length documentary, Gasland, won a Special Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival and was nominated for an Academy Award this year.

Gasland shows a man setting his water alight and people in 10 different states talking about how their communities were ruined by hydraulic fracturing. One gas company recently bought out the town of Dimock, Pennsylvania, for $4.1 million because fracking made the water completely undrinkable. Fox calls his documentary ‘a public health story’ because ‘health problems throughout these regions are really rampant’.

Little earthquakes

The US federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has just begun a comprehensive two-year study of the risks associated with fracking. Much of the concern relates to contaminated water supplies. Other issues include air pollution, wastewater disposal, industrialization of farmland, increased carbon dioxide emissions and destruction of wildlife habitat.

But there’s another problem that is less well known – earthquakes.

In June 2009, the Wall Street Journal called earthquakes ‘the natural gas industry’s big fracking problem’.

In New York State, thousands of gas wells are being planned for both urban and rural areas. ‘They’re drilling all over Buffalo,’ says activist Pat Carson, ‘and there’s been a steady increase in local quakes in western New York since drilling began in this area.’ On 8 February this year Buffalo City Council banned fracking and wastewater disposal within city limits and is warning all Great Lakes cities to do the same.

Lawyer Rachel Treichler claims: ‘We’ve had two earthquakes in upstate New York that are associated with disposal wells. No community is a proper site for a deep injection well disposing of toxic fluids.’

In Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas and West Virginia over the past two years, almost 1,000 small-to-medium-sized earthquakes are being investigated as ‘induced earthquakes’ caused by nearby fracking and wastewater disposal wells.

Meanwhile, the reputation of shale gas – as a clean fossil fuel that could last for a century – is rapidly deteriorating. In January, new research by the EPA found that greenhouse gas emissions from fracking are almost 9,000 times higher than previously calculated, because of methane emissions. And some petroleum geologists are now saying that because the wells deplete so quickly shale gas represents only about seven years’ supply in North America.

Given the consequences it’s no wonder the industry is fretting about its public image. As Kevin Anderson, Professor of Energy and Climate Change at the University of Manchester’s Tyndall Centre, puts it: ‘The only safe place for shale gas is in the ground.’

On the fracking radar

Some countries targeted for shale gas development.

Countries Companies interested
France Elixir Petroleum Ltd, Vermillion Energy, Toreador Resources
Poland ConocoPhillips, ExxonMobil, Talisman Energy, Chevron
Indonesia BP
China Royal Dutch Shell, Chevron, ConocoPhillips
Australia ConocoPhillips, Origin Energy Ltd, BP, Statoil, Chesapeake, Sasol
Nigeria ExxonMobil
Hungary ExxonMobil
Germany ExxonMobil
Austria OMV
Ukraine Royal Dutch Shell
Sweden Royal Dutch Shell
South Africa     Statoil, Chesapeake, Sasol
Algeria BP
India Statoil, Chesapeake, Sasol
New Zealand     Statoil, Chesapeake, Sasol, Energy Corp of America

Joyce Nelson is a freelance writer and researcher based in Toronto.

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