Wenonah Hauter, Executive Director of Food & Water Watch, thinks that World Water Forum organizers should have been ashamed that fracking, the colloquial term referring to unconventional natural gas drilling, was not at the top of the Forum’s agenda. I can understand her frustration. Over six days of panels, I could only find one dedicated to hydraulic fracturing, and it was a comparably small discussion at that—only lasting an hour with three panelists, compared to the two hour time blocks with upwards of ten panelists at the majority of other panels.
The panel ,“Hydraulic Fracturing: The Case for a Global Ban,” consisted of Ms. Hauter from the United States, Borislav Sandov of the Bulgarian National Civil Committee against Shale Gas, and Corinne Lepage, former Minister of the Environment for France and current member of the European Parliament. The panelists discussed how they believe a global ban is in order while coming from countries with differing viewpoints: Bulgaria and France have both banned it, while the United States is actively drilling.
Fracking is the process of extracting natural gas from deep shale formations. Used in combination with horizontal drilling, the technology has allowed access to natural gas reserves in shale formations previously considered uneconomical. The process requires millions of gallons of water and thousands of gallons of chemicals (per frack, per well). The combination is injected underground at high volumes and pressure, fracturing the shale and leading to the release of natural gas. One of the main concerns with the practice is the migration of the water/chemical mixture. It is not entirely predictable, as a substantial amount of these fracking fluids remain underground at the end of the fracturing process. Concern over aquifer contamination is the main reason Bulgarians passed a ban in their country; they understand that the risk is too great.
The irony of discussing water scarcity and water access goals at the Forum was not lost on the members of the crowd who live near current drill sites. Pollution contributes to water scarcity by making water undrinkable. Fracking chemicals, a number of which are known human carcinogens, have recently been found by the EPA to contaminate groundwater. Increasing numbers of residents of Pennsylvania, Wyoming, and other American states are no longer able to drink their well water due to this fracking pollution.
There are increasing numbers of anecdotal health complaints and reports of residents’ water becoming unusable. I have visited such a household and talked with a 79-year old man in Northeast Pennsylvania who hasn’t been able to drink his well water since May 2011. He had still been taking showers with the water, but stopped after he developed a rash over his body. As he lives aboout 1,200 feet downhill from one drill site and 1,800 feet uphill from another, both fall outside of the current state jurisdiction where a gas company must claim responsibility for contamination. He has to boil water in order to bathe and must use the laundromat to wash his clothes. He no longer has secure access to safe drinking water.
Fracking is exempt from almost every major federal environmental law in the United States. It has not been well-studied: meaning that not only does it fall through the cracks of the law, the long term implications to human health are unknown. This is concerning with the current push for development of shale gas globally, with countries like Poland opposing against Bulgaria and France to fight potential Euorpean laws on fracking.
There is a lack of transparency in the fracking industry globally that should be startling. As Ms. Lepage said, if we took into account the actual costs and benefits of hydraulic fracturing to our society, there is no question that fracking would be banned. I can see why Ms. Hauter was disappointed with how the Forum neglected to discuss fracking, considering its immense negative impact on water. I was disappointed too.