Go to your nearest tap. Light a match, and place it next to the running water. If it catches fire, as it has in many American homes, your water supply has probably been polluted by a natural-gas extraction process called fracking. If no flames appear, don’t get complacent. Fracking is becoming the gold rush of the 21st century – as well as an urgent wake-up call on the irreparable damage we are wreaking on our environment. Fracking began in Britain in March, and is probably coming to a gas reservoir near you.
Fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, involves blasting huge amounts of water, mixed with sand and often toxic chemicals, to break up shale formations thousands of feet under the earth, to release natural gas.
The first record of fracking for natural gas was in 1821, in Fredonia, New York. For the next 120 years, gas extraction mostly came from conventional reservoirs which did not require fracking. In 1949, the technique was revived by US companies including Halliburton. Its use skyrocketed since 2005 in the US when the Energy Policy Act exempted fracking wells from federal regulation under the Safe Drinking Act. Championed by Dick Cheney, then Vice-President, this became known as the “Halliburton loophole”.
By the end of 2009, some 26,000 wells were fracking in 16 American states. It’s become big business. British Petroleum (BP) paid more than $3 billion for fracking rights in 2008. The world’s largest mining company, Australian-based BHP Billiton, forked out $5 billion earlier this year for sites in Arkansas. Companies often have to make deals with individual landowners, offering cash payments and a percentage of the proceeds. One large company, Chesapeake Energy, claims to have signed contracts with one million American households.