Poor regulation turns good news bad

Two items of news from across the world speak to the point that carbon-friendly and environmentally-friendly are not necessarily the same thing. The first is the New York Times magazine’s weekend story on the environmental dangers of gas fracking, currently being promoted by fossil fuel companies and others as the solution to the US energy security dilemma. Whilst it’s true that gas is a cleaner fossil fuel than coal, the environmental impacts of extracting gas from shale are pretty serious for the environment unless the operations are tightly and effectively regulated. 

The technology involves injecting large volumes of water, mixed with sand and chemicals, at high pressures to break up the rock, a process that produces large volumes of wastewater often laced with naturally occurring corrosive salts, carcinogens like benzene and radioactive elements like radium. The dangers to drinking water are revealed in a number of hitherto unpublished reports that the NYT obtained through freedom of information, as waste water is often discharged into treatment facilities that cannot deal with the toxins.

Meanwhile, in Guangdong, according to an article in Caixin, a similar threat to ground and surface water comes from another development that seems. On the surface, to be both climate friendly and environmentally friends – turning garbage into energy.  Southern China has a serious waste disposal problem that is fuelling a rapid expansion of waste to energy plants. But local media have discovered that in Shenzhen, power plants have been taking advantage of lax regulation to dump untreated toxic sludge, laced with heavy metals from unsorted waste, into local waterways.   

In both cases unscrupulous operators seem to be running rings round regulators, making money from energy while dumping the problems – and the costs– on the public. The long term effects, on human health, on scarce water resources and on the wider environment are serious.