Human Rights & Fracking


Last week the Center for Human Rights and Environment released a consultation draft of its report, Human Rights and the Business of Fracking Applying the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights to Hydraulic Fracturing. The report looks at the impacts of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, on human rights through the lens of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs).

What’s fracking? It’s the process of injecting water and chemicals into layers of rock called shale to extract oil and gas. Given the location of the gas in the rock, unconventional methods for getting the gas out are needed. This means drilling straight down to where the reserve is and then horizontally for miles, through the geological formation. The trapped fossil fuels are then released from the pores in the rock by using explosives and hydrological pressure along the well hole.

fracking water

Sounds complicated, and seeing as this is a relatively new extraction method, the effort that went into translating the science and empirical evidence into human rights and business language is impressive. And necessary. The main human rights impacts of the sector are pretty terrifying. According to the report and experts I’ve spoken to, companies that frack risk violating virtually all human rights, including through:

  • “The contamination of a community’s water supply (affecting, for example, the right to health, right to life, or newer evolving rights such as the right to a healthy environment or the right to water, etc.)
  • The effects on the livelihood of local agricultural producers after the arrival of a fracking operation (affecting the right to a livelihood, right to work, right to development)
  • A drop in property values in a given area as a result of impacts caused by fracking operations, (affecting the right to property)
  • Contamination of the air around a fracking operation (affecting the right to health, right to life, right to a healthy environment)
  • Risks to the health of workers at fracking sites (affecting the right to health)
  • If companies or the State do not reveal information about toxic fracking fluids used in fracking activity (affecting the right of access to information)
  • Failure to consult an indigenous community about the arrival and development strategy affected by fracking activity on autonomous indigenous lands, or displaced communities as a result of fracking operations (affecting cultural rights or indigenous rights).”

Besides direct impacts on human rights, companies involved in fracking also have the cumulative impact of contributing to climate change.  Methane, which is a green house gas dozens of times more potent than CO2, is leaked from drilling and fracking. So while companies argue that natural gas is “a cleaner source of energy,” reports indicate the contrary. It’s true that natural gas emits less carbon dioxide than coal when you burn it, but the benefits are offset and even exceeded by the negative impacts of methane leaks. Not only is the right to a healthy environment impacted by climate change, so too are other rights, including the right to health, a decent standard of living and food.

It’s no surprise then that a bunch of places have taken actions to prevent fracking, including Florida, Vermont, New York, Maryland and Hawaii, Quebec in Canada; and even of entire countries such as France and Germany.

For more on fracking, it’s impacts and what to do about it, read the report and check out these great documentaries:

The Sky is Pink
Gasland II

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