International Opposition to Fracking
The United States was the first country to begin fracking for natural gas, a violent process in which millions of gallons of water laced with chemicals are injected deep into the ground to fracture the rock and allow natural gas to flow back up to the surface along with dirty flowback water. Some countries, such as the United Kingdom, Germany, and Poland have tried to jump on the fracking bandwagon; whereas others, like France, have outright banned this practice.
The United States is a fracker’s paradise because it is geographically situated to contain the largest reserves of natural gas than anywhere else in the entire world. Unfortunately, the federal government is all too willing to tap this resource as quickly as possible, and with little regulation. This includes our public lands. The gas industry enjoys exemptions from parts of seven major environmental statutes and reporting programs, including the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and the National Environmental Policy Act.
In Europe, the laws and issues are different, but we can learn about the dangers of fracking from the unique experiences of other countries.
In Germany, many brewers have warned Chancellor Angela Merkel that fracking could damage the country’s beer industry. The Brauer-Bund beer association is concerned that fracking could pollute water that’s used in the brewing process, breaking the reinheitsgebot, the 500-year-old industry rule that beer must be produced using only malt, hops, and pure water.
Germany’s annual Oktoberfest in Munich, the largest folk festival in the world, which attracts 7 million visitors from around the world, could be threatened if Germany starts fracking. "The water has to be pure and more than half Germany's brewers have their own wells which are situated outside areas that could be protected under the government's current planned legislation on fracking," said a Brauer-Bund spokesman. "You cannot be sure that the water won't be polluted by chemicals so we have urged the government to carry out more research before it goes ahead with a fracking law," he added.
As the largest producer of beer in Europe and the third-largest per-capita consumer after the Czech Republic and Austria, it’s no wonder that Germany is concerned about this industry. The country is home to more than 1,300 breweries producing about 5,000 varieties of beer, enough for someone to try a new beer every day for 13 and a half years!
Pressure is rising from the German industry to consider fracking. Meanwhile, Merkel’s center-right party is beginning work on a law that would protect specific places from fracking. It’s improbable that a law will be passed on fracking before an election in September due to the resistance from the brewing industry and other opposition, which could block the law in the upper house of parliament.
In the United Kingdom, particularly in England, fracking has become a hot topic because Prime Minister David Cameron has endorsed this method of shale gas extraction. However, many in the UK disagree with Cameron’s opinion. According to a Opinium/Observer poll, when people were asked if they would like to see various alternative types of energy projects in their area, 60 percent said they would be happy to have wind farms or turbines, whereas only 23 percent wouldn’t mind having fracking take place in their area. A poll by the Balcombe Parish Council found that among residents, 82 percent said they opposed fracking. Most people were concerned about the increase of heavy traffic through their towns and about the local water supply and environment.
This month, there have been many protests, most notable those have occurred in Balcombe, West Sussex, in the southeast part of England. Twenty-five anti-fracking protesters were arrested outside of the gates where energy company Cuadrilla had been drilling. Those arrested include the Green Party Member of Parliament Caroline Lucas. During the protests, Cuadrilla temporarily stopped their drilling operations in the area. However, according to The Guardian, the protests have died down while the police operations have been scaled down.
Poland was estimated to have more untapped natural gas reserves than any other country in the European Union. Because of this, country officials wanted to try to replicate the fracking boom that occurred in the United States.
Poland, which has largely supported fracking, was supposed to be the country to move forward with shale gas extraction despite some opposition. Because Poland is also dependant upon Russia for its energy, some promised that fracking would help them and the EU have more energy independence. The Energy Information Administration (EIA) estimated that Poland had 5.3 trillion cubic meters of gas, but geological studies conducted by Polish scientists found only a fraction of the potential. According to the EIA, the estimate reserves in Poland were cut from 44 trillion cubic feet in 2011 to 9 trillion last year.
Now, however, we know that the estimate of shale gas are lower than expected, and that several major energy companies -- including ExxonMobil -- have decided to pull out of the country. Poland’s issues with shale gas extraction point to some of the major problems with this industry in Europe. For more information, check out this article or this one.
France and Bulgaria
France and Bulgaria are the only countries that have a ban on fracking. In 2011, under former President Nicolas Sarkozy, France became the first country to ban fracking, citing environmenal concerns as the reason for the ban. Just last year, Sarkozy said that France will maintain its fracking ban until there is proof that shale gas exploration won’t harm the environment or “massacre” the landscape. François Hollande, Sarkozy’s successor, also supports the ban. France’s Constitutional Court is reviewing the ban’s constitutionality.
Bulgaria banned fracking in January 2012, thwarting Chevron Corporation’s plans to drill in the country. The ban on fracking in Bulgaria began with grassroots opposition. Farmers and environmentalists realized that injecting water, sand and chemicals under high pressure to fracture the bedrock and release the gas involves a serious risk of groundwater contamination. Following large street protests by environmentalists, Bulgarian lawmakers voted overwhelmingly for a ban.
Many states and countries are in the midst of making decisions about what to do about fracking. It is important that, as we move forward, we consider whether it is really worth fracking up our landscape at the possible expense of damaging water supplies, decreasing air quality, and harming our communities. Let’s encourage our leaders to move beyond natural gas toward renewables and join in helping the environmental movement around the world to promote clean, sustainable energy.
-- Lindsay Garten, Sierra Club Media Team Intern