What The Frack !

Friday, July 24, 2015 Life

A closer look at why shale oil extraction or fracking is dangerous

Discovery of fossil fuel was one of the most important and scariest of all accidental or non-accidental discoveries that man made. When he learned that all his energy needs can be met with this ancient waste little did he know that it would one day enable him to touch the sky, give him easier way of transportation, go to immense depth beneath the greatest oceans, give warmth to his home and it made sure that he would never need to go out to collect fire wood to cook his food.

Fossil fuel extraction is not a simple process as going to your nearby gas station and pumping gas,it’s a complex and tedious process involving multi-million dollar equipment, chemicals, manpower and techniques ranging from something simple as finding an oil reserve and drilling a well to finding natural gas and petroleum in deep rock formations beneath our feet or using platforms over oceans to drill the ocean floor. Petroleum industry is a multi billion dollar industry with revenues crossing almost 400 billion dollars with china coming in first with revenues of 433 billion dollars and UK and US following up. But reservoirs are drying up fast and more than that earth is experiencing the worst of it. Last time the earth had this much carbon in its atmosphere was almost 65 million years ago. We are experiencing levels of greenhouse gases which are contributing to the radical climate changes and rising sea levels. Scientific data predicts that all coastal cities would be inhabitable within no more than 50 years at the current rate of emissions. But with billions of dollars pouring out of the ground and flooding the oil and gas market the warnings and statistics provided by the legitimate and sincere among those in the scientific community goes unheeded, and instead of pursuing alternative and renewable energy sources we are going deeper n deeper in search of oil - even extracting the tiniest droplets that accumulated deep underground in shale or sedimentary deposits, even if it means causing unintentional and ignorant consequences.

Shale oil and gas has caused the oil boom in the United States, and now countries all over the world are trying to tap this untapped potential. As per a survey conducted in 2014 total world contribution of shale oil and shale gas crossing 345 billion barrels clearly it seems to be a blessing, or is it?

So how is this resource extracted? The most convenient way is hydraulic fracking. Consumers are never actually bothered about how their product is made. What if I tell you that this is a technique by which millions of gallons of water, sand, along with a cocktail of 550 or so chemicals are drilled and pumped into depths of 3000 m or more to fracture the rock layers beneath to form wells, and the oil and gas trapped within deep layers are extracted. Well what’s the big deal anyway right? But we have to think about what happens to those millions of gallons of waste water and chemicals that are left after the extraction process.

Oil companies claim that the results outweigh the risks in terms billions of dollars in revenue, thousands of job opportunities and an almost endless supply of fossil fuels. But the reality is far more depressing. Following the controversial documentary in the United States five years ago there has been controversies, conspiracies, debate, rebuttal and what not. The documentary highlights the maker following farmers and local residents around the fracking sites to discover their plights of contaminated ground water and methane seepage into the water supply. It’s so bad that if the residents strikes a match near the running water it would catch on fire like magic. Natural methane seepages are harmless as it usual occurs near water bodies above shale deposits or marshlands (open areas). But being a colorless odorless gas in the confines of a home can cause asphyxiation or even in extreme cases explosions if its undetected. He even follows around government officials and their reactions being a clear indication of them being involved in downplaying the seriousness of the issue. He later on reveals the list of chemicals involved in this procedure which are a shocking revelation itself.  The oil companies assure that the chemicals involved are safe and they follow strict government guidelines and norms, and the chemicals are mostly anti-bacterials, stabilizers and synthetic enzymes acids such as citric acid and other chemicals. But when these same representatives and officials are asked to take a sip of water from the residents faucets they politely refuse . Events like pushing of the ‘anti-whistle blower’ bills by the industrialists and the lobbyists in California senate, which “would make it a crime to publicly disclose the secret chemical cocktails energy companies pump into the ground when fracking” question the integrity of governments and honesty of the companies. They might argue that they are trying to protect their trade secret but anyone with a brain can see right through their ploy. If it is safe as they claim why have countries like France, Bulgaria , Germany , Scotland etc. have banned shale resource extraction .?

Well the exact composition still remains a mystery, recent research has shown a 27% increase in heart disease and other forms of nervous disorders in people living near fracking zones. Scientist have also discovered ground water contamination by chemicals above their normal tolerances, and one such chemical being arsenic which is highly poisonous to us humans. The waste water at most times are not even treated and they are just dumped, and this in turn possess a severe threat to both surface water sources ground water. Waste water treatment facilities are like a huge hole in these corporations pockets so most of them don't even use such facilities claiming that chemicals contribute to only 0.4 percent of their fracking formula and most are safe and nontoxic .

Fracking also leads to induced earthquakes due to the fluid injection in proximity to preexisting fault lines or the disposal of fracking waste water via underground injections. These earthquakes can vary in magnitudes from 4 – 5.7 in Richter scale.  One such incident being in the case of Oklahoma where in 2014, 585 or so earthquakes of magnitudes 3 or larger were reported. On one side we have scientists and geologists stating that these earthquake swarms are fracking related and on the other side the oil companies are seen pressuring the scientists to not link these incidents to fracking.

Other reports indicate deteriorating air conditions near the fracking sites and citizens in and around suffering various ailments from skin rashes to vomiting. In serious cases cancer, heart and nervous disorders have also been reported. Volatile hydrocarbons such as benzene and its cousins and other family members which are known health hazards are among the few in the chemical cocktail used. Naphthalene, methyl pyridine , carbon di sulfide , toluene  are among the other dangerous chemicals found in air and water studies conducted by scientists .Apart from these issues water wastage is another matter of concern.  Reports states that the industrial estimates of California alone used about 100 million gallons of water in a year, and now activists and scientist are linking California drought of 2014 to the fracking and energy industry. Of all the water that is pumped into the wells only half of it comes out as 'Produced water ‘so what happens to the chemical laden rest? While the industries claims of their water usage is as same as 500 or so households don’t hold because of the simple fact that, the waste water from houses do not contain residual chemicals or carcinogens or what not. Releasing of untreated water into creeks , streams and river system caused deaths of fishes and aquatic bird because the surfactants (substance that reduce water tension) and other chemicals gets absorbed by the gills of fishes causing concentration of these toxins in their bodies and when birds and other animal fed on them they too became poisoned .More over the soapy material washes of the mucus layer that protects fish skin and the oily feathers of aquatic birds which helps keep the feathers water proof and thus allowing the birds to remain warm causing them to die off in severe winter .

Another major problem scientists put forward is the carbon footprint the fracking industry generates. The millions of gallons of water require huge trucks moving back and forth creating more emissions. For each such operation requires 1150 truckloads from start to finish .The equipment including the pumps generators also contribute to more emissions and as such more carbon is being released in the atmosphere as part of these processes.

Why should we the people in India be concerned some may ask, but the fact of the matter is much more complicated than that simple question itself. Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Assam, Tamil Nadu, Gujarat all have potential reserves and the Petroleum ministry of India started promoting the shale industry in 2011 .This ambitious tilt towards the shale industry and the trivialization of such major environmental risks, even if the reserves may give a push for India in the oil market pursuing would be a grave we dig for ourselves. We already face acute drought and water shortages frequently, and millions of gallons of water wastage is not something we should be eagerly pursuing. Recent studies have shown that Tamil Nadu is top among the cities with lowest air quality in India,and shale resource exploitation will only add on to it .With rising temperatures should we add the evils of such dangerous exploitations to our already existing problems? The total death toll in recent summer due to heat waves exceeded more than a thousand; we are experiencing severe and unpredictable weather systems all across the country and our coastal areas, and it is worsening each day. With carbon emissions reaching 40 billion ton worldwide and the worst offenders being china US and India, new fossil fuel extraction techniques should be the last thing on our minds. With increasing loss of forest and green habitat caused by agricultural expansion, logging,fires, infrastructure developments contributing worldwide emission rates of 20 % the whole world is going to suffer.

So we Indians are not safe either, the whole planet is like an almost closed system with anything happening on one side of the globe can affect anything else on the other side. The answer to India's rise in energy demands does not lie in shale potential, and we should think of alternatives and maybe follow examples of Costa Rica, Germany, Denmark and other countries who have become self-sufficient in using renewable energy to power more than 75% of their needs. With states which have maximum solar exposures to wind speed, India is a gold mine for renewable energy. We are most critiqued on always imitating the west, but one thing we must understand is that when we imitate their methods we would also suffer the consequences they suffered. So instead of accepting methods thrown away by other countries, which are dangerous to the people, life and the environment let us  welcome a more greener future cause the end is near until we soon change for the better.

written by
Arjun J S