We need to talk about Fracking (and other dirty business).

‘Salvador de Garmendia, the novelist who reinvented the prefabricated hell of this whole conquest culture, the oil culture, wrote me in a letter in the middle of ’69, ”Have you seen a seesaw, the device that eats crude oil? It has the shape of a black bird whose pointed head rises and falls heavily, day and night without stopping for a second, is the only vulture that doesn’t eat shit. What do we do when the characteristic sound of the sipper tell us there is not any more oil?” The grotesque overture is already beginning to be heard in Lake Maracaibo, where fabulous villages grew up overnight with movies, supermarkets, dancing, a profusion of whorehouses and gambling dens – where money has no value. I recently did a trip through there and felt a claw in the stomach. The smell of dead and decay overpowers the smells of oil. The villages are semi-deserted, worm-eaten, all ulcerated by ruin, the streets deep in mud, the stores dilapidated. An old diver of the companies goes down daily, armed with a saw, to cut pieces of pipes and to sell them like old iron. People are beginning to talk about companies as if conjuring up a golden fable’.

Eduardo Galeano, Open veins of Latin America 1971.

Lake Maracaibo – 13.200 square kilometer (5,097 square mile) body of water in the north of Venezuela connected by a natural channel to the Caribbean Sea – is one of the largest lakes in South America and the oldest lake on Earth. It is also one of the biggest reserves of oil in the world. For about 100 years its oil deposits have been exploited producing over 42 billion of barrels with about 20 billion of proven reserves remaining according to the state owned company Petróleos de Venezuela S.A. o PDVSA. The story that Galeano wrote 46 years ago in the polemic and acclaimed ‘Open Veins of Latin America’ -the book that the same Hugo Chavez gave to Obama during a session of the summit of the Americas in 2009- is not that different than the current situation in the area. A huge petrochemical complex, an oil port (Puerto Miranda), 6.000 active wells pumping up 700.000 barrels of crude per day, another 4.000 inactive wells, 45.000 km of pipeline, oil tankers, barges and maintenance boats regularly crisscrossing the lake. They say the environmental degradation in the area is chronic; water covered by oil, rusted remains of pipelines and equipment from years gone by, sticky garbage coated black with crude, death wildlife, pollution in the air. Maracaibo has suffered decades of small leaks of petroleum and natural gas that not only have contaminated the environment; this degradation has affected local industries, farmers and fisherman livelihoods, displaced locals and indigenous people and drive away tourists. In August 2015 Bloomberg published an article titled ‘Venezuela Giant Lake of endless oil is a filthy lawless mess’, as stated in it an estimated 50% of natural gas transported in Lake Maracaibo is lost due to pipeline breaks or leaks, PDVSA admits 15 small oil leaks per day about eight barrels and according to the Institute for the control and conservation of the lake, they have found in the water high quantities of hazardous substances such as sulphur, flouride and nitrogen among others.

I have had the pleasure and incredible coincidence to meet Esther, she is the cook of the hostel I am living in right now – Eco Hostel Yuluka right outside Tayrona Park in the north of Colombia – where I decided to stop for few weeks to among other stuff write this post. Esther is a 32 year old girl who belongs to an indigenous Venezuelan ethnic named Wayuu, she has been living in Colombia for the past 6 years. Before this she was living in her hometown Maracaibo. She described to me how the oil & gas companies have polluted the area of Maracaibo and of Cañada de Urdaneta; “The pollution around is terrible, you can feel it in the air, if you go into the water, even if it does not look that dirty, the ground is completely cover of oil and waste and is sticky. You can see the platforms in the water, they have destroyed the fishing in the lake and a lot of local people lost their jobs. My father moved to Rio Cachiri a village in the sierra because he was too tired of this”. She also told me about how the Wayuu, Yukpas and other indigenous groups gather together in 2006 to fight against the opening of new coal mines in northern Zulia, around the Socuy and Cachirí river basins, which threaten to destroy the land and pollute the water; how she joined the protest in Caracas to defend their land, and how at that time they obtained the support of Hugo Chavez who recognized the rights of the indigenous people over the land. Unfortunately, this battle is not over- the area is too rich in resources, too profitable for the extractive industry to give up -and they are still fighting to resist the expansion of the coal mining and infrastructure projects.

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Ester, Eco Hostel Yuluka, Tayrona Park, Colombia.
This is the aftermath of many places thanks to the extractive industry. Lake Maracaibo is just one example of the economic, social and environmental consequences produced by this type of business. Chasing to extract oil at the lowest price many habitats have been destroyed around the globe, the list is more than long. The disasters produced by Chevron-Texaco in the Agrio Lake north region of the Ecuadorian Amazon, where the continuous spill of oil and toxic waters over 20 years had terrible consequences not only to the environment but to the inhabitants of the area causing many cases of cancer and leukemia, death and displacements of indigenous communities.  The still on-going conflict in the Nigeria Delta that started in the 90’s where the battle for the oil control since foreign big oil companies such as Shell and Exxon appeared in the area has nourish violence between ethnic groups, causing the militarization of the region, environmental destruction and human suffering. The continuous Russian oil spills denounced by Greenpeace that have taken place for decades onto the land and into the Arctic Sea poisoning the water and destroying the livelihood of local communities and Indigenous Peoples. The countless accidents in the industry such us the 2010 BP oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico due to the blowout of one of the platforms when 11 people went missing and 4.9 million of barrels discharged; the sinking of the Prestige off the coast of Galicia in Spain a Liberian owned petroleum tanker  that in 2002 discharged 50.000 tons of oil causing one of the major environmental disasters in the history of Spain; or the fire in a oil rig in the Caspian Sea in December 2015 where 10 people were killed and 20 missing. And so on and so forth.

It is estimated that approximately 706 gallons of oil are poured into the oceans every year. A 10% of this due to petroleum tanker accidents, the rest comes from land drainage and waste disposal, off shore exploitations, loading and unloading of ships and tank cleaning operations. There is no such thing as safe installations in the oil and gas industry, it is true that accidents do not happen always but they do happen very often and when they do, the consequences for the environment and for the people are appalling.

The combustion of fossil fuels is one of the major contributors of greenhouse gas emissions to the atmosphere, mainly CO2, that are causing the global warming. As described in previous posts, since the industrial revolution the emissions of CO2 in the atmosphere have increased exponentially and the Earth’s temperature has raised almost 1°C since late 1800’s.

To the environmental and human impacts of the oil & gas industry there is another big concern to take into account, the finitude of the most precious resource, the black gold. According to Mr. King Hubbert’s theory (1956), there will be a peak oil in petroleum production, the point in time when the maximum rate of extraction of petroleum is reached and after this it will decrease at the same rate it grew. This theory is widely accepted and the discussion is not if this point will happen but when. Optimistic estimations predict that this peak oil will happen in 2020, whilst pessimistic predictions point that either the peak has already been reached, or that it would occur shortly. World oil production per capita began a long-term decline after 1979; Of the 30 mayor producers of oil in the world at least 15 have already passed their peak oil -USA, Iran, Kwait and Lybia in the 70´s, others countries such as Russia, Oman, Venezuela and Norway have also passed their peak points.

Ever since the oil crisis of 1973, oil scarcity has been the worst nightmare of our societies and western governments have focus their foreign policies on how to guarantee the supply dealing with our growing addiction to the black gold to ensure the wellbeing of our nations. Over the last 150 years we have used at least the staggering figure of 135 billion of tons of oil (944 billion barrels) and this estimation made by The Oil Depletion Analysis Centre (ODAC) in London was calculated in 2005 which suggest that currently this number is likely to be higher. Some say that this is more than half of the reserves left in the planet. In 2014, BP estimated that there are 1,687.9 billion barrels based on proven reserves indicating that this oil will last for about 53 years at current production levels.

More than 80% of this oil are in OPEC members countries. OPEC, Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, supply about 40% of the world’s oil and play a decisive role in the global oil market and international relations. The vast majority of OPEC’s reserves are located in Saudi Arabia and Venezuela, the latter has the largest proven oil reserves in the world.

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OPEC’s oil reserves have been questioning for years, it is believed that very often they lie or exaggerate the numbers to increase production quotas which are proportional to reported reserves. In 2011 Wikileak affirmed that Saudi Arabia´s oil reserves were about 40% less than the numbers they reported. In 2006, Petroleum Intelligence Week, revealed that Kwait’s proven reserves were half than the ones they reported as per a memo leaked from the Kuwait Oil company (KOC). In the same year, Dr. Samsam Bakhtiari, then a senior expert of the National Iranian Oil Company (NIOC) declared that the oil reserves in the Middle-East were about half, or even less than what the respective national governments claim.

Oil is mainly consumed by western countries notwithstanding, as showed in the above chart,  the majority of reserves left in the world are located in developing nations, in non industrialized areas, where an overwhelming population of people live with less than two or one dollar per day. In terms to feed our crude greed at the lowest cost we have invaded the most vulnerable with our industrial weapons, operating under safety standards, causing damage on purpose to save money and making our world dependant on nasty totalitarian regimes. Furthermore, there is an undeniable interconnection between war and oil & pipelines domination; Kuwait, Iraq, Lybia, Ukraine, Yemen, Syria, even WWI and WWII have been linked to oil supply and control.

Oil doesn’t bring wealth to the people, just to their corrupt governments and  the big corporations; oil offers hazardous jobs, health issues and death, irreparable destruction of livelihoods and environment, force changes in local’s lifestyles that they have not chosen, threatens traditional and ancestral cultures, increase abuses in human rights and causes wars, conflicts and terrorism.

In search of solutions and alternatives to conventional oil & gas the extractive industry has made it even worse.

The Alberta tar sands in Canada is the third biggest oil reserve, after Arabia Saudi and Venezuela, and the largest industrial energy project in the world. The tar sands deposits are distributed over an area of 140,000 square kilometers – bigger than the size of England. Currently it produces 1.9 million barrels of oil a day and allowed Canada to become the biggest supplier of oil to the US, the world’s largest oil consumer. Canada is the only country that has a large-scale commercial tar sands industry although there are tar sand deposits in other places such as Venezuela, US and the Middle East.

But, what are these tar sands? Tar sands or oil sands are unconventional oil deposit, a mixture of sand, water, clay and bitumen. This bitumen is extremely dense oil, so thick and heavy that requires additional upgrading before it can be refined. Due to its properties the process to extract oil from tar sands becomes way more complex than the extraction of conventional oil. Just to produce one barrel of oil about two tons of tar sands are required. The tar sand extractive process involves recovering by open pit mining techniques, transportation to the extraction plant and separation operations. The operations to separate the bitumen and obtain oil from it imply the use of hot water, froth treatment and the use other chemicals; diluents and solvents such as naphtha.

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Tar sands extration process scheme (source, 2b1stconsulting.com)
Both mining and processing of tar sands are highly polluting activities for the environment. The Alberta tar sands have been called by the Environmental Defense group the most environmental destructive project on Earth, they released a report in 2008 and some of the facts they denounce have been resumed by DESMOG as follows:

  • Oil sands mining is licensed to use twice the amount of fresh water that the entire city of Calgary uses in a year.
  • At least 90% of the fresh water used in the oil sands ends up in ends up in tailing ponds so toxic that propane cannons are used to keep ducks from landing.
  • Processing the oil sands uses enough natural gas in a day to heat 3 million homes.
  • The toxic tailing ponds are considered one of the largest human-made structures in the world. The ponds span 50 square kilometers and can be seen from space.
  • Producing a barrel of oil from the oil sands produces three times more greenhouse gas emissions than a barrel of conventional oil.

To the environmental impacts it must be added the devastating impacts on the indigenous or first nation communities, the violation of their treaty-guaranteed rights and the negative consequences in their sacred lands, their traditional customs and their health; rare cancers and diseases are disturbingly rising in the area.

And here comes the fracking, also known as hydraulic fracturing. Fracking is a well stimulation technique to extract oil and gas that over the millennia have migrated to natural joints and fractures in subterranean geological formations such us shale, sandstone, siltstone and limestone. This extraction is made by injecting liquid mixtures of water and chemicals at extremely high pressure. Nevertheless, contrary to what is though, fracking is not a new technique; it has been used worldwide since the 60 -70´s although the fracking boom occurred in the past 7 years mainly in the US due to the developed cost-effective extraction techniques and the higher prices in oil importations.

Modern fracking begun in the 90´s and consists in the combination of hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling. A well is drilled between 1 or 2 miles deep from the surface, or even more, and then it turns horizontal for about another 2 miles. Then a steel pipe is inserted, this pipe or casing is perforated within the target zones through which the fracking fluid will be injected at high pressure that exceed the natural stresses on the rock and cause it to crack, or fracture. These fractures remain opened by the introduction of a propant , generally sand, ceramic particles or aluminum oxide, permeable enough to allow the flow of oil, gas and fluids to the well. Over 3 days the well cracks the rock a certain amount of times. Once fracking is done the oil or gas- usually called ‘tight oil’ or ‘tight gas’- is release and flow up the well alongside the used fracking fluid. Some of this fluid is recycled; the rest is pumped into disposal wells deep below groundwater.

The fracking fluid is a complex and hazardous chemical mixture- used mainly to increase the hydrocarbons extracted- that includes the propant, biocides, scale inhibitors, solvents, friction reducers, additives, corrosion inhibitors, and non-ionic surfactants. The chemicals used can vary from one well to another and use up to 600 different substances.

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Fracking process scheme (source, propublica.org)
Fracking has been presented during the last decade by some governments around the world as the solution to the energy crisis, the great and innovative fossil fuel technique that brings energy sovereignty, create jobs and reduce bills. But, is it? Is really fracking the solution we need?

Currently the vast majority of fracking exploitations in the world are in the US, where the drilling technique was developed, with about 2 million of fracking wells. According to data published by the US Energy Information Administration (EIA) the net import of crude oil and petroleum products in the US has been reduce in more than 60%, from 12.937 barrels per day in September 2006 to 4.921 in November 2016. Even though, not everyone in the land of ‘freedom’ is so happy about it. New York State officially banned fracking in 2015. Californian counties are pushing hard to do the same in their state and others are currently in moratorium. The city of Dallas requires any gas well to be located no closer than 1500 feet from a home.

Canada is the second on the list of fracking exploitations, far away from US, over 500.000 oil and natural gas wells have been drilled across the country since 1958, according to the Canada Ministry of Natural Resources. Nonetheless, fracking has been banned in Quebec and other places such as Nova Scotia and New Founland are in moratorium.

Regarding to the rest of the world China who was said to have largest shale reserves on Earth has drill just about 400 wells and officials declared they are not sure about the cost, water availability and environmental consequences.  In the UK there is a huge controversy about it due to technical problems that have taken place during exploration phase. In the rest of Europe environmental concerns have led to widespread ban across the continent; Scotland, Northern Ireland, France, Germany, Romania and Bulgaria have banned fracking, Netherland, Luxemburg and Chez Republic have raised temporary bans. In Spain there is a ban in Cantabria and after the failure in the Canary Island, last year the Congress demanded to the government to close the door to fracking in the whole country .In other parts of the world like South Africa it has been banned as well. In Australia a ban has just been conceded in the state of Victoria, the first state to do so and more are expected to come.

All this controversy is due to the growing concerns regarding to the consequences of this extractive method added to the expensive technology that is needed. The impacts of fracking are still difficult to grasp, still there is a limited understanding of the geology and its implications for unconventional oil and gas extraction but many studies have been carried out for the last decade to conclude with the following.

  • Fracking uses tremendous amounts of water and make it unsuitable for any other purpose. Water scarcity is accused in many parts of the world and this water is needed for farmers, local communities and ecosystems. According to a report by the Environmental America Research & Policy Center dated on April 2016 ‘Fracking by the Numbers’ at least 239 billion gallons of water have been used in fracking since 2005 – an average of 3 million gallons per well- and about 200 billions of toxic wastewater has been generated.
  • Fracking pollutes the water and threatens drinking water supply. As indicated above fracking fluids contain many different types of chemicals that may differ from one well to another and can contain up to 600 different types of chemicals -including known carcinogens and toxins such as lead, benzene, uranium, radium, methanol, mercury, hydrochloric acid, ethylene glycol and formaldehyde. It is usually defended by companies that the majority of these chemical and additives amount just around 1% and that the rest is water, although this becomes a serious quantity if we take into account the high amounts of fracking fluid used per well. Moreover, in the US there is an exemption in the Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974 that says companies are not required by the federal government to disclose the chemicals being used in their frac fluid. High quantities of methane have been found in tap water and rivers, people living near to fracking areas claim that tap water can be fired and last year Jeremy Buckingham, a member of the New South Wales parliament’s upper house in Australia, set Condamine River in Queensland on fire and post it on his Facebook page to denounce the high contamination in the area due to fracking in the region. In a recent report from the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) ‘Hydraulic Fracturing for Oil and Gas: Impacts from the Hydraulic Fracturing Water Cycle on Drinking Water Resources in the United States’ December 2016 it is admitted that pollutions may occur during water withdrawal, spills of fracking fluid, during injection of fracking fluid, during discharge of treated waste water, or during disposal or storage of wastewater. There are over 1000 documented cases of fracking contamination near fracking areas in the US. Just in Pennsylvania regulators have confirmed at least 260 instances of private well contamination from fracking operations.
  • Fracking also pollutes the air with toxic substances such as benzene and formaldehyde. The release of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) is a high concern. These chemicals can cause a wide range of health problems from eye irritation and headaches to asthma and cancer. In January 2016 a state of emergency was declared in California in a suburb of Los Angeles over the leaking of methane gas from an underground storage field. More than 2,000 families were evacuated and many reported feeling ill because of the leakage, which began in October.
  • Fracking water and air pollution are causing health problems to people who live nearby wells and to the workers at drilling sites. The US Natural Resources Defence Council wrote a report in which affirms that the fracking pollution causes at least five serious types of health problems, including respiratory problems, birth defects, blood disorders, cancer and nervous system impacts and indicates that about one in four Americans live within a mile of an oil or gas well. Between 2010 and 2014, National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health NIOSH attributed nine workers deaths to acute hydrocarbon exposure from oilfield vapors according to data published in the report ‘Fracking by the numbers’.
  • Fracking produces tons of radioactive waste that are not regulated. Soil and rock contain naturally occurring radioactive materials that can become concentrated through activities like fracking. In 2016 said Nadia Steinzor of the environmental group Earthworks, who cowrote a report on shale waste declared in an article on grits.org “Nobody can say how much of any type of waste is being produced, what it is, and where it’s ending up”.
  • Fracking increase the emissions of greenhouse gases exacerbating Climate Change. One of the main components of natural gas is methane, a greenhouse gas which traps 86 times as much heat as CO2 over a 20 year period. Methane can leak during drilling and transportation operations. In August 2016, NASA reported that fracking is a source of massive methane ‘hot spot’, a 2.500 square mile plume located where Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico and Utah meet which is caused to the high level of fracking in the region.
  • Fracking operations induce earthquakes. For the last years seismic activity in the US has increase considerably and it has been debated whether fracking was the cause of this although this debate seems to be over. In the website of the US Geological Service (USGS) it is stated that ‘Fracking Wastewater disposal is the primary cause of the recent increase in earthquakes in the central United States’. In an interview to CBC Oklahoma state’s oil and gas regulator, Tim Baker, declared “There’s definitely a relationship between deep well disposal and the earthquake activit” referring to the practice of injecting fracking waste water deep into the ground. In Canada also the rise of earthquakes in Alberta within the last five years has been attributed to fracking practices. In the UK the first exploration for shale gas was suspended in Lancashire after the process triggered two minor earthquakes in 2011.
  • Fracking installations, well pads, new access roads, pipelines and other infrastructure damage the land and destroy natural landscapes and heritage.
  • Fracking has negative impacts in the quality of life of the local people due to the noise caused by the different activities, the vibration, the diesel fumes emitted from drilling operations and from the continuous transit of trucks.
  • Fracking also affects animals and ecosystems. Fracking sites are usually in farmland or close to farms or rivers, which means they are exposed to the same pollution and issues explained above and there are many studies being developed to assess the real impacts that fracking is having in wildlife.

At the bottom of this post there is the link to GASLAND, a documentary by Josh Fox that expose the consequences of fracking in different communities in the US that in 2011 was nominated to the Academy Awards.

Despite all these evidences fracking is still expanding in some places around the world. During the last ten years environmental groups, civil rights movements, communities, indigenous people and some political parties have joined forces to raise their voices against fracking and other fossil fuels dirty business. There are many anti-fracking grassroots movements worldwide such as talkfracking.org, frackoff.org, globalfrackdown.org, where you can find information and search for your local area. Thanks to these movements many battles have been won and fracking has been ban in many places as indicated earlier in this post; nonetheless this fight is not over. Examples like Lancashire, Keystone XXL and Standing Rock prove to us, than when people join forces and raise their voices even the unthinkable can be achieved. Unfortunately, some governments use their power to undemocratically overturn these achievements. In June 2015, Lancashire county council in the north of England rejected two application of the company Cuadrilla to drill few wells in two sites to explore fracking in the area, few months later the Prime Minister at that time David Cameron approved a new rule that allowed fracking under National Parks without parliament discussion and over the council decision for which he was accused by the rest of the parties of outrageous vandalism. Same year in November 2015 Obama announced the rejection of the construction of the Keystone XXL pipeline, a mega pipeline from the tar sands in Alberta to different states in the US -saying the decision reflected America’s determination to be a global leader in the fight against climate change- and later last year in the same line he blocked the construction of the Dakota Access pipeline, the section closest to the Standing Rock Sioux reservation due to the probability of the project polluting drinking water and damaging sacred burial sites. Couple of weeks ago the new president Donald Trump, who has widely showed his support to the extractive industry, signed executive orders to allow oil & gas companies to go ahead with both projects.

Difficult times await ahead, we need strong civil movements and active citizens to demand divestment from fossil fuels, investment in renewable energies and to ban dangerous unconventional practices such as fracking and tar sands. Is our responsibility as world citizens, you and me, to assume our role in this battle, there is no way it can be done without our involvement. We need to reduce substantially our fossil fuel consumption and petroleum products such as plastic, lobby our administrations to ensure the green transition happens as faster as possible and support global movements. Join the next worldwide people climate march on April 29th (peoplesclimate.org) and the scientist march to protest Trump’s climate change denial on next Earth’s Day April 22nd. As Ban Ki Moon, ex Secretary General of the United Nations, put it urging goverments to divest from fossil fuels”At this time, what is most required is political will by the world leaders, wise investment by the business communities and also a strong support and engagement of civil society. I encourage citizens to press for climate action using peaceful and democratic means”.

There is no scientific doubt or discussion here, an overwhelming 97% of the scientists agree that climate change is happening and leading scientists and economists, The Earth League, advice that the 75% of the remaining fossil fuel must be kept in the ground to avoid further damage to the planet and to stop the worst effect s of climate change. It is true that fossil fuels allowed the humans to develop our societies to the point we can enjoy in some parts of the world nowadays. Nonetheless, this development has been reached at a very high price than can be summarized in just one term, climate change. Now, is time to pay back our massive debt to the nature and to the native people of this planet. Governments, investors and fossil fuel companies have to understand that the game must be over; we cannot continue playing to be God, exhausting the natural resources, altering the balance of the Earth and causing so much environmental destruction and human suffering. Global efforts must work in line with the Paris Agreement and with the United Nations Global Goals for Sustainable Development focusing on reducing dramatically the use of fossil fuels and greenhouse gases emissions, finding new clean and alternative ways and making the transition to greener economies where renewable energies are the unique power we should used to drive our societies to a sustainable future.

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