Recent reports from the US have suggested that water contamination from the new energy technique known as ‘fracking’ might be more common than previously thought. There were complaints of contamination in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Texas, and Ohio. Texas, the state with the most detailed reporting on complaints (which is itself perhaps surprising, considering Pennsylvania’s more liberal image), had over 2,000 complaints about oil and gas wells, although no cases of water contamination have yet been confirmed. In Pennsylvania, however, over 100 confirmed cases of water contamination from the oil and gas industry, including fracking wells, have been recorded.
Of course, one of the very first things that started to bring fracking, or hydraulic fracturing to use its proper name, into mainstream public consciousness was the documentary Gasland, which showed homeowners being able to set their tap water on fire using an ordinary cigarette lighter. Because fracking requires the pumping of hundreds of thousands of gallons of water and chemicals into the earth in an attempt to fracture it and release trapped natural gas, it provides an inherent risk of cross-contamination with local groundwater – and the actual composition of chemicals being used in fracking fluids often remains a closely-guarded industry secret.
So will these findings halt, or at least slow down, the fracking boom which has been spreading across the US over the past few years, and which has recently begun to take hold in other countries like the UK? While there are some cases of homeowners being heavily compensated for undisputed disruptions to their water supply, as fracking increases in scale it seems unlikely that energy companies will cave in. Ultimately, fracking provides the possibility of access to continued cheap, onshore natural gas deposits, allowing our current fossil fuel economy to continue unabated – that kind of opportunity is something that businesses and governments won’t pass up, as switching to a more environmentally friendly energy economy based on renewables will only pose a threat to those that make power and profit from the status quo.
In addition to this, it is likely that the majority of fracking wells will be drilled in rural areas and on the working class outskirts of towns. The majority of the people who will be affected by this infrastructure are those with little land, few connections, and essentially no power to do anything about it. Rich landowners will be able to use their money to defend themselves against fracking wells, while poor people will see their land destroyed, their views spoiled, and their health taken away from them in the name of corporate profits.
This continued drive for fossil fuels is surely the greatest folly of our time. There are so many potential alternatives out there – some of which we are exploring here at NRGLab – which would be much better recipients of the public funds and government support that industries like fracking are now receiving. Through judicious use of technology we could bring down household energy bills, lift people out of energy poverty, and protect our natural environment – rather than contaminating our water and destroying our health in pursuit of a few more years of the easy option of fossil fuels. Hopefully, public awareness of the dangers of fracking will be the first step towards seeing some real change over the next few years.
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