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Four Lessons From the U.S. for Countries About to be Fracked

Energy

Greenpeace

By Jesse Coleman

The U.S. has blessed the world with many wondrous things. Atomic bombs and peanut butter. Assembly lines and CocaCola. And now there is another American invention posed to spread past our borders and into your water supply: Fracking. Fracking is a technique used by the oil industry to blast apart underground shale rock layers using liquids at high pressure. The process has allowed the oil and gas industry to reach deposits of fossil fuels that were previously unreachable, and has ignited a massive increase in drilling in the U.S. It has also exposed and exacerbated the problems of fossil fuel exploitation, from pollution and environmental degradation to the social ills associated with an economy based on resource extraction. Here are some lessons we in the U.S. have learned about fracking and the companies that frack us.

Fracking Companies have Systematically Run Over Communities in the U.S.

An oil company moves into a small village. Soon pollution and poor treatment of the town’s resources by the oil corporation cause widespread outrage. To quell dissent, the oil company employs ex-soldiers and military tactics. Most Americans have the hubris to think that this would only happen in places like Indonesia and Niger—but this is the story of rural Pennsylvania, where Range Resources hired military personnel to conduct Psychological Operations, or Psyops, on Pennsylvanians opposed to drilling and fracking. One fracking executive even referred to people opposed to drilling as an “insurgency,” and recommended that other fracking companies read the Army and Marine Corps counterinsurgency manual.

Fracking companies are also fighting to nullify and prevent local fracking bans. In response to the dangers of drilling, communities above the oil and gas fields have begun to vote on and pass local bans on fracking. The fracking industry has fought back with lawsuits and political pressure, seeking to overturn the democratically voted-on resolutions.

A woman in Pennsylvania displays tap water contaminated by fracking

Fracking Contaminates Water and Water Wells and Can Suck Entire Towns Dry.

When everything goes as planned, fracking contaminates huge amounts of fresh water. In order to frack, large quantities of water and chemicals must be injected underground—two to 10 million gallons per well, per frack, and each well can be fracked multiple times. The water that gets pumped underground is purposefully laced with carcinogenic chemicals to create frack fluid, most of which stays in the well, locked underground and out of the hydrological cycle forever. What comes back to the surface, called “flowback,” is heavily contaminated by the chemical mixtures that comprise the frack fluid, as well as dissolved salts and heavy metals from deep within the Earth. Estimates from the industry indicate that drillers in Pennsylvania created approximately 19 million gallons of this wastewater per day in 2011.

When things don’t go as planned, fracking fluid spills into waterways, gets dumped into streams and rivers, or leaks underground contaminating underground aquifers.

In Texas, the demand for water for fracking was so high, an entire town was sucked dry for days on end. Texas is now building over 60 miles of water pipeline to supply the town of Barnhart, because of the water demands of fracking.

In Spite of Industry Claims, They Can’t Predict Exactly What Will Happen Underground During Fracking.

It is important to note that the high volume hydraulic fracturing we now know as fracking is a new process. The same fracking public relations machine that tells you fracking is decades old and therefore completely safe, also hails an oil man named George Mitchell as “the father of fracking.” Mitchell revolutionized the process in 1997 by adding the “high volume” part, and fracking today is done on a scope and scale that has no precedent.

Therefore it is only recently that real studies on high volume fracking have begun. Studies on such basic things as how far the fractures can go underground have already found that the fissures underground go much farther than frackers thought, a troubling revelation.

Other studies have found that the cement and steel pipes that protect aquifers from fracking fluid fail at startling rates, which causes contamination of water wells.

Fracking Leaks Methane and Other Dangerous Chemicals Into the Atmosphere at Alarming Rates.

Methane, like carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas. But methane is 105 times more powerful than carbon dioxide, making even modest leaks of methane dangerous to the stability of the climate. A recent study in Colorado found that fracking wells were leaking at a rate of 60 tons of methane per hour, an astonishing rate of leakage.

Some boosters of fracking and fracked gas say that gas is a boon to the climate because it is less carbon polluting than coal. But even they admit that gas is only better than coal if less than 3.4 percent of the methane escapes unburned into the atmosphere. The leakage rates in Colorado, which amounted to 12 percent, indicate that fracked gas may be orders of magnitude more detrimental to the health of our climate than any other source of emissions.

Furthermore, the gas leaking from fracking wells is not only harmful to the global climate. It is also dangerous to breathe, being comprised of Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs), which cause range of deleterious health effects including cancer. Studies have found significant VOC pollution due to fracking.

So, What Would We Recommend to a Country and a People on the Verge of Being Fracked?

Watch out for unsubstantiated industry claims that fracking is safe and environmentally responsible. Fracking companies have spent millions on PR efforts to influence public opinion, very successfully in the U.S. Read the stories of people affected by fracking. Realize it is no panacea for the climate or for the economy. And let your voice be heard.

Visit EcoWatch’s FRACKING page for more related news on this topic.

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Ola Elvestrun, Norway's environment minister, announced Thursday that it is freezing its contributions to the Amazon Fund, and will no longer be transferring €300 million ($33.2 million) to Brazil. In a press release, the Norwegian embassy in Brazil stated:

Given the present circumstances, Norway does not have either the legal or the technical basis for making its annual contribution to the Amazon Fund.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro reacted with sarcasm to Norway's decision, which had been widely expected. After an official event, he commented: "Isn't Norway the country that kills whales at the North Pole? Doesn't it also produce oil? It has no basis for telling us what to do. It should give the money to Angela Merkel [the German Chancellor] to reforest Germany."

According to its website, the Amazon Fund is a "REDD+ mechanism created to raise donations for non-reimbursable investments in efforts to prevent, monitor and combat deforestation, as well as to promote the preservation and sustainable use in the Brazilian Amazon." The bulk of funding comes from Norway and Germany.

The annual transfer of funds from developed world donors to the Amazon Fund depends on a report from the Fund's technical committee. This committee meets after the National Institute of Space Research, which gathers official Amazon deforestation data, publishes its annual report with the definitive figures for deforestation in the previous year.

But this year the Amazon Fund's technical committee, along with its steering committee, COFA, were abolished by the Bolsonaro government on 11 April as part of a sweeping move to dissolve some 600 bodies, most of which had NGO involvement. The Bolsonaro government views NGO work in Brazil as a conspiracy to undermine Brazil's sovereignty.

The Brazilian government then demanded far-reaching changes in the way the fund is managed, as documented in a previous article. As a result, the Amazon Fund's technical committee has been unable to meet; Norway says it therefore cannot continue making donations without a favorable report from the committee.

Archer Daniels Midland soy silos in Mato Grosso along the BR-163 highway, where Amazon rainforest has largely been replaced by soy destined for the EU, UK, China and other international markets.

Thaís Borges.

An Uncertain Future

The Amazon Fund was announced during the 2007 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Bali, during a period when environmentalists were alarmed at the rocketing rate of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon. It was created as a way of encouraging Brazil to continue bringing down the rate of forest conversion to pastures and croplands.

Government agencies, such as IBAMA, Brazil's environmental agency, and NGOs shared Amazon Fund donations. IBAMA used the money primarily to enforce deforestation laws, while the NGOs oversaw projects to support sustainable communities and livelihoods in the Amazon.

There has been some controversy as to whether the Fund has actually achieved its goals: in the three years before the deal, the rate of deforestation fell dramatically but, after money from the Fund started pouring into the Amazon, the rate remained fairly stationary until 2014, when it began to rise once again. But, in general, the international donors have been pleased with the Fund's performance, and until the Bolsonaro government came to office, the program was expected to continue indefinitely.

Norway has been the main donor (94 percent) to the Amazon Fund, followed by Germany (5 percent), and Brazil's state-owned oil company, Petrobrás (1 percent). Over the past 11 years, the Norwegians have made, by far, the biggest contribution: R$3.2 billion ($855 million) out of the total of R$3.4 billion ($903 million).

Up till now the Fund has approved 103 projects, with the dispersal of R$1.8 billion ($478 million). These projects will not be affected by Norway's funding freeze because the donors have already provided the funding and the Brazilian Development Bank is contractually obliged to disburse the money until the end of the projects. But there are another 54 projects, currently being analyzed, whose future is far less secure.

One of the projects left stranded by the dissolution of the Fund's committees is Projeto Frutificar, which should be a three-year project, with a budget of R$29 million ($7.3 million), for the production of açai and cacao by 1,000 small-scale farmers in the states of Amapá and Pará. The project was drawn up by the Brazilian NGO IPAM (Institute of Environmental research in Amazonia).

Paulo Moutinho, an IPAM researcher, told Globo newspaper: "Our program was ready to go when the [Brazilian] government asked for changes in the Fund. It's now stuck in the BNDES. Without funding from Norway, we don't know what will happen to it."

Norway is not the only European nation to be reconsidering the way it funds environmental projects in Brazil. Germany has many environmental projects in the Latin American country, apart from its small contribution to the Amazon Fund, and is deeply concerned about the way the rate of deforestation has been soaring this year.

The German environment ministry told Mongabay that its minister, Svenja Schulze, had decided to put financial support for forest and biodiversity projects in Brazil on hold, with €35 million ($39 million) for various projects now frozen.

The ministry explained why: "The Brazilian government's policy in the Amazon raises doubts whether a consistent reduction in deforestation rates is still being pursued. Only when clarity is restored, can project collaboration be continued."

Bauxite mines in Paragominas, Brazil. The Bolsonaro administration is urging new laws that would allow large-scale mining within Brazil's indigenous reserves.

Hydro / Halvor Molland / Flickr

Alternative Amazon Funding

Although there will certainly be disruption in the short-term as a result of the paralysis in the Amazon Fund, the governors of Brazil's Amazon states, which rely on international funding for their environmental projects, are already scrambling to create alternative channels.

In a press release issued yesterday Helder Barbalho, the governor of Pará, the state with the highest number of projects financed by the Fund, said that he will do all he can to maintain and increase his state partnership with Norway.

Barbalho had announced earlier that his state would be receiving €12.5 million ($11.1 million) to run deforestation monitoring centers in five regions of Pará. Barbalho said: "The state governments' monitoring systems are recording a high level of deforestation in Pará, as in the other Amazon states. The money will be made available to those who want to help [the Pará government reduce deforestation] without this being seen as international intervention."

Amazonas state has funding partnerships with Germany and is negotiating deals with France. "I am talking with countries, mainly European, that are interested in investing in projects in the Amazon," said Amazonas governor Wilson Miranda Lima. "It is important to look at Amazônia, not only from the point of view of conservation, but also — and this is even more important — from the point of view of its citizens. It's impossible to preserve Amazônia if its inhabitants are poor."

Signing of the EU-Mercusor Latin American trading agreement earlier this year. The pact still needs to be ratified.

Council of Hemispheric Affairs

Looming International Difficulties

The Bolsonaro government's perceived reluctance to take effective measures to curb deforestation may in the longer-term lead to a far more serious problem than the paralysis of the Amazon Fund.

In June, the European Union and Mercosur, the South American trade bloc, reached an agreement to create the largest trading bloc in the world. If all goes ahead as planned, the pact would account for a quarter of the world's economy, involving 780 million people, and remove import tariffs on 90 percent of the goods traded between the two blocs. The Brazilian government has predicted that the deal will lead to an increase of almost $100 billion in Brazilian exports, particularly agricultural products, by 2035.

But the huge surge this year in Amazon deforestation is leading some European countries to think twice about ratifying the deal. In an interview with Mongabay, the German environment ministry made it very clear that Germany is very worried about events in the Amazon: "We are deeply concerned given the pace of destruction in Brazil … The Amazon Forest is vital for the atmospheric circulation and considered as one of the tipping points of the climate system."

The ministry stated that, for the trade deal to go ahead, Brazil must carry out its commitment under the Paris Climate agreement to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 43 percent below the 2005 level by 2030. The German environment ministry said: If the trade deal is to go ahead, "It is necessary that Brazil is effectively implementing its climate change objectives adopted under the [Paris] Agreement. It is precisely this commitment that is expressly confirmed in the text of the EU-Mercosur Free Trade Agreement."

Blairo Maggi, Brazil agriculture minister under the Temer administration, and a major shareholder in Amaggi, the largest Brazilian-owned commodities trading company, has said very little in public since Bolsonaro came to power; he's been "in a voluntary retreat," as he puts it. But Maggi is so concerned about the damage Bolsonaro's off the cuff remarks and policies are doing to international relationships he decided to speak out earlier this week.

Former Brazil Agriculture Minister Blairo Maggi, who has broken a self-imposed silence to criticize the Bolsonaro government, saying that its rhetoric and policies could threaten Brazil's international commodities trade.

Senado Federal / Visualhunt / CC BY

Maggi, a ruralista who strongly supports agribusiness, told the newspaper, Valor Econômico, that, even if the European Union doesn't get to the point of tearing up a deal that has taken 20 years to negotiate, there could be long delays. "These environmental confusions could create a situation in which the EU says that Brazil isn't sticking to the rules." Maggi speculated. "France doesn't want the deal and perhaps it is taking advantage of the situation to tear it up. Or the deal could take much longer to ratify — three, five years."

Such a delay could have severe repercussions for Brazil's struggling economy which relies heavily on its commodities trade with the EU. Analysists say that Bolsonaro's fears over such an outcome could be one reason for his recently announced October meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping, another key trading partner.

Maggi is worried about another, even more alarming, potential consequence of Bolsonaro's failure to stem illegal deforestation — Brazil could be hit by a boycott by its foreign customers. "I don't buy this idea that the world needs Brazil … We are only a player and, worse still, replaceable." Maggi warns, "As an exporter, I'm telling you: things are getting very difficult. Brazil has been saying for years that it is possible to produce and preserve, but with this [Bolsonaro administration] rhetoric, we are going back to square one … We could find markets closed to us."

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