It’s been heralded as a way to increase American energy independence and create jobs. It’s been blamed for Ohio earthquakes.
It’s been welcomed by some environmentalists because it means we use less coal and pollute the air less. It’s being opposed by others because of fears of water pollution.
“It” is hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” – the process by which water, sand and chemicals are pumped underground to break apart shale rock and release natural gas.
Thanks to fracking the U.S. is in the middle of a natural gas boom. Other countries are keen to follow the American lead. But grassroot forces are pushing back. And they will be showing their muscle today, Saturday September 22, on Global Anti-Fracking Day.
Fracking second thoughts in New York
Already last month, hundreds of environmental advocates marched through the streets of Albany, New York to protest rumored plans to permit fracking in the state’s economically depressed northern regions.
According to WNYC, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo had expressed interest in fracking near the Pennsylvania border. Since that information became public, however, he has backed off his stance. On Friday Cuomo announced he would delay his decision pending more scientific research into the potential risks fracking can pose for public health (New York has already been studying that question for four years).
Critics, like the hundreds who protested in Albany, claim the chemicals used in the drilling process can taint water supplies. Advocates believe that it could unleash a large bounty of natural gas.
The fracking fracas is not uniquely American. In fact, the debate about its merits and costs is occurring around the world. And it’s a controversy attracting some serious celebrity attention. Here’s the actor Mark Ruffalo encouraging his Twitter followers to raise awareness about fracking:
To mark “Global Anti-Fracking Day,” Latitude News brings you the worldwide perspective on an issue that could soon hit your own backyard.
For frack’s sake
As the City Press reports in South Africa, the government recently lifted its ban on fracking and plans to begin exploring drilling spots for shale in the Karoo region, a semi-desert area inland.
AfriForum, which according to its website is a nonprofit helping minorities get involved in their communities, said the ruling would yield “catastrophic” results.
“This area is a very sensitive, semi-desert environment, which will not return to its natural state after such an impact,” Marius Kleynhans, the organization’s environmental affairs head, said in a statement published by City Press. “No matter what precautions are taken, one slip-up or shortcut, and the environment will be contaminated beyond repair.”
Parliamentarian James Lorimer, a member of the country’s opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, issued a statement published by City Press in which he expressed tentative support of the ruling.
“We have to proceed cautiously on this issue as the potential benefits in terms of job creation, cheaper energy and increased government revenue needs to be constantly weighed against the potential threats,” he said.
According to South Africa’s The Mail & Guardian, supporters of the legislation believe it could boost energy supplies that are now in short supply. “It can fuel power plants that are faster to build and bring online than large baseload power stations, such as nuclear power plants or mega coal fired operations,” the newspaper reports, citing government officials.
Meanwhile, in Poland, they’re full steam ahead with fracking despite the objections of Polish environmental advocates. According to Polskie Radio, the government believes the drilling could help the country become more energy independent, a particularly attractive option when 70 percent of its gas currently comes from Russia. This follows a March report in which the Central European country’s energy supplies were revealed to be a fifth smaller than originally predicted.
Germany is currently debating whether or not to use hydraulic fracturing to increase its natural gas supply.
According to a report by Deutsche Welle, Germany’s environment minister Peter Altmaier is lukewarm on the issue and has has called for a wider public debate. The country’s Federal Environment Agency for its part has recommended that “for now, we should refrain from large-scale use [of fracking].”
The United Kingdom temporarily suspended fracking in 2011. But, this April, the suspension was lifted, causing massive protests and more debate as to whether fracking should be permitted on the British Isles. A committee of experts recently concluded that fracking should be allowed as long as it is properly regulated, reports The Guardian. This despite the fact that last year a company exploring for shale gas admitted that it was its drilling that probably caused two earthquakes in the Blackpool region last year.
Fracking things up
Blackpool is not the only place to experience more seismic activity caused by fracking. According to a survey by the British Columbia Oil and Gas Commission published in The Globe and Mail, hydraulic fracturing has caused earthquakes in Canada.
However, the report also states that the increases in seismic activity won’t lead to cutbacks in the practice.
Earthquakes caused by fracking have occurred in the United States as well. According to a CNN.com story, Youngstown, Ohio experienced 11 fracking-related tremblers in 2011. The hydraulic fracturing boom is in high gear there, where the worst quake was a measured at 4.0 in late December.
Despite problems, the natural gas industry promotes fracking as both profitable and environmentally sound, as a pair of tweets from the industry’s lobbying arm shows:
No fracking way
Not everyone is persuaded by the fracking industry’s arguments.
At the end of August, the province of Victoria in Australia banned further exploration of hydraulic fracturing. According to ABC News in Australia, leaders wanted more information on their potential environmental impact. The ban is not in place for existing wells, a potentially dangerous lapse, says Cam Walker of Friends of the Earth, speaking to the news servive. “Simply putting a moratorium on future fracking operations will not make this problem go away,” he said.
Bulgaria, meanwhile, has banned fracking altogether. In January it revoked a permit it has previously awarded Chevron to drill there. Those who violate the ban will receive a $66 million fine. Though the country relies heavily on imported gas from Russia, the cries of the environmentalists seem to have drowned out support for hydraulic fracturing.
Bulgaria’s ban made it the second European Union country to outlaw the practice, after France.
Additional research contributed by Nicholas Nehamas