Some call it an energy revolution, others a toxic threat. It’s been hailed as the dawn of a new energy era and condemned as the final deadly fossil rush that will carry us over the climate cliff. Some governments have banned it, while others are offering tax breaks and eagerly rewriting local laws to smooth its arrival.
It’s not hard to see why horizontal high-volume slickwater hydraulic fracturing—or fracking—has hit the headlines around the world. It’s a new process that dangles the possibility of an oil and gas bonanza just when conventional sources are becoming ever harder to find, making it of great interest to speculators, fossil fuel corporations and revenue-hungry governments alike. At the same time, its potential environmental impacts have had concerned communities up in arms, and climate change campaigners have been horrified at the suggestion that billions of tons of carbon that were locked up in rock formations might now see the light of day.
What happens over the next few years will probably determine whether fracking becomes common practice around the world, the preserve of a few enthusiastic states, or is abandoned as a dangerous dead-end.
While “vertical” fracturing—pumping fluid into existing oil and gas wells to increase output—has been around for a long time, the horizontal technique now being used to crack fossil fuels out of shale and coal seams only became economic in the late 1990s. It was pioneered by a U.S. fossil fuel industry desperate to squeeze more fuels out of a country where conventional oil and gas output had passed its peak.
In addition to the Halliburton loophole, fracking in the U.S. is exempted from six other key pieces of regulation relating to hazardous waste and pollution. This follows years of fierce lobbying by the industry. According to Sourcewatch, pro-fracking lobbyists poured $239 million into the campaign coffers of U.S. political candidates between 1990 and 2011, and spent a further $726 million on lobbying from 2001 to 2011.
It seems to have been money well spent, with a major shale boom unfolding from 2006 to the present day. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, at least two million U.S. oil and gas wells have now used fracking, and up to 95 percent of new wells are using the technique. This accounts for 43 percent of the country’s oil production and 67 percent of its natural gas production. Analysts IHS Global Insight used industry figures to calculate that horizontal fracking could supply 100 years’ worth of U.S. natural gas demand; however, that figure is disputed.
Fracking fever is spreading, with oil and gas companies seeking licenses for shale drilling in dozens of countries. In response, critics have been quick to point out the lobbying influence of the oil and gas industry. The World Development Movement found that a third of British government ministers had direct links to fossil fuel corporations and the banks that finance them. A recent investigation by the Vancouver Sun found that oil and gas lobbyists are more successful than any other industry at getting time with politicians in the shale-rich Canadian state of British Columbia.
As knowledge of the practice has grown, resistance to fracking has sprung up in almost every country where it has been launched. Bans or moratoria on the practice are currently in place in France, Ireland, Romania, Bulgaria, Luxembourg, the Czech Republic and parts of Australia, Canada, Spain, Argentina and the U.S. However, many campaigners fear that these measures may only be temporary, as governments prepare regulation to supposedly make fracking “safe.”
The U.S. fracking experience is often presented as a success story, where the technology has been tried and tested in preparation for its spread around the world. In reality, the technique has been rushed into large-scale use with inadequate environmental monitoring and regulation and small consideration for the long-term impacts. Only time will tell what the real environmental and economic consequences of the great U.S. shale gas experiment will be—but the signs do not look good.
The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) reported in June 2013 that it had identified 345 billion barrels of shale oil and 207 trillion cubic meters (7,299 trillion cubic feet) of shale gas, in a survey of 41 countries covering most of the world’s populated land area. This is the amount that the EIA believes is “technically recoverable” and represents 11 years of current global oil use and 62 years of current global gas use.
However, 99 percent of this shale gas and all of the shale oil is classified as “unproven”—in other words, these are purely estimates based on the size and location of shale formations and the current industry assessment of how much oil and gas can be recovered over the lifetime of a fracking operation. The EIA admits that these numbers will remain “highly uncertain” unless proven with test wells.
The experience of the U.S. doesn’t lend much confidence to these industry estimates. Leaked internal EIA documents admit that fracking companies tend to overstate the size of their reserves by basing their estimates on the gas extracted from the best locations (or “sweet spots”) in shale formations. They also note that fracking produces an initial rush of fuel which then drops off sharply, meaning that it may not be economic to extract all the gas or oil from each well—companies choose to take the first, most profitable burst and then move on.
The independent Energy Watch Group recently concluded that when these factors were properly accounted for, shale gas production in the U.S. was likely to peak in 2015, and that shale gas outside the U.S. was unlikely to reach full development “since geological, geographical and industrial conditions are much less favorable.”
A report by the Energy Policy Forum is even more scathing about the EIA’s estimates, concluding that U.S. shale oil and gas reserves have been “over-estimated by a minimum of 100 percent and by as much as 400-500 percent.” The report’s author, financial analyst Deborah Rogers, told the U.S. Senate that the EIA’s track record in forecasting was “dismal,” and that by its own admission the EIA had overestimated natural gas production 66 percent of the time and oil 60 percent of the time in 2012. Far from being an energy boom, shale gas could turn out to be no more than a bubble.
Each fracking well uses somewhere between 9 and 29 million liters (2.4 to 7.7 million gallons) of freshwater over its lifetime. The British water industry group Water U.K. estimates that a typical 1,000-well fracking field would require two million liters per day during its peak, equivalent to the water use of 13,000 people. In communities already facing water stress—and those in line for increased droughts as the climate changes—this can have a highly significant impact. For example, the town of Barnhart in Texas ran out of water completely this past summer, with local fracking operations at least partly to blame.
After each fracking operation, between 30 and 60 percent of the water flows back up to the surface where it is collected for disposal. This water contains the chemicals and sand that were added as part of the fracking process, and also metals, salt, and other minerals that transferred into the water while it was underground. In the U.S., much of this wastewater is simply pumped back into expired gas and oil wells, or dumped into waterways. It is not yet clear what will happen to this water elsewhere in the world where empty wells are not available, or where local environmental regulations require more responsible disposal. Meanwhile, the remaining 40 to 70 percent of the contaminated water is left underground at the fracking site. So with every well, millions of liters of freshwater are polluted and removed from the reach of humans—or ecosystems—for the foreseeable future.
Thousands of leaks and spills have been reported from fracking sites—the industry itself admitted to 1,000 incidents in one year in North Dakota alone. However, government and industry continue to write them off as unfortunate one-offs rather than inherent problems.
According to Kassie Siegel at the Center for Biological Diversity, a not-for-profit U.S. research and campaign group: “The regulators are under huge pressure from the industry not to investigate these problems—we saw this in Wyoming this year, when the Environmental Protection Agency abandoned its research into local pollution from fracking. Their results were showing fracking-related chemicals in nearby groundwater, which resulted in uproar from the industry—and now the EPA has dropped the study.
“Meanwhile, when spills and leaks happen the people affected are often only given compensation by the companies if they sign gag orders that prevent them from speaking out about the problem. For example, a case has just come to light where two children in Pennsylvania have been given a lifelong ban on talking about fracking. All of this makes it difficult to get the word out about the real effects this technology is having on people’s lives.”
A recent study found hazardous levels of methane in water from wells near fracking sites in Pennsylvania, and used its atomic makeup to confirm that it came from shale gas operations rather than natural sources. The presence of methane in drinking water was memorably documented in the film Gasland, when a Colorado resident was able to set his tap water on fire.
From Texas comes evidence of elevated levels of arsenic and other heavy metals in drinking water near fracking sites. As this kind of evidence starts to pile up, reports from both the EU and the UN have called for a cautionary approach to fracking. The UN Environment Programme states: “Hydrologic fracking may result in unavoidable environmental impacts even if [the gas] is extracted properly, and more so if done inadequately. … Even if risk can be reduced theoretically, in practice many accidents from leaky or malfunctioning equipment as well as from bad practices are regularly occurring.”
A 2011 study for the European Parliament was concerned that “At a time when sustainability is key to future operations it can be questioned whether the injection of toxic chemicals [into the ground] should be allowed, or whether it should be banned … as long-term effects are not investigated.”
Despite all the evidence, the U.S. government seems determined to shrug off any responsibility for protecting the health of its citizens from the risks of fracking. The great shale gas experiment continues to charge ahead with little regulation or oversight; rather than the industry having a duty to show that their practices are safe, it instead falls to affected communities to prove the negative impacts on their lives and livelihoods.
Air pollution has been blamed for the presence of toluene and xylene (which can cause central nervous system damage among a host of other ill effects) in the bodies of the majority of residents living near certain shale gas wells in Texas. These fracking sites are under investigation by the authorities as the most likely culprit. However, it isn’t yet possible to know if this was an isolated incident or a common occurrence at fracking sites, as the necessary research has not been done.
The extra road traffic from fracking is harder to dispute. One Texas study found that each well required almost 600 one-way truck journeys during its construction and operation. A typical drilling site could have up to 1,000 wells.
There is similar controversy over the impacts of gas flaring at fracking sites. Lawrence Dunne, a physics professor at London South Bank University with a background in flame modeling, decided to speak out when he discovered his own village of Balcombe in Sussex had been chosen as a potential fracking site. He told the media: “There has been no environmental assessment of the health consequences of the flaring of gas emissions over populations anywhere in the world. … In my view, flaring emissions over populations with a high density of flares would be disastrous. … It is a disgrace to pretend otherwise.”
Fracking operations can also create microearthquakes. Although they’re very small, the cumulative effect of these quakes can create real problems; in a recent case in Arkansas local residents received compensation from two oil companies for damage to their homes from 1,000 minor tremors. These events may also damage the wells themselves, increasing the risk of leaks and contamination. They could pose a much greater risk in regions prone to more serious seismic activity, such as New Zealand/Aotearoa, as new research has shown that areas which have suffered fracking-related earthquakes may then be more vulnerable to larger, natural quakes in the future.
“We produce more natural gas than ever before—and nearly everyone’s energy bill is lower because of it.”
—Barack Obama, 2013 State of the Union address
“Fracking has real potential to drive energy bills down [and] create jobs in Britain.”
—British Prime Minister David Cameron, August 2013
According to the World Bank, U.S. natural gas prices have dropped to less than a third of European levels, thanks to the shale gas boom. Meanwhile, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce claims that 1.7 million jobs have been created so far in the country, with a total of 3.5 million predicted by 2035. However, critics have challenged this rosy picture. Citizens’ rights group Food and Water Watch points out that low energy prices in the short term risk locking the U.S. into greater gas dependence, and thus higher energy costs once the shale boom is over. A shift to renewables and energy efficiency would be a much more effective long-term strategy for affordable energy. Meanwhile, industry-backed reports touting the benefits of shale gas ignore many of the costs which will need to be paid for years to come, such as the price of pollution cleanup, health impacts, damage to industries such as tourism, farming or fishing, reduction in property prices and the incalculable costs of climate change. Once these effects are factored in, shale gas starts to look very expensive indeed.
Independent reports into the true economic impacts of fracking make much more sobering reading than the gleeful industry-funded studies. Research from Cornell University and Pennsylvania State University shows how natural gas extraction follows a “boom and bust” pattern. Job increases tend to be much lower than predicted and largely filled by specialists from outside the affected community. There are local economic benefits during the boom but these tend to be lower than expected and come with costs such as soaring local prices, thousands of new heavy traffic movements, the crowding out of other businesses and an influx of transient workers putting a strain on local services. Once the wells run dry, the extra jobs—and workers—vanish, bringing financial disaster to local businesses that had grown up around them and leaving behind an industrialized landscape and expensive, bloated public infrastructure. U.S. counties that relied heavily on extraction industries did worse economically than other counties in the long term, with greater levels of income inequality, slower employment growth and lower educational attainment.
Communities—and even families—are frequently divided by extraction booms, as some take up employment in the industry while others suffer its impacts or attempt to oppose it. Caleb Behn is a member of a First Nations community whose lands within British Columbia are being encroached on by one of the world’s largest fracking operations. In an upcoming documentary, Fractured Land, he describes his personal struggle: “Half of my family supports the industry and half works actively against it … you’re trapped in between worlds, and between your people and between issues.”
Experts have been quick to point out that the different geology, mineral rights regimes, regulatory environments and energy markets around the world mean that the U.S. shale boom is unlikely to be replicated elsewhere. The economist Nicholas Stern—famous for his assessment of the costs of climate change—has called the British government’s claim that fracking would bring down national energy prices “baseless economics,” because gas in Europe is traded through a large interconnected market and so a slight increase in gas production in any single European country would have an insignificant impact on domestic prices.
“Gas energy—currently America’s largest domestically produced fuel—could prove to be the keystone to solving the nation’s energy crisis by serving as the ‘bridge fuel’ to the next century’s renewable energy technologies.”
—President of American Gas Association (AGA), 1981
“Burning natural gas is about one-half as carbon-intensive as coal, which can make it a critical ‘bridge fuel’ for many countries as the world transitions to even cleaner sources of energy.”
—Barack Obama’s “Climate Action Plan,” June 2013
We’ve been building this bridge for over 30 years. It’s time to reach the far shore.
In fact, rather than being a bridge, there’s evidence that gas expansion is acting as a roadblock to renewables. The British government’s Committee on Climate Change has warned that a new “dash for gas” would draw investment away from clean energy and make it impossible to meet national carbon reduction targets.
There is a growing body of evidence that renewable technology is already good enough for us to transition away from fossil fuels altogether. Reports such as Zero Carbon Britain and Zero Carbon Australia have laid out national decarbonization models, while the U.K. Tar Sands Network has developed an interactive graphic showing how everyone on the planet could have a good quality of life without burning any fossil fuels. This could be done using existing renewable technology and a fairer sharing out of global energy use.
This latter is the tricky bit. It’s perfectly possible for everyone to have a good, “modern” quality of life on about a third of the average European per capita energy use. It could happen if we all had access to good sustainable transport options, properly heated/ventilated homes, locally produced food, and if we all bought less consumer junk and took fewer flights than the current norm in industrialized nations. If the wealthy global minority reduced their energy use along these lines, it would allow the rest of the world to come up to the same sustainable level, powered entirely by existing renewable technology.
However, with the current global economy based on the idea of endless growth at all costs, the rush to pursue every possible energy source, no matter how destructive, continues.
Fracking proponents like to claim that shale gas exploitation has reduced the climate impact of U.S. electricity production, by reducing demand for coal. Far from being a climate baddie, fracking is actually helping America to go green!
Is this true? Well, coal use in the U.S. has definitely been dropping. Between 2006 and 2011, the amount of coal used to generate electricity fell by 22 percent. However, researchers at CO2 Scorecard have used industry figures to calculate that the lower price of gas in relation to coal only caused about a third of this reduction, with the rest due to other factors such as pollution regulation and environmental campaigning. At the same time, the rush of cheap gas also discouraged an even larger amount of renewable energy and efficiency from getting off the ground, meaning that the overall environmental benefit has been small and short term at best.
Meanwhile, there is still uncertainty over whether fracked gas really has a lower climate impact than coal. When natural gas is burned to generate electricity, it releases half as much CO2 as coal per kilowatt hour generated. However, this is not the full story, as the extraction and transport of gas also results in the leakage of methane into the air—and methane is a powerful greenhouse gas. Scientists have calculated that leakage rates of 3 percent would make gas as bad for the climate as coal. A furious debate is raging within the scientific literature, with one team from Cornell University adamant that U.S. fracking operations routinely exceed the 3 percent limit; while other researchers call the Cornell result an “outlier” and state that with proper management these “fugitive emissions” of methane can be kept well under control. Burning shale gas may be less damaging to the climate than coal in theory, but how often this is true in practice remains an open question.
But all of this may miss the point. While the fossil fuel industry and politicians continue to wrangle over annual greenhouse gas emission rates, the wider climate change debate has moved on. Leading scientists are now telling us that rather than focusing on the amount of carbon pumped out per year, we should be setting targets based on how much fossil fuel we can afford to extract. Even the conservative International Energy Agency (IEA) has admitted that we need to leave two-thirds of confirmed fossil fuel reserves in the ground to have even a 50 percent chance of avoiding disastrous runaway climate change. For a 75 percent chance of success, we need to leave 80 percent underground.
So even if we stopped using coal tomorrow, we could still only burn just over half of proven conventional sources of oil and gas. There is no space at all in this equation for unconventional fuels; their extraction is quite simply incompatible with maintaining a liveable climate.
The arguments over coal displacement and relative emissions are ultimately irrelevant. We need to transition rapidly away from all fossil fuels, and attempting to launch a whole new industry based on extracting and burning yet more of the stuff seems like utter folly.
It was seismic testing by U.S. companies that first alerted a group of Polish farmers that something strange was happening in their previously non-industrial rural landscape. Following damage to farm buildings from sudden subsidence and contamination of their drinking wells with an oily substance, community members began investigating this strange new industrial activity.
According to Lech Kowalski, a filmmaker who was working alongside the farmers: “The media was full of pro-shale propaganda and no-one from the government was visiting these areas to explain what was going on. The only way the community could learn about fracking was through the internet—once they’d managed to get the information translated from English.”
Kowalski’s film Drill Baby Drill documents that farming community’s success in creating enough public and political concern around fracking to prevent Chevron from drilling in their area. Anti-fracking protests in Poland have since further escalated.
In Australia, the fracking industry crept into south Queensland, and then started spreading south, searching primarily for coalbed methane. Coal and gas companies offered landowners A$1,500 (U.S.$1,390) to drill on their land, while providing little or no information to people in adjacent plots. In 2010, concerned locals came together to form the Lock the Gate Alliance, pledging to deny the companies access to their land. A high-profile 50-day blockade in the Northern Rivers region united climate activists and conservative farmers in an unprecedented display of solidarity, costing the fracking firm Metagasco tens of millions of dollars and contributing to the company’s withdrawal from the area in March 2013. The movement is now spreading across New South Wales and also Victoria, where campaigners have succeeded in getting a moratorium on fracking.
In Britain, the sleepy Sussex village of Balcombe has become an unexpected battleground, with locals joined by anti-fracking protesters from around the country in a series of blockades against test drilling by oil company Cuadrilla. In Tunisia, the General Labour Union (UGTT) has organized a national campaign against fracking in response to the government signing a deal with Shell. In France, vocal protests forced the government to declare first a moratorium and then a national ban on shale gas extraction. In October a legal challenge to the ban was rejected by the French constitutional court, effectively protecting against future challenges.
These campaigns have been indebted to the work of U.S. activists, who have documented the unfolding impacts of fracking in their country and have achieved some notable victories of their own, including a moratorium on the practice across New York State.
There’s a strange paradox here. While fracking is a major threat to the climate, it also seems to be providing a much-needed boost to climate change campaigning, by bringing together people from all walks of life into unlikely new alliances. Cam Walker from Friends of the Earth Australia, who helped to set up the Lock the Gate Alliance, explains: “This movement started with a very purposeful focus on the local issues, to get the maximum number of people on board. But we’ve found that as people learn more about fracking, they start to rethink their opinions on the wider issues, too. In just two years Lock the Gate has moved from a pretty conservative starting position to publicly stating that we don’t need coal and gas and should be developing renewables instead.
“We’re witnessing something very new here. Ten years ago, urban climate activists were typically at loggerheads with farmers over environmental issues, but now we’re building amazing alliances that are moving beyond fracking and developing a genuine, alternative, progressive politics outside the mainstream. There’s a real shift happening on the ground that hasn’t yet translated into the world of party politics but is inspiring an impressive wave of activism, including pre-emptive action in communities that the fracking industry hasn’t even got to yet.”
When test drilling triggered two small earthquakes in Lancashire in 2011, a temporary moratorium was imposed on fracking, but it was lifted in 2012. The British government has now embraced the technology with enthusiasm, offering tax breaks to fracking companies and £100,000 ($160,500) incentives to local communities. This announcement came alongside the revelation that Treasury officials were holding secret meetings with fracking industry representatives around twice a month. As test drilling has spread, so has local opposition, with over 40 anti-fracking groups springing up around the country. Things came to a head in August 2013 when local opponents to a fracking license in the Sussex village of Balcombe were joined by activists from national climate and social justice groups. Following a series of blockades and numerous arrests, the company involved has, at least temporarily, withdrawn its fracking application.
The Canadian government was quick to jump on new fracking technology from its southern neighbor, launching into shale and tight gas extraction in British Columbia (BC) and Alberta from 2005. Over 7,000 wells have been drilled in BC alone, and life has been made even easier for the frackers by the infamous Bill C-38, which dismantled large parts of Canadian environmental law when it passed through Parliament in 2012. As with tar sands extraction, indigenous communities are in the frontline of the impacts—and are also leading the fightback. As part of the Idle No More movement, activists from the Mi’kmaq and Maliceet First Nations have been spearheading anti-fracking demonstrations and blockades in New Brunswick. Following strong resistance from the Tahltan First Nation and other environmental campaigners, fracking has been banned in the Sacred Headwaters area of BC, while Quebec has imposed a moratorium on the practice.
The fracking industry came to Poland in 2009 with grand promises to unlock a 300-year supply of shale gas. Faced with geological challenges and fierce local protests they then proceeded to revise that number downwards to 100 years, then 60, and now just 30. At least 50 test wells have been drilled, but only one or two sites are believed to be in production, no gas is yet being sold, and most major companies have now pulled out of the country. All eyes are now on the last big player, Chevron, and its ongoing battle with local farmers who are actively blockading its attempts to test drill in the village of Zurawlow in eastern Poland. Since June 3, 2013 the two sides have been at a stand-off with no equipment able to enter the site. Farmers have now been served with legal papers and so the battle is set to spread to the courts.
China contains some of the world’s biggest reserves of shale gas, and in its last five-year plan the government announced the intention to extract 6.5 billion cubic meters (230 billion cubic feet) of the fuel by 2015. However, this target now seems unlikely to be met before 2020, as the only two Chinese companies with experience in this area—Petrochina and Sinopec—have announced that they only expect to obtain 1.6 billion cubic meters (56.5 billion cubic feet) between them in the next two years. Their difficulties largely stem from water availability, the depth and complexity of the shale, and complications over land rights. Shell has been brought in as a partner to provide expertise, but there are reportedly tensions between the transnational and the domestic Chinese corporations. Public information on fracking in China is limited, but as awareness of the practice grows it will be interesting to see how China’s burgeoning environmental movement chooses to respond.
In 2011, environmental campaigners discovered that the government was quietly parceling up large areas of the country for fracking leases, including part of the northeastern farming region of Dobrodja, known as the “granary of Bulgaria.” Small groups of protesters began holding unofficial demonstrations, blocking traffic outside the Ministry of Energy by walking back and forth across the road, and turning up with banners at events attended by the Prime Minister. By January 2012 the anti-fracking movement had gathered 51,000 petition signatures and 60,000 Facebook followers, and was holding a large demonstration every month. On January 14, 2012 thousands of people marched in 15 Bulgarian cities, while solidarity demonstrations took place in London, Paris, and Copenhagen. Four days later Bulgaria’s parliament voted 166 to 6 to ban fracking.
Danny Chivers is an environmental writer, researcher, and performance poet. He is the author of The No-Nonsense Guide to Climate Change. Excerpted from New Internationalist (December 2013), a monthly magazine based in the U.K. with a focus on social justice and sustainable development.