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Issue #1645      July, 2, 2014

It’s time to put fracking to bed once and for all

Only fools or the lackeys of big mining and power generation interests would argue against banning the coal seam gas (fracking) process. Scientific evidence shows that fracking causes huge damage to the environment and harms human and animal health.

Many of our politicians in major conservative or social democratic parties don’t seem to understand science, the environment and health of humans. Recently, the Minerals Resources Minister in South Australia, Tom Koutsantonis, a former shop union industrial officer who has no qualifications in any field of science, had the insolence to criticise the opposition to fracking as supporting “pseudo-science” and claimed it is threatening investment in resources.

Addressing industry leaders, he called for better understanding of methods used and the importance of the resources industry to SA. Such comments are demeaning to scientists, are witless and seek to deceive the electorate, but that’s the way of the capitalist system – looking after the wealthy and big business at the expense of the health of the population and the environment.

Election issue

Fracking was an election issue in the South East seat of Mt Gambier this year. This is an area with huge underground water resources supplying Mt Gambier with its drinking water from the Blue Lake. The area also has pristine sinkholes and other lakes supplying water to places like Robe, a fishing port in the region. Wild life at Bool Lagoon will be under threat of contamination resulting in endangered birds and wild ducks being poisoned. Fracking could destroy all this area because of politicians putting business interests first.

Countries with cities or states with a ban or moratorium on fracking include:

  • The US: New York State, California, Los Angeles, Pennsylvania, Washington DC, Texas, Hawaii, Ohio, Mora County, New Mexico and Colorado.
  • Canada: Newfoundland and Quebec.
  • Europe: Spain, France, Luxembourg, Bulgaria, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Italy, Northern Ireland and Ireland.
  • South Africa
  • New Zealand: Christchurch and Kaikoura district.

Fluid flowbacks

Flow back water typically contains some of the original fracking fluid constituents, as well as other hazardous chemicals and materials found underground. Waste-water contains a range of naturally occurring radioactive elements, including radium 226 and uranium, both of which have long half-lives and known health risks. In November 2009, Scientific American published an article documenting that “waste-water from natural gas drilling in New York State is radioactive, as high as 267 times the limit safe for discharge into the environment and thousands of times the limit safe for drinking”.

Radio nuclides can be present in waste-water. These include isotopes of radium, radon, uranium, alpha and beta particles. The Australian Drinking Water Guidelines state that there is evidence from both human and animal studies that radiation exposure at low to moderate doses may increase the long-term incidence of cancer. There is also evidence from animal studies that the rate of genetic disorders may be increased by radiation exposure (National Health Medical Research Council 2011).

We have good reason to fear fracking as it can contaminate ground water. Coal bed methane is frequently produced at or close to depths associated with ground water tables, while shale gas fracking occurs at depths hundreds of metres below ground water tables. Nevertheless, fracking does involve drilling wells down through ground water aquifers, and the transport, storage, injection into the ground, and disposal of fluids containing toxic constituents.

Can’t trust private enterprise

Self-reporting of incidents has failed in the past and will continue in the future. The best known is the water spillage into the Pilliga State Forest in NSW, in 2011. Santos Ltd purchased the company from Eastern Star Gas and subsequently self-reported on the former company’s environment impacts, including accidental discharge of produced water into Bohema Creek as well as the failure of a water treatment facility. It is unclear how much toxic water was discharged in these events or how many events took place.

In Queensland the Australian Pacific Liquid Natural gas project approval permits the discharge of treated fracking water from the project’s Talinga water treatment facility into the Condamine River. A condition of licence approval is that the treated water meets the ANZECC water quality standards before it is discharged into the receiving water body. Water quality monitoring undertaken in 2011 reported high levels of boron and cadmium in the treated water.

The Queensland Department of Environment stated it would amend the operation licence to allow discharge of elevated levels, presumably to be consistent with current discharge as sought by Australian Pacific. Other contaminants released into the Condamine are Bromine, Iodine, Sodium, Aluminium, Chloroform (Trichloromethane), Zinc, Barium, Chromium (as Cr VI), Copper, Nickel, Lead, (N-Nitrosodimethylamine). There is no mention of the radioactive hazardous materials.

Tests required

Contamination results from the use of toxic chemicals during the fracking process and the subsequent release of additional toxic chemicals and radioactive materials during well production. The fluid pumped out of the well and separated from the oil and gas not only contains the chemical additives used in the drilling process but also contains heavy metals, radioactive materials, volatile organic compounds and hazardous air pollutants such as benzene, toluene, ethyl benzene and xylene (BTEX). State governments must make compulsory the testing for all chemicals used and all produced toxic contaminants including radioactive material by the fracking process.

Spills from pipes and contaminated structures are a key risk for the fracking industry. Depending on its location and magnitude, a water spill has the potential to sterilise soil and affect vegetation such as occurred in the Pilliga incidents. If the spilled produced water enters a watercourse it may have ecological impacts on downstream aquatic systems. The high salt and metal concentrations of produced fracking water may result in ecotoxic responses. While ecotoxicity may not have occurred in the Talinga incident in the Condamine River it may be possible through recurring or larger spills. Soil contamination may persist for many years, and watercourse contamination may persist for months.

Detrimental consequences of fracking water entering streams and rivers can include effects on the chemistry of waterways, which can lead to significant ecosystem impacts. Laboratory studies indicate that exposure to elevated concentrations of total dissolved solids, bicarbonate, magnesium chloride, and sulphate constituents that may occur in produced water can be toxic to some freshwater organisms, according to a study report from the US National Research Council 2010.

Ground water contamination

The contamination of aquifers from produced water is one of the greatest long-term concerns associated with fracking and shale gas projects. The shallow depths between the coal seams and aquifers used for drinking and agriculture in NSW may mean there is greater potential for the vertical migration of produced water through cracks, faults and wells, notwithstanding water and energy required for hydraulic fracturing and consequently a higher risk of contamination.

Change in near-surface aquifer water chemistry, as a consequence of contamination by gasses and produced water derived from deeper strata, can also affect ground water systems. For example, methane has low solubility and can seep through cracks, faults and wells into ground water systems. It can be oxidised by bacteria, resulting in anoxic conditions that in turn, can increase the solubility of arsenic and iron and reduce sulphide and sulphate causing water quality problems.

For regions and activities that rely on ground water as their principal water source or as backup during drought, the additional impact of water extraction and injection due to fracking may have broader and longer-term consequences and affect the security and reliability of water supply for drinking water and agriculture.

Temporary bans not enough

While NSW and Victoria state governments have temporary bans on fracking, this decision could change with big commercial interests that see huge profits pressurising our pathetic politicians into caving in, using the spurious argument it will create jobs. So will renewable energy create permanent jobs and produce renewable energy, reducing the high pollution levels Australia produces.

Eastern states have an opportunity to lobby both major parties before their state elections calling on them to commit to a total ban on the fracking procedure, and commit to increasing renewable energy.

Next article – Farmers won’t be bought on CSG

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