Join the Global Frackdown

October 17, 2013

The oil and gas industry's love of fracking is wrapped up in profits, says Tyler Hansen.

THE SECOND-ever "Global Frackdown" day of action set to take place the weekend of October 19. Actions will be held in half of the 50 states and in more than 20 countries around the world. The first Global Frackdown, in September 2012, drew participation from 200 community actions across 20 countries, so this year's event is on track to surpass those numbers.

With the protests coming up, it's a good opportunity to review the record of ecological damage left behind by fracking, and to consider the root causes of the global addiction to fossil-fuel combustion.

Fracking involves drilling wells deep into shale rock formations under the earth's surface, and then pumping millions of gallons of water, sand and other chemicals at very high pressure through the wells. This process fractures shale rock formations, allowing the extraction of previously inaccessible natural gas and shale oil (also known as "tight oil").

The process of fracking has been promoted by the oil and gas industry as a solution to the problem of "peak oil" (that is, the global depletion of conventional crude oil reserves), but also to global warming. Industry hacks make these outlandish claims with the assertion that no "proven research" shows fracking to be unsafe while their own industry-sponsored studies shows that fracking is an ecologically sound practice.

New Yorkers protest to demand an end to fracking
New Yorkers protest to demand an end to fracking (Adam Welz)

In reality, fracking not only intensifies climate change, but it also devastates public health and the environment.

IN HIS article "Frackonomics", Tacoma Community College economics instructor Rob Larson presents evidence from a New York Times report showing that "more than a quarter-century of efforts by some lawmakers and regulators to force the federal government to police the industry better have been thwarted, as EPA studies have been repeatedly narrowed in scope and important findings have been removed." The main beneficiaries of fracking--Big Oil and Gas--are at the root of this tampering.

As illustrated in Josh Fox's documentary Gasland, the tap water of homes near fracking sites has been known to catch fire when it comes in contact with a lit match because of high levels of methane, the main component of natural gas.

Thanks to former Vice President Dick Cheney's secretive Energy Task Force (and the corporate interests he served), the Energy Policy Act of 2005 exempted the process of fracking--including the use of massive amounts of chemicals whose toxicity had yet to be tested--from the Clean Water Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Clean Air Act, and CERCLA (the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act, which was passed to mandate the cleanup of hazardous substances).

One of the many effects of these exemptions is that companies cannot be forced to disclose the chemicals they use in fracking--so they don't. Why don't they give full disclosure to the public? If it's not already obvious, because they have a lot to hide.

Larson cites two studies by Colorado scientists. In the first, a team of endocrinologists catalogued chemicals used in fracking based on regulatory filings made by fracking companies themselves, thus excluding any chemicals that the companies did not want to report (in other words, most of them). But of the chemicals voluntarily reported by fracking firms, the study found that "75 percent...were harmful for the sensory organs, nearly half could affect the nervous and immune systems, and 25 percent could cause 'cancer and mutations.'" One can only guess what hazards are posed by the chemicals that weren't reported.

In the second study, scientists found that within about a half-mile radius of fracking sites, there was a heightened risk of health problems, ranging from "'headaches and eye irritation' to 'tremors, temporary limb paralysis, and unconsciousness at higher exposures.'" Researchers in Pennsylvania found similar results, reinforcing the conclusions.

But because these scientists can't specify the exact causal mechanism connecting the health problems to the fracking, the industry still tells us "fracking is safe."

A Common Dreams article by Lauren Steiner tells a different story about the all-too-common-yet-undiagnosed health problems suffered by those who live near fracking sites. Gary Gless lives near the Inglewood Oil Field, "the largest urban oil field in the nation," according to Steiner, where "gas companies have been secretly fracking...for nine years."

Gless is suffering from a neuromuscular disorder that has caused him to fall down and break bones. Many of his neighbors also suffer from unspecified "neurological, auto-immune and respiratory diseases and several types of cancers." Many cases have resulted in death.

GOING BEYOND the health risks due to exposure to the process itself, fracking worsens climate change, threatening our very existence. Burning natural gas produces carbon dioxide (though not as much as coal or oil), but more importantly, fracking is subject to large amounts of methane leakage, a gas 23.5 times more potent than carbon dioxide in warming the earth's climate.

Even without the methane leakage, fracking is not a solution to climate change. With the leakage, as noted by environmental journalist Madeline Ostrander, "Some analyses suggest that methane emissions at fracking sites make unconventional natural gas more polluting than coal."

Because the shale rock from which natural gas and shale oil are extracted contains naturally occurring radioactive material, fracking also produces radioactive wastewater that municipal treatment plants cannot safely treat. A 2011 report found that "radioactive wastewater from [fracking] is sometimes discharged into rivers that supply drinking water to millions of people in Pennsylvania and Maryland."

Fracking has also been found to stimulate earthquakes when companies pump massive amounts of waters treated with these chemicals deep into rock reservoirs.

Fracking pollutes our water and air, greatly exacerbates global warming, creates toxic radioactive wastewater, and causes earthquakes, making it one of the greatest environmental hazards of our time.

Moreover, according to Richard Heinberg, who is a fossil fuel expert and the author of Snake Oil: How Fracking's False Promise of Plenty Imperils Our Future, the idea touted by the oil and gas industry that fracking could produce a 100-year supply of natural gas is a lie, exaggerated by a third.

Heinberg goes on to say:

The fossil fuel industry has, quite understandably, fought back against both economic and environmental arguments. Oil companies (notably ExxonMobil) have not only funded the efforts of climate-denial front groups to sow doubt about what is in fact established science...they have also mounted a sustained public relations campaign to undermine the credibility of peak oil analysts.

Why does he use the word "understandably"? Because we in a capitalist economy, in which the fossil-fuel industry (and every other industrial sector) is motivated by "short-term financial self-interest," in Heinberg's words.

Fracking is indeed profitable. In Texas, "The volume of water adequate for irrigating $200,000 worth of crops can be used to frack $2.5 billion worth of gas or oil," explains Larson. "The Wall Street Journal reports that 'companies have been on a buying spree, snapping up rights to scarce river water--easily outbidding traditional users such as farmers and cities.'"

Or in the words of a Texas rancher cited by Larson: "We're just kind of the little ant that gets squashed."

IN ADDITION to short-term profit, capitalist competition compels corporations and governments to exploit fossil fuels to the utmost, whether ethical or not. If one company decides to place the needs of people and the environment first, it will be undercut and forced out of business by others firms that continue to exploit immensely profitable fossil fuels.

The environmental crises we face today, as exemplified by the unconventional process of fracking, are systemic in nature. The only way to change our current system, ruled by the rich minority, is for the exploited majority, bearing the brunt of the crises, to build a mass movement from below, to challenge and change this system.

The Global Frackdown this coming weekend is a significant step in the right direction, allowing us to show the rulers and ourselves our power. The environmental movement must continue to grow and seek out creative ways to resist capitalism's addiction to fossil fuels.

According to Chris Williams, a physics and chemistry professor and the author of Ecology and Socialism, if we start transitioning off fossil fuels now, we could be completely carbon-free and powered by renewable energy sources by 2030.

The environmental crises we now face expose the barbaric nature of capitalism that puts short-term profits before any other concerns, including human needs and the glaring reality that our world's resources, including its capacity to absorb pollution, is finite. Despite knowing that humans will cease to exist if civilization continues down the destructive road of burning fossil fuels, the ruling class plans to continue doing just that.

Growing recognition of this contradiction has created an important opening for radicalization, strengthening of the environmental movement, and fighting for the indispensable systemic change needed to save our planet. The first Global Frackdown, in September 2012, drew participation from 200 community actions across 20 countries, and this year's event is on track to surpass those numbers.

Winning battles in the short-term, such as banning fracking and the Keystone XL Pipeline, allow us to buy a little more time. But we--and the earth--need a fundamental restructuring of society to place human and environmental need instead of profit at the heart of the system's priorities. Only then can we heal the "ecological rift," in the words of ecosocialist John Bellamy Foster, that capitalism has driven between humanity and the rest of nature.

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