‘Thirsty’ Global Fracking Industry Puts Water, Environment, Communities at Risk

‘The fracking industry needs to be urgently reined in before it’s too late for our planet and people across the globe.’

— by Deirdre Fulton, Common Dreams staff writer

Multinational oil and gas companies are moving into increasingly vulnerable countries in Latin America, Africa, and Asia where the ecosystems, communities, and authorities are even less able to cope with the impacts of fracking and shale gas extraction, according to a new report from Friends of the Earth Europe.

Fracking
Mexico’s shale gas reserves and water-stressed regions overlap significantly. (Credit: Friends of the Earth/World Resource Institute/US EIA)

The report, Fracking Frenzy: How the Fracking Industry is Threatening the Planet (pdf), shows how the pursuit of fracking in countries such as Mexico, China, Argentina, and South Africa is likely to exacerbate the climate, environment, social, and human rights problems those countries already face. While much has been written about fracking in the United States and the European Union, this study “seeks to provide a global overview of shale gas development in the rest of the world,” its authors note, focusing specifically on 11 countries that are leaders in shale development on their respective continents.

“From Brazil and Mexico to Algeria and South Africa, this thirsty industry is exploiting weak regulation and causing untold environmental and social damage in the pursuit of profit,” said Antoine Simon, shale gas campaigner at Friends of the Earth Europe. “The fracking industry needs to be urgently reined in before it’s too late for our planet and people across the globe.”

Released as United Nations climate talks open in Peru, the report illustrates the variety of dangers posed by the rapidly expanding fracking industry. In Northwest Africa and Mexico, for example, longstanding water scarcity issues will only be exacerbated by fracking operations that require millions of liters of water per project. In the earthquake-prone Sichuan basin in China, the Karoo basin in South Africa, the Himalayas, or the Sumatran basin in Indonesia, drilling around complex underground geologies raises the prospect of increased seismic activity, higher costs, and “incalculable environmental impacts and risks.” In Argentina, Brazil, Russia, and South Africa, drilling activity on or near indigenous lands is already leading to conflicts with local communities.

“The emerging planned expansion of the shale gas industry outside the EU and North America raises serious concerns because of the almost unavoidable environmental, social, and health impacts already seen at existing fracking sites,” reads the report. “Given that these problems have proved difficult to avoid in countries with relatively strong regulations to protect the environment, how can this industry be properly monitored in countries where environmental standards are often lower (and sometimes non-existent), and/or where enforcement capacities are frequently limited and where corruption can be an everyday reality?”

Far greater scrutiny of the industry’s climate impacts is warranted, the report concludes, “particularly in countries which are already and will be much more directly affected by the consequences of climate change.”

Natural gas “is not—and never has been—the clean fuel that the industry has tried to claim,” it reads. “In fact it poses an immediate threat to attempts made to fight climate change.”

Friends of the Earth is urging the 195 nations gathered in Peru this week to consider these assertions.

“Around the world people and communities are already paying the price of the climate crisis with their livelihoods and lives,” said Susann Scherbarth, climate justice and energy campaigner at Friends of the Earth Europe. “Fracking will only make things worse and has no place in a clean energy future. Europe and other industrialized countries most responsible for the climate crisis need to use the talks in Lima to make genuine commitments to end their reliance on corporate-controlled fossil fuels and embrace clean, citizen energy.”


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How Two Reservoirs Have Become Billboards For What Climate Change Is Doing To The American West

Lake Mead's "bathtub ring" at the top of the white band shows how high the water used to be.
Lake Mead’s “bathtub ring” at the top of the white band shows how high the water used to be. CREDIT: (Credit: AP)

 by Tom Kenworthy, Guestblogger at ThinkProgress, August 12, 2013

This week, to see how climate change will pull a nasty water surprise on the desert Southwest, you only need to look at one river.

Lake Powell is the giant reservoir on the Utah-Arizona border that backs up behind Glen Canyon Dam and is the linchpin for managing the Colorado River. The Colorado basically makes modern life possible in seven western states by providing water for some 40 million people and irrigating 4 million acres of crops. It is also depended upon by 22 native American tribes, 7 national wildlife refuges and 11 national parks.

As soon as Monday, the federal government’s Bureau of Reclamation will announce the results of some very serious number crunching and model running focused on falling water levels in Lake Powell. It is widely expected that the bureau will announce that there is a serious water shortage and that for the first time in the 50-year-history of the dam, the amount of water that will be released from the reservoir will be cut. Not just cut, but cut by 750,000 acre feet — an acre foot being enough water to cover an acre one foot deep. That’s more than 9 percent below the 8.23 million acre feet that is supposed to be delivered downstream to Lake Mead for use in the states of California, Nevada and Arizona and the country of Mexico under the 81-year old Colorado River Compact and later agreements.

It will be, in the somewhat dry appraisal of Anne Castle, the assistant secretary of the Interior for water and science who oversees the bureau, “very unusual.”

Unusual, and unprecedented, but not totally unforeseen.

Six years ago, following another period of dropping water levels in Colorado River reservoirs, the federal government and the seven states that rely on the river agreed on“interim operating guidelines” for apportioning water in the event of shortages. That step is part of a longer-term process of trying to figure out how to deal with a river system that is no longer providing the volumes of water the southwest long ago came to expect. The guidelines require the secretary of the Interior each year to assess what the water supply looks like for the lower Colorado River basin states of California, Nevada and Arizona. The secretary can choose among three declarations: normal, surplus or shortage. This year the smart money is on shortage.

Lake Powell, and its downstream cousin, Lake Mead — formed by Hoover Dam — are the two largest reservoirs in the U.S. They are the main plumbing fixtures for dividing up Colorado River water under a complex set of agreements known as the Law of the River. The Colorado River Compact is the most important of those agreements, and requires that the lower basin states and upper basin states (Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming) each get 7.5 million acre feet a year. Mexico gets another 1.5 million under a 1944 treaty.

All good in theory, but the river was divided up in the 1920’s, a wet period when river flows were high. Times, and flows, have changed.

Now, the two reservoirs are giant flat water billboards advertising what climate change is doing to the American West. Persistent drought, and diminished snow runoff in the Rocky Mountains, have drastically shrunk the two reservoirs. Both are now less than half full, and both sport bathtub rings that show in dramatic fashion how high the waters used to be. Inflows to Powell this year are about 42 percent of average.

Some people believe that Lake Powell is toast, that it will never fill up again. For a lake that attracts a couple of million visitors a year who spend lavishly on houseboats, fishing gear, sun tan lotion and beer, that has some serious economic implications.

It could get worse.

Lake Powell is a moneymaker in other ways. Glen Canyon Dam and its hydroelectric turbines, produce 1320 megawatts of electricity, enough for about 1.3 million people. That yields something like $125 million every year, and that pot of money pays for the operations of much of the entire Colorado River Storage Project, and a host of vital environmental restoration programs.

Droughts do happen from time to time. But the hydrological cycle is being stressed by more than just natural variations. As greenhouse gases trap more heat in the atmosphere, dry areas like the Southwest will get drier and drier.

Last month, Eric Kuhn, the general manager of the Colorado River Water Conservation District in western Colorado, which looks out for the state’s interest in river issues, sent a memo to his board of directors outlining the likelihood of a shortage declaration by the Bureau of Reclamation.

“A one year shortage is probably not a big deal,” wrote Kuhn. But he made it clear that a multi-year shortage, and some very serious repercussions, are quite possible. In 2015, Kuhn wrote, the water level in Lake Powell may fall low enough — below what is known as minimum power head — to shut down the production of hydroelectric power. “The financial impacts could be substantial,” he wrote.

“The scary scenario for the Lower Basin is a multi-year shortage,” according to Kuhn’s memo. Among the impacts: big water delivery cuts to Nevada and Arizona, power production from Hoover Dam is “dramatically reduced,” recreation on Lake Meade “becomes marginal.”

Long term, the outlook is particularly grim. Late last year, a joint study by the Bureau of Reclamation and the seven river basin states looked at water supply prospects over the next half century. It projects average yearly imbalances between supply and demand of 3.2 million acre feet by 2060. An acre foot is about what a typical suburban household uses in a year.

Asked what she thinks of Kuhn’s analysis, Bureau of Reclamation overseer Castle told Climate Progress that “it’s based on some pretty draconian scenarios, but it’s not out of the realm of possibility.” But she predicts that ultimately “the states and the federal agencies together with all the stakeholders on the river will come together around a management plan that will attempt to ensure that we don’t hit critical [water levels] in either Powell or Mead.”

Outside groups are looking for solutions, too, and one — the Glen Canyon Institute, which advocates for a free-flowing Colorado River and the restoration of the magnificent canyon inundated by the dam and the filling of Lake Powell — sees at least a partial answer in its “Fill Mead First” plan.

Citing research that shows large water losses in Powell because of seepage into the porous sandstone banks, Glen Canyon Institute executive director Christi Wedig says Fill Mead First could save 300,000 acre feet of water a year, equivalent to Nevada’s annual allocation. The plan would allow Lake Mead to fill first, and would keep Lake Powell at the depth just above minimum power head. It would, said Wedig, bring substantial environmental benefits to the Grand Canyon, and would reveal many of the hidden treasures of Glen Canyon and stimulate tourism there.

Before the dam and lake erased it, few people had explored Glen Canyon. Author and photographer Eliot Porter described it in his book “The Place No One Knew”

“The big features, the massive walls and towers, the shimmering vistas, the enveloping light, are all hypnotizing, shutting out awareness of the particular,” he wrote. “Later you begin to focus on the smaller, more familiar, more comprehensible objects . . . the velvety lawns of young tamarisks sprouting on the wet sand bars just vacated by the retreating flood . . . the festooned, evocative designs etched into the walls by water and lichens. It is an intimate canyon.”

“Glen Canyon has been unexplored since 1963,” said Wedig. “There is a huge opportunity to capitalize” on its re-emergence with new tourism that focuses more on exploring vivid canyons and less on partying aboard 60-foot houseboats.

Castle declined to comment on the Fill Mead First idea. But she does say that current circumstances on the Colorado River are “unprecedented.”

The last 14 years on the Colorado River, she says, have been the driest years since records began being kept in the late 1800’s, and based on tree ring studies among the driest 14 year periods in the last 1,200 years.

“If you say climate change doesn’t have an impact, you’re smoking something,” Castle concludes.

Andrew Breiner contributed graphics to this piece.


This material [the article above] was created by the Center for American Progress Action Fund. It was created for the Progress Report, the daily e-mail publication of the Center for American Progress Action Fund. Click here to subscribe.

Drought-Stricken New Mexico Farmers Drain Aquifer To Sell Water For Fracking

Just for reference sake, Humboldt County, NV is currently classified as ‘D3 Drought – Extreme’ and the USDA has designated Elko County as a primary natural disaster area due to damages and losses caused by drought, yet Governor Sandoval is considering green-lighting fracking operations between Elko and Wells. We don’t have enough water, and they want to divert what supplies we have to potentially contaminate what remains … and then they want to contaminate the air we breathe as well.  Here’s a graphic video from BakkenWatch.org about what’s happening in North Dakota which, if you’re an animal lover, will bring tears to your eyes

— BY JOE ROMM ON AUGUST 5, 2013

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The bad news is that the terrible drought in New Mexico has led some farmers to sell their water to the oil and gas industry. The worse news is that many of them are actually pumping the water out of the aquifer to do so.

The worst news of all is that once the frackers get through tainting it with their witches’ brew of chemicals, that water often becomes unrecoverable — and then we have the possibility the used fracking water will end up contaminating even more of the groundwater.

The Albuquerque Journal reports:

With a scant agriculture water supply due to the prolonged drought, some farmers in Eddy County with supplemental wells are keeping bill collectors at bay by selling their water to the booming oil and gas industry.

The industry needs the water for hydraulic fracturing, known as fracking, the drilling technique that has been used for decades to blast huge volumes of water, fine sands and chemicals into the ground to crack open valuable shale formations.

You may wonder why farmers would sell water to frackers when some 95% of the state has been under severe drought conditions for the entire year. The short answer is it pays the bills. Here’s the longer answer:

In recent months, more legal notices have been appearing in the Current-Argus informing the public that a water-right holder with a supplemental well has submitted an application to the state engineer’s office seeking to change the purpose of use from agriculture to commercial, or transferring the right from one location to another.

“A lot of folks are doing that,” said New Mexico Interstate Stream Commissioner Jim Wilcox, an Otis resident and president of the Otis Mutual Domestic Water Association. “I can’t blame them. The Carlsbad Irrigation District doesn’t have the water the farmers need, and our farmers have to have some income coming in.”

Wilcox said farmers in the Carlsbad Irrigation District can’t sell their primary water source they receive via the irrigation system because the CID is a government project. However, if they have a supplemental well, they can apply for a change of use permit that gives them the right to sell their well water for commercial use.

Yes, the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commissioner can’t blame farmers for an ultimately self-destructive practice that can’t possibly be sustained. Perhaps he should read Thomas Jefferson’s “brilliant statement of intergenerational equity principles.”

Wilcox fully understands what it means to pump an unreplenishing aquifer during a drought:

“Farmers right now are having to pump their supplemental wells, and we understand that. It’s their livelihood,” he said. “But the supplemental wells are drawing from the same water table we provide potable water to our customers (from).”

“The oil and gas industry is requiring a lot of water and our concern is the effect it’s having on our aquifer,” he added. “We are concerned about losing water that can’t be recovered. Hopefully, we will get through this drought and everyone will be intact.”

While this drought will likely end at some point, climate change means droughts in the southwest are going to get longer, drier, and hotter. If we don’t reverse emissions trends very soon, the entire region is headed towards permanent Dust Bowl conditions.

The oil and gas industry apparently doesn’t care whether it helps destroy the entire water supply of New Mexico — as long as the groundwater supply lasts until they finish fracking the state. You’d think state officials would see the value for farmers and residents in sustainable water consumption given where the climate is headed.

Tragically, fracked water can be worse than unrecoverable. It can poison groundwater when reinjection wells fail, which they are prone to do as Propublica explained in their exposé in Scientific American, “Are Fracking Wastewater Wells Poisoning the Ground beneath Our Feet?” As that article pointed out:

“In 10 to 100 years we are going to find out that most of our groundwater is polluted,” said Mario Salazar, an engineer who worked for 25 years as a technical expert with the EPA’s underground injection program in Washington. “A lot of people are going to get sick, and a lot of people may die.”

The Albuquerque Journal quotes one local man, Jim Davis:

“In some areas, we are over-appropriating. We are in a drought and the water table has dropped drastically and there is no recharge,” he said. “There are some people who have legal water rights and they are over-pumping. The public doesn’t know about it. As private individuals, we have to raise Cain about it.

… “Black River is at its lowest level ever. It’s lower than it was in the 1950s when we had a long drought. I make my living from selling water, but at the same time, I think it is important to protect our precious water supply.”

Davis has been “selling water commercially from his wells in Black River for about seven years”! But now things have gone too far even for him.

After Cain murdered Abel, God asked him where his brother was. Cain famously replied, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” As Answers.com puts it, “Cain’s words have come to symbolize people’s unwillingness to accept responsibility for the welfare of their fellows — their ‘brothers’ in the extended sense of the term. The tradition of Judaism and Christianity is that people do have this responsibility.” Seriously.


This material [the article above] was created by the Center for American Progress Action Fund. It was created for the Progress Report, the daily e-mail publication of the Center for American Progress Action Fund. Click here to subscribe.

The Drought Lottery

Our lawmakers should spend the next month figuring out how to reduce our $16 trillion debt instead of showering special interests with even more wasteful subsidies that have nothing to do with the drought.

By Ryan Alexander

Ryan Alexander

Politicians on both sides of the aisle are planning to shamelessly take advantage of the devastating drought and stick taxpayers with a bloated, wasteful Farm Bill. This trillion dollar bill won’t fix the drought, but it will put taxpayers in a fix.

Let’s be clear. The drought is real. More than 1,900 counties have been declared disaster areas. This could be the driest, hottest year for agriculture since 1988 or earlier. Many farmers are going to harvest much less than they expected, some practically nothing. Sounds like a disaster.

But when you look at the balance sheet, you see abundance.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture recently announced that the agriculture sector is on pace to make a record $122.4 billion in profits this year.

On one hand, this makes sense: Less supply equals higher prices. We’re still using billions of bushels of corn and soybeans to feed our cars (ethanol) and our cows, so whatever is harvested can often be sold at prices that are nearing record territory. And not every county is suffering from drought, so some folks are raking it in. But the other part of this equation is your contribution. Or, more specifically, your tax dollars.

Most farmers were taken care of before a single seed was planted, through federally subsidized crop insurance. Agricultural businesses can get insurance policies covering everything from corn to clams. And they get them for cheap, or even free. A basic catastrophic policy, covering a 50 percent loss, has Uncle Sam paying 100 percent of the premium. If you want one that kicks in earlier, for as little as a 15 percent loss in many cases, he’ll write a check for a portion of that cost, too. On average, taxpayers pay 62 cents out of each dollar of farmers’ insurance premium costs. Importantly, many policies cover not just losses of crops, but the revenue you were expecting from that crop. Last year Uncle Sam shelled out more than $11 billion on this income guarantee program.

It will be months before we know the final tab for crop insurance, but with 279 million acres insured — a record — $115 billion in coverage — another record — and prices for corn and soybeans also near record highs, the sky is the limit.

Estimates easily put the cost of this program anywhere from $20 to $30 billion. When the last Farm Bill was passed in 2008, the program was supposed to cost a shade over $5 billion for this year.

When the worst growing conditions in generations produce record income, most people would think it’s a sign that something is out of whack. But agricultural special interests aren’t most people. They’re actually looking to exploit the drought to ram through a Farm Bill that expands the crop insurance program and puts taxpayers on the hook for guaranteeing even higher profits for agricultural businesses.

Both the House and Senate Farm Bills include new “shallow loss” programs. Under these programs, checks would flow from Washington any time farmers see even modest dips — as little as 10 percent — in their revenue, not the devastating wipeouts that are currently making headlines. Crop insurance won’t be reined in. It will actually be expanded with special carve-outs for catfish, popcorn, peanut, and poultry producers, among others. All this and more is wrapped up in a nearly trillion-dollar bill that spends 60 percent more than the last Farm Bill passed just four years ago.

The Farm Bills aren’t about helping with the drought. As House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas (R-OK) said himself, they’re supposed to “get us through bad times and make the good times better.” With agriculture closing in on yet another year of record income, it seems like there are no bad times. Lawmakers should spend the next month figuring out how to reduce our $16 trillion debt instead of showering special interests with even more wasteful subsidies that have nothing to do with the drought.


Ryan Alexander is president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a nonpartisan federal budget watchdog. http://www.taxpayer.net   Distributed via OtherWords (OtherWords.org)