Fracking Risks Compared to Asbestos and Other Environmental and Health Dangers
While the title of the new British government report Innovation: Managing Risk, Not Avoiding It sounds cheery, the news it contained about fracking, among other environmentally dubious technologies, was anything but.
The annual report of the government chief scientific advisor featured a lot of "better living through science"-type happy talk about scientific and technological advances, but warned, "Competition is becoming ever more fierce, vital global resources are dwindling and environmental problems are mounting, making innovation an ever-present challenge."
It's a case that University of Sussex professor Andy Stirling makes strongly in a chapter entitled "Making Choices in the Face of Uncertainty: Strengthening Innovation Democracy," using fracking and the fossil fuel industry in general as an example.
"History presents plenty of examples of innovation trajectories that later proved to be problematic—for instance, involving asbestos, benzene, thalidomide, dioxins, lead in petrol, tobacco, many pesticides, mercury, chlorine and endocrine-disrupting compounds, as well as CFCs, high-sulphur fuels and fossil fuels in general," he writes. "In all these and many other cases, delayed recognition of adverse effects incurred not only serious environmental or health impacts, but massive expense and reductions in competitiveness for firms and economies persisting in the wrong path. Innovations reinforcing fossil fuel energy strategies—such as hydraulic fracturing—arguably offer a contemporary prospective example."
Saying that "a rich array of renewable energy technologies is available for addressing climate change in a diversity of radically different distributed or centralized ways," he points out that "One of the main obstacles lies in high-profile self-fulfilling assertions to the contrary, including by authoritative policy figures. Amongst the most potent of these political obstructions are claims from partisan interests—such as incumbent nuclear or fossil fuel industries—that there is no alternative to their favoured innovations and policies."
He says, "It is remarkable how many major global industries are building around once marginal technologies like wind turbines, ecological farming, super energy-efficient buildings or green chemistry. All of these owe key elements in their pioneering origins to early development by grassroots social movements."
Yet earlier this year, one of those "authoritative policy figures," British prime minister David Cameron, said that the country was "going all out for shale," and he has proved it with aggressive actions strongly opposed by environmental groups.
A section in the report "High Level Case Study: Hydraulic Fracking" featured contrasting views—the "industry perspective," the "NGO perspective" and the "science and engineering perspective"—that present a mixed and cautionary picture.
Not surprisingly, the industry perspective is as enthusiastic as Cameron's.
"Provided it is exploited in an environmentally safe way, we believe that the country’s indigenous shale gas resources offer a secure and potentially competitive source of feedstock and fuel," wrote Steve Elliott of the Chemical Industries Association. "Estimates suggest that UK shale gas development will require supply chain spending of £3.3 billion per annum and generate 64,500 jobs. Communities will also receive direct benefits from local shale gas development. It is now time for government and industry to redouble their efforts to address environmental concerns and explain the economic benefits."
The NGO perspective, provided Harry Huyton of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, was a little less rosy. He said risks include "water demand in areas under water stress, causing low river flows; water contamination as a result of well-casing failures and surface spillages; pollution incidents as a result of waste handling and disposal; and the loss, fragmentation and disturbance of wildlife habitats." He adds that environmental impacts in the U.S. have been "poorly studied" and that "we do not currently have an effective and sufficiently precautionary framework."
Writing from the science and engineering perspective, Robert Muir of the University of Cambridge pointed to a 2012 scientific report to assert that fracking is unlikely to cause water contamination but there is danger from poorly constructed well casings and that potential seismic activity is no big deal—similar to that created by coal mining.
While the overall conclusion of the report was that fracking could be safe if properly regulated, that's a big "if" and there is disagreement on what "properly regulated" means.
Greenpeace UK’s energy campaigner Louise Hutchins said it's far from clear that fracking is adequately regulated.
“This is a naked-emperor moment for the government’s dash to frack," she told The Guardian of London. "Ministers are being warned by their own chief scientist that we don’t know anywhere near enough about the potential side effects of shale drilling to trust this industry. The report is right to raise concerns about not just the potential environmental and health impact but also the economic costs of betting huge resources on an unproven industry. Ministers should listen to this appeal to reason and subject their shale push to a sobering reality check.”
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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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