Andreas Späth

Fracking – let’s not

2015-05-04 09:46

Andreas Wilson-Späth

One of the things about bad ideas is that they almost never miraculously turn into good ones. Another is that those who believe in them frequently find it really hard to change their minds, even in the face of overwhelming evidence.

Take fracking and the South African government, for instance. We’ve known for years that fracking is a terrible idea – a dirty, water-thirsty, inappropriate, climate-changing mistake that will only make an elite few rich and have the rest of us left with a mess for decades to come.

Having guzzled down the fossil fuel industry’s Kool-Aid with gusto, however, the SA government remains enamoured with the controversial natural gas extraction technique, believing it to be a ‘game changer’. Alas, fracking hasn’t magically transformed into a good idea as even a cursory glance at recent research shows:

- Exactly what chemicals are present in the cocktail of fracking liquids that are injected into the ground in large quantities to extract natural gas remains somewhat of a mystery. Partly because of industry secrecy, partly because of lack of sufficient monitoring and partly because scientists don’t really know what they are looking for. In two papers published last month, researchers found that fracking fluid, some of which remains underground and some of which returns to the surface as so-called ‘produced water’, contains an array of organic compounds, including solvents, surfactants, gels, friction reducers, acetic acid and biocides added to prevent bacterial growth. While many of these substances are present at small concentrations, they are still potentially dangerous if they leak into groundwater sources, a process that has been shown to happen.

- You might think that the question of what to do with all of this contaminated wastewater was a major headache for the industry. Not so. In the US they’ve simply been pumping large quantities of the stuff into underground wells drilled specifically for the purpose. Out of sight out of mind? Not quite. New research indicates that a massive increase in the occurrence of earthquakes in the country’s interior (not naturally a seismically active region) is most likely the result of brine extraction from natural gas wells and the practice of disposing fracking wastewater by injecting it back into wells. Simply put (yet contrary to their vociferous claims), the fracking industry is causing earthquakes. These conclusions have recently been confirmed by a report from the US Geological Survey.

- In Pennsylvania, another new report, also published in April, shows that levels of radon in buildings have increased significantly since fracking started in the US state in 2004. Some 42% of all of the indoor radon measurements made there (typically when homes are put up for sale) registered concentrations above levels considered to be safe by government regulations. This was found to be particularly true for buildings located in areas of most active shale gas extraction. Fracking is believed to liberate and bring to the surface radioactive radium-226 which decays to form radon, an odourless, radioactive gas that is considered to be the second most prevalent cause of lung cancer after smoking worldwide.

- If you’ve ever seen an aerial shot of a fracking area, you have an idea of the scale of the destruction wrought by the technology. In an article published recently in Science, a group of American researchers warn that the process is "transforming millions of hectares of the Great Plains into industrialised landscapes". They estimate that on average a staggering 50 000 new fracking wells were drilled for oil and gas extraction in central North America every year since 2000. The well pads, roads and storage infrastructure constructed during this period occupies about three million hectares of land (equivalent to three Yellowstone National Parks), resulting in an enormous loss of vegetation, biomass, farmland, grazing area, wildlife habitat, landscape connectivity and water. What’s more, they point out that the loss in natural productivity and ecosystem services is likely to be "long-lasting and potentially permanent, as recovery or reclamation of previously drilled land has not kept pace with accelerated drilling".

These are the kinds of things that we have to look forward to if fracking comes to the Karoo and other parts of South Africa. If you ask me, it's as bad an idea as it ever was.

- Andreas is a freelance writer with a PhD in geochemistry. Follow him on Twitter: @Andreas_Spath

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