As with asbestos, people do not die immediately as a result of fracking operations – and earthquakes in their vicinity have, as yet, done only minor damage . . .
America’s National Center for Biotechnology Information, Bethesda, Maryland warns that public exposure to the many chemicals involved in energy development is expected to increase over the next few years, with uncertain consequences.
Its findings summarised:
- Both air and water quality are affected by extraction of natural gas rich in methane using processes that emit volatile organic compounds (VOCs) during hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”), in which chemical mixtures are injected into wells to break up rock formations and release gases.
- Methane and fracking chemicals can also migrate into shallow aquifers used for drinking water wells.
- VOCs present in drilling and fracking chemicals can cause symptoms such as headache, loss of coordination, and damage to the liver and kidneys; benzene is a carcinogen as well. In addition these compounds help to create ground-level ozone, which can contribute to severe respiratory and immune system problems.
In 2004, though the US government’s Environmental Protection Agency issued a report concluding there is very little risk that fracking can contaminate drinking water, there are some documented contamination incidents:
“For example, in August 2006, drilling fluids and methane were detected emerging from a hillside in Clark County, Wyoming, from a gas well surrounded by a rural housing development. Ultimately 8 million cubic feet of methane were released, in an attempt to ‘kill’ the glass blowout from the well. Subsequent tests showed contamination of shallow groundwater with hydrocarbon compounds.
“The drilling boom in Colorado’s Garfield County has triggered a rash of citizen complaints that petrochemical pollution has caused adrenal and pituitary tumors, headaches, nausea, joint pain, respiratory problems, and other symptoms . . .
VOC emissions in Garfield County rose 30% between 2004 and 2006, according to Mike Silverstein, deputy director of the Colorado Air Pollution Control Division. The county is currently conducting a health risk assessment and an ambient air quality monitoring study.
In 2011 further research findings were released by the EPA; investigations in Wyoming and Pennsylvania found groundwater containing benzenes, xylenes, gasoline range organics, diesel range organics, and other chemicals as a result of fracking.
Further evidence may be read here:
Colborn, Theo, Carol Kwiatkowski, Kim Schultz, and Mary Bachran. “Natural Gas Operations from a Public Health Perspective.” Human and Ecological Risk Assessment: An International Journal 17.5 (2011): 1039-056
Colborn, Theo, Kim Schultz, Lucille Herrick, and Carol Kwiatkowski. “An Exploratory Study of Air Quality near Natural Gas Operations.” Y Human and Ecological Risk Assessment (n.d.): 1-22 (2012).
Science 17 May 2013: Vol. 340 no. 6134,DOI: 10.1126/science.1235009: Impact of Shale Gas Development on Regional Water Quality
Earthquakes induced by hydraulic fracturing
As major gas producer and supplier, Centrica, is said to be in ‘advanced talks’ to buy a stake in Cuadrilla’s licence areas in Lancashire, spanning 450 square miles of the most beautiful area of Bowland in order to extract gas from shale we remember the BBC’s report that a study, commissioned by energy firm Cuadrilla, found it “highly probable” that shale gas test drilling triggered earth tremors in Lancashire – due to an “unusual combination of geology at the well site”.
The American experience
The United States Geological Survey (USGS) has reported earthquakes induced by hydraulic fracturing, and by disposal of hydraulic fracturing flowback into waste disposal wells, in several locations. Bill Ellsworth, a geoscientist with the U.S. Geological Survey, agrees that this happens but says: “We don’t see any connection between fracking and earthquakes of any concern to society.”
The National Research Council (part of the National Academy of Sciences) has also observed that hydraulic fracturing, when used in shale gas recovery, does not pose a serious risk of causing earthquakes large enough to be of concern to the public.
However, the Nuclear Energy Institute reports that the frequency of the quakes has been increasing. In 2009, there were 50 earthquakes greater than magnitude-3.0 in the area spanning Alabama and Montana, and there were 87 quakes in 2010. In 2011 there were 134 earthquakes in the same area, a sixfold increase over 20th century levels.
Bans on fracking are operating in many countries with some areas declaring a moratorium. See 2012 information on this here. A case for the precautionary principle?