Fracking is both a temptation and a curse for developing nations, says a new report released today by Friends of the Earth Europe as governments meet in Lima to make meaningful commitments to speed up the transition away from dirty energy sources. Fracking Frenzy: How is the fracking industry threatening the planet? details the impacts of developing shale reserves in new regions of the world unprotected by political power to ward off bad policies that favor fossil fuel extraction companies over communities.
The report looks at a selection of countries identified in the U.S. Energy Information Administration's 2013 World Shale Gas and Shale Oil Resource Assessment that analyzed potential shale resources in 42 countries and 95 shale basins around the world. It identifies 11 countries it says are prime targets for the fracking industry to focus on in depth: Mexico, Brazil, Argentina, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, South Africa, China, India, Indonesia and Russia. It analyzes the potential gas and oil reserves (often over-estimated), available water resources, area's geology, country's policies on drilling, local opposition to fracking and environmental, ecological and social impact of fracking in each.
"While much has been written about fracking in North America and in the EU, this report provides a global overview of shale gas development in the rest of the world," the report says. "These countries include seven of the EIA’s top ten countries for technically recoverable shale gas resources and are among the leaders in shale development on their respective continents. These countries also reveal the variety and specificity of the dangers associated with the expansion of the fracking industry, including environmental, social and health consequences which extend beyond the borders of individual countries."
It points out that more than a decade of widespread fracking in North America "has provoked much debate involving scientists, industry, political decision-makers, environmental groups and civil society" and "left a legacy of environmental damage."
"Evidence from North America, with anecdotal reports backed up by countless peer-reviewed scientific studies, shows that fracking can lead to air pollution, ground and surface water contamination, radioactive releases, noise and light pollution, induced earthquakes, climate emissions, occupational health and safety hazards and competition for access to water," explains the report. "Despite the controversy surrounding this technique, the numerous unknowns and uncertainties concerning its impacts and the growing number of questions about the economic benefits of this industry, oil and gas operators are eager to identify new opportunities and so are engaged in a battle to make fracking publicly and socially acceptable worldwide."
Among the things it reveals is that many of the countries—such as the North African desert Mahgreb countries of Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria—already face serious challenges to the water supply needed for drinking and agriculture, and that water shortages have already led to violence in Mexico. In addition, with shale basins sitting under aquifers that cross country boundaries, including in the Mahgreb, southern Africa and South America, the potential increases for conflicts over water supplies as well as the contamination of water used by an entire region.
"From Brazil and Mexico to Algeria and South Africa, this thirsty industry is exploiting weak regulation and causing untold environmental and social damage in the pursuit of profit. The fracking industry needs to be urgently reigned in before it's too late for our planet and people across the globe," said Antoine Simon, shale gas campaigner at Friends of the Earth Europe.
The report also looks at the geology of these 11 countries, whether they are earthquake-prone or whether their complex terrain will greatly increase the cost of extracting the gas or oil. "This is on top of the incalculable environmental impacts and risks," it says. It found these risks in places like Mexico and China, both with regions that have a high amount of seismic activity. And it mentions that shale basins are often located under forests or protected wildlife areas that could be damaged or destroyed by drilling.
The report details how fracking is a global climate threat due to leakage of methane—a greenhouse gas 86 times more powerful than carbon dioxide—into the atmosphere. The report finds that even at fracking sites that use the "best available technology," methane leakage will cause harmful climate emissions and contribute global temperature rise if fracking is developed worldwide. Case studies in the U.S. indicate that shale gas, due to methane leakage, is far worse than conventional gas and could be worse than coal.
It concludes that the available reserves of oil and gas—and their accessibility—have been overestimated while their impact on the environment and climate change has been underestimated.
"Around the world people and communities are already paying the price of the climate crisis with their livelihoods and lives," said Susann Scherbarth, climate justice and energy campaigner at Friends of the Earth Europe. "Fracking will only make things worse and has no place in a clean energy future. Europe and other industrialised countries most responsible for the climate crisis need to use the talks in Lima to make genuine commitments to end their reliance on corporate-controlled fossil fuels and embrace clean, citizen energy."
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One of nature's epic events is underway: Monarch butterflies' fall migration. Departing from all across the United States and Canada, the butterflies travel up to 2,500 miles to cluster at the same locations in Mexico or along the Pacific Coast where their great-grandparents spent the previous winter.
Millions of People Care About Monarchs<p>I will never forget the sights and sounds the first time I visited monarchs' overwintering sites in Mexico. Our guide pointed in the distance to what looked like hanging branches covered with dead leaves. But then I saw the leaves flash orange every so often, revealing what were actually thousands of tightly packed butterflies. The monarchs made their most striking sounds in the Sun, when they burst from the trees in massive fluttering plumes or landed on the ground in the tussle of mating.</p><p>Decades of educational outreach by teachers, researchers and hobbyists has cultivated a generation of monarch admirers who want to help preserve this phenomenon. This global network has helped restore not only monarchs' summer breeding habitat by planting milkweed, but also general pollinator habitat by planting nectaring flowers across North America.</p><p>Scientists have calculated that restoring the monarch population to a stable level of about 120 million butterflies will require <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/icad.12198" target="_blank">planting 1.6 billion new milkweed stems</a>. And they need them fast. This is too large a target to achieve through grassroots efforts alone. A <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/CCAA.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">new plan</a>, announced in the spring of 2020, is designed to help fill the gap.</p>
Pros and Cons of Regulation<p>The top-down strategy for saving monarchs gained energy in 2014, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service <a href="https://www.fws.gov/southeast/pdf/petition/monarch.pdf" target="_blank">proposed</a> listing them as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. A decision is expected in December 2020.</p><p>Listing a species as endangered or threatened <a href="https://www.fws.gov/endangered/esa-library/pdf/listing.pdf" target="_blank">triggers restrictions</a> on "taking" (hunting, collecting or killing), transporting or selling it, and on activities that negatively affect its habitat. Listing monarchs would impose restrictions on landowners in areas where monarchs are found, over vast swaths of land in the U.S.</p><p>In my opinion, this is not a reason to avoid a listing. However, a "threatened" listing might inadvertently threaten one of the best conservation tools that we have: public education.</p><p>It would severely restrict common practices, such as rearing monarchs in classrooms and back yards, as well as scientific research. Anyone who wants to take monarchs and milkweed for these purposes would have to apply for special permits. But these efforts have had a multigenerational educational impact, and they should be protected. Few public campaigns have been more successful at raising awareness of conservation issues.</p>
<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="91165203d4ec0efc30e4632a00fdf57d"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/KilPRvjbMrA?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
The Rescue Attempt<p>To preempt the need for this kind of regulation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service approved a <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/pdfs/Monarch%20CCAA-CCA%20Public%20Comment%20Documents/Monarch-Nationwide_CCAA-CCA_Draft.pdf" target="_blank">Nationwide Candidate Conservation Agreement for Monarch Butterflies</a>. Under this plan, "rights-of-way" landowners – energy and transportation companies and private owners – commit to restoring and creating millions of acres of pollinator habitat that have been decimated by land development and herbicide use in the past half-century.</p><p>The agreement was spearheaded by the <a href="http://rightofway.erc.uic.edu/" target="_blank">Rights-of-Way Habitat Working Group</a>, a collaboration between the University of Illinois Chicago's <a href="https://erc.uic.edu/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Energy Resources Center</a>, the Fish and Wildlife Service and over 40 organizations from the energy and transportation sectors. These sectors control "rights-of-way" corridors such as lands near power lines, oil pipelines, railroad tracks and interstates, all valuable to monarch habitat restoration.</p><p>Under the plan, partners voluntarily agree to commit a percentage of their land to host protected monarch habitat. In exchange, general operations on their land that might directly harm monarchs or destroy milkweed will not be subject to the enhanced regulation of the Endangered Species Act – protection that would last for 25 years if monarchs are listed as threatened. The agreement is expected to create up to 2.3 million acres of new protected habitat, which ideally would avoid the need for a "threatened" listing.</p>
A Model for Collaboration<p>This agreement could be one of the few specific interventions that is big enough to allow researchers to quantify its impact on the size of the monarch population. Even if the agreement produces only 20% of its 2.3 million acre goal, this would still yield nearly half a million acres of new protected habitat. This would provide a powerful test of the role of declining breeding and nectaring habitat compared to other challenges to monarchs, such as climate change or pollution.</p><p>Scientists hope that data from this agreement will be made publicly available, like projects in the <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/MCD.html" target="_blank">Monarch Conservation Database</a>, which has tracked smaller on-the-ground conservation efforts since 2014. With this information we can continue to develop powerful new models with better accuracy for determining how different habitat factors, such as the number of milkweed stems or nectaring flowers on a landscape scale, affect the monarch population.</p><p>North America's monarch butterfly migration is one of the most awe-inspiring feats in the natural world. If this rescue plan succeeds, it could become a model for bridging different interests to achieve a common conservation goal.</p>
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