Cracks in the great gas gamble of the 21st century
Fracking sounds like an odd and somewhat sinister activity. It might easily be an ancient form of torture approved by Pope Lucius III during the Inquisición española or a contemporary form of sexual harassment found predominantly in French companies. It makes the adult in you wag your finger and sternly warn your offspring: Never, ever, my children, let me catch you fracking!
In reality, fracking or hydraulic fracturing (la fracturation hydraulique) is the process of drilling and injecting a high pressure cocktail of water, sand and chemicals deep into the ground in order to fracture rock in order to release and capture natural gas (le gaz de schiste) and sometimes oil. It is the golden calf of the energy industry.
Fracking is a derivative of the word fracture (fracturer). Many amateur linguists and opponents have added the f-word to the language mix. Frack off!, the mantra of the international anti-fracking movement, carries an easy-to-understand message.
Fracking is not unlike crack, and I mean the drug, crack cocaine. Both are highly addictive and involve absorbing a dose of chemicals to cause a reaction that releases a quick and valuable hit; gas or money in the case of fracking, and a high in the case of crack.
They are both short-term addictions with negative effects on their hosts.
This is the face of fracking in Wyoming USA:
This is what crack cocaine does to a face:
Fifteen million Americans now live within 1.5 kilometres of a fracking well. Fracking has brought mining into the backyards of America. The energy lobby which heavily finances Capitol Hill, Washington, sees fracking as a gold-paved road to energy independence. Senator John Kerry told his nation in 2010: We are the Saudi Arabia of natural gas.
There are now more than one million fracking wells in the USA, most of them already fracked, and thousands more in the pipeline or promised in glossy prospectuses.
If Texas were a country, it would be the third largest producer of natural gas in the world, behind Russia and the entire US.
The boom, like the rock deep below, is starting to show some cracks and fissures. It is under attack from oil-producing countries, conservationists and concerned citizens.
Despite a call from the UK Prime Minister David Cameron to ‘go all out’ for fracking, there are only 11 new wells for shale gas and oil due to be drilled in the UK this year.
The House of Saud opposes it. So much so, the Saudis and other OPEC nations are flooding the world with cheap petrol to put the brakes on, or bankrupt the US gas boom which threatens their petrol monopoly.
Consumers are told gas is a clean energy. This has some truth, as long as you close your eyes, ears and nose to the extraction process: Fracking.
Let’s start with the fracking cocktail. In the last few decades, billions, if not trillions, of litres of toxic liquids have been injected into the earth.
One frack can use 30 million litres of water mixed with between 150,000 litres of chemicals.
This cocktail may include hydrochloric acid, lead, uranium, mercury, radium, methanol, formaldehyde, petroleum distillates, ammonium persulfate, calcium chloride, boric acid, citric acid, borate salts, and many more additives. Common frack-fluid chemicals, such as ethylene glycol, have been linked to such as kidney, heart, and nervous-system damage.
The waste water mixed with chemicals can find its way into the underground water system, our source of drinking water. About 70 to 80% of the water mix stays deep underground. In the town of Pavillion in Wyoming the water table was badly polluted.
The anti-fracking film Gasland features the extraordinary and now famous inflammable tap water scene.
Last year California state regulators shut down 11 fracking wells over concerns that the waste water might have contaminated aquifers used for drinking water and farm irrigation.
In December 2014, New York State banned fracking. A five-year study concluded that there were too many risks.
Scientists have recently found that thousands of old wells are leaking significant quantities of methane, a potent greenhouse gas. Methane is considered 86 times worse for the climate than CO2 (carbon dioxide) over a 20-year time period.
A Princeton University thesis concludes that natural gas has no net climate benefit in any timescale that matters to humanity.
Fracking-induced earthquakes are also a growing concern.
In Oklahoma, during the 10 years from 1978 to 2008 there were two earthquakes per year that measured 3.0 or greater. Fracking began in 2009. In a seven month period from October 2013 to April 2014 there were 183 earthquakes of magnitude 3.0 or more.
The history of fracking, like Kentucky Fried Chicken, can be traced back to a bearded colonel from the South. During the bloody 1862 battle of Fredericksburg, in Virginia, Colonel Edward A. L. Roberts was impressed by ground damage inflicted by large explosive artillery shells. This inspired his bomb fracking career.
Roberts received the first of his many patents for an ‘Improvement in Exploding Torpedoes in Oil Wells’ in 1865. This was followed by the nitro-glycerine torpedo. It was crude, dangerous and highly litigious work. Roberts spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on detectives and lawyers to protect his patent, and is said to have been responsible for more civil litigation in defence of a patent than anyone in US history. History may well repeat itself.