Regulate fracking now

No authorisation for gas extraction from shale or coalbeds

schematic of the fracking procedureClick to enlarge
„Fracking“ is controversial: There are risks especially for the groundwater.
Source: bilderzwerg / Fotolia.com

The Federal Environment Agency (UBA) is pressing for speedy regulation of fracking technology. "Fracking remains a risk technology – and therefore requires strict guidelines to protect the environment and health. As long as there are no firm statements on the risks of this technology and how they can be controlled, there should be no fracking activity in Germany for the purpose of shale and coalbed gas extraction", said UBA President Maria Krautzberger on the occasion of the presentation of UBA's new, 600-page export Fracking II report in Berlin.

Ms Krautzberger emphasised that the core principles brought forward by Federal Minister for Economic Affairs Sigmar Gabriel and Federal Environment Minister Barbara Hendricks must now quickly be passed into law: "Up to now we have had no statutory guidelines for fracking technology. The legislator must put a quick end to this highly unsatisfactory state of affairs. The core element of changes to the law must occur through an amendment of the Federal Water Act which places a ban on gas extraction from shale and coalbeds. In addition, there must be an environmental impact assessment of and ban on any and all forms of fracking in water protection areas." Ms Krautzberger reminded that government and industry have merely advocated a moratorium but that fracking has not been prohibited.

The Federal Environment Agency recommends a comprehensive risk assessment of all fracking projects for the purpose of gas and oil extraction and for all testing measures. These assessments must become an integral part of an environmental impact assessment which is standardised according to the core principles put forward by the Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy (BMWi) and the Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation, Building and Nuclear Safety (BMUB). The UBA – like the BMWi and BMUB – continue to adhere to placing a ban without exception on every form of fracking in water protection areas and medicinal spring protection zones as well as other sensitive areas such as the drainage areas of lakes and river dams, nature conservation areas and Habitats Directive sites.

The UBA expert report finds that the treatment of flowback is an unresolved issue. Flowback is the water based solution that flows back to the surface during and after hydraulic fracturing. In addition to the chemicals used for fracking, this fluid contains other sometimes toxic substances from underground such as heavy metals, aromatic hydrocarbons, and even radioactive substances at some sites. From an environmental perspective the best treatment of flowback would be its reuse after targeted treatment. The experts recommend the addition of an annex to the Waste Water Ordinance which regulates the procedure in detail. Ms Krautzberger is convinced there is "still a great need for research and development as concerns the disposal of flowback and reservoir water. So far no operator has come forth with a viable disposal scheme."

For the sake of water protection, the UBA has proposed so-called baseline monitoring. For a fracking project to be authorised the operator must conduct an analysis of groundwater prior to the fracking process and submit its findings to the competent authorities. A continuous system of monitoring would check for any changes in the status of the groundwater throughout the entire fracking procedure. Operators would also be obliged to collect such data during gas extraction and upon dismantling. Surveillance monitoring can be done at groundwater measuring sites which are already widespread across Germany.

A further recommendation by the UBA – as with other high-risk technologies such as genetic engineering – is to introduce a national, legally binding fracking chemicals registry which is managed by one federal authority. This registry would be publicly accessible online so that anyone can see where chemicals are being used and whether they might cause harm to the environment. "Industry is taking steps to make less use of substances which are classified as hazardous or, at least, to work with only 'slightly polluting substances' for water. A government registry would allow for transparency in following the progress which industry claims to be making", said Ms Krautzberger.

The UBA views the current fracking boom in the USA with caution due to climate protection concerns. "Fracking technology is no saviour for climate protection which can make the switch to renewable energy any easier. It would be better for our country to direct more focus on proven forms of environmentally friendly energy such as renewables. Furthermore, we must make the buildings in which fracking gas might be used for heating more energy efficient in the long term by bringing down gas consumption. Then we wouldn't need fracking gas in the first place."

UBA has subjected the current Fracking II publication to a comprehensive evaluation process. Its preliminary results were presented an open workshop in January 2014 where associations and competent authorities were invited to issue comments. The report of the proceedings of the workshop will be published together with the Fracking II expert report.

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