How to fight fracking with the law
By Victor Quintanilla
Fracking is spreading rapidly through Latin America. If left to develop blindly, it could cause irreparable harm not just to the environment but also to public health.
Claudia Velarde, a Bolivian environmental attorney, believes humanity and Mother Earth should not be seen as different or isolated beings.
“The activities that affect the conservation of nature will have repercussions in our lives as well,” she said.
This conviction led her to join AIDA’s team of attorneys earlier in 2017, to be part of our efforts to protect the environment from extractive activities like fracking and large-scale mining.
For our Freshwater Protection Program, Claudia helps coordinate the work of the Latin American Alliance on Fracking, a coalition that promotes public debate, awareness, and education among civil society groups. The Alliance also supports resistance efforts by communities throughout the region.
The extraction of gas and oil through fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, could have a “nefarious effect” on the quality and availability of potable water.
This was the conclusion of the most exhaustive study yet completed by the Environmental Protection Agency of the United States, the nation that pioneered this controversial technique.
Oil and gas companies inject fracking wells with large amounts of water mixed with highly concentrated chemicals. The toxic solution fractures rocks to release trapped oil and/or gas. According to the study, the poisonous fluids leach through soil and contaminate groundwater.
By contaminating water sources, fracking also affects the lives of the people, animals, plants, and entire ecosystems that depend on them.
Ignoring the danger
“Dependence on fossil fuels is leading us to an unprecedented environmental and climate crisis,” Claudia explained. “Fracking has serious impacts, so it’s important that people have real and complete information on the policies and procedures related to it.”
One procedure that should be followed before any fracking operation is authorized is the preparation of an Environmental Impact Assessment. A proper assessment includes evaluation of possible environmental damages and identification of measures to mitigate the harms.
In Latin America, corporations—rather than the governments that regulate them—prepare Environmental Impact Assessments. But often, governments of the region allow companies to skirt this procedure.
In Argentina, the environmental authority granted a permit for Petrolera El Trebol to explore and exploit four oil wells conventionally (without using fracking) near Llancanelo Lagoon, a wetland of international importance. Months later, the company decided to frack the wells. Through an abbreviated process, the government authorized the change without requiring a new Environmental Impact Assessment.
Faced with this dangerous reality, Argentina’s Foundation for the Environment and Natural Resources (FARN) filed a civil suit, requesting an injunction until the government’s prior authorization is invalidated.
The suit argues that, in addition to violating the obligation to require a new Environmental Impact Assessment, the government also failed to respect the affected communities’ right to give their free, prior and informed consent to the project.
“We’re appealing to justice to put a stop to this outrage, so the people have an opportunity to discuss, with adequate information, whether or not they approve of these types of activities that cause irremediable environmental damage,” explained Santiago Cané of FARN. “If they do accept fracking, it must be done with the utmost care, using the measures and regulations designed to avoid or mitigate damages.”
AIDA is supporting FARN’s legal work with arguments based on international law. The most important is the precautionary principle, which holds that where any uncertainty exists about the risk of serious harm to the environment and human health, the most stringent precautions should be applied.
“Given that there is no study with enough technical information on the possible damages of fracking, this principle should be applied to avoid the consolidation of impacts in these and other cases,” Claudia explained.
Despite scientific evidence demonstrating many harmful consequences of fracking, the use of the technique is expanding throughout Latin America.
Faced with this worrying trend, AIDA will continue working with our partners to find legal solutions with widespread impacts throughout the region.