(MintPress) — Five-thousand environmental activists representing more than 136 organizations met in Washington D.C. over the weekend, in one of the largest national anti-fracking demonstrations. A broad coalition of people, including well known environmentalist Bill McKibben, converged on the capital, demanding Congress take steps to ban hydraulic fracturing, also known as “fracking,” a practice that many say is harmful to the environment and human health. The known carcinogens used in the fracking process, including toxic chemicals like Benzene, are “major contributors to lifetime excess cancer risk,” according to a Colorado School of Public Health. People living near fracking wells have reported other ailments, including headaches, rashes, wheezing, aches and pains as a result of water and air contamination.
With staggering energy demands, U.S. policy makers have adopted measures to decrease foreign consumption of oil while backing laws favorable to the expansion of domestic oil and gas projects. Industry officials claim fracking and Arctic drilling, among other methods, will promote job growth and energy independence. However, a growing opposition movement has challenged this assertion, demanding energy independence instead through renewable, environmentally friendly methods.
Activists opposed to fracking, commonly known as, “fractivists,” came to Washington D.C. for the first ever meeting of the “Stop the Frack Attack” coalition. Those in attendance met to strategize and issue a collective set of demands to Congress and the president.
Chief among these demands include an end to fracking; a closure of the legal loopholes that let oil and gas industry skirt the Safe Drinking Water Act, Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act; and, finally, a full enforcement of existing laws to protect families and communities from the health effects of fracking. This last demand is an important one for activists who believe that communities should be able to pass local moratoriums and bans on the process.
Prominent environmentalists, including 350.org founder Bill McKibben, documentary filmmaker Josh Fox and Sierra Club board President Allison Chin, were in attendance, offering words of support to the thousands on hand.
“As the increasingly bizarre weather across the planet and melting ice on Greenland makes clear, at this point we’ve got no choice but to keep fossil fuels underground. Fracking to find more is the worst possible idea,” said McKibben at the rally.
After speeches, those assembled went to the headquarters of America’s Natural Gas Alliance, where they delivered six barrels of contaminated water which contained “fracking fluid,” a mixture of carcinogenic chemicals used to break apart underground rock formations and in the fracking process. Those handling the barrels wore full hazmat suits. In addition, protesters marched to the American Petroleum Institute where they assembled a mock oil rig before symbolically toppling it to the ground.
Fractivists also took part in three days of training in the lead up to the weekend demonstrations. Attendees met to strategize and share ideas about how best to advance group objectives. Some attendees took the opportunity to meet with their members of Congress to speak about the issues and urge elected representatives to work toward a national ban on hydraulic fracturing.
The demonstrations were reported to be peaceful. No arrests or injuries have been reported.
Natural gas represents a largely untapped natural resource across the U.S. The International Energy Agency reports in the Economist Special Report on natural gas that after Russia and China, the U.S. has the most remaining natural gas resources, with an estimated 37 trillion cubic meters of conventional natural gas.
While much of this gas can be recovered through conventional, vertical drilling methods, a large percent is trapped inside rock formations.
Fracking, or “horizontal drilling,” is a method of natural gas extraction that involves the use of highly pressurized “fracking fluid” to break apart rock formations beneath the surface of the earth. The composition of fracking fluid had been kept secret for many years as gas companies long claimed the unique composition of the fluid to be a trade secret.
However, an April 2011 scientific study carried out by the U.S. House of Representatives
Committee On Energy and Commerce found that fracking fluid used in existing projects across the U.S. contains 29 dangerous chemicals, including known carcinogens Benzene, Xylene and Ethylbenzene.
The report states, “The oil and gas service companies used hydraulic fracturing products containing 29 chemicals that are (1) known or possible human carcinogens, (2) regulated under the Safe Drinking Water Act for their risks to human health, or (3) listed as hazardous air pollutants under the Clean Air Act. These 29 chemicals were components of 652 different products used in hydraulic fracturing.”
Industry officials have acknowledged that fracking fluid contains some harmful chemicals. However, oil and gas companies claim that there is virtually no risk that these chemicals will enter the water table. Despite these claims, a peer reviewed study published in Ground Water, a journal of The National Groundwater Association, in April found that natural faults and fractures in underground rock formations allow chemicals to reach wells and fresh water aquifers close to the earth’s surface.
Fracking has also been found to increase the risk of low level earthquakes. A June special report by the National Research Council found that fracking can trigger tremors and low level earthquakes as a result of drilling. The risk of triggering moderate and large scale earthquakes remains low, according to the report.
Despite the sometimes conflicting scientific reports and claims of “biased” studies, the insurance industry appears to indicate that there are legitimate health concerns. An internal Nationwide Insurance memo, leaked earlier this month legitimized the long-held claims by activists opposed to the drilling.
The memo reads, “After months of research and discussion, we have determined that the exposures presented by hydraulic fracturing are too great to ignore. Risks involved with hydraulic fracturing are now prohibited for General Liability, Commercial Auto, Motor Truck Cargo, Auto Physical Damage and Public Auto (insurance) coverage.”
Insurance companies using actuarial science assess risk and determine if people or projects are insurable. The Nationwide Insurance determination is one based upon statistical risk models based upon scientific studies. The assessment is one likely to give strength to the burgeoning coalition of towns and cities opposed to fracking in the Marcellus Shale region across the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic regions of the U.S.
The difficult step toward statewide and national bans
The march toward a statewide ban in New York has been led by a grassroots coalition of activists and concerned citizens. Working locally, many communities across the state have been successful in adopting city or town-wide bans.
Thus far, nearly 200 towns plus the state of Vermont have passed permanent bans on fracking. New Jersey has placed a one year moratorium on fracking due to popular pressure. Similarly, some European countries, including Bulgaria, the Czech Republic and France, have placed moratoriums on the practice, while Germany has opted for a permanent ban.
The intense pressure on the New York state legislature has not produced the statewide ban tens of thousands across the state seek. However, it has prompted New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo to retreat from his initial hardline support for drilling across the entire state.
Gov. Cuomo announced in June that he would limit fracking to the Southern tier of New York state. These mostly rural counties bordering Pennsylvania are among the most impoverished in the state.
Thus far, the anti-fracking movement has worked effectively as a grassroots movement. However, before the Washington D.C. rally, the movement appeared somewhat nebulous and diffuse, as there was no single organization representing the demands of the anti-fracking community.
Now, the “Stop the Frack Attack” coalition has emerged, bringing together 136 environmental, labor and religious organizations from communities across the Marcellus Shale region.
Fractivists will have the opportunity to build upon their burgeoning grassroots movement at upcoming rallies in Albany, N.Y. on August 25, and Philadelphia, Penn. on September 20-21.