“Fracking” is big news in the U.S. The controversial means of extracting natural gas has been both boon and bane for small, rural towns.
Proponents say Americans have the fracking boom to thank for lower natural gas prices; and the International Energy Administration says fracking is contributing to a national energy portfolio that could make the U.S. the world’s largest oil producer by 2020.
But detractors say fracking has more risks than anyone has yet measured, including the potential to taint groundwater supplies, create earthquakes in geologically quiet areas, and, in some cases, tear apart the social fabric of rural communities.
Just this weekend, two dueling fracking movies will premier. Matt Damon’s “Promised Land” paints a portrait of a small town rallying against “Big Gas,” while “FrackNation” — a pro-fracking documentary that seems to have been specifically made to counter any negative PR impact from Damon’s movie —premiers to lesser acclaim.
Worth noting for your own judgment: “Promised Land” has connections to a state-owned production company based in the United Arab Emirates, a country which ranks number seven on a list of the world’s biggest producers of crude oil. Conflict of interest? Let us know in the comments section below.
But this heated national controversy is not unique to the U.S. Fracking is booming abroad, and it’s also hitting roadblocks similar to those in the U.S. Here’s a roundup of stories that illuminate the American chapter of the global fracking saga.
Conflicting reports in Ireland, New York
A leading health expert in Northern Ireland says fracking poses too many unknown risks, and that the data is still too thin to assure public health.
The warning from the director of the Institute of Environmental Health in Northern Ireland comes as an Australian energy company aims to start extracting gas in Ireland in about a year.
“The precautionary principle must still hold,” says Gary McFarlane, “there are still too many unknowns and in the evidence vacuum that still exists my own view is that wider risks must be considered significant until they have been objectively proved otherwise.”
European nations generally approach environmental risks with “the precautionary principle,” a sort of guilty-until-innocent approach to assessing the risk of new processes. And, in general, the U.S. does not apply the precautionary approach to environmental risks.
Simultaneously, a report by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s Administration says fracking is safe if the proper precautions are taken. The report, written in February 2012 but leaked to the press in the first week of 2013, says contamination of drinking water, for example, can be mitigated by the state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC).
The New York report comes at the tail end of a four-year ban on fracking in the state, and is part of a much larger review process of the potential benefits and risks of fracking. A spokesperson for the DEC was quick to point out: “The document is not a health assessment, is nearly a year old, and does not reflect final DEC policy . . . No conclusions should be drawn from this partial, outdated summary.”
DEC is expected to complete its review of fracking in February, although some fear Governor Cuomo is already looking for a pretext to keep the ban in place.
UK lifts fracking ban . . . good news?
A few weeks after the United Kingdom lifted a one-year ban on fracking, the CEO of Weir Group, a major Scottish engineering firm, says the UK is poised to become Europe’s biggest fracking hub. About one-third of Weir’s revenue comes from its fracking-related work in the U.S., reports the Financial Times.
CEO Keith Cochrane says the timing is perfect for the UK:
The UK is in a fantastic position to take advantage of the changes, given the infrastructure that already exists off the back of our North Sea, to take a leading role in the development of this industry across Europe . . . We should get out there and prove the technology in a UK context, and use that as a platform to become a European hub as shale reserves are developed across both western and eastern Europe.
The UK temporarily stopped fracking last year after the only company to start exploring for natural gas via fracking which was reported to have triggered two earthquakes.
The Financial Times reports Weir supplies half the high-pressure pumps used for fracking in the U.S. and Canada, although orders for the pumps are down over the past year. Why? Oversupply due to the fracking boom.
While British Prime Minister David Cameron hopes to replicate the U.S. gas boom across the pond, “some analysts have suggested that [fracking for natural gas] is unlikely to have the impact seen in the US.”
Meanwhile, down under, Australians wonder if the U.S. gas boom will cut into Australia’s potential to become a natural gas exporter. Australia has recently approved 10 plants for producing liquefied natural gas. Construction has begun on seven of them, including the nation’s most expensive resources project — a Chevron plant with a price tag of $52 billion, and counting.
It’s all rather convoluted, isn’t it? For a solid review of the global anti-fracking movement — and to see what’s at stake for a gas industry deaf to public concerns — check out this concise summary in Forbes.