Andreas Späth

Why is fracking still a thing?

2016-03-07 10:55

Andreas Wilson-Späth

Pumping millions of litres of water and a cocktail of dangerous chemicals into underground wells to liberate natural gas is a silly thing to do. There is overwhelming scientific evidence that fracking shale gas creates way more problems than any solutions it might offer, whether we’re talking about cleaner energy, reduced reliance on oil and coal, or climate change.

Yet the South African government remains intend on making fracking a reality in this country, no matter what science or concerned citizens have to say on the matter. In February, Department of Mineral Resources spokesperson Setepane Mohale told a parliamentary committee that “shale gas is still seen as a game changer” and that the first fracking licences are expected to be issued this year.

There are many reasons why this shouldn’t happen.

Health concerns have always been at the forefront of anti-fracking arguments and the evidence that these worries are valid just keeps on coming. We’re told that fracking happens at great depth, making the potential for contamination of underground drinking water sources with chemicals and methane gas minimal.

Last year, however, American researchers found that there are plenty of surprisingly shallow fracking wells in which the risk of contamination is much greater. They documented at least 2350 US wells that were less than a mile (about 1.6 kilometres) deep and had been fracked with over a million gallons (more than 3.78 million litres) of water each.

Why worry about a bit of fracking fluid in your water? Simple: it contains substances you just don’t want near you or your family. You certainly don’t want to bathe in it, wash your clothes with it or drink it.

Recent studies have shown that:

- Fracking fluids used in California contain a number of chemicals that are known to be carcinogenic and are associated with harm to the reproductive system as well as aquatic organisms. A study conducted by scientists from the University of Colorado Boulder evaluated hundreds of organic compounds used in fracking fluid and found that 41 were “mobile and persistent” – i.e. they get around and stay around – and that several of these “could result in potentially hazardous exposures following spills or well failures”.

- Male mouse foetuses exposed to chemicals found in fracking fluid, for example via contaminated drinking water, are at an elevated risk of long-term disruptions to the endocrine system, low sperm count and enlarged testes. Care to put your unborn child on that diet?

- Expectant mothers who live near fracking wells have an increased chance of suffering from complications during pregnancy, including high blood pressure and premature birth.

- The greater the density of fracking wells in an area, the higher the rate at which people living there are hospitalised for a variety of conditions from neurological diseases to heart trouble.

On top of all that, fracking (and the associated oil and gas industry which includes pipelines, refineries, storage plants and so on) is much leakier than pundits have led us to believe.

What’s the problem with that? If methane gas escapes from the rocks in which it was safely held for millions of years and makes its way into the atmosphere it contributes to climate change, being a much more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.

In 2015, a study indicated that natural gas (which includes methane) liberated from bedrock reservoirs by fracking is able to escape to the surface via pre-existing and abandoned wells (very common features in shale gas fields).

Previous estimates of methane emissions from fracking sites have been significantly underestimated. New satellite and surface measurements show that “US methane emissions have increased by more than 30% over the 2002-2014 period”, coinciding with the country’s fracking boom, and suggest that this rise “could account for 30-60% of the global growth in atmospheric methane seen in the past decade”.

In February, the US Environmental Protection Agency confirmed that methane emissions from the country’s oil and gas industry are 27% higher than previously reported.

You can actually watch methane leaking into the air from various parts of the vast American fracking complex on footage collected by infrared cameras.

In southern California, a damaged well at a natural gas storage facility made international headlines for leaking more than 97000 metric tons of methane between the 23rd of October 2015 and the 11th of February of this year, when it was finally capped.

That accident may have been the single biggest methane leak in US history, but the more than 25000 wells sunk into the Barnett Shale oil and gas field in Texas is even leakier, spewing as much as 60000kg of methane into the air every day.

Now does this sound like an industry you’d like to be let lose in the Karoo and elsewhere in South Africa? Thought not.



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