Dispatch from the Fracking Front Lines: Transylvania Fights Back

[Reprinted with author's permission from The Ecologist]

 

As the headlights fade around the bend, the team begins their work, snipping the orange seismic wires and slicing through electrical converters and generator boxes.

"Do you think they're about to have sex?" one of the group whispers. I'm in Transylvania, crouched in the bushes with a bunch of activists in balaclavas, taking turns to speculate why a car has crept to a halt close to where we are hiding out. "No, it must be the cops, you can see the light from the mobile phone," another one says. Time to move on.

It has been over an hour since the group started trashing equipment owned by the gas exploration company Prospectiuni, playing an edgy game of cat and mouse as we struggle to stay one step ahead of the security teams and police vehicles that are now sweeping the hilltops looking for us.

Another light tears round the bend on the road and the shout goes through the team to hide. I throw myself down, stretched out once again in the cool damp grass of a Transylvanian meadow. It's going to be a long night.

In recent weeks the sleepy Saxon communities and protected forests of Sibiu county in Transylvania, have become an unlikely front for a new battleground, pitting gas exploration companies, the Romanian government, and international investment firms against a small band of environmental activists from across Romania. The activists are working side by side with local farmers to resist gas and oil exploration that they claim is taking place illegally on their land.

Listed on the London Stock exchange just two weeks ago with brokering assistance from Goldman Sachs, the Romanian gas company Romgaz has long announced plans to explore the low-lying hills of Transylvania for conventional and also unconventional sources of gas and oil.

Nobody gave it another thought until the exploration began in earnest this month, when 34-ton earthquake-inducing seismic trucks growled into the muddy tracks of villages here, accompanied by cohorts of security guards and busloads of workers.

Communities told me that they awoke to ribbons being laid out across their lands even attached to their garden fences, signals for the companies to lay cables and plant the explosives for the seismic tests.

Today the villages and fields are peppered in strips of ribbon, stretching like spaghetti across this ancient landscape of beech forests, bee hives and the harvested stubs of organic corn fields intermingled with medieval villages and citadels.

Jim Wickens/EFU
The village gathers to protest fracking. Photo: Jim Wickens/EFU.

All the seismic tests are taking place within Romania's largest Natura 2000 site. Several of the churches here are UNESCO heritage sites, visited both by Princes Charles and Edward in recent years.

Driving into the remote communities where the seismic tests are taking place feels like walking into an occupied territory. I watch as a team of workers prepare a hole with dynamite a few metres from the village football pitch. On the high street private security jeeps can be seen parked up at the crossroads, black uniformed men filming and following our every move.

At the end of the road an elderly orthodox priest ushers me inside nervously, asking not to be identified. "They told me not to talk with you", he says. "The bishops say it is not the role of a priest to get involved in community affairs." He pauses, a flash in his eyes, almost thinking aloud.

"We thought they had come to rebuild the playground - then the earthquake happened, shaking the houses here, causing cracks and breaking ornaments inside the houses. The people were scared. Nobody asked us permission, they didn't even tell us what they were doing."

He is interrupted by a shrill ringtone on his mobile. Fifteen minutes later he returns to the kitchen, told again by his superiors to be quiet. The interview is over. "They know you are here", he says, showing us the door.

We keep moving out of the village, following the ribbons and the intermittent booming sounds of controlled explosions echoing around the valleys. Away from the security guards, a lady speaks up. "They are thieves," she hisses. Her neighbor comes over begging for answers. "We've heard the land will be poisoned, is this true? We live from this land. We don't have salaries!"

At the top of a hill I find a giant geological lab on wheels, antennae dangling on top and men pouring over electrical equipment inside. A small portly man introduces himself. Gheorghe Daianu, a seismologist and director of operations for the exploration company Prospectiuni, which has been subcontracted for 40 million euros to carry out the tests in the region.

He condemns the protests against his work, calling opponents of gas exploration "neo fascists." Daianu is resolute that the company has permission to be on every parcel of land where the tests are taking place, a claim he says that can be backed up with paperwork, before he orders us to leave the area.

I head to the nearby village of Mosna, where farmer Willy Schuster and his wife Lavinia have invited me to stay at their home to cover a protest planned against the exploration activities.

Amidst clucking chickens, roaring fires, and cheese-making in the kitchen, a dozen activists began to arrive from across the country, updating Facebook accounts and charging their cameras for the following day. This would be the first protest against gas exploration in Transylvania, they explained, urging me to get an early night's sleep. But first I had another appointment.

Bundled into a rusty van under cover of darkness from a pre-arranged location, I found myself sat in the midst of a dozen men and women in balaclavas. The driver turns to greet me. "Don't worry about our get-away vehicle - it's super quick. Only 350,000km on the clock!" She laughs out loud as the rusty door slams shut, and the team trundles away into the frosty darkness.

Jim Wickens/EFU
Fracking protester with seismic wires. Photo: Jim Wickens/EFU.

Minutes later, I am bundled out onto the roadside with military precision, scurrying into the undergrowth with half a dozen adrenaline-fuelled activists, armed with pliers and wire cutters. As soon as the headlights fade round the bend, the team began their work, snipping the orange seismic wires and slicing through electrical converters and generator boxes they come across.

Every so often a shout goes up, and the team is sent diving for cover as the sweeping headlights of suspected security vehicles sweep across from the road close by. Part army, part anarchy, the evening is spent in a whirlwind of adrenalin-fuelled scrambling among remote hills under the light of a full moon, clawing through scratchy thorn bushes, woodland clearings and boggy streams. Beneath the balaclavas, members of the team gradually open up to me.

"Several months ago none of us knew each other, but now we are united. We are so angry about the way our country is being run. 2013 must be the year that Romania wakes up, that citizens begin to have a say in what is happening to our country. Things like fracking have to stop. We cannot accept the destruction of our own future."

At seven the next morning I sat drinking coffee with Willy in his farmhouse kitchen when a convoy of gas trucks rolls past his window en route to his fields. He runs out of the door chasing after them, apoplectic with rage.

I arrive on scene just in time to see workers from the exploration company filing out of their company coach and spreading out across his wintery fields. Willy screams them away, impounding a company pickup and refusing to let it go until the police come to file a criminal complaint.

As the morning unfolds, streams of security trucks are chased, kicked, and turned away from Willy's land. "I am terrified for my children", he says, waving a flimsy branch at the assembled security forces facing him down on the muddy track. "I am fighting for their future."

A man more accustomed to milking cows than fighting multinationals, he is nonetheless standing up to the gas companies. Many more are beginning to follow the example of this accidental hero who is rapidly becoming a thorn in the side of the country's energy ambitions.

Southern Transylvania's rolling hills are one of several new fronts opening up in Romania's search for home-grown deposits of natural gas and oil, a treasure-trove of energy opportunities according to energy-extraction advocates.

Victor Ponta, the Romanian prime minister, made a bold statement to journalists in June this year, laying the way for a swathe of expansion by fossil fuel companies across the hills of Europe's second poorest nation.

"Do we want to have gas? First of all to stop importing from Russia. Do we want to have it cheap and do we want to make the Romanian industry competitive and, of course, to have lower expenses for the people? Then we must have gas."

But Ponta's government is facing an unexpectedly uphill battle in meeting their resource ambitions. In recent weeks the controversial Canadian-owned gold mine in Rosia Montana has been put on hold, forced into submission by waves of protests in city streets numbering tens of thousands.

And in the latest public showdown, a fracking rig operated by Chevron further south, has been chased away from a test site by communities deeply fearful of the damage that they believe fracking may bring.

With almost four million peasant farmers in Romania reliant on clean air, water, and soil for their livelihood, support for natural resource protection campaigns are finding fertile ground in the most unlikeliest of places, among the conservative communities in the country's rural heartland.

I meet Hettie, a 26-year-old activist from the nearby city of Brasov, as she blocks the road to Willy's land. "If villagers see us doing it, they will do it too," she says. "We have to give people the courage to do this at any time."

Faced with an increasingly galvanized opposition, the government is preparing to fight back. A "Law of Expropriation", currently being drafted in the Romanian Parliament, will potentially allow multinational companies to take over privately-owned land if it is felt the developments are "in the national interest." At present, the law is focused primarily around mining. But observers say it is widely expected to be extended to energy development projects in the near future.

Jim Wickens/EFU
Fighting with the police. Photo: Jim Wickens/EFU

 

The stand-off in Willy's field is rapidly escalating into a community affair. Half a dozen security cars remain blocked, prevented from moving forward by a growing throng of local residents, joined by Roma kids on bicycles and a young woman riding a horse. A farmer appears in an orchard on the other side of the valley where minutes earlier gas workers had been busy rolling up electrical wiring.

Gheorghe Daianu, the Prospectiuni seismologist, spits angrily, wiping his wrinkled forehead in frustration and sucking heavily on a cigarette. "Of course they have no permission to be here, but what can I do?"

Community activists claim that half a dozen laws are being breached by Prospectiuni in their gas exploration, from lacking the appropriate permits, testing too close to homes, through to committing trespass. "The real problem here is that village people simply don't know their rights," says community activist Hans Hedrich.

Prospectiuni and Romgaz both turned down an opportunity to comment on claims of illegality, but in a statement on their website the CEO of Prospectiuni states: "Occasionally we still make mistakes, but they are not ill-intentioned, however we try to have active environmental permits and town planning certificates."

By late afternoon, under the lee of another 600-year-old medieval church, volunteers are dishing out potato soup, Transylvanian cakes and hot tea - with surprising efficiency. Elderly ladies in headscarves and traditional dress are rubbing shoulders with pierced activists and men in balaclavas.

It's an intriguing mix. The impassioned crowd marches out to rip out more seismic wires in full view of the policemen who stand watching from the side of the road. Residents too scared to talk the day before now stand outside their houses, cheering and applauding the protestors in delight.

"Honestly, I feel sorry for them," one of the police officers tells me, as they stand aside and allow the protestors to rip out a mile of bright orange cabling, dragging it through the dust on their way back to the village. "What the company is doing here ... well ... it's just wrong." Then he moves his head closer to mine. "Actually it's illegal," he whispers.

Jim Wickens is an investigative journalist. He works for the Ecologist Film Unit and is a regular correspondent for The Ecologist.

 
 

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A Gas Boom, a Farm Bust in Pennsylvania

When Sheila Russell decided to move back to her ancestral home in Bradford County, Pennsylvania, she wanted to start a new life. A seventh-generation Russell, whose family had settled the land in 1796, the last year of George Washington’s presidency, she left her corporate job at a catalog company to do what she loved best: farming.

There was only one problem: shale gas. As luck would have it, the Russell farm happened to sit on top of the Marcellus shale, a large underground formation rich in natural gas. In 2010, just as Ms. Russell was embarking on her new career in organic farming, Chesapeake Energy drilled two shale-gas wells across the road, less a thousand feet from the farm.

Although not worried at first and even hopeful that future royalties from the gas may help her expand her business, Ms. Russell soon found herself in a nightmare, when she discovered that one of the wells on her property had been leaking methane gas into the ground, due to a faulty casing, for over a year.

Today, Sheila Russell has stopped drinking the water from her private well and even refuses to water her produce with it, preferring instead a nearby spring-fed pond. Water tests have shown elevated levels of methane and metals, still within state norms, but she does not want to take any chances.

"It's a concern for me, it's a concern for my customers," she says. "We all thought [the gas] was a lot of money coming and that it was safe. And it’s neither safe, nor a money-maker. Do I stay on this seventh-generation farm and keep it going? I don’t know."

Sheila Russell's case is hardly an exception. Bradford County, a bucolic region in northern Pennsylvania full of woodlands, rolling hills, and pastures dotted by red barns and hay bales, with a population of just 63,000 people, has been undergoing a massive industrial transformation for the past few years, as both American and international companies have joined the rush for gas.

This is not the first natural-resource boom in Bradford County. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, coal mining and logging were big economic drivers -- until the coal ran out and the hills were hills were stripped bare -- but the shale gas may prove to be the biggest industry yet.

About 2,000 shale-gas wells have been drilled and permitted in the county so far, making it the most heavily drilled region in Pennsylvania and the Marcellus as a whole. And while the economic benefits for companies, larger leaseholders, and some local businesses have been significant, the gas rush threatens to undermine the venerable farming and dairy operations in the area, while creating a host of environmental and social problems.

The changes are hard to ignore. From a sleepy Pennsylvania town on the banks of the Susquehanna River, Towanda, the county's seat, has metamorphosed into a real boomtown, with industry trucks and large pickups jamming the single main street. Crime has gone up by about 40 percent, while rents and food prices have skyrocketed.

Meanwhile, new restaurants and hotels have sprung up along the river valley to service the rig and pipeline workers, many of them coming here from as far as Texas, Oklahoma, and Mississippi.

Since 2008, when drilling for shale gas began in the county, revenues from sales tax have jumped up 61 percent, while unemployment has hovered at around six percent, lower than the national average. So far, local landowners have received $160 million in leases, which have boosted spending, as well as the county's tax base.

"The shale gas industry has had a very positive economic impact on the region" says Anthony Ventello, the executive director of Progress Authority, the local chamber of commerce, pointing out that the gas industry continues to bring in new investments. A new 800 MW gas-fired power plant, worth between 600 and 800 million dollars, has been already planned, while other, smaller gas-related projects are soon to follow.

"We're looking to create a value-added economy and not just ship natural gas out of here like a third-world country," he says.

 

Yet, behind the upbeat statistics, a darker side lurks. Blowouts, toxic spills, water contamination, and gas migration have accompanied development.

Chesapeake Energy, the company with the most substantial presence, was fined $900,000 -- the largest environmental fine in the state’s history -- for allowing gas migration to contaminate the water of 16 families in the county in 2010. Later, a blowout of one of the company’s wells caused large amounts of "produced water" -- liquid waste associated with shale gas extraction -- to spill into Towanda creek. In Bradford County, according to the Department of Environmental Protection, overall there have been more than 600 violations so far.

Most often, accidents occur due to faulty casing and cementing, with gas and a variety of dangerous metals migrating into the water table. The industry calculates that six percent of all new wells have some kind of casing or cementing problem, but in reality that percentage could be much higher.

Carol French, a long-time dairy farmer, experienced the adverse consequences of shale-gas drilling first hand, when her well water turned white and murky in 2011. Soon, her whole family started having skin rashes, while her 24-year old daughter fell extremely ill with intestinal, liver and spleen problems (she quickly improved when she moved away from the farm). Meanwhile, the family's cattle began suffering from skin rashes and breeding issues.

"I got to see my farm lose 90 percent of its property value," she says. “I’m losing my milk market and probably I won’t be able to sell my cows. The gas industry had negatively impacted our health, our water, our business, our society."

Mrs. French has made the conscious decision to keep her dairy operation going, despite the fact that there are about 340 shale-gas wells within a ten-mile radius of her farm. Many of her neighbors, on the other hand, have simply opted to take the money from their gas leases and sell their dairy herds. Out of about 12 dairy farmers in the immediate vicinity, only three have kept their farms running, according to Mrs. French's estimates. Even the local milk hauler has gone on to work as a truck driver for the shale-gas industry.

Another serious impact has been the fragmentation of farmland by the wells pads, compressor stations, and the thousands of miles of pipelines already crisscrossing the hills or currently under construction.

Certainly, there are other factors contributing to the decline of dairy farms in Bradford County, beyond the gas industry. Low milk prices and expensive feed have kept the business on the edge of survival for years and many have seen the windfall from gas leases and royalties as the perfect exit.

The choice was clear for Howard Keir, a neighbor of Carol French. After leasing the mineral rights of his property to Chesapeake Energy, he immediately sold off his dairy herd. He believes shale-gas extraction is generally safe and today has three wells on his property, out of which he soon expects to receive royalties.

"With the price of milk going mostly down, farmers were going out of business anyway, so you can’t blame it all on the industry," he says.

Anthony Ventello, of the chamber of commerce, agrees. "Don’t get me wrong, but farming is doomed, no matter what you do. It has to do with milk prices mostly. Yes, things will change, but I don’t see that as a danger."

Anecdotal evidence suggests that some farmers use the proceeds from gas exploration to upgrade their operations, but the general trend has been in the opposite direction.

A 2012 study by Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences draws a direct correlation between the decline of cow numbers and dairy production in areas with higher drilling activity. Between 2007 and 2010, in counties with 150 or more gas wells cow numbers have decreased by 18.7 percent on average, compared to only 1.2 percent decrease in counties with no Marcellus wells. In Bradford County the decline has been 18.8 percent for that time period.

Timothy Kelsey, professor of agricultural economics and a co-author of the study, sees a danger for the entire dairy industry in the region if the decline continues.

"If the number of farms and agricultural activity fall too low, these essential supporting businesses [like feed stores, large animal veterinarians, machinery dealers, and agricultural processors] will leave or quit, making it difficult for remaining farmers to access needed inputs and markets and thus remain in business," he writes.

If such domino effect takes place and farming and dairy production in Bradford County collapse along with the entire supply chain, even the large financial inflow from the shale gas industry might not be able to make up for the difference.

A law that came into effect last year in Pennsylvania, Act 13, tries to mitigate some of the negative effects of shale gas drilling by providing an impact fee. In 2012, Bradford County received $8.2 million with another $6.8 million projected for 2013.

"It's a chunk of change that Bradford County never had before," says Mark Smith, one of the county commissioners. "Is it enough? I don't think we know that answer yet."

Without a doubt shale gas has made a serious contribution to the economy of Bradford County and Pennsylvania as a whole, yet risking a sustainable industry like farming for an unsustainable one like fossil-fuel extraction may prove too expensive in the end.

Already a bust is on the horizon: drilling in the county has seen a substantial decline, from 408 shale-gas wells drilled in 2011 to 149 well through November of 2012, due to low gas prices. The construction of thousands of miles of pipeline continues in preparation for the new boom when prices pick up, but it is far from certain whether farming in the area could recover so easily.

"The story is always different at the kitchen table where they come to sign you on than it is out in the field," says Bruce Kennedy, a long-time farmer whose family roots in Pennsylvania go back 200 years. In 2011, three accidents related to shale gas extraction happened on his property, including a large diesel spill.

"My grandfather always taught me to leave a place better than you found it. I don’t mind people going after the gas, but it doesn't entitle them to abuse the place. You have to be a good steward of the land."

 

Reporting for this article was funded by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting and Calkins Media. Dimiter Kenarov is a freelance journalist based in Istanbul, Turkey. To learn more about the impacts of fracking, visit Link TV's ISSUE: Fracking page.

 
 

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Here in Youngstown: The Promise and Curse of Shale Gas
There was a saying in Youngstown that the day you didn't have to sweep soot off your porch was the day that spelled trouble. That was more than thirty-five years ago, when the city, nestled in Ohio’s Mahoning Valley, was one of the great steel manufacturers in the United States – "the Ruhr Valley of America" – with dozens of foundries, their smokestacks belching black plumes into a black sky.

Then the soot gradually disappeared, but so did the jobs, as automation and cheap imports drove the industry away. The steel mills shut down, one by one, like the organs of a dying patient. By the end, more than 50,000 people lost their employment and the city's population shrank by nearly 65 percent, to just over 60,000.

Today, brownfields and empty factories litter the landscape and ghostly, boarded-up houses haunt the neighborhoods. Tattered American flags flutter from skeletal poles. Junkies roam the streets listlessly. If the Rust Belt had a buckle, it would be right here. 

But the world is changing, and so is Youngstown. The shale gas boom in the Marcellus formation of neighboring Pennsylvania has lifted up hopes in the city– while raising fears of new industrial-scale pollution.

A slick 650-million dollar plant with 350 employees, V&M Star, making steel tubes for the gas industry, opened last October to great fanfare, where once stood the Brier Hill Works of Youngstown Sheet & Tube. A few smaller steel shops have also made a comeback, while restaurants and motels are getting busier, according to interview with owners.

"The shale gas could be a game changer, but I think in truth it's a very strong diversifier of our regional economy," says Eric Planey, vice president of the International Business Attraction, Youngstown’s chamber of commerce. "It's almost like a steroid for the economy."

Drilling for shale gas, too, has recently made its entrance into the Mahoning Valley, as the local Utica Shale has proven rich in profitable "wet gas," saturated with natural gas liquids like propane, butane and ethane. So far, there are just a few shale gas wells in the county area – overall, 196 have been drilled in Ohio and 477 have been permitted – but many more are in the planning stages. Like smokestacks turned upside down, the boreholes seem to promise a new industrial revival for Youngstown.

In truth, for the past several years the city has been attempting to reinvent itself as a high-tech hub for software startups, but success has so far been limited. General Motors remains the largest employer in the area and blue-collar jobs are the most popular.

"Shale gas could really turn our economy around and produce jobs in the future," Charles Sammarone, the mayor of Youngstown, says.

The city council recently approved an ordinance to allow the lease of the mineral rights of 180 acres of city-owned land. The potential revenue, the mayor hopes, could fund the demolition of abandoned houses and buildings, and give Youngstown a facelift. A 2010 survey by the Mahoning Valley Organizing Collaborative showed that there are 3,246 vacant structures within the city limits, or about 44.8 structures per 1,000 residents, a figure 20 times the national average.

At the same time, unemployment has been kept relatively low at 7.9 percent, the national average, but only because so many people have been leaving the area.

"We want to clean up our neighborhoods, so we can keep people from moving out," Sammarone says.

Patching and cleaning up Youngstown with shale gas, though, may prove its own ironic pitfall. Shale gas harvesting requires an invasive technique called hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, whereby millions of gallons of frack fluid – a mixture of water, sand and chemicals, some of them toxic – are injected in the ground under high pressure to crack the impermeable rock and release the trapped hydrocarbons.

Much of that mixture then comes back as "produced water" or "brine," laced underground with high concentrations of salts, a variety of heavy metals, and naturally occurring radioactivity, making it very difficult for treatment or disposal.

"All oil and gas production brings certain risks of contamination to ground and surface water, [but] through appropriate oversight, training, maintenance, and enforcement of regulations, spills can be greatly minimized," says Jeffrey Dick, director of Youngstown’s Natural Gas and Water Research Institute.

However, cases of groundwater contamination and gas migration into aquifers due to faulty casings, as well as blowouts and spills have been quite common and well documented in Pennsylvania, right across the state border. Between January 2008 and August 2011, Pennsylvania's Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) recorded 2,988 violations related to shale gas extraction, 1,144 of which involved environmental threats or substantial environmental damage.

Chesapeake Energy, the second largest producer of natural gas in the United States, was fined last year $900,000, the biggest environmental fine in Pennsylvania's history, for allowing gas to contaminate private water wells in Bradford County. In 2009, another company, Cabot Oil & Gas received a fine of over $500,000 for similar violations in Dimock, Pennsylvania.

Industry statics indicate that six percent of cement casings in new wells fail and leak gas and liquid contaminants in the environment, while that percentage climbs precipitously to 50 after the first 30 years of exploitation.

"The gas industry could revitalize the town, but you can't also look the other way. The rivers have been polluted, the land has been polluted by the steel industry, and they left us pretty much in shambles," says Robert Hagan, an Ohio state representative and a Youngstown native, who had worked as a locomotive engineer for decades, ferrying steel products across the region. "You have to think very clearly about what could happen with the shale gas and oil industry... so we don't repeat the same mistakes that we've done in the past."

Although there is no substantial drilling in the area yet, with just over a dozen wells in various stages of development, Youngstown has already felt the shockwaves, literally. With no previous history of major seismicity, the city experienced 12 earthquakes in 2011, the strongest one a 4.0 on the Richter scale.

A preliminary report by the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR) linked the tremors to a deep injection well, Northstar 1, used for the disposal of brine from Pennsylvania's shale gas industry. Located right across the new V&M Star pipe plant, on the opposite bank of the Mahoning River, the well was a reminder of the other, dirtier end-product of fossil-fuel extraction.

"Everybody is saying how great the new jobs are but they're being willfully ignorant about the whole big picture," says Raymond Beiersdorfer, a professor of geology at Youngstown State University, who used to work in oil exploration. "You can't have a sustainable environment when you're developing shale gas in such a polluting manner. There are problems all through the whole chain of the process."

Northstar 1 was eventually shut down and ODNR implemented stricter rules for waste disposal in all the 192 deep injection wells in Ohio, but a potential for seismic events or serious leaks nonetheless remains, experts say. For that reason, the nearby town of Niles recently banned injection wells on its territory.

"The earthquakes shook people up and made them realize the risks of the gas industry," says John Williams, 55, a Niles native, both of whose grandfathers worked in the steel mills.

At the end of 2011, Williams and a few other local residents organized a grassroots movement against injection wells and fracking, Frackfree Mahoning Valley, which has since grown in popularity, staging a number of rallies and information sessions. And although some Youngstown residents see anti-fracking organizations as an obstacle to economic recovery, the area's long tradition of unionism and populist activism have generally cast environmental protests in a positive light.

But Williams has gone even further. When the company Consol Energy was recently allowed to drill a shale gas well in the protection area of Meander Creek Reservoir, which supplies drinking water to all the residents of Youngstown and adjoining residential areas, he started his own private monitoring initiative, PEEPS (People's Essential Environmental Protection Service).

Almost daily, Williams measures samples with professional water-testing equipment from a nearby creek that empties directly into the reservoir.

So far, he has not noticed any problems, but he keeps his guard up.

"It's a way that people can defend their property, their water and air. Government agencies are not protecting us the way we think they should, but the technology exists so we can protect ourselves," he says.

"Chances are there won't be an accident. But if there is one at Meander Creek Reservoir, it would be a lot more than just jobs that people would have to worry about."

But shale gas from the Utica and the Marcellus is just one side of the today's fossil-fuel boom around the Youngstown area. Although much smaller in scale and overall impact, a number of gas wells are being drilled in a shallower rock formation called Clinton sandstones. And reports of groundwater pollution are already coming in.

Jaime Frederick, 34, of Coitsville, Ohio, just east of Youngstown, has ten gas wells within half a mile of her house. Three years ago, just as she moved in, she started experiencing a number of mysterious liver, kidney and intestinal problems. After five surgeries and the removal of her gallbladder, she tested her water and found that it was polluted with high levels of barium, strontium and toluene – chemicals associated with drilling and hydraulic fracturing.

It was only when she stopped drinking her water that her medical condition improved. Today, Frederick has a massive filtration system in her house, as well as gas detectors on every floor.

"How can they say it’s OK you're getting sick because somebody is getting a job? To me that’s not OK. It's going to make this area a place where people wouldn’t want to live anymore. And it’s already been that for so long. Companies are turning residential land into an industrial warzone," she says.

Yet, despite the dangers of gas drilling, many residents of Youngstown continue to feel this is a good chance for the city to come back to life and maybe revive its old manufacturing glory. The question is how much "soot" the new industry would produce and how much of it residents are willing to bear for better jobs.

"It's a fact of life. It's going to happen. We may cry or complain, but the economic impact is too big to be stopped," says Jack Kravitz, the owner of the oldest deli in Youngstown, whose business has jumped up by 20 percent in the past year.

Both opponents and proponents of shale gas development, however, agree the state has to institute a stricter regulatory regime to ensure environmental safety and people's health. There are also calls for much higher taxes on the industry -- the current proposal of Ohio's governor John Kasich envisions just 1.5 percent tax on annual gross sales in the first year and 4 percent annually after that -- so the whole region could better benefit from its own resources.

"People are cautiously optimistic," says Phil Kidd, a community organizer and owner of Youngstown Nation, a popular gift shop in the downtown area. "There's a desire to see this happen, because we desperately need the economic development, but we are also concerned about the environmental aspects of it because once this resource is extracted these companies are gone. If Youngstown, Ohio, can't learn from its past, I don't know what community can."

Reporting for this article was funded by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting and Calkins Media. Dimiter Kenarov is a freelance journalist based in Istanbul, Turkey. To learn more about the impacts of fracking, visit Link TV's ISSUE: Fracking page.
 
 

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Fracking Hell? How Poland's Dash for Gas Turned Sour

Poland is about to open its doors to an unprecedented gas boom. But with multinational energy companies circling and controversial hydraulic fracturing -- or fracking -- about to begin, people and the environment are in the firing line. Andrew Wasley reports from Gdansk, Northern Poland, for Link TV and The Ecologist.

 

Chris Faulkner is an oil man. From Dallas, Texas. And his company, Breitling Oil and Gas, is a major player in the burgeoning shale gas sector. 

 

Faulkner is in London to give a presentation on whether Europe is the next shale gas hotspot, and to ask whether -- if so -- it has the necessary infrastructure to cope with a US style 'dash for gas'. 

 

But he's also here to explain how the controversial process for extracting underground shale gas reserves -- hydraulic fracturing, or 'fracking' as it has become known -- can be green. 

 

Contrary to the myths spread by environmentalists and parts of the media, the oil man contends, injecting -- at high pressure -- a mixture of water, sand and chemicals deep into the earth to release gas reserves is not in itself bad for the environment. 

 

Instead, Faulkner believes, the oil and gas industry has done a poor job in marketing itself and in managing its public relations. This has, he argues, enabled others to speak for the industry, to capture the media agenda, and to spread alarm. 

 

"The image of lighting your water faucet on fire [a key sequence in the anti-fracking film Gasland] has become the viewpoint or the image of fracking around the world. Now the reality is the media loves sensationalism and that has now transcended the entire scientific evidence that says that fracking is safe," he says. 

 

The Breitling CEO does acknowledge that fracking has impacts. But he claims to have developed a programme -- Envirofrac -- to evaluate environmentally safe fracking procedures, thus helping to combat the problem.   

 

"Fracking can be green. The environmental impacts of fracking can be effectively curtailed through a combination of technology innovation and smart regulation," Faulkner says in the press release sent out ahead of his London visit.  

 

"The focus must be on water conservation, earth preservation, and air quality monitoring."

 

But these are not terms environmentalists normally associate with fracking. 

 

In the US, the issue has become a key battleground between green campaigners and the energy industry. One of the biggest -- and most bitter -- such scraps of recent years in fact. 

 

Advocates say fracking is safe (for people and the environment), secures a domestic gas resource to help boost energy security, provides jobs, and helps bring prosperity to sometimes impoverished communities.   

 

Critics say fracking is dangerous (for people and the environment), unnecessary, and the latest example of corporate America trampling over the rights of ordinary people.  

 

Anti-fracking protest signThey argue -- supported by a growing body of evidence, it seems -- that fracking involves an unacceptable level of water usage, contaminates water supplies and spills potentially toxic waste fluids into the environment. 

 

They also say the process uses an unsavoury mix of chemicals -- including known carcinogens -- and is a cause of air pollution, traffic congestion, noise, and a host of other problems.    

 

Campaigners fear too that the shale gas boom will divert attention away from the search for alternatives to fossil fuels, thus potentially derailing efforts to tackle climate change. 

 

Most recently, media reports have linked fracking to illnesses in livestock in a number of US states, including Pennsylvania, raising fears about food safety.  

 

Phamplets and brochures and slick talk

 

Thousands of miles from Pennsylvania, in a tiny hamlet called Ogonki, in an area of northern Poland known as Kashubia, it is reports such as this which worry Edward Sawicki. 

 

Sawicki is a farmer. A small scale organic producer with less than a dozen cows. 

 

His farm sits in a picturesque, rural area of rolling hills, pristine woodland and winding country lanes. 

 

The fields and forests give way occasionally to tiny villages, farms, and manicured churches. The kind of place where shops don't open on Sundays. 

 

Kashubia isn't officially independent from the rest of Poland, but many of its inhabitants would like to think it is, with their own dialect, flag and fiercely independent spirit. It's where some Poles take their vacation. The area has many summer houses and lakes, used for swimming or fishing. 

 

Sawicki is worried because the ground underneath him contains shale gas, and gas companies want to drill for it. 

 

In late 2011, industry representatives began visiting inhabitants in the region, Sawicki says, trying to secure permission to carry out geological surveys. 

 

The gas men came armed with pamphlets and brochures and slick talk, trying to persuade people that fracking was safe. 

 

But whilst some farmers in the region were quick to allow access to their land, Sawicki refused, worried by what he had read. 

"I mean, the first threat when it comes to hydraulic fracturing and numerous drillings regards our water, what will be done to test our drinking water..,? the farmer asks. 

 

"Secondly, how the air that we breathe is going to be treated, I mean, how the gas is going to be treated, the remains from the mining, not, as the government says green gas, but all the mess that will stay here."

 

Keen to illustrate what he believes is at stake, Sawicki takes us down through the freezing fields to the shoreline of a healthy-looking lake. 

 

There's lots of trees and greenery all around, and some log cabins nearby, some wild birds floating on the water -- the sort of place in summer where you could idle away an afternoon.     

 

"I am the owner of this land, here, in this direction and that," he asserts. "The forest and meadows belong to me. My property border is at the lake that is behind me. The lake is quite big, it stretches for 7 km. One of the fishermen I know fishes here in the lake, so it is still quite clean.

 

"My fear is that oil stains may appear on the surface if some trucks that carry chemical stuff... [lose their] content deliberately in our forests or in our watercourses here, and the lake might disappear altogether."

 

Back at the farmhouse, Sawicki tells us his opposition to the exploratory drilling has come at a price. 

 

"It all started when seismic companies, the ones who have been commissioned by the [gas] exploitation companies, started [to] intrude on us last year... and it was not only intrusion, it was harassment and terrorising, threatening with expropriation, financial fines, different things."

 

He says no more -- it is too complicated to go into any detail, he explains -- but our interpreter later tells us there's been phone calls and threats.   

 

Sawicki shows us an anti-fracking mural he's had painted on the side of a barn. 

 

Although it cannot have been seen by many people in person -- Ogonki is isolated, with few, if any, folk passing through -- the mural has been filmed and photographed by all the visiting journalists here.  

 

The painting, via this unexpected route, has thus reached thousands, perhaps millions.      

 

Jobs and prosperity 

 

There should be lots of people living in Kashubia, and indeed across Poland, worried like Edward Sawicki.

 

But Poland has embraced the US 'dash for gas', and its own shale gas potential, in an enthusiastic manner not seen elsewhere in Europe. 

 

Both the authorities and, according to some polls, a significant portion of the public, are in favour of gas development. They hanker after the promised foreign investment, the jobs, and the prosperity which will follow -- it is claimed -- the expected gas boom.    

 

The country is certainly sitting on a vast shale gas reserve -- initial figures put this at over 5 trillion cubic meters, later massively downgraded but huge all the same -- and the government knows it is valuable. 

 

So far, just over a hundred exploratory concessions have been awarded to energy firms (both Polish ventures and joint Polish-overseas partnerships) to drill and help ascertain for certain just how much gas is available -- and where. 

 

Officials have carved up vast swathes of the countryside and made it available to the circling prospectors.   

 

Exploratory drilling has not yet begun at the majority of sites however. Legislation expected to be finalised later this year will provide the necessary framework for full scale extraction to begin -- the "green light" for the gas rush as it is being seen by some. 

 

The government wants laws in place to tackle the thorny issues of environmental protection and taxation, particularly after several EU reports warned of the potential risks associated with fracking.      

 

Breitling Oil and Gas has recently explored potential investments in Poland's shale gas sector. Although Chris Faulkner says the future "looks bright," he is cautious about whether the country is yet ready, believing it to only have a "very rudimentary" framework in place. 

 

"Poland and other countries need to build a regulation framework that we know as oil and gas companies," he says. 

 

"What are the requirements to go into Poland and drill a gas well and frack it? What are the permitting requirements? What are the assessments? The environmental assessment requirements? What are the emergency assessments if we were to have a spill or if some kind of issue happens, you know, what are those procedures?"

 

A growing body of green campaigners, including big guns from Food and Water Watch and Friends of the Earth, are gathering in opposition too. They downplay the assertion that Poland will benefit, economically or otherwise, and point to the environmental red flags being waved from across the water in the US.  

"Despite the Polish government's glossy propaganda Polish people have not bought the alleged benefits of shale gas and, like the rest of Europe, are rightly sceptical about the benefits the gas industry claims it will bring," Antoine Simon, from Friends of the Earth Europe, says.  

 

"The European Parliament and European Commission recently questioned the European dash for gas and highlighted the numerous high risks associated with the extraction of shale gas. Concerned communities in Poland and across Europe are taking action against this dangerous experiment on health and the environment."

 

Livelihoods and future under threat  

 

In the village of Nowy Dwor Bratianski, deep in the bleak Polish countryside a long, twisty drive from the city of Gdansk, Barbara Grzybowska and Mieczyslaw Rutowski have found themselves on the sharp edge of the country's looming gas boom. 

 

Like Edward Sawicki, they are farmers, and worry how the arrival of an exploratory drilling rig nearby will affect their environment, particularly if water usage surges. 

 

"If it turns out that there is [a] shortage in water supply, our animal farming, our existence is really in danger," says Rutowski, looking out across the hillside.         

 

They explain in passionate detail how they sow crops at certain times of the year to maximise retention of valuable water resources, and ensure the best output from the unforgiving soil. 

 

These are people who know the land and its natural cycle, and fear that meddling by outsiders could damage, irrevocably, their livelihoods and future.  

 

What has alarmed the farmers most however is just how little information they say they have been given about the drilling. 

 

"We, the local residents are not a party in this deal. We haven't been informed at all about the planned construction... even on the village bulletin board where all ads are customarily published there was no information about building the drilling rigs," says Rutowski. "There was some information about construction of the access road but it was not stated that there will be a drilling rig."

 

The farmers accuse the local authorities -- as well as the gas company involved -- of effectively steamrollering the development through by allowing just two weeks for objections to be filed. Even then, only two people directly backing onto the gas rig were officially entitled to register objections, the farmers claim. Neither did. 

 

Not everyone in the region shares their views, as the farmers admit, but they say this is only because the facts have not been disseminated. Those that are aware are against the drilling, they say. But any information has had to come from the Internet. Or scattered public meetings. 

 

In the village of Niesiolowice, in Kashubia, Hieronim Wicek, a community leader, tells a similar tale. 

 

He says that in 2011, when the community learnt that exploratory drilling was earmarked to begin, residents were forced to look towards the western media for details on the possible impacts. 

 

"We found out... that hydraulic fracturing is not so good, that leakage to the ground water may appear after some time," says Wicek. "We saw it in Gasland, in Pennsylvania, and [learnt that] it is not so good neither for the natural environment nor for people."

 

Wicek acknowledges that there was a public meeting addressed by gas company representatives, but claims a video presentation showed a one sided view of fracking, with pipes being "cemented [and stating] that there is no way any liquid could leak through and pose a hazard to the ground waters."  

 

"They said it [Gasland] was a PR film and it is not true and we should not take it into consideration," he says.  

 

But the gas industry rejects the complaints that communities have been misinformed or ignored. 

 

"I've been to Poland, I've attended meetings in villages where oil and gas companies [...] have sat with people and explained to them what is happening, what the process is, and how it's going to impact the community," says Chris Faulkner. 

 

"I don't believe that every single person is being left in the dark; some folks feel like that but the information is being disseminated."

 

A passing Niesiolowice resident offers a slightly different perspective, saying she isn't opposed to gas, but is opposed to the method being used to get it. "Surely, gas is needed but should the price be paid by nature and people who live here?” she tells us. 

 

Asked whether the local authorities will protect the community from the the gas rush, she is unequivocal: "No, on the contrary, the authorities are for [gas]. Unfortunately they have coins in their eyes. Money rules nowadays and it is overwhelming."        

 

Small features in a big landscape

 

Fracking site

Without seeing a gas drilling rig -- or 'frack pad' as they are often known -- close up it's difficult to picture quite what having one in your back yard would feel like. 

 

Visit a disused one (during exploratory drilling the life cycle for frack pads is short, perhaps three months) and you'd probably wonder what all the fuss is about. 

 

A levelled off, concrete flooring. A fence surrounding a sealed hole where the drilling took place. The odd bit of piping, some bricks. Plastic fittings that could have come from any building site.      

 

Visit an active one and its a starkly different story, particularly at night. 

 

A vast crane-like machine periodically sliding up and down deep into the earth. It looks like a fairground ride from the future. 

 

Floodlights. A checkpoint. Keep out signs. Security men with crackling walkie talkies. Workers in hard hats. The constant roar of trucks. Unmarked lorries fitted with cylindrical containers holding who knows what liquid.   

 

At one site, an open gas flare shoots flames high into the sky. Nearby, a vast man-made lagoon foams water -- and what else? 

 

In the pamphlets and brochures distributed by the gas men it doesn't look like this. There, the frack pads are usually photographed from above, the drilling sites neatly fitting into the patchwork of fields and forests -- just a small feature in a big landscape. 

 

It has been reported that each exploratory drilling well in Poland costs its operators some $10 million. Not much of that finds its way to those on whose land the drilling takes place. 

 

One farmer we meet claims he was approached by a company wanting to build a road across his land. This road, it turned out, was to carry the heavy traffic required to construct a major gas drilling site. 

 

Although the farmer declines to be specific, he says he receives around 200 Euros a month as part of a year-long contract leasing almost 5 hectares of farmland to the gas company. 

 

He's not worried, although says the terms of the contract mean he can't change his mind about allowing the exploration, even if he wants to. The gas firm can pull out at any time. 

 

The farmer tells us he isn't aware of any issues surrounding water usage, and seems unconcerned about any environmental issues linked to fracking. He has his own well right here on the farm.             


A toxic threat

 

Dr Wlodzimierz Zgoda, an eminent chemist from the University of Gdansk, has been monitoring the Polish gas debate as it has unfolded, and has deep concerns about the scale of development. 

 

"The greatest threat, which people do not realise and treat lightly, is that only one [gas] well is shown to them. [If shale gas] is found, there are going to be many wells, so many it is hard to imagine," he says.   

 

"It is said, five, ten or 15,000 wells over ten years [could come], plus a huge movement of [an] entire fleet of trucks, cisterns, huge amounts of water, pipelines that will be built, gas treatment plants, gas tanks... it will become a mining landscape."    

 

The chemist also says that that the arrival of fracking could in fact damage parts of the economy. "People, certainly, will experience loss, especially those who [have] invested in tourism, and [the potential] threat of spills or pollution of the environment will discourage buyers from buying agricultural produce."

 

He's worried too about what chemicals will actually be used in the fracking process. 

 

In the US, it is this issue that has proved among the most controversial. The gas industry is quick to point out that only a small percentage of the frack fluid being pumped into the ground -- less than 1 per cent overall -- consists of chemicals, and consistently plays down the use of toxic substances.  

 

But environmental campaigners reel off an alarming sounding list of additives they say are added to frack fluid, including some linked to cancer. 

 

They say that kerosene and diesel fuel, which can contain benzene, ethylbenzene, toluene, xylene, naphthalene -- and other substances -- are reportedly used, as are methanol and formaldehyde, ethylene glycol, hydrochloric acid and sodium hydroxide, among many others. 

 

Lead, crystalline silica and naphthalene have also been cited as ingredients in frack fluid.  

 

And even if the percentages used are small, say critics, with so many drillings taking place -- in Pennsylvania alone, government estimates have predicted that 3,000-4,000 new gas wells will be drilled each year for the next 30 years -- the total chemical count is dangerously high.  

 

Campaigners also point out that it could only take a relatively small amount of chemical to pollute a much larger area of land or water.  

 

Although there is -- as yet -- little evidence of any contamination connected to Poland's exploratory gas drilling, activists say it is only a matter of time.  

 

"Fracking is a dangerous American export that should be viewed critically by countries just starting to engage in the practice," Wenonah Hauter, the head of Food and Water Watch, recently warned. 

 

"Modern drilling and fracking have caused widespread environmental and public health problems, as well as posed serious, long-term risks to vital water resources... while the oil and gas industry is profiting off of this technology, it has been a disaster for Americans exposed to its pollution."

 

But for Breitling's Chris Faulkner such comments are part of the sensationalism he says has developed around fracking. 

 

He accuses campaigners of having an agenda which is "sometimes based on misinformation, misinterpretation, misspoke concerns," and says that their passion "sometimes weaves a story that maybe is based on fear mongering or actual non-fact."

 

But he admits there are risks -- as with any energy mechanism: "It's not fracking that is unsafe. It's not the procedures that are unsafe, but if someone makes a mistake, anything can happen," he says. 

 

"We're foolish to think that there's some form of energy... that pops out of the ground, powers the plug in the wall and produces energy that has no consequences. [That's] just not realistic."   

 

Winning hearts and minds

 

Back in Nowy Dwor Bratianski, Barbara Grzybowska and Mieczyslaw Rutowski want to tell us about one additional concern they have. 

 

The farmers say that in order to help win hearts and minds in this deeply religious community the gas industry brought in a local priest. He in turn, they claim,  'blessed' a gas rig during an opening ceremony attended by local people. 

 

"Yes, I was surprised," says Rutowski. "The parish priest came to bless the work... I smile at this and rather consider it to be a pact with the devil, not [a] blessing of the rig site."  

 

Dr Zgoda says he has noted a wider marketing drive being undertaken by the gas companies to sway local communities. 

 

"It is standard for them [gas companies] to be giving out small gifts, inexpensive ones, to schools, to kindergartens... municipal councils and mayors are taken on tours supposedly to show them some drilling sites, plus there are some attractions such as dinners with performances and champagne."

 

We track down the priest understood to be involved in the 'blessing' of the rig. 

 

Unwilling to be interviewed formally, he admits his involvement but denies there were any strings attached. No donations or gifts from the gas company to the church. Just a small sum for children, he says, who were about to go to a summer camp.       

 

Andrew Wasley is a UK-based investigative journalist specializing in the environment and consumer affairs. He was editor of the Ecologist magazine between 2010 and 2012, is a co-founder of the Ecologist Film Unit and a director of the ethical research agency Ecostorm. He regularly reports from Link TV's Earth Focus program.


To learn more about the impacts of fracking, visit Link TV's ISSUE: Fracking page, and watch this Earth Focus report about the dash for gas in Poland, a program supported by Food and Water Watch and Friends of the Earth Europe.

 
 

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Fracking Our Future: The Corrosive Influence of Extreme Energy

Following in the wake of shale gas and coal-bed methane (CBM) extraction is the spectre of underground coal gasification (UCG). But if we adopt these wholesale we could close off any hope of stepping back from the climate change brink, says UK campaign group Frack Off.

 

The earthquakes caused by the first attempt to frack a shale gas well in the UK, almost two years ago, were a wake up call that has implications far beyond the damage caused to Cuadrilla's well-bore. When your plan for getting gas is fracturing rock two miles under the Lancashire countryside, you know the cheap and easy energy is long gone. 

 

The signs have been there for many years, from oil rigs pushing out into deeper and deeper water to the vast tar sands mining operations in Alberta, getting energy is taking increasing amounts of effort. People have been slow to connect the dots but now with the exploitation of unconventional gas threatening to spread thousands of wells, pipelines and other industrial infrastructure across the country, the issue of this relentless rise in energy extraction effort is finally beginning to get the attention that it deserves.

 

Like yeast growing in a vat, the fundamental question has always been whether industrial society will be poisoned by it's own waste (alcohol in the case of yeast) before it runs out of resources (sugar). While significant attention has been paid to the relentless build-up of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, worrying about running out fossil fuels has been very much a fringe activity. 

 

The answer to this question has now become somewhat clearer, though it is much more nuanced than most people would expect. Rather than destruction by environmental crisis ("climate change") or economic crisis ("peak oil") we face an intricately linked combination of the two ("extreme energy"). This is not to deny the importance of either climate change or peak oil, but they not only have the same cause but are happening in the context of each other, so neither can be viewed in isolation.

 

Unsustainable energy

 

As our society's unsustainable consumption of energy depletes easier to extract resources, it is driving the exploitation of evermore extreme and damaging energy sources. From fracking to the push to build a string of new biomass power stations which will devour the world's remaining forests and the plans for a wave of new, more dangerous, nuclear power stations, energy extraction is becoming much more destructive. 

 

In the past the dominant environmental impact of exploiting fossil fuels was the impact of the carbon emissions associated with burning them but as the effort required for energy extraction has grown, so have the environmental consequences of the extraction processes themselves. The poster child for this effect are the Athabasca tar sands in Alberta, but across the globe, from the Arctic Ocean to the rainforests of Borneo, energy extraction is driving increasing environmental destruction.

 

A common propaganda tool is to portray such concerns as a stark choice between economic growth and environmental preservation, but in reality extreme energy is as damaging to people's economic well-being as it is to the environment. 

 

As extraction effort grows, a greater fraction of economic activity must be allocated to the energy sector. In a market economy the mechanism by which this is achieved is, of course, rising energy prices, which will have the effect of diverting resources away from other activities. 

 

In the last decade the fraction of the global economy devoted to energy extraction has almost tripled, to over 10 percent of GDP. If the use of more extreme extraction methods increases then an even greater proportion of the worlds resources must be sacrificed to these efforts. 

 

This path leads to a world where energy extraction dominates the economy, and the majority of the population lives in its shadow. Look at the Niger Delta to see what such a world looks like.

 

The greatest threat

 

In the UK unconventional gas is by far the greatest threat. Despite the North Sea in terminal decline and increasing pressure on imports there is an insidious push to increase our dependence on gas. Fracking is seen as the way to achieve this but even if is feasible, it would require drilling of tens of thousands of wells and the devastation of the huge swathes of countryside. This will result in toxic and radioactive water contamination, air pollution, severe health effects in human and animals and increased greenhouse gas emissions all for a very short term hit of extremely expensive gas. 

 

Following in the wake of shale gas and coal-bed methane (CBM) is the even more dire spectre of underground coal gasification (UCG) which involves partially burning coal underground and bringing the resulting gases to the surface. UCG has an even worse record of environmental contamination and could potentially emit enough carbon to raise global temperatures by up to 10 degrees Celsius.

 

A wholesale adoption of fracking and associated methods would close off perhaps our last chance to step back from the brink. Extreme energy requires a dedication to energy production to the exclusion of all else, which would radically alter the structure of our society. 

 

Increasingly, more expensive energy infrastructure must be built, which will divert huge amounts resources away from worthwhile activities. It will quickly become the case that the largest single consumer of the energy produced will be energy extraction processes themselves. We will end up on a treadmill running faster and faster just to stand still as everything falls apart around us. 

 

The decision we face is between prioritising abstract notions of profit and growth or the real well-being of communities and ecosystems. The two can no longer pretend to coexist.

 

To learn more about the impacts of fracking, visit Link TV's ISSUE: Fracking page, and watch this Earth Focus report about Britain's gas rush, a program supported by Lush.

 
 

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Shale Gas: The Facts Beyond the Myths

Natural gas provides an ideal complement to renewable energy sources -- not a replacement, argues Mónica V. Cristina of Shale Gas Europe.

 

As one of the most hotly debated energy sources in Europe, shale gas has created big expectations but also raised numerous questions specifically around its potential impact on the environment.

 

The most common claims of environmental harm leveled against shale gas, and the technique used to extract it, hydraulic fracturing, are well known. They include: contamination of drinking water with chemicals and methane, a worse greenhouse gas profile than hard coal and the utilisation of "hundreds of hazardous chemicals" that gas companies "keep secret." Environmental groups also fear that investments in shale gas infrastructure will undercut the economics of renewables. 

 

Hydraulic fracturing

 

First, hydraulic fracturing has been used in Europe for decades to stimulate conventional oil and gas wells, water wells and geothermal wells. In Germany alone, more than 300 wells have been stimulated using this technique. Furthermore, when looking at the facts and scientific evidence Shale Gas Europe concludes that none of the claims above stand up to close scrutiny.

 

First, the concerns around water pollution. Several measures can be put in place to ensure water protection and these are employed by industry. The proper casing of the shale gas well is in this sense critical for the safety of operations and well construction techniques employ multiple barrier layers of steel and cement to isolate the well from groundwater. In addition, fracturing occurs two to three kilometers below drinking water supplies and are separated from the aquifers by multiple layers of impermeable rock. This point has been made in the peer-reviewed academic paper by Professor Richard Davies, director of the Durham Energy Institute, "Hydraulic fractures: How far can they go?", which highlighted that the height of fractures does not exceed 588 meters.

 

Second, the issue of chemical additives. In Europe, all the additives that will be used in fracturing solutions (representing only 0.5 per cent of the fluids) will have to fully comply with European and national regulations. Contrary to popular belief, the industry supports full disclosure to appropriate regulatory authorities of the chemical additives used in hydraulic fracturing.  

 

In the US, for example, companies provide information on chemical additives using FracFocus, a project of the U.S. Ground Water Protection Council and U.S. Department of Energy. The general public are able to access specific information via a search, on a well-by-well basis, of the specific compounds used in hydraulic fracturing operations. 

Estimates of greenhouse gas emissions from shale gas development are also a controversial issue. However, the European Commission report Climate Impact of Potential Shale Gas Production in the European Union of July 2012, clearly indicates: "The relative comparison with coal is clearer cut. In our analysis, emissions from shale gas generation are significantly lower (41 per cent to 49 per cent) than emissions from electricity generated from coal." Other recent studies published by top research centres have reached similar conclusions.

 

Finally, natural gas provides an ideal complement to renewable energy sources as it can be quickly adjusted to changing demand as well as to the variable nature of energy production from renewables. More importantly, evidence from the United States shows that renewable energy has thrived during the natural gas production boom in the US and it is projected to continue well into the future. According to the American Wind Energy Association, the US wind industry, for example, installed 40% more capacity (wind plants) during the first three quarters of 2012 than the first three quarters of 2011. Fears that shale gas will stall renewable energy development are therefore unfounded. 

 

Risks can be managed

 

No technology is without risk. However, risk can be managed. As the Royal Society pointed out in its report Shale Gas in the UK: A Review of Hydraulic Fracturing, it is possible to develop shale gas safely through a combination of sound regulation and modern technology. 

The European Parliament endorsed this argument too when it decided to reject an EU wide moratorium on shale gas development last November. Through a report on the environmental impacts of shale gas it emphasised that any risks "should be contained through pre-emptive measures including proper planning, testing, use of new and best available technologies, best industry practices" alongside monitoring and robust regulation -- something the industry endorses. 

 

In this respect, it is necessary to understand and concede that there are clear differences between Europe and America. When it comes to environmental regulation, it is worth keeping in mind that Europe's environmental legislation is in many respects the most advanced in the world. As Connie Hedegaard, EU Commissioner for Climate Change, stated via twitter: "Europe is not North Dakota." Indeed, neither the scale nor the type of development will be similar on this side of the Atlantic. The opportunity for Europe to develop shale gas in a sustainable way, right from the beginning, is within reach. 

 

Neither should we forget that we are still in an exploration phase, meaning that we are assessing if Europe has the resources and whether they can be sustainably developed. This phase will take years, but it is essential to shed light on Europe's potential to develop its own domestic natural gas resources. Professor Richard Davies, put this into perspective in an article published recently in the New Statesman: "We have drilled one shale gas well (in the UK). That's an 8 1/2 inch borehole in Lancashire, a little like pushing a pin through the ceiling of your living room and looking through the hole."

 

Grab the opportunity

 

The facts show that shale gas can be developed safely and play a key role in the transition to a greener energy future. Increased efficiency and a shift to gas from coal in the power sector have made the United States a leader in cutting energy-related carbon dioxide emissions. "This is a success story based on a combination of policy and technology - policy driving greater efficiency and technology making shale gas production viable," IEA Chief Economist Fatih Birol told the Financial Times in May 2012. As a bonus, the shale gas boom has led to an unprecedent manufacturing revival fueled by cheap and abundant gas. 

 

In the meantime, Europe is falling behind in reducing carbon emissions and reversing the fortunes of the chemical, plastics, aluminium, iron and steel, rubber, coated metals, and glass industries operating in the old continent. The time has come to put aside myths and have an honest and constructive debate on how to sustainably develop shale gas for the sake of Europe's energy future. 

 

Mónica V. Cristina is an advisor to Shale Gas Europe. Watch investigative reports on the impacts of fracking around the world by Link TV's Earth Focus, and learn more about this issue at LinkTV.org/Fracking.

 
 

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Japan Honors Citizens Killed in Algeria Hostage Crisis
(LinkAsia: January 25, 2012)
Thuy Vu:
Japan was shocked to learn that at least nine of its nationals were killed in Algeria last week. They died during a battle between the Algerian army and Islamist militants at a gas factory in the Sahara desert. Thirty-nine foreigners and dozens of Algerians died after the militants took over the gas plant and the army stormed it. With a tribute to two of the Japanese victims here's NHK.

--

NHK World NEWSLINE
Airdate: January 23, 2013

Reporter:
Rokuro Fuchida ran building sites around the world. He was 64 years old and retired. Then his former bosses asked him to lead one more project in Algeria. He wrote about it on Facebook before he left: "I am working all over the world to see the twinkling star-lit sky. Next I will see the stars from the desert in Algeria." His brother, Mitsunobu, heard about the hostage taking, then waited, day after day for a call from Rokuro. It never came.

Mitsunobu Fuchida, Brother:
Rokuro was kind, and a good brother. I just want to hug him. That's the only thing I want
to do.

Reporter:
Fumihiro Ito worked near Fuchida in Algeria. He had spent years developing energy resources. He led a project to develop gas fields in Sahara desert. Ito came from Minamisanriku, a town devastated in the tsunami two years ago. Now, his 82-year-old mother lives alone in temporary housing. She says, she has no mementos to remember her son. He and his former classmates were planning to get together next month to celebrate their 60th birthdays.

Takaaki Yokuyama, Former Classmate:
Ito said he would join the party, but would not stay overnight, because he wanted to visit his mother and stay with her. I want the news to be a mistake. I still think Ito will show up at the party.

Reporter:
Yokoyama was looking forward to seeing his old friend. Instead, he and the others will take a moment to remember.
 
 

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South Korean Katrina? Slow Response to Gas Leak Disaster Prompts Outrage

 
 

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'Smart Homes' Take Off in Japan
(LinkAsia: May 11, 2012)
Sydnie Kohara:
Soon, controlling all home appliances with the ease of one computer screen won't be just for people like Bill Gates. From the folks who brought you the Nintendo Game Boy and the Toyota Prius, some new gadgets now that allow you to control your house remotely and even save electricity while doing it. NHK reports on Japan's latest inventions.

--

NHK World NEWSLINE
Airdate: May 7, 2012

Reporter:
Major house builder Sekisui House is selling this home. It takes advantage of three types of energy--solar, traditional fuel and a battery unit--to keep everything running. In the event of a power outage, power comes from the battery unit. The wired house keeps track of electricity and gas use, reducing utility charges.

Tsutomu Shimizu, Sekisui House:
Last year was year one for the smart house. This year, they will start to take off.

Reporter:
Engineers at Honda began testing last month on a vehicle that uses a battery powered in part by solar panels on the car's exterior. The car is the ultimate remote control. The driver can use it to adjust conditions at home. Commands are transmitted to a small house through the car's satellite navigation system. This makes it easy to run a bath or turn up the heat before they even turn into the driveway. The engineers hope to put their smart car on the market within a couple of years.

Yoshiharu Yamamoto, Honda:
We can provide a better quality of life with a car that uses solar energy and an interactive function for smart houses. This will help us to expand sales.

Reporter:
Electronics appliance maker NEC Corporation started selling an electricity storage system in March. It gathers electricity generated by the sun and power taken from the grid during the night when prices are lower. Manufacturers are betting on smart technology as part of the solution to Japan's energy supply problems.

Sydnie Kohara:
There's another appliance that Japan has perfected, and I'm sure we all wish we had one. A smart toilet. Now we won't talk about all the things it does, but let's just say that according to the manufacturer, Toto, the computerized toilet can cut toilet paper usage by 90 percent.
 
 

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Holiday Cheer from Madagascar

 

I thought I'd give y'all an upbeat nugget for the holiday season.

 

I met this lovely duo in Samarkand where they competed for a prize at the Sharq Taronalari festival. They invited me to videotape their rehearsal, which turned out to be lucky for me, as I have not been able to obtain any of the footage from the main stage of the Festival, even though it was promised to me many times over!

 

I've always had a soft spot in my heart for Malagasy music. And as soon as I heard these two musicians, I knew there was something sweet and special about them. I crossed my fingers that they would get some sort of prize, and they did. Despite the extraordinarily political machinations of the prize-giving, they placed third!

 

"Talilema" is Talika and Kilema, both from Madagascar, now living in Europe. They are both engaging, lovely people.  And I think you will agree that you can enjoy this informal performance and not miss any amplification or further instrumentation. It works just fine as it is. They should be stars.

 

The song is about keeping your spirits up through your troubles. Is it right for this time of year or what?

 

I hope this music brightens your days. Have a great holiday!

 

To find out more about Talilema click here, or visit their Myspace page.

 

For more of Michal's original music videos, visit inter-muse.com.

 
 

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