Trump backs fracking over science

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Trump's nationalist, populist and anti-science rhetoric on fracking has shifted the debate to the right, endangering the environment and public health.

Trump claims that by “protecting” fracking he continues to put America first and will guard United States national security through energy independence

US President Donald Trump signed an order on 31 October to "protect" Hydraulic Fracturing (fracking) from Joe Biden’s Green Deal and decarbonisation plans.

This development came just two weeks after the publication of a pathbreaking study explaining how fracking can accelerate the airborne spread of lethal radioactive material, including polonium isotopes, a poison that was used to kill Alexander Litvinenko (a Russian Spy) in London.

Read: Fracking in India

This is not the first-time fracking and its lethal consequences have been scientifically exposed. People living near the US fracking sites reported that their domestic water supply was “catching fire” in 2010. Scientific investigations revealed that the water was contaminated with the highly flammable gas methane, a major component of shale gas extracted through fracking.

Delinking

Several scientific studies conducted between 2010 and 2020 proved how fracking destroys the natural world. More than a dozen countries (and a few US states) have banned fracking, citing “scientific uncertainty” regarding its sustainability.

However, these bans and moratoria are not permanent and can be revoked easily in wake of a new scientific finding that delinks the cause and effect relationship between fracking and the living world destruction.

Delinking is commonly used in the US to serve corporate interests. For instance, a Duke University research group confirmed the link between fracking and methane contamination of water in 2016. Subsequently, a Texas-based research publication, co-authored by corporate affiliates of a consultancy providing environmental services to fracking companies, asserted that methane migration into groundwater is not induced by fracking but is a natural process.

Delinking can be used by political leaders to further their agendas. In the light of aggressive politicisation of fracking in the US, the countries that have placed a temporary ban on fracking may reconsider their approach and compromise living world to fulfil their political goals—a standard set by the 2020 US Presidential elections.

Fascism

Trump, with his slogan “Make America Great Again",  has declared fracking as “one of the great (American) success stories of our time”.

His narrative on defending fracking is strikingly similar to Umberto Eco’s description of Fascism. Eco explained in 1994 how fascist leaders "disdain scientific temperaments" for promoting disagreement. Fascism, Eco argued, thrives on "heroic nationalism" and gains mass support by capitalising on the aspirations of the middle-income group citizens and by floating international conspiracies against their country.

Trump claims that by “protecting” fracking he continues to put America first and will guard United States national security through energy independence (heroic nationalism).

Further his October 31 press release asserts that fracking specifically benefits middle-income and low-income group citizens by providing them fixed income (aspirations of the middle class). In the final presidential debate, Trump declared that fracking makes the US energy “independent” and the international community is conspiring against America by looting its middle class through climate change commitments under the Paris Accord.

His rhetoric affected Biden’s plan to impose a ban. Biden ruled out the possibility of banning fracking along with Kamala Harris. This U-turn, in spite of clear scientific evidence, sets a dangerous precedent for privileging political rhetoric over scientific findings. Such populism based on ignoring science can have disastrous consequences. 

Science 

In a conventional drilling process, hydrocarbons are extracted from porous rocks that allow movement of gases. However, to extract natural gases from dense rocks that are located between 6000 to 10,000 feet under the earth’s surface, corporations inject pressurised water mixed with sand and chemical (known as shale fluid).

The injected shale fluid creates cracks through which shale gas escapes into collection wells. A single fracking activity may require 1.2 and 3.5 million US gallons (4,500 and 13,200 m3) of water (5 to 10 times more than conventional drilling). As the pressure of the injected shale fluid eases, up to 40 percent of the injected water flows back upward along with the methane-rich shale gas.

This methane-rich flowback water (or the methane gas directly) can migrate to groundwater sources like aquifers. These are often the primary source of drinking water and irrigation.

Apart from methane migration, disposal of millions of gallons of methane-rich fracking water is one of the key issues in fracking. Initially,  the US reinjected the wastewater into the earth surface that not only caused earthquake but also polluted groundwater sources.

In 2010, a fracking well blow-out in Clearfield County, Pennsylvania, released 35,000 gallons of methane contaminated shale fluid into a natural world. In 2014, sites where flow-back water was reinjected witnessed more than 500 earthquakes, with a magnitude of 3 and greater. A study in Washington County, Pennsylvania concluded the likelihood of developing respiratory illnesses and skin diseases in the people living closer to the fracking sites.

Harms

These scientistic studies, among others, present clear and convincing dataset on how fracking damages the natural world and threatens public heath.

Studies have found (1) increased emissions of methane, ozone, and hazardous air pollutants including benzene and xylene around fracking sites, (2) degradation and destruction of wildlife habitat while laying down fracking pipelines, (3) unnatural seismic activities, (4) methane-led asphyxiation of the living world, (5) continual increase in freshwater requirement (up to 770 percent increase in water requirement within five years), (6)  release of heat-trapping gas, disturbing local weather conditions and uprooting natural habitat of wildlife, (7) direct effect on vulnerable, including infant health, pregnant humans, and children.   

Another recent study analysed the radiation data of 120,000 fracking wells (in 157 US fracking sites) and concluded that radioactivity of airborne particle is significantly higher within 20 km radius of fracking areas as compared to non-fracking sites.

Since fracking is done at a much deeper level than standard oil and gas extraction process, it pulverizes the earth’s bedrock leading to the release of uranium in the natural world.

Moreover, the flowback water is rich in radioactive material and the radioactive elements may enter the life cycle of the natural world, including wildlife, human communities. The spillage of flow back water is common. Several incidences of such leakages have been reported in past. With the addition of new scientific findings, a convincing set of scientific data establish fracking-induced radioactive transmission through air and water.

Global

More than a dozen countries have banned fracking. In the US, New York State conducted a comprehensive environmental impact assessment (EIA) of fracking and banned it in its jurisdiction.

In 2019, the UK issued a moratorium“banning” fracking “until and unless” it is proved “beyond reasonable doubt” that fracking is sustainable.

The European Union’s 2019 report on fracking highlight the downward trend in fracking with none of its member states having clear intention on expanding its fracking operations. For instance, Poland aggressively pushed fracking in pursuit of becoming energy independent from Ukraine but its fracking operations are nearly halted due to emerging concerns for the living world; France along with Netherland and several other member states issued an early moratorium against fracking.

On the other hand, major carbon emitting countries like India (by allowing exploratory fracking without any EIA conditions) and China (fracking operation triggering earthquake in ecologically sensitive areas of  Sichuan Province) continue to explore fracking as a viable option at the cost of conserving the fabric of the earth.

Trump's aggressive stance on fracking risks triggering a destructive trend among other countries. It is important to note that moratorium issued on the pretext of scientific uncertainties can be easily lifted out by redefining “scientific uncertainties” and “sustainability”.

World leaders and Trump's opponents in the US must distance themselves from the US politicisation of fracking. In the end, whoever wins in the US, the science and the natural world will lose.  

Author

Shashikant Yadav is an energy and water policy researcher currently affiliated with the Central European University, Vienna. He writes about environmental justice, ecocide law and illiberal democracy.

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