By J T Coombes
The problem is all in the title. Fracking is all about ‘hydraulic fracturing’ to give it its full title. Simply put it’s a procedure that creates fractures in rocks and their formations deep under the earth, by injecting sand water and chemicals into cracks to force them to open further. This allows more oil and gas to come out of the rock formation where it can be extracted. In essence it is putting underground rock formations under high pressure to yield their stores of oil and gas.
Whilst fracking has been around for more than 20 years it has been on a small scale and therefore few problems that we are aware of. However the boom now taking place is changing the whole ball game in its breadth and intensity. America is leading the way and it is here that problems are now beginning to manifest. One retired high ranking oil company executive has gone on record as saying that we do not have the technology at present to make fracking safe, and current proposed regulations are inadequate. So what’s the problem?
Already the US Environmental Protection Agency is conducting a study for a better understanding of any potential dangers to drinking and ground water from the process. Why such a restricted study directed solely at water and not ground erosion of earthquake risk as well? Do they know something we don’t . . . again!
There has been great reticence by fracking companies to disclose the chemicals they use in the process, which include benzene and methanol. Whilst they argue these are household chemicals we keep in the kitchen, which is true, we do not use the massive quantities that fracking requires. Of more pressing concern however, is how to deal with these toxic chemicals when they return to the surface, which they are doing with increasing alarm.
Fracking also seems to have a high social cost that impinges on communities large and small. These translate into clearing large swathes of land, building access roads and drilling structures and encasing the well, together with high volumes of heavy vehicles transporting the toxic waste to disposal sites, which also threatens and heightens the risks to air, water and environmental stability. These concerns have translated into over 250 communities in the US having passed resolutions to stop fracking and why Vermont, France and Belgium have stopped it.
In April of this year a Texas family received $3 million in compensation after it was shown that the family’s health was seriously impaired by fracking activity. Children with nose bleeds, rashes and nausea and parents with similar symptoms as well as breathing difficulties, all of which began after the fracking activity commenced in their surrounding vicinity. This case is a first, as many other similar experiences by people around fracking sites have been gagged by out of court settlements with the companies involved.
Here in the UK we have had a recent similar experience in Lancashire when earth tremors were admitted to have come from fracking activity by the company involved.
With so much secrecy surrounding the actual process, and its repercussions, it begs the question as to why the government is so keen to press ahead as quickly as possible? And with this precedent for secrecy continuing, what reassurance do we have that the government can successfully regulate the industry’s activities? After all their track record with banks is not inspiring and fracking is an equally powerful industry.
To my mind it all boils down to governments need to find money to service the monumental amounts of debt it has taken on in recent years. With an election only a year away it needs some financial goodies to try and bribe the electorate to show it is being fiscally responsible. Fracking ticks all the boxes and with this vested interest it is almost certain any regulation will be lax.
Given the experience in the US over a number of years, we should be looking at a gradual development of this possible source of energy. Take five years say, to closely monitor the work in both intense and more relaxed conditions, whilst involving the local communities for any introduction of pollution, be it above or below the earth and in the air. Government is talking about vast tracts of land being made available and if it goes wrong, and current evidence suggests in might, the price Society will have to pay, like the oil spill in Mexico and the Fukushima disaster, does not bear thinking about!
Beyond all of this conjecture I cannot help feeling that this infant industry is beginning to look as dangerous as our already established nuclear power industry, with all the problems of how to deal with the toxic waste. As climate change brings harsher weather conditions, land erosion is rearing its ugly head. Whatever we construct to contain this hazardous waste Nature is quite incapable of respecting. With this new venture, unless we are cautious we are simply adding to the problem rather than diminishing it?