After a decade of industrial-scale expansion in North America, the destructive nature of the fracking industry is now apparent to the wider world, with significant damage to the environment, health, climate, wildlife and society.
The search for unconventional fossil fuel energy sources is taking place against a backdrop of increased awareness of the urgency to act to prevent the worst impacts of climate change.
Consistent expert analysis confirms that we are rapidly approaching crucial tipping points and must rapidly decarbonise our energy system for these to be avoided.
According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), two thirds of the known fossil fuel reserves need to be left in the ground if we are to avoid the internationally agreed limits of 2°C warming.
One of the most common arguments used to promote the development of shale resources is that shale gas could "play a key role in the transition to a greener energy future". Unconventional gas is presented as an important low carbon transition fuel.
This claim is however deeply misleading as it misrepresents the global warming impacts of natural gas and ignores the consequences for climate change of global development of the fracking industry.
Natural gas - more carbon-intensive than promoted
Natural gas is mostly made of methane which has, according to the IPCC, a global warming potential 86 times higher than CO2 over a 20-year time-frame.
While gas may therefore have a lower carbon footprint than many other fossil fuel sources when it is burnt, it can generate high levels of emissions over the course of the production and transportation cycles as a result of methane leakages.
According to independent analysis in the US, despite the existing so-called 'best available' technology, up to 12% of the natural gas produced at a number of shale gas production areas can leak directly into the atmosphere.
The much higher failure rate of unconventional well drillings (compared to conventional ones) adds to the problem of methane leakage.
Recent studies in the US have for instance shown that the failure rate for unconventional wells in the Marcellus basin - where a significant amount of US unconventional gas is currently produced - was at least 6.2% and that unconventional gas wells in north eastern Pennsylvania were found to fail almost three times more than conventional wells in the same area.
40% of the methane is vented to atmosphere
As a result, it has been predicted that about 40% of the oil and gas wells in parts of the Marcellus shale region are likely to leak methane into the groundwater or into the atmosphere.
Concerns about methane leakage are particularly acute in countries where environmental standards and monitoring capacities are considered to be low, which is the case in most countries covered in this study.
According to the IEA, even in a best case scenario where its 'Golden Rules' - principles which would supposedly address the environmental and social impacts of the fracking industry - were respected:
"CO2 emissions on a long-term trajectory [will be] consistent [...] with a probable temperature rise of more than 3.5 degrees Celsius (°C), well above the widely accepted 2°C target."
While the IEA states that in 2010, the world energy-related CO2 emissions in the gas sector were around 3,050 million tonnes of CO2, it estimates that CO2 emissions from the gas sector, in a context of shale gas expansion, would continue to increase in every part of the world, despite the use of best available technology. In non-OECD countries, the IEA forecasts an increase to almost 5,800 million tonnes of CO2 in 2035.
The climate change impact that a global intensification of the shale oil and gas production could have is therefore significant. This poses a major risk to many countries in the Global South which are already feeling the impacts of climate change and which are predicted to experience some of the most severe consequences.
By 2030, while the cost of climate change and air pollution combined is expected to represent 3% of global GDP, the world's least developed countries forecast to pay the highest price, restricting growth by up to 11%.
Given the urgent need to reduce emissions, shale gas, and indeed natural gas in general, do not seem suitable as a transition fuel in either the West, or in the rest of the world.
Financial support for dirty energy
The Global Commission on the Economy and Climate (GCEC), in its September 2014 Better Growth, Better Climate report, reinforced the message that decisions and investments to seriously fight climate change need to be taken in the next 15 years, concluding that:
"Countries at all levels of income now have the opportunity to build lasting economic growth at the same time as reducing the immense risks of climate change. This is made possible by structural and technological changes unfolding in the global economy and opportunities for greater economic efficiency".
This 15-year timeframe means there is no room for wasting money on more dirty energy sources. The GCEC argues that "future economic growth does not have to copy the high-carbon, unevenly distributed model of the past".
However, the report also highlights that worldwide subsidies for clean energy amount to around $100 billion, while subsidies to polluting fossil fuels are estimated to be six times greater at around US$ 600 billion per year. These findings were supported by the IEA which published comparable figures in their World Energy Outlook 2014.
Such figures raise important questions about the frequently heard statements that renewables are too expensive to develop and that new sources of gas are the ideal complement to renewable energies.
Recent studies have highlighted the risk that the creation of a new fossil fuel sector may be dependent on state aid and subsidies, while also diverting private investment from the renewable sector. They conclude that under all the different climate policies that could be put in place, abundant natural gas will decrease the use of renewable energy technologies.
Natural gas is therefore not - and has never been - the clean fossil fuel that the industry has tried to claim. It in fact poses an immediate threat to attempts made to fight climate change.
The global development of this more polluting, technically challenging and costly unconventional fossil fuel would appear to exacerbate the situation, by
- releasing more CO2 into the atmosphere,
- locking global economies into a new fossil fuel trajectory for a period of at least 40 to 50 years,
- competing with investments in other cleaner forms of energy,
- and delaying the much needed transition to a decarbonised economy.
A warning to us all - North America's experience
After a decade of industrial-scale expansion in North America, the destructive nature of the fracking industry is now becoming increasingly apparent to the wider world, with significant damage caused to the environment, to people's health, and also to the climate, to wildlife, public infrastructure, local economies and wider society.
Over the last three years, these impacts have been the subject of almost weekly peer-reviewed academic publications, revealing that the risks generated by the unconventional fossil fuel production (including fracking) are complex, serious, and widespread.
This ongoing scientific research is vital to help us understand the range of impacts associated with fracking operations. Gaining a full picture is however hampered due to a lack of transparency in the fracking industry and a political unwillingness in some quarters to establish firm legal obligations for the shale gas industry and to conduct more scientific field studies.
The findings of scientific research raises serious questions about the ability of the fracking industry to preserve the fragile ecosystems found in the areas now targeted for shale development.
Estimating the likely damage
Even though these developments are in their infancy, the consequences of the likely damage can be anticipated:
- In the case of large and deep transboundary aquifers which represent the only drinking water source for entire regions, their potential contamination could have dramatic effects on health and could result in serious social and economic consequences at regional levels.
- More than a third of the world's shale resources face high to extremely high water stress or arid conditions. Considering the constant high demand for fresh water for fracking, the competition for access to water in already extreme water-stressed countries (in the Maghreb, South Africa, and China for example) could have serious social and economic consequences.
- Several existing or potential unconventional drilling zones are located in earthquake-prone regions where populations have recently paid a significant human cost following induced earth tremors. The common earth tremors triggered by the fracking industry in previously seismically inactive states in the US herald the kind of amplified threat that populations living in seismically active countries might face.
- Community rights, particularly for indigenous populations, are already denied or ignored in many of the countries analysed in this report. From Argentina to Russia, oil and gas operators are developing their activities on indigenous lands without consulting or informing local people.
- Natural protected areas are targeted in some countries, representing an additional threat to fragile ecosystems and to already endangered species (such as the guanaco in Argentina or the orang-utan in Indonesia)
- Legislative frameworks are being widely re-written in some countries in order to make them industry-friendly, by-passing basic environmental legislation (on natural protected areas, on environmental impact assessments, etc), extending the duration of licences, exempting industries from substantial taxes, and even increasing the minimum gas price for exports to ensure greater profitability.
The problems that have been observed in the US and in Canada, and which are widely anticipated in Europe, are therefore likely to be far greater in other places in the world where the fracking industry is looking to develop, under far weaker scrutiny.
It is in fact hard to imagine how such an inherently destructive and water-intensive industry can develop in a safe and environmentally-friendly way in seriously water-stressed, earthquake-prone countries, many of which have suffered from poor governance.
The level of environmental protection in countries which enforce higher environmental standards, as in Europe and in the US, has failed to mitigate against the inherent impacts of the fracking industry.
The impacts of initial activities in countries such as Argentina are already showing the dangers that the local environment and population face from foreign companies (such as Chevron, Total or Shell) who are accused in some cases of operating to lower environmental standards than they would apply in Europe or in the US.
Experience so far also raises fundamental questions about the way in which citizens are being treated in the push for shale gas expansion. Fracking protests in Balcombe (UK), Pungesti (Romania), New Brunswick (Canada), Neuquén (Argentina) and elsewhere have triggered brutal repression by the police and security forces, raising questions about the democratic legitimacy of the development of this industry.
Impacts must be subjected to proper examination
The climate impacts of the shale gas industry must also be given far greater scrutiny, particularly in developing countries which are already and will be much more directly affected by the consequences of climate change.
Gas has never been and never will be a clean fossil fuel. The methane emissions associated with its production, transportation and consumption greatly contribute to a phenomenon we cannot continue to fight with false solutions. This is why gas - and even more so, unconventional gas - cannot be the transition fuel promoted by the industry.
The timeframe we now have to avoid a 2°C temperature rise obliges us to urgently look for genuinely sustainable solutions, including much-needed improvements in energy efficiency, incentivised through policy and much higher investments to develop renewables sources of energy. Investing in yet more sources of fossil fuel energy will not deliver on these goals.
The European Union is capable of taking, and should be willing to take, a leading position on the much needed efforts in response to the challenges caused by climate change.
The technical innovations created by European engineers and scientists - especially in the fields of renewable energy sources and energy efficiency - could be used, not just to boost Europe's economy and energy independence, but also to provide intelligent and sustainable solutions for all countries struggling to find ways out of the energy, climate and economic crises.
This article is an extract from 'Fracking Frenzy - How the fracking industry is threatening the planet', written and published by Friends of the Earth Europe.