Gloria Martínez (Valencia)
(Translation by: A.L.C. Teen Translators-Asturias, Spain)
- The shortage of petroleum has culminated in the search for non-conventional gas using fracking
- This technique used in The US for decades has been strongly criticized for its supposed effects from pollutants and the risks for health
- In Spain, opposition among citizens is growing while the Popular Party, CIU and UPD voted against a motion by Izquierda Plural to ban this controversial practice in Spain
What is fracking?
It is the technique used to extract gas from the earth by drilling down through a land well. It involves pumping water and toxic products more than 2500 meters below the surface. The water pressure used breaks the rock and the gas freezes. “The fluid used contains a mixture of 596 chemical products. It is possible to hydro-fracture a well up to 18 times. The well is drilled vertically, through aquifers, until reaching the rock layer where the gas is trapped. There, they continue drilling horizontally, reaching as far as 3 kilometers down from the earth´s surface. Then high-pressure water is injected along with additives (biocides with low concentrations that can easily kill fish, carcinogenic products…) to enlarge the cracks and allow the gas to gravitate towards the well,” explains Aitor Urresti, a professor at Universidad del País Vasco, spokeman for EQUO in this area and member of the Anti-Fracking Advocacy Group from Bizkaia.
Until now we have been using a resource which could be extracted in a more or less easy way. The gas or oil is never in a big grotto but rather in the rock´s pores, normally in sandstone or limestone. Rocks that have a lot of porosity don´t allow the hydrocarbons to pass very well: slate gas, schist, shale gas, slate oil, schist oil…we need to think about clay, a material that absorbs water very well but is very impermeable in the other direction. The fractures are created for this reason, to increase permeability, the connection between the pores, violently forcing water inside them, breaks them,” Urresti explains.
The U.S. is the only country that has been using this technique on a large scale: they have already drilled more than 50,000 wells. Samuel Martín-Sosa, the manager of the international area of Ecologists in Action, explains to Human Journalism that “American and Canadian companies are trying to get their foot in but for now, as far as we know, there isn´t any exploitation as such. In Poland, Germany and The UK there are wells being tested but not on a large scale.” He continues saying that “some weeks ago there was a conference in Vienna with representatives from the industry who saw that in The U.S. the technique came with simplified norms which has allowed them to spread very fast. Americans were exempted from the regulations concerning the quality of drinking water and clean air and they made fiscal incentives easier. They also don´t have to declare the substances which are used and thought they were going to find the same here. However, reality has been a very strong popular pressure which has obliged The European Commission to rethink if it has the right to legislate regulation frameworks for the development of this activity.”
The European Parliament was one of the first that produced quite a critical report in 2011 and The European Commission is ordering new studies which show that there are a lot of holes in the law. “The industry has it clear that Europe must agree that there is a special law to try to win the media battle. What everyone seemed to assume was that once the first 100 wells were built, it would be unstoppable since a lot of governments wouldn´t be able to turn down this tasty treat in terms of employment, and that if the industry invests in research there wouldn´t be any way back. That´s why the media battle is so important”, says Martín-Sosa. “ In Spain there have been drilling tests but they haven´t drilled yet because of the citizen and town council pressure. There are countries where they have passed some prohibitions to moratoriums that have been used politically to contain popular protest and that are trying to be broken up by the industry” he adds.
“We have reached the maximum limit of coal production. The forecast is that the use of non-conventional gas will grow very fast. Due to shortage, we will use the last thing we have: pressurized water and chemical products, “ affirms Aitor Urresti.
Why in Spain?
“This comes from The U.S., who is the largest gas exporter only after Russia. Europe tries to copy but fortunately here the environmental laws are stricter, the owner of the natural resources isn´t the land-owner like in The U.S.-the environmental sensitivity of Europeans is a bit greater…Countries like France or Bulgaria have legislated against it”, Julio Barea, the manager of a residuals and energy campaign in Greenpeace, explains to Human Journalism.
The Ecologists in Action report “Fracking in Spain-Situation, Threats and Resistance”[pdf] shows how Aragón, Castilla-León and Andalucía are the most affected areas by the number of licenses. “The Basque Country is the one who most openly bets on fracking, with a public administration ready to change the law.”
In its study, Ecologists in Action protest that “there are especially problematic cases registered, like one of the licenses asked for in the Andalusian valley of Guadalquivir very near an aquifer. Also, there are notable threats to aquifers in the north of the peninsula (like that of Subijana), those from which hundreds of thousands of citizens depend on for their water supply. Other permits like those of Castilla-La Mancha could affect protected spaces like the Lagunas de Ruidera.”
Julio Barea says that in Spain there are requests for hundreds of authorizations to test-drill, in different provinces and autonomous communities, but only half are given and they still haven´t done any tests.“We are in the initial stages but there are four important business concerns that have formed a type of coalition and created Shell Gas Spain, which is coordinating the promotion of fracking since they have seen problems.”
In Congress this past February they voted on a motion presented by Izquierda Plural (IU-ICV-CHA) to ask for a fracking ban in Spain. The PP, CiU and UPyD voted in opposition to the ban, while the Izquierda Plural, PSOE and the rest of the Grupo Mixto were in favor of the ban…simultaneously, PNV, FAC, and UPN abstained.
What are the risks of fracking?
NGOs like Ecologists in Action or Greenpeace, among others, for months have run a campaign warning about the risks of fracking: underground water table pollution and atmospheric greenhouse gas emissions (methane), earthquakes (seismic induction), noise pollution as well as landscape impacts. Moreover, we must contemplate truck traffic routes for transporting extracted gas, along with water and land use.
Martín-Sosa claims that “the industry is tired of saying that there aren´t any cases of pollution or that the gas is harmless…until the end of last year The EPA (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency) stated that in Wyoming chemical substances had appeared in aquifers that provide drinking water to the nearby population coming from one of the fracked wells. Drilling crosses the aquifer, and 80% of the fracture flow fluid stays there…nobody can guarantee what will happen. It is a risk so unassumable that there´s no way to create a good regulation because it would still be dangerous.”
Ecologists in Action protest that 80% of research permits applied for and given are found on aquifers. “In addition, more than half are bituminous and carbonate rock aquifers, that turn out to be especially sensitive to pollution from chemical products ussed in the fracking fluids,” the NGO points out. They explain that “currently more than 30% of the Spanish population (14 million people) get their drinking water from aquifers. Given that there exist numerous municipalities in areas where they intend to carry out gas extraction by fracking and who are supplied directly from these very aquifers, they can see irreversible pollution using this technique and would assume serious risks to people´s health. Also, some research permits directly affect natural spaces of great interest like the Lagunas de Ruidera, in Cuidad Real, or the Merindades in Burgos, with the subsequent environmental damage to aquatic ecosystems.”
“If what we do is pump in high-pressured water that causes large fractures, we haven´t got any control over how these cracks will proceed, we don´t know if they are going to hit a weak point and instead of extending 10 meters they may go for a 100, which in turn could arrive through a fault to an aquifer. What this implies is direct pollution, but in The States there are cases of it occuring with toxins from abandoned wells reaching through to drinking water aquifers. In Álava, which is the area of most interest now, we have a hundred abandoned wells. The risk more than likely”, says Aitor Urresti.
Beyond polluting aquifers, the risk to the atmosphere stands out as a real possibility. Greenpeace shows in a report that “benzene, a highly-carcinogenic agent, has been registered in the vapors coming out of the “evaporation wells” where they usually store the fracking residual water. Leaks from the gas-wells and piping may also contribute to air pollution by increasing greenhouse gas emissions. The enormous number of vehicles needed (each well requires between 4,300 to 6,600 truck trips for transporting machinery, cleaning services, etc.) and the operations of the production plants may also cause significant atmospheric pollution if we consider the acidic gases, hydrocarbons and fine particles.”
Urresti corroborates that “the gas we extract is methane, and is several times more detrimental than CO2. In the gas wells there are always leaks because to operate machines we take advantage of those small stress leaks. When the wells are drilled, and the gas area is reached, its flume is burnt for months causing significant damage to the atmosphere. Also, in each well we are injecting between 9 and 30 thousand cubic meters of water containing toxic elements. There are many accidents as well on U.S. roads due to fracking.”
Urresti explains that we mustn´t forget risks like earthquakes. “If what we do is pump in pressurized water subterraneously, inevitably that is going to generate movements that may activate faults that were more or less latent, or reactivate seismic areas and set off earthquakes.”
What can we do?
However, without doubt the most impressive action taken was the documentary film, “Gasland” directed by Josh Fox and nominated for The Oscars in 2011. The film brought this issue out into the public opinion by denouncing slickwater fracking in 34 states, 450,000 wells, multiplied by 18 (the number of times a well can be fracked), times each occurrence by 28 million liters of water and getting a total of 40 billion liters of water with 596 chemical products. It showed not only the direct environmental harm, but also testimonies from people who had suffered problems with their drinking water and neurological health complications from the gas emissions following the drilling. There were even homes whose tap water was flammable. The film said that in Garfield (Colorado, USA) the first preliminary study was done on the effects of gas-wells on human health: seven researchers from The University of Colorado found alarming indices of pollutants in both air and water. They documented studies that confirm the repercussions from subsequent carcinogens and neurotoxins.
In Spain, there isn´t any protest yet but there are many citizens who have shown their opposition through advocacy groups like “Fracking Free Municipalities” formed by inhabitants from Araba, Guipúzkoa, Bizkaia, Burgos, Soria and Cantabria.
Some particular cases of struggle: Euskadi and Comunitat Valenciana.
The first group that was created, in December of 2011, was in Álava. The reality that the polls would be imminent caused people to gather from different areas. Their work was targeted at the municipal level: they wanted to create a stance of townships free of fracking. For that, they gave speeches and presented motions in their Town Halls.
“We want to present a Popular Legislative Initiative to ban not only fracking but also exploration and the exploitation of non-conventional hydro-carbon, in other words, not leave any door open” said Urresti. “In Euskadi, the expected research permits to drill 16 wells(one or two is the norm)aren´t for research but rather for production. They are a public company that uses tricks to evade taxes because the assessment is very different for research rather than production. They ask for a report from the water agency. Given that this specific report is near the well in Armendia and for some strange reason they decide that this area doesn´t need an environmental study. Then, they change it, in an area 100 meters away, in an area that is in the process of becoming a protected space. As this is not feasible, the same government changes the law to permit the hydro-carbon exploitation and mining activities. They´re looking for the support of the PNV party who are quite interested in mining in Euskadi. We want a total environmental impact study done but that hasn´t occurred. Rather, incomplete tests have been done in each of the wells, but as if they were all isolated cases. They have been able to stop the soundings that they were going to do in Álava and are giving work permits.”
Urresti explains that it isn´t known how many resources can be extracted but regardless “you damage all the territory. The funniest thing is that the company that wants to develop it is a public company, Hydro-Carbon Society of Euskadi. The same enterprise goes against the interests of their own citizens.”
In contrast to what the Basque group has done, there is the example of the Valencian Community where Comarques de Castelló is taking their first steps. They claim that 41 municipalities within an area of 1,950 square kilometres could be adversely affected-for the moment 16 municipalities have opposed the fracking. Sergi Alejos, one of the advocacy group members, says that “the Council hasn´t taken a stand yet and for the moment seem to respect us. We have been formed without any links to political parties. One of the problems is that the townships are really dispersed and is very difficult to organize. We are above the Maestrat aquifer, one of the biggest in the Mediterranean area, and it is completely exposed to three fracking projects. We say that there is a high risk and there are geologists that tell us the risk is inevitable. Half of the wells directly feed the Maestrat aquifer and therefore the drinking water of Castellón is in danger. The magnitude of this problem goes further than the 41 townships.”
Alejos asks for more information from the administration and says that on the 4th of February the Official Bulletin of the Generalitat published that the Proposition Bill to regulate fracking wasn’t admitted. “That means that it hasn´t even been debated. We believe this topic is serious enough to at least talk about. That´s what they´re trying to do, so that the citizenry knows the problem. We are focusing on putting pressure at all levels of government and giving information to the people because they have got no idea,” argues Sergi.
Are there alternatives?
Everybody agrees that the solution is a change in the energy plan. “The only justification that the hydraulic fracturing has is that we need a resource, and because we don´t want to change, we are capable of doing anything, even destroying our own environment and putting people´s health at risk”, says Aitor Urresti who mentions a report about the effects that the Barnett Shale working deposits in Texas have had on health and the environment.
Samuel Martín-Sosa explains that the percentage of land occupation has increased. “The wells have a very short life and extract from a very small area whose profitability is rather marginal. As technology has evolved we go for fossil fuels that before were unreachable, that are more costly to get and of lesser quality. It is an escape forward because industry sells it as a transitional fuel since gas combustion emits less CO2 than coal, but what must be done is an absolute turnaround in the energy model and the wager on fossil fuels only delays that change. Many things appear to suggest that gas will be shared with renewable. This is going to condition our future”.
“A year ago the Polish government had to deny that its gas reserves were as high as had been estimated. I think that there is hope. There may be speculative components that makes this collapse on its own, or strong regulations that force companies to retreat…and popular protest also does a lot. Shell Gas Spain has begun a media campaign and that is a sign. The advantage here is that the warning has arrived early. This can be stopped,” concludes Samuel.
Julio Barea opines that: “They sell it to you like `we are going to emit less CO2, this is an self-reliant form of energy, it´ll create jobs…´ As usual, they know they need to talk about employment although they aren´t certain. The scientists warn that we have to clean the atmosphere of CO2 now. How can they then propose we go for more? It would be a catastrophe on a planetary scale – climatic chaos. We are able to supply ourselves all the necessary energy with renewable ones. Let´s spend money directing policies towards them instead of planning for only a few to get very rich”.