‘Fracking’ (and its risks) Goes Global

Ian Urbina at the New York Times has written another excellent piece on the character of the economic momentum behind and environmental risks of hydraulic fracturing: this time in a global context. He focuses on South Africa, but Poland, Peru, and Indonesia are mentioned as well.

What struck me is the extent to which the US government (eg. state department, USGS, export-import bank) is actively promoting and financing the globalization of hydraulic fracturing – rather complicating the commonplace notion that globalization must be an amorphous process. Who promotes hydraulic fracturing, who benefits from it, and who is put at risk by it is actually highly definite.

In the United States, where the water-intensive drilling technique of fracking was invented, the government is taking a lead role in supporting the dissemination of the technology abroad, as well as promoting other energy projects, including building infrastructure to extract and transport liquid natural gas.

Over the past three years, President Obama has promoted shale gas during visits to China, India and Poland.

“We believe that there is the capacity technologically to extract that gas in a way that is entirely safe,” Mr. Obama said in a speech in May in Warsaw, where the American Embassy co-hosted an international shale gas conference.

The Export-Import Bank of the United States has financed some of its biggest gas projects over the last several years, including the largest transaction in the bank’s history — $3 billion approved in 2009 for hundreds of miles of gas pipeline and a liquid natural gas plant and terminal project led by Exxon Mobil in Papua New Guinea.

The United States Geological Survey has offered training and technology to geologists exploring shale gas in Europe…

Some economists and environmentalists say that while the governments of poorer countries may benefit from the new tax revenues and jobs, they may not be paying enough attention to the environmental risks of drilling. They also note that local residents — who bear the brunt of the air pollution, potential water contamination from spills or underground seepage, and truck traffic that come with drilling — may see few benefits.

“These projects have already started causing steep inflation in costs of local housing and services, and except for the lucky few who get temporary construction jobs, the economic conditions for local communities can actually get worse,” said Doug Norlen, policy director of Pacific Environment, an advocacy and research organization that tracks federal and corporate financing of energy projects abroad.

South African Farmers See Threat From Fracking – NYTimes

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3 Responses to ‘Fracking’ (and its risks) Goes Global

  1. Kelli Barr says:

    This threat is already being realized in the states and elsewhere. Wyoming, for example, has an inordinate amount of oil and gas production activity and a correspondingly high rate of on-site accidents. It seems the concern over safety has escalated in tandem with the increasing political clout of oil and gas companies active in the state.

    Additionally, earthquakes and tremors over large areas of Oklahoma have been linked with fracking activity. Though the scientific evidence cannot definitively link the two (and why it cannot is a discussion for another day), I think it is evidence enough as to the environmental detriment fracking poses that such earthquakes have been largely nonexistent in Oklahoma’s history, and that they have never been recorded with such frequency in such a short amount of time – something like 43 detectable earthquakes in nine hours back in January. Fracking has also been linked to earthquakes in northwestern England. Cuadrilla, a UK drilling company, released a statement admitting that its activities likely influence the seismic events.

    Its time that advocates talk definitively about the adverse impacts of fracking – environmentally, socially, politically, and economically – in areas that do not have the power to resist the imposition of US-backed neoliberal policies. There are enough international examples of fracking’s fallout to go around.

  2. Nawar Alsaadi says:

    The solution to the above water problems is waterless fracking (NYT touched on the topic in November), Gasfrac has done over a 1000 fracks with gelled propane, no potable water is used, and no waste water is produced and on top of that oil/gas well performance is improved; it is a win-win solution for both the industry and the environment.

  3. Kelli Barr says:

    But if we are going to be honest about petroleum and gas usage, there is no such thing as ‘win-win’ in the pursuit of extracting fossil fuels. The glut of available natural gas has pushed down domestic energy prices right now, but this is actively discouraging the development of and investment in alternative energy infrastructure.

    The issue at stake is not just fracking itself, or the water use issues it raises; what the article above explicitly reveals is that the economic momentum behind the dramatic rise in natural gas exploration and extraction activity is heading in the wrong direction – toward increased reliance on fossil fuels and the existing energy infrastructure and away from alternative energy possibilities. Using waterless fracking technology may mitigate some of the consequences of fracking activity in some parts of the world, but it does nothing to address additional concerns over the consequences of fracking activity abroad – issues of fair wages and economic impact, environmental impact (not just on water resources), strain on poor infrastructure, and political scapegoating of disadvantaged and marginalized peoples, among others.

    Political emphasis is currently focused on sustaining, and even increasing, the amount of energy consumed in this country and abroad. Improvements to fracking technology may help mitigate some of its environmental impact, but such improvements do not provide an incentive to pursue overdue changes in the existing economic and financial infrastructure that actively promotes the fracking boom, and upon which many politically powerful individuals rely for their prosperity. In the short term, this is highly profitable for a few and only marginally advantageous for the rest of us; in the long run, this cultural arrogance will prove disastrous if unchecked, for everyone.

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