Tackling New Threats

Fracking’s Risks to Health and the Environment

Fracking technology is exported

High volume horizontal hydraulic fracturing, known as “fracking,” is an unconventional drilling technique that has evolved rapidly over the last several decades, opening to extraction previously inaccessible reserves of fossil fuels contained within deep shale and clay formations. The rapid expansion of fracking has transformed the energy economy of the United States. Now, many of the companies behind this “energy boom” have set their sights on reserves in developing countries. Activists in the U.S. have raised a range of concerns over the risks of fracking, and a growing number of countries have imposed fracking bans. But often times affected communities’ concerns over fracking are quickly brushed aside by governments intent on such development.

Threats posed by fracking

Comprehensive information on the risks and impacts of fracking is difficult to obtain. For example, the public still does not know the composition of the chemicals that are combined with the water, salt, and sand that are injected into wells, as this information is protected as a proprietary “trade secret.” In developing countries, which often have a poor track record of environmental protection and remediation, fracking poses even greater consequences for communities deprived of such information and shut out of the decision-making process.

Nonetheless, the threats posed by fracking are becoming increasingly evident. Fracking requires a tremendous amount of fresh water: between two and eight million gallons are typically injected into each well. Because most reserves are “fracked” using tens, if not hundreds, of wells, the cumulative water cost is staggering. In some countries, reserves exist in areas already facing pronounced water scarcity.

Fracking poses the further risk of contamination with toxic pollutants such as benzene and arsenic. If accidents occur at wells drilled close to freshwater aquifers- as has apparently happened in several communities in the U.S.- it may be impossible to effectively remediate the contamination, resulting in permanent health impacts.

Fracking has also been linked to increased seismic activity. The infrastructure of fracking- which features an immense network of roads used by trucks to transport water, wastewater, extracted fuels, and other supplies – causes air, noise, and light pollution, and significantly impacts ecosystems. And because the practice involves high volumes of toxic byproducts, the storage and management of post-drilling waste represents a major challenge and threat to health and the environment.

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EDLC helps local lawyers

EDLC is studying the rapid expansion of fracking in several countries, including Argentina and Mexico. In many countries, reserves exist within ecologically and culturally significant areas such as World Heritage sites, indigenous territories, and natural protected areas. For example, in Argentina, companies are fracking within the boundaries of a wildlife sanctuary, and on the lands of indigenous communities who claim they have not been properly consulted.

EDLC is working with local lawyers who are bringing cases in national courts based on both environmental laws and human rights laws that protect communities threatened by fracking. Courts in these cases will hopefully require a thorough prior assessment of the cumulative environmental and social impacts of fracking; enforce communities’ rights of free, prior, and informed consent; and apply the precautionary principle to prohibit fracking in the absence of adequate knowledge of its potentially dangerous consequences.

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