Only days before the United Nations Climate Summit, the environmental group Food & Water Watch has released a wide-ranging critique of the oil and gas industry, linking the practice of fracking to a host of adverse economic, health and climate impacts -- from scarred landscapes, declining air quality and community disruption to potential aquifer contamination, earthquakes and, yes, global warming.
Call it a conflation of real dangers and hypothetical risks, genuine concerns and apocalyptic visions, worst-case scenarios and sobering statistics.
Hydraulic fracturing or fracking, the process of using massive amounts of water mixed with chemicals to extract oil and gas from tight shale formations, has been used by American energy companies for decades. But one of the basic contentions of the new report, The Urgent Case for a Ban on Fracking, is that the scale of fracking has increased dramatically in recent years, with intense drilling activity creeping ever closer to more densely populated areas -- even as dozens of new scientific studies have made an increasingly strong case that the fracking frenzy poses an array of threats to public health and the environment.
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Released earlier this week in the wake of a much-bruited media teleconference with a couple of prominent anti-fracking scientists and fractivist/actor Mark Ruffalo, the report cites much of that recent peer-reviewed research to make the case that fracking is bad, bad, bad. The process consumes millions of gallons of water and has been fraught with surface spills and claims of water contamination (including 4,900 spills in Colorado alone since 2000). Storage of wastewater from drill sites in injection wells has been linked to earthquakes. Emissions of benzene and other problematic compounds have been found to be much worse than originally thought.
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Some of the report's oh-my moments, such as its discussion of lightning strikes of storage tanks and exploding oil trains, seem to confuse the "inherent" risks of fracking with messy but preventable accidents and freak occurrences. But the overall thrust is to challenge the Obama administration's assertions that natural gas can serve as a "bridge fuel" in the transition from coal to renewable energy; the amount of methane released by gas development brings that strategy into question, the report insists.
"The industry has successfully spun fracking as good for the climate, but the science shows it's anything but," said Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food & Water Watch, in a statement accompanying the report's release. "If President Obama wants to be a leader in curbing the global climate crisis, he can't continue to ignore the climate-related effects of methane from fracked gas. The science is now clear that natural gas dependence causes much more global warming than previously thought."