Hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking” is an unconventional form of extracting oil and natural gas. The technique requires drilling first vertically and then horizontally, and injecting a high-pressure mix of water, sand, and toxic chemicals. The injection fractures subsurface layers of shale, releasing the oil and gas contained within.
Fracking has severe impacts on both the environment and human health: it contaminates surface and ground water sources, causes earthquakes and air pollution, and releases greenhouse gases, among other things. These effects have been documented in studies by the German Ministry of Environment, the U.S. Government Accountability Office, the Canadian Council of Academies, and Anthony Ingraffea, a professor at Cornell University.
On December 17th 2014 the Governor of New York, Andrew M. Cuomo, announced the prohibition of fracking in the state because of the “significant health risks” it posed and ending a debate on a divisive public policy. Cuomo’s argument stems from a two-year study conducted by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, which analyzed the impacts of this practice on human health and air and water quality in communities throughout the state.
While the decision was celebrated by environmental advocates, some investors claimed that it denied New York State economic benefits. The debate over whether or not to permit fracking has been going on in other latitudes as well. In France, fracking was banned in 2011 by national law. After an oil company sued the government, the Constitutional Court upheld the ban in 2013. Bulgaria banned fracking in 2012, and Germany maintains a moratorium on the technique. Bans or moratoriums have also been issued by municipalities in the United States, Canada, Spain, Argentina, Switzerland, Italy, Ireland, the Netherlands, and Australia.
Despite this international prece- dent, the Colombian government has promoted fracking. In 2008, the Na- tional Hydrocarbons Agency (ANH) issued a study to identify the potential in unconventionally releasing hydrocarbons. In 2012, the National Environmental Licensing Authority allowed a hydraulic fracturing project in the department of Boyacá.
That same year, the Colombia’s Comptroller General issued just one warning recommending that compa- nies “take into account the precautionary principle regarding the latent risk hydraulic fracturing poses to environmental heritage through the possible contamination of groundwater and surface water sources, geological risk, and the risk to public health and nearby urban centers.”
In January 2015, in a special performance-monitoring warning, the Comptroller also found that the country had not adopted the necessary measures, despite the fact, that during a 2014 oil and gas litigation summit, known as Ronda Colombia, of the 98 “blocks” which were offered for conventional oil and gas extraction, 19 went to planned fracking consents.
The Colombian government has been creating a regulatory framework for fracking in Colombia since the end of 2012. They have contracted international experts to regulate and identify the impacts of this technique. An investigation by the independent news entity La Silla Vacía found that several of these experts were directly linked to the oil industry. The Ministry of Mines and the National Hydrocarbons Agency then issued the legal instruments, which would serve as the framework for the start of fracking in the country.
Francisco José Lloreda, president of Colombia’s Petroleum Association, publicly stated that without fracking the country would face a budgetary catastrophe within six to seven years. The current Minister of Mines, Tomás González, said that fracking is needed to finance the country’s peace process.
Even before fracking began in Colombia, various sectors issued their warnings. In August 2014, the Intera- merican Assocation for the Defense of the Environment (AIDA) urged the government publicly to apply a precau- tionary principle and prevent the serious and irreversible consequences from fracking. Later, the National Environmental Forum and other organizations requested a conditional moratorium on fracking in Colombia.
Additionally, the current Minister of Housing and Territorial Development, Luis Felipe Henao, voiced con- cern about the effects fracking would have on the nation’s water. “To me, fracking scares me. When you see what is happening in Santa Marta, you realise that one can invest in pipes, but if you don’t have clean water supplies, you won’t do much more than carry air through them.”
From all these arguments, the obvious question arises: Why is fracking – which has been prohibited or restricted in various countries and municipalities – being promoted by the Colombian government?
The most apparent response is that it will increase extraction of hydrocarbons and, as a consequence, the revenues of government and private industry. What government and industry do not see is that no amount of revenue is great enough to offset the social and environmental impact of fracking, or of the possible new conflicts which may arise because of its effects on our na- tion’s privileged water resources.
We have seen nationally, from La Guajira to Arauca (and internationally) that without drinkable water, a successful economy, and even life itself, are simply not sustainable.
About the author: Héctor Herrera Santoyo is the coordinator of the Colombian Environmental Justice Network and an attorney for AIDA.