PARIS — In the Climate Generations event area here at COP 21, the Trade Union Forum on Climate and Jobs presented on Dec. 3 an event called Resisting Extreme Extraction. Labor organizations including the New York State Nurses Association (NYSNA), the Argentine Workers’ Central Union (CTA), and the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS) addressed the audience with a clear declaration: that fracking, in every country and every part of the world, has got to go.
These organizations are part of the Trade Unions for Energy Democracy, an initiative coordinated by the International Program for Labor, Climate and Environment (IPLCE). Their call for a global moratorium on the harmful natural gas extraction process is bolstered by the findings of Robert Howarth, the David R. Atkinson Professor of Ecology and Environmental Biology at Cornell University. He published his findings about the disastrous effects of fracking in an article titled A bridge to nowhere: methane emissions and the greenhouse gas footprint of natural gas, and shared them at COP 21.
“Natural gas is widely promoted as a ‘bridge fuel,’ ” Howarth said, referencing the publication. “It is said that it allows continued use of fossil fuels while reducing greenhouse gas emissions compared to oil or coal. And since 2009, over 40 percent of natural gas has come from shale gas, which is such a driver for climate change, because of methane. Most climate scientists, in their studies, are focusing on carbon, but methane is 120 times more powerful while both gases are in the atmosphere.”
He explained that carbon, of course, is the larger instigator behind climate change, as there is more of it in the atmosphere, but in terms of actually slowing global warming, there is a key difference between the two. “Because of its long residence time,” he said, “reductions in carbon emissions can only slowly change the atmospheric concentration.” On the other hand, “methane emissions reductions lead to almost immediate reductions in atmospheric concentration. If we cut methane emissions today, we could really slow warming and prevent the [planet] from exceeding that two degree mark.”
What Howarth is referring to is the very goal of COP 21: to avert a planetary warming of two degrees Celsius. This is a slightly more realistic ambition – in comparison with last year’s climate conference in Copenhagen, which sought to avoid 1.5 degrees of warming – and one based on assessments made on global warming by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
But curbing that methane output can best be done by putting an end to fracking, and increased transparency, based on recent studies not funded by the fossil fuel industry, is shifting public opinion on this false ‘energy alternative.’ “There have been about 32 new research papers published on fracking recently,” said Hogarth. This, he conveyed, provides an excellent counterbalance to the problematic studies carried out by the Environmental Protection Agency and the Environmental Defense Fund, with the latter in particular notorious for its biased and industry-collaborative approach. He said that both the agency and the EDF “misuse their instruments during their studies, and thus draw unrealistic conclusions about fracking. The truth is, it is globally warming the planet today.”
But even when the truth comes out, and public perception is altered on a larger scale, another dilemma arises. How do you mobilize people to influence their political leaders and take real steps in eradicating fracking? Judy Gonzalez, with the New York State Nurses Association, pointed out the victory in New York state, in which fracking was officially banned earlier this year, as an example. “An organization called Food & Water Watch was really rallying people to ban fracking in New York,” she said. “But the question was, who exactly do you target with an anti-fracking campaign? There’s a saying that you can’t fight City Hall, but you can fight the mayor. So that’s what we did. We made sure that everywhere he was, we were. It got to the point where his daughter once remarked that if he was at an event and you didn’t see us there, you were standing in the wrong place.”
“But really,” she said, “for fights like these, having a coalition of networks is really important.” And people do appear to be rising up against fracking; notably, France, the very country in which these climate talks are taking place, banned fracking back in 2011. “You know, in terms of natural resources, water is the most important thing we have,” she continued. “And between 7.6-21 million liters is wasted for one fracking well. That’s a big deal for people, and it’s especially a big deal on the West Coast in the U.S., where they have droughts.
“And this is an issue for workers, too. There are things on these worksites that are really bad for their health – silica inhalation, for example.” That health concern was shared by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), which published a report on the matter and called for air monitoring to control silica levels at these sites and to determine the full level of exposure to it for workers.
“This idea about fracking, and about methane – that it’s a ‘bridge fuel’ – is nonsense,” said Howarth. “And at least 10 percent of the methane fracking emits is now getting into the atmosphere. So instead of reducing these emissions, we’re doing the opposite and doing more fracking, and it’s a disaster.”
Photo: Blake Deppe/PW