15 January 2015

nature Feature

This featured in our quarterly magazine. Support independent journalism.

Subscribe today!
The Future Of Fracking – Can The Drill Be Stopped?
15 January 2015
Revolve |

nature Feature by RevolveTeam

‘Fracking’ injects massive amounts of chemically infused water deep into the earth’s crust to extract remote fossil fuels. This process produces approximately 300,000 barrels of gas a day which can create massive health and environmental hazards. Campaigning against this destructive practice is widespread, with no great success stories to date – except maybe for one.

In 2010, a couple of ex-corporate lawyers living in Ithaca, New York State, pioneered an innovative legal framework that gave municipalities the right to make local land use decisions. Helen and David Slottje provided pro-bono legal assistance, helping towns across New York defend themselves from oil and gas companies by passing local bans on fracking.

Over 170 towns and cities across the state have now passed local laws prohibiting the destructive practice while Texas, Ohio, Virginia, California and Florida are all working to mimic the success in New York. Communities across America are standing up against fracking – and winning – while oil companies have realized that they are not as untouchable as they once thought.

“They said we failed the bar exam; they said the Russians were funding us; they said it was all part of a liberal conspiracy to keep farmers in poverty,” says Helen Slotjje as she explains how gas companies reacted to her anti-fracking campaign. “But it didn’t bother us because we were corporate lawyers and we’re accustomed to people not liking us.”

Helen and David used to work for a large Boston law firm before they become active environmentalists. The green shift came when Helen saw an advertisement in the local paper for a meeting that would discuss gas drilling in Ithaca. Her curiosity piqued; she went to the meeting—and left horrified at what she learned.

Helen Slottje and her husband David in front of their home in Ihtaca NY. Source: Goldman Environmental Prize

When a site is chosen for fracking, a well is drilled between 8,000-14,000 feet down into the earth. Huge amounts of water are mixed with chemicals and sand before being pumped into the ground to literally fracture the rock. Natural gases are released and collected in pipes ascending back to the surface where the gases are collected and refined in factories. The entire process requires huge transportation demands to bring water to the sites and to move the harvested gas to the refineries. During the process, a hazardous chemical mix is created that can contaminate nearby food, water and air supplies.

Taking this all on board, Helen and David started researching how to stop fracking in Ithaca. They learned that local zoning laws which determined how much light and noise is permissible from activities could also be used to ban fracking. Thanks to the Slottje’s legal know-how, more than 170 towns and cities throughout New York State have passed local laws prohibiting fracking and many more were inspired to work on bans.

Update: since this article was published in Revolve Magazine, Fracking has been banned in New York.

“We were told that this was a fool’s errand,” says Helen. “That didn’t sit well with us – we couldn’t believe that there was nothing we could do except watch this horrible thing happen to our community.”

For her commitment and accomplishment in banning fracking, Helen was awarded with the Goldman Environmental Prize, sometimes referred to as the “Green Nobel”. The prize was established in 1989 and is selected by an international jury from confidential nominations submitted by environmental organizations and individuals from around the world.

Helen Slottje receiving prize. Source: Goldman Environmental Prize

Awarding the prize to Helen not only recognizes her campaigning success, but also highlights that a worldwide network of environmental groups are concerned about fracking.

Why Exactly is Fracking So Bad?

The United States House of Representatives published a report in 2011 stating at least 750 chemicals were found in fracking fluid. These included endocrine disrupters, highly corrosive acids, and carcinogens. All of which can cause birth defects, severe organ damage and cancer.

Apart from the health risks, fracking and natural gas could prove worse for the environment than coal. The reason that natural gas is generally considered to be better is that it emits less carbon dioxide. However, methane is the main constituent of natural gas and if it’s left to escape, it can trap 21 times
more heat than carbon dioxide.

Additionally, it can take anywhere from 1-8 million gallons of water to complete each fracturing with one third of the liquid returning to the surface and the rest remaining underground. This creates two problems – what happens with the contaminated water above and what happens to the contaminated water below?

The liquid mix produced from fracking has high saline levels, ten times higher than sea water, which makes it toxic for plants and aquatic life if it enters their ecosystems. A lot of the liquid does getting taken to municipal treatment facilities, but the highly dissolved solids can also overwhelm the machinery and contaminate local drinking supplies.

And yet, water treatment remains big business. Firms that supply chemicals, equipment and services are growing. According to the Global Water Intelligence, the 2012 market for water treatment equipment used at North American oil and gas wells totaled $900 million, while investment in conventional equipment is expected to rise 10% per year by 2010 to 2025.

The reality is that big business is flocking to fracking for the simple reason that it is a growing industry.

Illustration: The Dangers of Fracking. Source: Corporate Europe Observatory

Fracking is a Global Problem

Despite Helen’s success, fracking continues to establish itself as an important energy supply for countries. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, at the end of 2010, natural gas-fired generators constituted 39% of the country’s total electric generation capacity.

The U.S. shale gas bonanza has heightened speculation over the potential for shale gas to transform energy markets across the globe. In Europe, it is now believed that 14 countries have substantial shale resources with three quarters suspected to be in Ukraine, Poland, France and Russia.

Elsewhere in China, the government is aiming for eventual energy independence by establishing the first cooperative fracking venture. To achieve this, FTS International, the first and largest U.S. company to perfect the fracking technique, has formed a joint venture with China’s Sinopec, a state owned energy giant.

Future Battlefields

According to Pete Stark, a geologist and analyst at IHS, Inc., production from the average shale oil well declines by 50-78% after its first year, and by 50-75% after the first year for shale gas wells. It doesn’t make sense to devastate small environments for such short-term gain, particularly when governments are at the crossroads of how they will deal with climate change. This begs the question – what is preventing a significant stop to fracking?

In areas where shale-drilling/hydraulic fracturing is heavy, a dense web of roads, pipelines and well pads turn continuous forests and grasslands into fragmented islands. Source: Simon Fraser University/Flickr

“It started in the United States with NAFTA (The North American Free Trade Agreement) and that concept is expanding to the rest of the world,” says Helen. “All these trade agreements advance what’s called ‘Investor-state dispute settlements’ (ISDS) where corporations can sue a nation if that particular state has enabled any laws or taken action that makes it harder for that corporation to make money.”

Trade agreements such as NAFTA, TTIP (Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership) and TTP (Trans-Pacific Partnership) could also expand fracking by removing the ability of governments to
control natural gas exports and by weakening environmental legislation.

Combine that with the ISDS and governments can be forced to pay millions in compensation to corporations for profits lost to regulation. This would ultimately create a future where states are unable to
address climate change for fear of a financial backlash.

It may seem odd that companies can sue governments for making a democratic decision, but it has happened already – several times in fact. A report publishedby Corporate Europe Observatory found that trade agreements like NAFTA have allowed energy companies to takeaction against countries whose decisions affected their profits.

The Swedish energy giant Vattenfall is seeking more than €4.7 billion from Germany in compensation after the country voted to phase out nuclear power; Pacific Rim, a Canadian-based mining company
is demanding $315 million in compensation from El Salvador after the government refused permission for a potentially devastating gold mining project; and Lone Pine Resources is suing Canada for $250 million over a fracking moratorium in the Canadian province of Quebec.

Fracking fluid and other drilling wastes are dumped into an unlined pit adjacent to the Petroleum Highway in Kern County, California. Source: Sarah Craig/Faces of Fracking

Are Renewables at Risk?

Many countries have adopted comprehensive policy frameworks to support renewable energy, but meaningful carbonreduction will be difficult as long as fracking companies, and the fossil fuel industry at large, are allowed to influence legislation. Trade agreements like NAFTA, TTIP and TTP could devastate future investments into renewables by locking states into dirty energy.

Nations that want to increase subsidies for sustainable technology may think twice if a billion dollar lawsuit is dangled over head. With everything considered the question still remains – can the drill ever be stopped? Certainly, at some point… With biased trade agreements, gas companies will surely keep extracting, but with the likes of Helen and David Slottje, there’s a fighting chance that the drill will be dropped for good.

“We like to share our success story because people feel like there is nothing they can do and that’s what we were once told,” says Helen. “But our futures are at stake and people need to know they have the right to say no.”