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Antonio Aretxabala, Geologist, University of Navarra, Spain

Fracking: Pollution, seismicity and other misfortunes

Wed, 28 Nov 2012 10:46:21 +0000 Published in ABC

More than 30% of the Spanish population is supplied with water from aquifers. The European Parliament voted yesterday on two parliamentary reports on the technique of hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking", generally used to extract gas from shale. First the rock mass is broken up, fractured to increase its porosity by means of pressure, additives, explosions..., then all the material containing earth metals, additives and other carcinogens is passed into the aquifers, plants, animals and us, and the gas is extracted. Despite general recognition of the dangers of so-called hydraulic fracturing, the European Parliament did not impose a "de facto moratorium" or consider ensuring higher standards of control and safety to prevent the excessive use of this dangerous way of extracting gas - for the environment, for water, animals and people.

This technique is already present in about 60% of the extraction wells currently in use. The rising price of fossil fuels has made these catastrophic methods profitable, but some countries such as Great Britain, Germany or France and several US states have stopped this exploitation subject due to well-founded suspicions of contamination, induced seismicity and other lethal side effects in urban and interurban areas. Dead cows, rising cancers, more than 800% new seismicity, is the trappings that surround these farms. However, as expected, the NGSA (association of North American natural gas suppliers) states that no case of aquifer contamination has been confirmed to date.

Subway operations need to be curtailed

But European and American geologists are increasingly in agreement agreement that the expansion of shale gas production is manager of a series of earthquakes that have disrupted some communities and led authorities in Arkansas, Ohio, Oklahoma and also those in the UK to shut down some natural gas operations. The question yesterday in the European Parliament was whether the violent subway operations causing the problem should be curtailed or monitored; whether greater control would be needed to mitigate future earthquakes; and whether the relatively small ones could have the potential to trigger truly destructive ones. Recall that in Spain they intend to operate with these techniques near nuclear power plants.

At least one of the most powerful shale gas producers is already talking about changes, as Cuadrilla Resources in England, their first project produced earthquakes last year near the English town of Blackpool, they themselves noted and affirmed it. Other times the injection of fluids into faults seems to be the origin by lubrication of seismicity. With this technique the induced seismicity has two ways of occurring: one by the injections themselves, hydraulic fracturing and explosions and another by the abrupt changes in water levels, both by excess and defect.

In Alava and Burgos as well as in Cantabria and Palencia or in La Rioja, are being carried out (in several areas near known active faults) a series of surveys whose conclusions seem to point to the imminent use of these aggressive techniques in areas too close to large populations. Moreover, the silence is absolute in Italy after the controversial sentence to the scientists of l'Aquila, although several programs of study have already been presented in the Europarliament linking the last earthquakes in Emilia Romagna to these catastrophic forms of gas extraction. We wonder if Perez-Reverte was not being too much when he said yesterday that "Europe is governed by illiterate clowns who are plunging us into misery"; if the above is true, they are also poisoning us and subjecting us to unnecessary risks.