Is fracking damaging for the environment?

11 January
23 January

The fracking industry admits that there have been problems in the past due to bad practice and poor technology, but the supporters of fracking claim that has all now been remedied. However, most companies acknowledge that inevitably there will be leaks and spills in the future. How safe is it? It depends on your definition of safe.

Because fracking is a relatively new technology, not all of its effects are fully understood and there are a lot of data gaps in the studies that have been carried out. The truth is that it is not yet possible fully to understand what effects fracking has on the wider environment or on humans.

The effects could be local, national or global. They may relate to air pollution, to water pollution or to possible damage to the soil. In the UK we have had test sites and pilot runs but we don’t yet have fracking at a commercial level. Most fracking has taken place in the US, where researchers and hydrologists say we don’t really understand what the cumulative effects of, say, waste water from the fracking process will be on the environment. The United States Environment Protection Agency (USEPA) produced a report that concluded that it would not be a problem, but then a scientists’ advisory board looked at the report and said USEPA was in no position to make that claim and there was evidence of local water pollution.

Fishermen are concerned about possible pollution in rivers. In the US, vets have tried to tease out the possible effects on farm animals and on wildlife. There are still lots of data gaps but there were cases in Louisiana where leaked fracking fluids led to the deaths of cows. Cattle were quarantined in Pennsylvania. Naturally this leads to the question, what might the risks be with regard to the food chain?

“Lab tests indicate that there are a significant number of fracking fluids that can cause cancer and affect the development of reproduction in humans and wildlife.”

There have also been problems with air pollution. It’s hard to prove cause and effect but there have been associations with high levels of benzene in areas where fracking goes on, and with increased asthma rates. But again, these studies are not conclusive – they just indicate possible links.

Researchers are trying to make sense of what the toxicity of fracking fluids would be in various combinations and at various levels. The answer they are getting back is that from lab tests we know there are a significant number of fracking fluids that can cause cancer and be endocrine-destructive, which means affecting the development of reproduction in humans and wildlife.

There are significant questions about regulation because to regulate you need to know what the effects will be in terms of air, water and soil pollution and the range of chemicals that might be used over a period of time. It’s worth bearing in mind that we have to look at medium and long-term assessments of risks. Something might be sealed in and absolutely fine now, but what will happen in 10, 30 or 50 years time when pipes corrode and start leaking?

In Scotland, where I live, there is currently a moratorium on fracking while the Scottish government carries out a major public health assessment and considers reports on issues such as public health, climate change, the decommissioning of wells, traffic, etc. They are taking a very evidence-based approach, which is very wise given the limitations and data gaps in the existing studies.

“What we do know is that if we carry on extracting fossil fuels at the rate that we are doing, there is no way that we can hit our climate change targets – and we will be in serious trouble.”

If you look at the environmental effects of wind farms, say, against fracking, the same issues don’t exist. There are no air or water pollution risks and it actually is a sustainable energy source. Communities may object to wind turbines for other reasons but at least we know they are safe.

Essentially, a lot of environmental scientists think we need to be looking from a global perspective at sustainable energy sources, and in the medium-term fracking will not be that. In the US, they have just decided that from an environmental point of view controlled fracking is a lesser evil than using coal.

Ultimately, the honest answer is that we know that fracking will be damaging to the environment. The debate is whether it will have low-level or significant effects. The worry is that it will be some time before we know the answers. But what we do know, from a global perspective, is that if we carry on extracting fossil fuels, including shale gas, at the rate that we are doing, there is no way that we can hit our climate change targets – and we will be in serious trouble.

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