Is It Safe To Live Near Fracking?

Fracking: you should know that about natural gas extraction

We answer the most important questions about fracking: What actually is fracking? How risky is natural gas production? And is shale gas good for the climate?

What is fracking anyway?

What makes fracking so explosive? In contrast to conventional reservoirs, the gas to be extracted is not freely available, but is bound, for example, in shale or coal seams (so-called unconventional reservoirs).

Fracking is not a drilling technique, it is a process with which natural gas can be released from impermeable rock. This gas is also called "unconventional natural gas". The rock is often clay, which is why it is colloquially referred to as shale gas.

In order to release the gas from the rock, the subsoil has to be broken up. Before fracking, the first thing to do is to drill up to five kilometers into the depth, then horizontally into the gas-bearing rock layer. Then a mixture of water, quartz sand or ceramic beads and various chemicals is pressed into the horizontal bore at an enormous pressure of up to 1000 bar.

The liquid pressure ensures that the rock bursts open and thus becomes gas-permeable. Solids and chemicals keep the cracks open. According to the Federal Environment Agency, 17 of the chemicals must be classified as hazardous to water. Another 38 substances are considered "toxic to human health".

If the frack water penetrates the groundwater through a leak, damage occurs that cannot simply be repaired again. Even if the fracking liquid only contains the chemicals in very small doses - for Christian Krumkamp from the citizens' initiative "Against gas drilling" in Werne, the argument of dilution does not apply: "It simply contains substances that do not belong in the water. Not even diluted. "

Fracking in Germany

The process was first used in the USA in 1949 - in order to be able to better exploit conventional oil and natural gas deposits. It has been used on a large scale since around 2005 to extract shale gas. Since then, North America has experienced a veritable gas boom.

In Germany, too, fracking has been going on for a long time, even if not in shale gas. In this country around 300 fracking measures have been carried out since 1961, mainly in deep and dense natural gas deposits (so-called "tight gas"). The company ExxonMobil carried out its first fracking test in clay in 2008 near the town of Damme in Lower Saxony. Until today: nothing has been funded here.

Which chemicals are used in fracking?

In fracking, the main purpose of chemistry is to keep the mixture of water and quartz sand homogeneous and to kill germs. There are contradicting information about the number and type of substances used.

The number varies, depending on the source, between a few dozen and a few hundred. A report to the US Congress named the names of around 750 chemicals. Some of them are said to be toxic or even carcinogenic. How many and what exactly there are remains a secret of the gas companies for the time being.

Because the chemical cocktail that they press into the rock layers is not subject to any publication obligation - not even in Germany. Even the experts from the Federal Environment Agency had to rely on voluntary information from manufacturers when assessing the toxicity of the substances used.

According to its own information, ExxonMobil is the only German gas company to voluntarily provide information about the substances used. According to this, the fracking liquid, depending on the geological nature of the subsoil, consists of around 95 to over 99.8 percent water and proppants, i.e. sand or ceramic balls.

There are also up to 30 chemicals. The fracking liquid as such is neither toxic nor environmentally harmful, writes the company. According to chemicals law, it is not subject to labeling and is not a dangerous good.

Fracking: Toxic or Non-Toxic?

In a report by the Federal Environment Agency (UBA) from 2012, it reads like this: "In the Damme 3 well, for example, around 12,000 cubic meters of water, 588 tons of proppants and 20 tons of additives (460 kilograms of biocides) were injected into three frackers The evaluation of the 80 available safety data sheets showed that 6 preparations are classified as toxic, 6 as environmentally hazardous, 25 as harmful, 14 as irritating, 12 as corrosive. "

On its website, ExxonMobil writes that they are working on replacing (in their pure form) toxic fracking chemicals in the future. According to the Federal Environment Agency, non-toxic fracking chemicals would not make fracking any less risky for the groundwater. See also "Risks".

Pros and cons: what are the risks of fracking?

Depending on the interests involved, the risks of fracking seem to be manageable (gas companies) or unpredictable (environmentalists). Reliable data can first be expected from the USA, where intensive fracking has been going on for several years.

The suspicion of the critics and the UBA is directed primarily against the poisonous tailcoat cocktail. Part of it is recovered at the drilling site as so-called flowback. But the rest remains in the depths forever. Opinions differ as to whether and how much damage it can cause here. Proponents of fracking believe that the fracking liquid remains sealed under a lid of thick and impenetrable rock layers.

Environmentalists, on the other hand, fear that sooner or later the liquid could penetrate uncontrollably through cracks into the overlying groundwater layers. "It may be that the chemicals will only get into the groundwater in a few months or years, when the natural gas companies have long since moved on," says Sebastian Schönauer from the BUND's Water Working Group.

In the UBA report it reads as follows: "According to the current state of knowledge, the possibility of large-scale, permanent and irreversible negative effects of such projects on the drinking water supply and the natural balance cannot be dismissed out of hand."

"Uncontrolled Health Experiment"

However, there is also danger from the flowback, because it could get directly into water-bearing layers through a leaky borehole casing - or directly into the landscape. In April 2011, Bradford County, Pennsylvania, experienced a blowout, an uncontrolled leak of flowback and natural gas from a well. The toxic mixture spilled onto the surrounding agricultural areas for twelve hours. But even with full control, flowback is problematic. Because where do you put it?

Even sewage treatment plants are likely to be overwhelmed with the necessary treatment. The most common, because it is the most cost-effective method, is the so-called disposal drilling: You simply let the cocktail disappear into a disused drilling. The UBA comments on this: "From the point of view of the experts, there are risks associated with the disposal of the flowback by pressing it into the subsurface, which can only be thoroughly analyzed and assessed within the framework of site-specific risk analyzes."

Most of the critics agree that too little is known about the possible environmental and health risks of fracking. Two American researchers, a veterinarian and a professor of molecular medicine, also complained in a report in 2012 about the insufficient data situation and came to the conclusion: "Without thorough research, the global gas boom will remain a gigantic, uncontrolled health experiment."

Can shale gas be extracted in Germany?

Shale gas extraction using fracking is not prohibited in Germany. An application for a ban by the SPD, the Greens and the Left failed in December 2012 in the Bundestag. Nevertheless, no shale gas is currently being extracted in Germany - not least because of the resistance of the local population to shale gas extraction. But that could change soon.

In February 2013, Environment Minister Peter Altmaier and Economics Minister Philipp Rösler agreed on a bill on shale gas extraction. After that, the technology would be permitted in principle - even if only under certain conditions. Such fracking activities should be subject to a mandatory environmental impact assessment (EIA) and should be generally prohibited in water protection areas.

Dirk Jansen from BUND North Rhine-Westphalia calls this proposal a "sedative pill". "I am not aware of a single large-scale project that was approved under the Federal Mining Act and that would have failed due to an EIA. EIAs are used to dug up entire landscapes in North Rhine-Westphalia, see lignite opencast mining," says the environmentalist.

Toothless environmental regulations

The Green politician Oliver Krischer, who sits in the Bundestag, sees it similarly. The fact that the use of toxic substances, such as those used in Fracken, should be banned in drinking water protection areas makes as much sense as banning skiing in the Sahara, says the spokesman for the energy industry of the green parliamentary group.

Dirk Jansen expects nationwide legislation in this legislative period. And fears for the North Rhine-Westphalian special route: In the state, there is currently a moratorium on fracking projects. "Once we have uniform federal legislation, the scope for a special way for the federal states will be smaller and smaller," says Jansen.

Environment Minister Barbara Hendricks currently has a package of legislative changes in the Bundestag, which parliament will probably only vote on after the summer break. After that, test bores should be allowed under certain conditions. The BUND fears that such research projects could practically seamlessly transition into gas production on an industrial scale.

There is no uniform approach to fracking in the European Union. In November 2012, the EU Parliament rejected a cross-party motion for a moratorium. The responsibility now rests with the member countries. Fracken has been banned in France since 2011. But here too there is growing pressure from industry on the government.

How much shale gas is there really?

Opinions differ on this. In the USA, fracking has been going on on a large scale for a number of years: in 30 states, at around 500,000 boreholes. As a result, gas production has increased by almost a quarter since 2006 - and the price of natural gas has fallen by a third. The US is in gas fever. The unconventional gas could turn the whole American economy upside down, economists believe.

But the party could be over soon. In 2011 the state U.S. Geological Survey: The vast gas-bearing Marcellus Formation, which crosses several states, could deliver perhaps only a tenth of the amount of gas that was once considered recoverable. The energy agency EIA had already corrected the numbers downwards in January 2012. Overall, 42 percent less gas could be produced than expected. The corrections are based on data from countless ongoing wells.

In Germany, experts from the Federal Office for Geosciences and Natural Resources estimate the occurrence at 0.7 to 2.3 trillion cubic meters. That sounds like a lot when you compare it to the 0.15 trillion cubic meters of conventional natural gas resources. But it's theory. Because no shale gas is produced in Germany yet. There will only be more realistic estimates if unconventional natural gas is also fracked on a large scale in this country.

Is shale gas good for the climate?

Proponents of fracking argue that gas is more climate-friendly than coal. This is why the energy source plays an important role in the transition into the age of renewable energies. By that they mean conventional as well as unconventional natural gas. The CEO of ExxonMobil, Gernot Kalkoffen, even believes that the energy transition cannot be mastered without unconventional natural gas.

One thing is clear: when burned, natural gas releases less CO2 per unit of energy than coal. But is it therefore "climate-friendly"? Are the environmental impacts lower? American researchers say no. In their study from 2011, the scientists came to the conclusion that the CO2 footprint of shale gas is even significantly worse than that of coal: more than twice as large over a period of 20 years.

In a study from the same year, British researchers assessed the situation with regard to the environmental impacts in a similar way: The scientists sum up that shale gas extraction and its use on a large scale could accelerate climate change.

Devastating carbon footprint in fracking

The reason is not just the CO2 that is created when natural gas is burned. A large part of natural gas consists of methane, a gas that is 20 times more harmful to the climate than carbon dioxide. And even during the work on the borehole and during the extraction of shale gas, considerable amounts of methane escape unhindered into the atmosphere - up to eight percent of the total amount.

In addition, even after the fracking wells have long since been abandoned, methane can still escape. In the US state of Pennsylvania, private individuals have made it their business to track down orphaned, undocumented boreholes. It should be 150,000 drill holes for shale gas. Methane is still escaping from some of the wells.

The British authors write that the natural gas extraction of shale gas would have far-reaching consequences for the climate in Europe: The cheap natural gas would slow down the energy transition. After all, investments in renewable energies and low-emission innovations would be unprofitable for companies. All investments in natural gas production, on the other hand, are - if you take international CO2 reduction commitments seriously - "lost money".

Less fuel than you thought?

So vigorous is the hype about fracking that is currently rampant - independence from the Gulf states, energy self-sufficiency for decades, all of this seems possible to the Americans on the basis of the forecasts. US mining companies have long been enthusiastically investing in dirty technology; other investors who want to "frack" outside the US simply extrapolate the soil analysis by the US Energy Agency for other countries.

Geologists from the University of Texas, Austin, recently came to a very different conclusion: From 2020 American gas production is already threatening to decline. Accordingly, fracking only kindles a brief fossil fire - and threatens to become a gigantic, international bad investment. For this finding, the researchers from Texas had collected far more data than the state augurs before. There is only one conclusion left: the hype has no future. And thus not fracking either.

The fracking boom is causing pressure to the right in the USA

Fracking has few friends in Germany - and regularly causes controversial discussions. Mainly because it harms the environment and the climate - possibly also human health. Critics refer mainly to findings from the USA, where a real fracking boom broke out at the beginning of the millennium. In the past ten years alone, shale gas production there has increased from around 85 million to 1.2 billion cubic meters - per day.

But despite the increasing resistance to the risky technology, there is no sign of any change on the part of politics in the USA. On the contrary. Surprisingly, polls show that, at the political level, the Republicans, who traditionally disregard environmental protection, benefit most. Its leader, Donald Trump, even claimed in a 2012 tweet that climate change was a Chinese invention - to damage the US economy. The multi-billionaire announced a "return to fossil fuels" in the event of an election victory and, according to his own admission, wants to "save the coal".

In the ranks of the Democrats, on the other hand, there are politicians who completely reject fracking or who only want to continue it under strict conditions. Top candidate Hilary Clinton is keeping a low profile on the subject.

Those who profit financially vote on the right

In regions affected by (or benefiting from) the fracking boom, Republicans gained more than three percent of the vote between 1996 and 2012. For a Democratic incumbent, this increased the likelihood of being ousted by a Republican from 16 percent to 39 percent.

This is the result of a study by an international team of scientists. The researchers were able to identify two main reasons for the shift to the right. "People who were made rich by the fracking boom do not want environmental laws that could prevent fracking," says the head of the study, Viktar Fedaseyeu from Bocconi University in Milan. Second, political attitudes change as a result of sudden wealth. "Rich people prefer conservative policies that fight taxes," says Fedaseyeu.

It still looks like a head-to-head race between Clinton and Trump. The election in December will also set the course for climate policy in the world's second largest economy. Environmentalists are black in the event of a Republican election victory. Kohlrabenschwarz.

Voter Preferences and Political Change: Evidence From Shale Booms