Fracking could prolong Germany's supply of fossil fuels and make the country less dependent on imports, says the gas industry. But experts argue over whether it's worth the risk to people's health and the environment.
With the government’s fracking bill and figures on cancer rates in her folder, and more facts and figures on her laptop, Kathrin Otte rushes from one appointment to the next. But the deputy chairman of the non-profit network for environmental sickness (GENUK) has to stop to take regular breaks.
Since she was young, her immune system has become weaker: mercury dental fillings, pesticides from her parent’s fruit farm and the toxic solvents and paint she used as a trainee carpenter have turned the intelligent and ambitious woman into a wreck.
The diagnosis: toxin-mediated multisystem disease. During a long period of exhaustion and uncertainty, she set about acquiring a profound knowledge of environmental toxins. The chemicals used in the fracking process are among them.
US incidents spark skepticism
Fracking is not new. It has been around for 50 years, using sand, water and high pressure to penetrate impermeable sandstone layers. Now gas firms want to go even further, targeting hitherto impenetrable gas-bearing layers of shale rock.
Up to now, German mining law makes no provision for this kind of mining or the disposal of toxic pollutants involved. And in Lower Saxony, where 95 percent of the natural gas reserves are located, Germans are alarmed at the reports of incidents and cases of illness they have heard about from the US.
The region that is not far from where Kathrin Otte lives. Looking through her stacks of papers, she picks out a sheet from Lower Saxony’s cancer register. The figures show that an exceptionally high number of men in the small town of Bothel have contracted various forms of cancer of the lymph glands.
So far, nobody has been able to explain the number of cases. But Kathrin Otte suspects the cancer could have something to do with the natural gas production facilities, located close to the town, southeast of Bremen. There are also 456 other drilling sites that could pose a danger.
In the US, the fracking method involves a liquid mixture of up to 17 million liters of water, quartz sand and partly toxic substances being pumped into the shale rock. The extreme pressure and the interaction of a very cold mixture hitting 160-degree heat, blast the rock apart.
The trapped gas then escapes at a high pressure through delivery pipes to the surface. Meanwhile, the chemicals enable the sand to glide easily into the cracks, preventing them from closing again.
Again and again benzene has contaminated the soil and groundwater, escaping through leaking pipes around the drilling sites. The highly toxic benzene fumes can cause cancer after prolonged inhalation. The state’s mining authority also found elevated levels of mercury in the ground.
In every fracking operation, what is known as reservoir water, which occurs naturally with the gas, was also brought to the surface. With it come toxic substances, such as benzene, toluene, xylene, heavy metals, and radioactive materials like Radon 226, and also up to 22 percent salt water.
Together with local citizens’ groups, Kathrin Otte has had a a study put in place to look at the long-term health of those living around hundreds of drilling sites, to research whether toxic contaminants could be related to cases of illness.
"But we do not expect to have the results for at least four years because of understaffing at the state’s mining authority," says Otte. "Naturally, we hope that before then we will be able to make a direct scientific link to illnesses."
Oblivious to the dangers
Hartmut Horn is a writer, who would rather be producing poetry than giving interviews. But he was brought into the fray after a drilling site was set up 700 meters from his house in 2011.
"The whole region has been continuously oblivious to the dangers of gas production," says Horn. "Until then I thought natural gas was a clean energy. I never suspected how dirty the process is."
At that time, he and his fellow campaigners first had to inform the water management authority about what was happening. In the meantime, Horn founded the citizen initiative "frack-less drilling in LK Rotenburg/Wümme". He has even been interviewed by the Washington Post and the Voice of Russia.
He says that on several occasions "Rotenburg Rinne", an underground water reservoir where around 400,000 people get their drinking water, was drilled through. Horn feared that the water could become contaminated.
Another issue of concern is the large quantity of water that is used to pump the chemicals deep into the ground to break apart the stone. This must be treated and safely disposed of. It is this water that is the biggest problem, says Horn. It remains poisonous no matter which chemicals are pumped into the ground during fracking.
The polluted mixture is transported by truck or along an 800km pipeline network around the region of Rotenburg/Wüme to the drilling site, and pumped 750 meters deep into the ground.
"Just like with nuclear waste, it is not regulated," says Horn. The water needs to be cleaned on the surface. "But that is apparently too expensive for the companies," he says, pointing to the list of incidents registered by the mining authority: Pipeline damage and resulting contamination of the soil and groundwater, mercury spills, air pollution and flaring of gas, fires, earthquakes – and more.
"The authorities have until now left control up to the companies," he says. "That is negligence."
Environmental activists have petitioned federal environment minister Barbara Hendricks (SPD) with 650,000 signatures for a general ban on the controversial gas extraction. The minister says she is against it. At the same time she cites pressure from the gas lobby.
This would include firms like Exxon Mobil, Wintershall and RWE Dea. The companies sponsor kindergartens and schools, social projects and voluntary youth fire brigades. In times where public coffers are so depleted, it is hard to resist those subsidies. And the federal state where the fracking takes place would also receive a third of the revenue.
Geologists and local residents are split over the fracking issue. Farmers who have leased land to gas companies are in favor. Potato farmers, on the other hand, are against it, as they are having problems finding buyers for their harvest.
Georg Meiners, leader of a team of more than 20 scientists putting together a report for the environment ministry, expresses more caution than others among his colleagues, who are employed by public authorities or in the service of the industry.
He doesn’t reject fracking in principle, but says you have to consider what can be done to avoid or at least reduce risks.
For example, he says, there is the risk that drilling leaks could mean gas and liquids escape into the surrounding rocks and pollute the groundwater. "You can take measures to reduce these risks, but you can never be completely free of them," he says. Therefore drilling has to be closely monitored.
Meiners also raises the question as to whether natural gas provision through fracking makes sense from an economic perspective. Environmental economists at the Centre for European Economic Research say not in the foreseeable future. In addition, the cost of fracking to the environment and health is hard to assess.
The authorities are divided on the potential of natural gas. "Is there enough recoverable natural gas by unconventional reservoirs in Germany? Nobody knows," says Meiners. "Before somewhere has been drilled, it’s all speculation."
If natural gas could be extracted from shale, the environment ministry expects that German gas demand could be covered for 13 years. The Federal Institute for Geosciences and Natural Resources estimates 27 years.
Fracking without poison?
A bill is currently going back and forth between the federal environment and the economic ministry. The intention is to strictly prohibit fracking above a depth of 3,000 meters. Meanwhile, fracking technology would be further researched up to 2021. The Federation of German Industries (BDI) has already rejected the plan.
In the midst of this emotionally charged discussion, Exxon Mobil is trying out an ad campaign for the controversial method, or as they put it, "fracking without poison". Neither Exxon nor Hanover's state mining authority is willing to say how that would work. It is still in the testing phase, they say.
In the meantime, concerned citizens like Harmut Horn and Kathrin Otte and scientists like Georg Meiners will follow the developments critically. "We are fighting for the protection of our health, the air, the earth and for clean water," says Horn.