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Another Ban On Hydraulic Fracturing

2012/05/27

(For those who are not familiar with the technique, hydraulic fracturing is the process by which millions of gallons of water and toxic chemicals are pumped at extremely high pressure into a rock formation in order to break it apart (or, fracture it).  This allows the extraction of the natural gas trapped inside the rock.)

Hydraulic fracturing

Hydraulic fracturing

On May 16th, 2012, the Governor of the American state of Vermont signed into law that country’s first ever ban on hydraulic fracturing.  You could argue that this is strictly a symbolic gesture since it is believed that the state has little to no natural gas.  However, I disagree.  The fossil fuel industry has a great amount of influence on both sides of the US/Canada border.  Vermont Governor Shumlin’s action could be the example that will encourage other state and provincial leaders to stand up to the industry.

As far as I know (and please correct me if I am wrong), there is currently only one other place where hydraulic fracturing is banned: France.

However, there has been growing opposition to hydraulic fracturing (or “fracking”) because of the environmental and human health impacts associated with the technique.  First of all, both the U.S. Army and the U.S. Geological Survey have concluded that hydraulic fracturing causes earthquakes.  Seems the Earth’s crust doesn’t like it when you pump high pressure water into it!

Second, more and more research is showing that natural gas wells leak large quantities of methane.  (Natural gas is mostly made of methane gas).  This is particularly troubling since methane is 20 to 25 times mores powerful than CO2 at trapping heat in the Earth’s atmosphere.  It was believed that natural gas would be an alternative to coal in the fight against climate change since it releases less CO2 when burned.  However, studies have shown that when the leaking methane is included in the calculations, natural gas can actually end up being worse than coal.  In fact, as part of a study looking at methane leaks in Colorado, the NOAA stated that:

it is likely that leakage at individual natural gas well sites is high enough, when combined with leakage from downstream operations, to make the total leakage exceed the 3.2% threshold beyond which gas becomes worse for the climate than coal for at least some period of time.

Finally, there have been widespread concerns over the impact of hydraulic fracturing on the drinking water of families that live near fracking wells.  It is believed that the fracturing process has lead to the contamination of underground aquifers with both the fracking chemicals and methane gas.  You have probably all seen the videos and pictures of people setting their tap water on fire…

That's completely normal!  Photo: Screen shot from the movie "Gasland".

That’s completely normal! Photo: Screen shot from the movie “Gasland”.

On top of creating a situation where you could blow up your house (!), you run the risk of become extremely ill if you drink such contaminated water.  In fact, many of the chemicals used in the fracking fluid are known carcinogens and the waste water from the fracking process is believed to contain radioactive material.

So, it comes down to this: Are the leaders of states and provinces willing to sacrifice the stability of our climate, as well as the health and safety of their citizens, for the sake of a few jobs, additional revenue and temporary energy security?  Unfortunately, many leaders have said “yes” and we are seeing hydraulic fracturing spread throughout North America.  Let us hope that common sense and the examples of France and Vermont can help turn that tide.

If you would like to learn more about hydraulic fracturing, I strongly recommend the documentary Gasland, by Josh Fox.  I would also suggest you take a look at the following video which I “stole” from fellow blogger Pendantry.  It is an investigative report done on the social and environmental risks of natural gas development in the US.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. Martin Lack permalink
    2012/05/27 6:16 pm

    I owe Pedantry an apology for not watching that video before. As a geologist and hydrogeologist, I have hitherto remained ambivalent regarding the immediate environmental impacts of fracking. However, this video is very convincing; not least because the stuff about elevated levels of radium and radon in the Marcellus Shale rings alarm bells with me: This is a well understood reality in equivalent strata in British geology. We are then, very clearly, “defecating in our own pig pen” and, worse, we are in imminent danger of allowing the waste products to enter the food chain.

    If everything in this video is true, I find it hard to believe fracking has not been banned everywhere. Forget GMOs – they are about as dangerous Mom’s Apple Pie – Fracking would appear to be the greatest environmental threat we face – and that warning about “a PR advert as being a very sound investment” for an oil company executive – that is one of the scariest things I have heard…

    • 2012/05/27 7:38 pm

      The radiation issue was also new to me – thanks Pendantry!

      When you look at it in detail, it does seem incredible that governments are allowing fracking to happen. I see it as a type of “perfect storm”: Oil corporations with too much money to throw around, political systems that are overly influenced by special interests, an economic depression where jobs are the #1 focus and incredible Public Relations departments (those Exxon Mobil ads make me want to invest! Ok. I’m just kidding, but they are good ads).

  2. 2012/05/27 7:38 pm

    Pendantry,

    Thank you for the “Like” and the suggestions!

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