What a fracking dilemma

In the US alone, oil and gas wells produce at least 9 billion litres of contaminated water per day (that’s equivalent to 3600 Olympic sized swimming pools). Selina Haefeli explores the implications of fracking.

In the US alone, oil and gas wells produce at least 9 billion litres of contaminated water per day (that’s equivalent to 3600 Olympic sized swimming pools). Currently there are not a lot of options for treating this water and the majority of it is suspiciously pumped back underground into abandoned oil wells. Traditional wastewater treatment plants—designed to deal with sewage or stormwater runoff—are not capable of dealing with the type and level of contaminants in the water used for fracking.

Hydraulic fracturing, or ‘fracking’, is the method of drilling and injecting liquid into the ground at high pressure to break into pockets of natural oil and gas in shale rock deep under the earth’s surface.

According to a news article published in Nature in 2012, there is a serious lack of scientific research into the environmental and human health risks associated with fracking. Companies are not required to divulge a complete list of all chemical ingredients used in their fluid before it is pumped into the ground—some of which are questioningly deemed “trade secrets”. It doesn’t take a genius to work out fracking is a problematic and risky procedure. However the shale gas industry insists it’s helping areas rich in natural gas and oil, such as Ohio, by providing a quick and easy economic hit to ease the damage caused by recent recession.

The UK chairman of Shell has implied that the shortage of fossil fuels has been solved thanks to the fracking procedure, which will provide us with enough gas to power the world for another 200 years. But then again, industry lobbyists have also been trying to call fracking the “green” alternative to renewable energy. It may be cheaper than renewables, but it certainly isn’t the “greener” option.

All too frequently we hear of people living near oil wells getting sick, or their land and livestock perishing due to contaminated substances leaking into nearby rivers. There has even been a song made about fracking called ‘My water is on fire tonight’. As the title suggests, the song is about how water near gas drilling wells can be filled with levels of methane high enough to cause ignition when people turn on their taps.

Fracking has also been linked to an unusual rise in earthquakes across the US, which scientists suggest are “almost certainly” man-made and caused by wastewater from oil or gas drilling injected into the ground. While there is obviously a serious knowledge gap regarding the health risks associated with the procedure, the number of gas wells that use fracking in Ohio alone is set to rise from 77 to 2,300 over the next three years.

In Australia several gas companies have undertaken fracking operations in the Mid West, Western Australia, over the past decade. Coal seam gas drilling in Queensland and NSW is also causing controversy, with state governments granting drilling leases without consulting the electorate, landowners or farmers. People living near the wells have been—and are still—protesting, asking for evidence that the procedure is safe and won’t harm their health, land or groundwater. Although they can’t (and won't) provide this evidence, the gas companies have been very reassuring in explaining that “they are going to get this information when they’re doing the drilling”, a bit late if you ask me.

With exciting renewable energy options available, which really only require funding now, it seems so short sighted and ignorant to continue drilling for a resource that is definitely limited, unsustainable and not to mention laden with dangerous side effects. Just because fracking allows one to reach previously untapped oil reserves deep under the earth’s crust, doesn’t mean the problem of fossil fuels running out is solved.

It’s the same old story where a few people up the top make a profit, meanwhile nothing is actually done to deal with a serious global issue. With the added social and environmental risks associated with fracking, I certainly don’t believe it is the safest (or smartest) way of dealing with such an important issue that affects us all now and in the future.

At the very least, as a member of a supposedly democratic society, I’d appreciate a say in the fracking matter.

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