Thursday, 6 January 2011

Fracking Mad

It's a Gold Rush

One of the biggest environmental stories in the United States right now is "fracking"; the extraction of gas from shale rocks by a process of hydraulic fracturing. Just google "frack off", "what the frack" or "fracking up" and you'll get the lead on thousands of web-pages expressing horror and outrage at what's going on. It's the Wild West all over again.

Scientific American article explains that "It all comes down to the fact that fracking involves a lot of water. There's the at least 11.5 million liters involved in fracking a well in the first place. There's the brine and other fluids that can come to the surface with the natural gas. And there's the problem of what to do with all that waste fluid at the end of the day."

Regulatory Vacuum

Given gas-guzzling America's desperation for cheap, foreigner-free fossil fuels, not to mention the Big Huge Money involved, no surprise to find that so far fracking mostly seems to be having a free ride in many states, with oversight and regulation distinctly lagging. Congress helpfully exempted it from the 2005 Safe Drinking Water Act, and an in depth study by the EPA into the potential human and environmental risks will not be completed for another two years. So if and when large-scale fracking is officially demonstrated to be harmful, the damage would already be done over substantial areas.

Associated Press has already uncovered widespread abuses of what regulations do exist, for example:

"Of the roughly 6 million barrels of well liquids produced in a 12-month period examined by The AP, the state couldn't account for the disposal method for 1.28 million barrels, about a fifth of the total, because of a weakness in its reporting system and incomplete filings by some energy companies."

It should also give pause for thought that while frackers have over the years taken the trouble to do extensive research into the technical suitability of various chemicals, they've been very reluctant to investigate the possible environmental and health impacts. According to a June 2004 study that the EPA has so far managed (pdf), frackers use a varying cocktail of many different chemicals, depending on the nature of the rock. Substances mixed into the water can include acids, diesel (with components like benzene, toluene) polyacrilates, acetone and pesticides / bactericides to kill bacteria that grow when organic polymers are used within the fracking fluid, of which as much as a third may remain unrecovered under the ground, and therefore a potential contamination risk to groundwater. As well as all this there is also the problem that the fracturing process can release harmful minerals from the rock strata, before then flushing them out into the wider environment in the fracking fluid.

Coming to Somewhere Near You?

Within the last month or so news has been broken, rather quietly, that frackable rock exists under Lancashire, in the Bowland shale.

The Independent on January 2nd 2011: "Blackpool Green Party is demanding an immediate moratorium on drilling and further work at the Blackpool site" and Friends of the Earth spokesman Mike Childs said "We need to see much more research on the impact on groundwater and a clear strategy from government." While the Lytham St Anne's Express today reported "plans to extract natural gas from below Lytham Moss. A well is being drilled at land on Anna’s Road, off North Houses Lane, St Annes, to determine the scale of shale gas reserves there. It is one of three Fylde Coast sites identified, with tests also being carried out at Singleton, after successful samples were taken from Preese Hall Farm in Weeton."

Whatever Michael Economides' taunts in the Energy Tribune about "European energy grinches" I don't think we should be at all complacent about the massive impact the global gas rush could have on us here.

PDF of European Target Zones

Gasland - where you can light your water tap!

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