What can science support today when it comes to impacts of fracking on health and the environment? You might want to read on to find out as fracking is set to go global. Until now, the use of hydraulic fracturing (fracking) for oil and gas extraction has, especially in the United States, outpaced scientific evidence of negative health and environmental impacts from use of this technology, causing a lag in more stringent regulations of its use. Now, science is catching up and helping critics get the support they have been missing to encourage better oversight and regulation of fracking activities.

There was an article in the Guardian recently about polar bears, but rather than trying to win our sympathy for the plight of the polar bears versus climate change, the article discussed how the intangible nature of climate change has caused a phenomenon perhaps best referred to as climate change and environmental complacency. But what precisely would it take to shake us loose from this complacency?

For people who live near hydraulic fracturing (fracking) sites they have been moved to a state of perpetual unease when mysterious illnesses strike, water becomes flammable or seismic activity rattles homes in new and unusual locations. Yet, despite anti-fracking protests and an increasingly large number of people claiming fracking is the cause of their ailments, efforts to halt the use of the technology appear to be in vain. The fracking trend is gaining ground (literally) by making its way out of the American cradle, into oil and gas bearing lands abroad. Up until now development and use of fracking technology, at least in the US, has gone full speed ahead while science and regulations seemingly lag behind. Finally, and thankfully, science is beginning to support claims in favor of those who oppose the use of hydraulic fracturing in their communities.

WHAT SCIENCE TELLS US ABOUT FRACKING

The science around the impacts of fracking has finally started to catch up with the industry, and the last 18 months have witnessed a four-fold increase in providing scientific evidence for those who have been claiming its ill nature for years—the technology is disruptive, toxic and under-regulated.

Human impacts of fracking include those related to health and social well-being. In terms of human health, illnesses linked with fracking can be mysterious and often hard to link to actual fracking activities which is where the importance of science comes into play. Fracking is a risk to food safety, water, soil and air pollution in addition to contamination of animals as a food source.

The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection checked 41 fracking products and found 73% of chemicals to have 6-14 adverse health effects. Illnesses linked with fracking include a range of cancers, organ malfunction and failure, fertility issues and harm to the brain and nervous system. Even now, it is difficult to get the full list of chemicals used in fracking because companies consider this to be proprietary information. Thus, the risks of chemicals used are difficult to determine when scientists are not sure precisely what to test.

Aside from physical health, the well-being of communities is also impacted by fracking in terms of strained social services, disruption from fracking sites and increased traffic—including a higher number of accidents—and competition for jobs. It is also thought that fracking can cause collective trauma when mass illness or disruptions take place and could potentially alter communities forever. Fracked communities are further distressed when ecosystems, especially water and soil, become waste bins for toxic chemical run-off with exorbitant remediation costs, many of which are externalized to the local community.

Also, because oil and gas companies have seemingly bottom-less budgets, they are able to woo communities into prioritizing water use for which fracking requires huge amounts of water. Other environmental impacts of fracking are related to climate change with increased ground ozone, particulate and methane emissions—methane has a higher warming potential than CO2. The greenhouse gas footprint of fracking is said to exceed that of coal and have 11% higher methane emissions and a 30% higher rate of gas leaks over the lifetime of wells for fracking. Science also confirms impacts from land use change such as seismic activity, mineral rights conflicts and overlap of non-compatible sectors (eg, fracking and agriculture).

For an overview for the impacts of fracking see the infographic to the right.

THE ECONOMICS AND POLITICS OF FRACKING

The potential benefits of fracking—including lower fuel costs, reduced air pollution, industry jobs and secondary service sector jobs—are questionable when compared to the high costs of health, environmental and societal impacts of fracking. In addition to health, environment and societal impacts, there are also a wealth of political and economic impacts felt from fracking. To name a few, governments justify the use of fracking in the name of energy and national security, but, as in the case of the United States, have not followed through with stringent enough regulations to keep people on the home front safe when using fracking.

Lack of regulation has created tension between governments and the increasing number of people opposing the use of the technology in addition to influencing global markets (ie, evidence both in favor and against shale gas affecting oil prices) and geopolitical relations between governments. The oil and gas industry is also an extremely influential and powerful player, which buys them an entire supply chain needed to support fracking activities, and again, having ripple effects from local up to global communities, markets and government relations. Unfortunately many of effects of the industry’s actions are veiled behind the industry’s opaque modus operandi and this is part of what perpetuates their actions.

To get an overview of the political and economic issues with the use of fracking see the infographic to the right.

WILL EUROPE EMBRACE FRACKING?

Getting sound support behind those who oppose fracking is especially important as European countries are increasingly attracted to the technology but at least for the foreseeable future tend to take a more conservative approach to shale gas exploitation as with Bulgaria, France, and Germany. Yet, other European countries such as Denmark, Ireland, Netherlands, Poland, and the UK are still interested in rolling out the red carpet for fracking even as the momentum seems to be losing steam in Europe.

Suffice it to say, the oil and gas industry has not yet been held fully accountable for implementing stringent environmental and health standards. In part, this is due to the lag in science being able to inform regulations, but now things are beginning to change as more research is being done on health, environmental and social impacts of fracking. However, even as science catches up, the full health, environmental and social impacts will not be felt for years—perhaps even after fracking wells have long dried up and industries have moved out of the area, making accountability difficult. Hopefully once science can provide sound evidence for the impacts discussed here, governments will be encouraged to implement tight regulations now, better ensuring public and environmental health and minimizing impacts in the future.