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Photo: Ariél Pérez, AIDA attorney, discusses the legal tools to tackle fracking. Credit: Victor Quintanilla.

Photo: Ariél Pérez, AIDA attorney, discusses the legal tools to tackle fracking. Credit: Victor Quintanilla.

COP20: Fracking, an experimental, hazardous and contaminating technique

During an event at the People’s Summit on Climate Change, a parallel event to the COP20 in Lima, fracking took center stage. Activists expressed their central argument about the controversial oil extraction method: that fracking is an experimental technique that involves serious risks to health and the environment, including the worsening of climate change.

Fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, is an extreme method of exploration and/or exploitation of unconventional oil and gas (as both shale and tight gas). Special drills bore holes vertically into the subsoil and then horizontally into rock formations. Drill teams inject a mixture of water, sand, and chemicals at high pressure to fracture the rock, releasing trapped gas and oil. 

"These chemicals have unknown effects due to contact with elements of the subsoil," explained Eduardo D’elia, petroleum engineer and member of the Citizens Environmental Assembly of Rio Gallegos in Argentina, during Fracking: A Challenge for Latin America, organized by the Heinrich Böll Foundation in the People's Summit. "The fracturing of horizontal wells is highly complex and unpredictable, so this makes fracking an experimental technique."

Fracking affects people in a number of unfortunate ways: the massive use of water (from 9 to 29 million liters of water per well) reduces availability of fresh water for drinking water, agriculture or other needs; fracking fluids can contaminate surface and groundwaters; the chemicals used may cause cancer, allergies, and malformation, among other diseases.

Aroa de la Fuente, member of FUNDAR and the Mexican Alliance Against Fracking, made it clear that fracking is not an option for confronting climate change. She said that in hydraulic fracturing projects, up to eight percent of the natural gas (methane) produced escapes directly into the atmosphere. And methane holds a global warming potential 25 times that of carbon dioxide. 

"In 20 years, the climate impact of electricity generated by fracked gas would be higher than 20 percent of the impact of coal-fired electric generation," she stated. 

Argentina, Bolivia, Colombia and Mexico, among other Latin American countries, are intending to develop fracking broadly in coming years. Attendees at the People’s Summit wondered, "What can people do in the face of these hazardous plans?" 

Ariel Perez Castellón, an attorney with AIDA, emphasized the existence of legal tools designed to safeguard human health and the environment against fracking.

The first, he said, is the precautionary principle, which is recognized in international law and which States and civil society should apply to address the threats of fracking. This principle establishes that "where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation". [1]

This means that when in doubt about the occurrence, scope, or magnitude of severe environmental damage, States must take proactive and effective measures to prevent such damage.

"Based in this principle, States have three obligations related to fracking: to generate broad, clear and impartial information regarding this activity and its impacts; to protect the environment and the people with a moratorium on fracking activities, until there is a demonstration of its innocuous development; and to promote opportunities for public debate about fracking", Pérez said.  

Attendees in Lima stressed that social mobilization is key in supporting the legal strategies against fracking. Various civil society organizations within Latin American spoke of their efforts to promote public discussions, disseminate information in their communities, and take the necessary steps to prevent the damage that fracking may bring to their countries. In recent times, these organizations are starting to share experiences and articulate advocacy efforts within the region. 

On the occasion of COP20, 80 Latin American organizations issued a statement (text in Spanish) warning that fracking will have disastrous consequences for the environment and the population of Latin America, and that it will worsen climate change. The organizations asked their national governments  to "prevent the use of hydraulic fracturing in their territory under the state obligation of the principle of precaution, and ensure the protection of fresh water resources and their peoples' health."

[1] Rio Declaration on the Environment and Development of 1992, principle 15

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