|The related topics of fracking and shale gas have lately been much in the news, both nationally and internationally.
In the United States, the extensive use of shale gas has been promoted as a veritable new energy revolution, supposedly able to free the USA from dependence on middle-eastern oil, with all that that might imply for international politics and economics. But grassroots opposition was given a major boost with the release of Promised Land, a ‘driller thriller’ of a movie, starring Matt Damon.
Here in Britain, the normally quiet Sussex village of Balcombe became the scene of militant mass anti-fracking protests in August, which led to a number of arrests, including of Green MP Caroline Lucas.
The political pot was further stirred when Tory Lord Howell, father-in-law of Chancellor George Osborne, suggested that the south east of the country be spared the joys of fracking so that they might rather be visited on the “desolate” North East, where, apparently, “nobody lives”. (Or perhaps just members of the working class ...)
But what are the real issues involved? Some of them are posed in this article, contributed by a member of Red Youth.
What is fracking?
Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is a relatively new and increasingly controversial technique used to extract (primarily) natural gas from formations of rock that were previously thought to be exhausted or unusable.
The process can be said to resemble an induced earthquake, which aims to break the surface of the rock, enabling a flow of fluid that can be captured and sold. By directing a high-pressure mixture of water, sand and hundreds of chemicals into a drilled well, small fractures are created in the surface of the impermeable formations. Old gas wells that have ceased to flow can also be stimulated by fracking.
Hydrochloric acid amongst other chemicals assists in causing initial cracks to appear in the surface and sand holds open the cracks, enabling a continual flow of gas or oil. A vast array of other chemicals are also needed to make the whole process work – over 700 known chemicals alongside ‘proprietary’ ones that make up a ‘special recipe’ that is undisclosed by the companies using it.
A study by TDEX (the Endocrine Disruption Exchange) stated that 93 percent of the hundreds of chemicals tested and identified in their study are hazardous to health. Forty-three percent are what are known as endocrine disruptors – chemicals that interfere with the development and function of living organisms (including human beings). BTEX (an acronym that stands for benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, and xylene) compounds are amongst the hundreds identified. These carcinogens can substantially damage both the nervous and digestive systems and can find their way into humans, plants and animals by contamination of soil and groundwater.
Despite the colossal expansion of the US fracking industry, there is clear evidence that it causes environmental damage. Both water and air pollution have been linked to fracking fluids and to by-products of the extraction process.
Waste water from the process has been identified in the TDEX study as radioactive, with both barium and the BTEX compounds making it potentially cancer-forming to those who come into contact with it.
Government officials and managing directors on both sides of the Atlantic have been quick to blame ‘poor workmanship’, bad maintenance and structural faults for the contamination of drinking water near fracking sites. Their attitude is further proof that, for the barons of finance capital, excuses are easily found for damage inflicted on our natural resources.
In the eyes of capitalism, humanity and nature are secondary to profit; extracting gas and making cash comes before the welfare of society and the environment.
Fracking in Britain
Tremors have also been reported in Britain. April 2011 saw a 2.3 magnitude earthquake hit Blackpool, caused by fracking. The Financial Times has attempted to allay concerns, claiming that fracking “very rarely causes earthquakes that can be felt from the surface”. But this does not change the fact that hydraulic fracturing is continually causing tremors beneath the surface and having vast geophysical impact.
Californian anti-fracking activists have gained significant support in recent years. Eleven earthquakes have hit the west-coast state since the beginning of 2010, all recording magnitudes over 4.0 and peaking at over 7.0 on the Richter scale. It is thought that the introduction of hydraulic fracturing could jeopardise the safety of millions by unnaturally aggravating the likelihood of natural disasters.
Although clearly less recognisable in terms of collateral damage, it should not be underestimated that Britain will not face the same geophysical alterations as California and the rest of the US. For the US, it means more earthquakes at higher magnitudes. For Britain, it could mean the regular arrival of significant magnitudes of earthquakes as a part of Britain’s geology.
Recent ‘studies’ carried out in Pennsylvania on the Marcellus shale have yielded results of ‘zero contamination’ in water supplies and a green light for fracking. These results have been immediately disputed, for it is thought they paint a significantly different picture than that found across the majority of fracking sites.
The well in question from the study is over 7,000 feet below the surface, whilst the water supply remains within the first 1,000 feet. This situation is not a true reflection of the majority of fracking sites, since the majority are situated within 2,000 feet of the surface. Which may well be why this particular site was chosen for the study.
As anyone aware of the effects of various radioactive materials will attest, it should not be presumed that contamination is not an issue for even for such deep wells as Marcellus. In the immediate future there may be little risk, but in the longer term, the quantitative build-up beneath of volatile compounds beneath the earth’s surface is bound to lead to the serious pollution of water supplies.
Academic researchers at well-respected universities are continuing to present contradictory evidence as companies press ahead with plans to frack. The University of Pittsburgh has stated that: “No proof of groundwater contamination in Pennsylvania from hydrofracking doesn’t guarantee the water’s clean.”
Pennsylvania is one of two US states that “doesn’t require monitoring for water quality in individual well supplies” – this in addition to the unknown mixture to be found in the ‘secret recipe’. It has been stressed that further research is required before any serious claim can be made regarding ‘zero contamination’.
The thirst for profit
The British Geological Survey, a government report, revealed there to be an estimated 1,300tr cubic feet of shale gas in the north of England alone – double that previously estimated. Upon this discovery, the energy minister went on to describe shale gas, as “an exciting new energy resource”.
The estimate foresees an extractable figure comparable to almost 450 years of current gas usage in Britain. Around half of gas used in Britain is currently imported, so it is easy to see why the proposal to extract more at home by fracking has made it past the first hurdle.
Public reaction to all this news, however, is somewhat more restrained than that of the politicians and corporations. Private energy corporations are inevitably excited at the prospect of being able to turn over much greater quantities of gas than are presently extractable from the North Sea. In reaping this bonanza, they hope to prosper at the expense of the public. Gas prices paid by workers are not likely to plummet, but the extraction costs certainly will!
In their role as capitalist indoctrinators, the media have not been deaf to the overtures of the industry, dedicating plenty of column inches to doom-laden prophesies about how the supply of natural gas in the North Sea is running out, and giving their readers the general impression that society itself is about to come to an end.
In fact, however, the North Sea has not drained its last drop; nor is it the only source of energy for Britain. Besides importing resources from lands far greater enriched than our own, alternative and renewable energy production is still a far more valid option. Very little money or time has been put into developing solar, wind or water power. Hydrogen power is labelled ‘too expensive’, although putting it into mass production would of course bring down the price. Nuclear energy is significantly more stable and secure than fracking, but is not developed to the full for a variety of reasons, not least the high initial costs entailed in building nuclear power stations, although it does presently account for one sixth of the energy used in Britain.
Capitalism and the environment
Clearly, capitalism will manipulate science to obtain the results it wishes to declare, before distributing the newfound ‘truth’ via its faithful allies in the corporate media. The data published in accordance with Marcellus shale are an outright diversion from the overall picture and the real impact of hydraulic fracturing.
Not only will capitalism manipulate and utilise science for its own ends, it will equally deny and stoop to any level to discredit science that stands in the way of turning a fat profit. Ignoring global warming, pollution, contamination and the risks of nuclear fallout poses grave dangers to humanity, but getting at the truth is nearly impossible for ordinary workers when every finding is refuted by a new study paid for by yet more interested parties.
The scientist, like every other worker, has long been alienated from his or her work and transformed into a mere pawn of monopoly capitalism in its drive towards domination and exploitation.
Environmental damage is of no concern to our rulers, nor is the welfare of all humanity. Whichever method makes the most profit is carried forward, regardless of any poisoning of water supplies, or the hazardous presence of chemicals such as mercury, uranium and radium and the significant dangers they could pose to the public and to the ecosystems we and other animals rely on.
While capitalism remains, we will never see an end to the inhumane savagery and rampant environmental destruction that blight our world. No amount of simple logic or rational argument will change the minds of the monopoly capitalists, for their incentive is singular – maximum profit. Not because they are terrible or stupid people, but because they are bound by the laws of the system they represent. He who does not compete on these terms fails in his role as an exploiter and goes under.
In the sphere of energy production, as in all other spheres, decisions will only be taken for the common good once control of production and of society has been taken into the hands of the workers.
:: You have got to be red to be green, CPGB-ML leaflet
:: Can the Green movement become a socialist movement, Proletarian issue 32 (October 2009)