Fracking, what is fracking? Well this is the question I get asked the most often when I bring up the topic of fracking to any of my friends or colleagues. There seems to be very little knowledge of the subject among the general public so that is why I decided to do this blog for Development Perspectives. In this blog I will look at fracking from a number of different angles, be it from economic or environmental or health side and show how the fracking companies’ propaganda doesn’t hold up. I will also look at how it stands currently both in the Republic and Northern Ireland.
What is fracking?
Hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” as it’s better known involves the injection of more than 18 million litres of water, sand and toxic chemicals at high pressure down and across into horizontally drilled wells as far as 10,000 feet below the surface. This toxic mixture causes the shale rock to crack and the natural gas is released from it. Cement is poured around the pipe but this does not guarantee the prevention of leaks which unfortunately occur all too often. The gas is either then transported by truck or piped to market. This type of operation leads to the industrialization of areas of the countryside because of the need for many heavy trucks for each fracking operations. There is increased traffic on country roads which are not designed to take it, and giant generator and other heavy equipment is moved in. After a fracking operation toxic fracked water is then stored in ponds and in some cases its pumped back into the well for storage.
Adverse effects on health and the environment
With this highly industrial industry also come many effects on environmental and human health. In the US where fracking has taken place for a number of years there have been many cases where the aquifers have been polluted. One case is Dimock in Pennsylvania which was made famous by the Gasland movie with the “lighting the tap water” scene. In many of these cases the oil and gas companies have settled out of court, but have gagging orders put on the family so they can’t discuss the case. Also there has been a number of connections between fracking and causing earthquakes, In the UK this happened in Blackpool in 2011 when two earthquakes occurred due to fracking. In addition in the US just recently the state of Massachusetts is seeking a 10 year ban on gas fracking after a series of Texas quakes which have also been linked to fracking. The contamination of the water and air also leads to adverse effects the health of people who live near fracking operations. There have been many cases of people suffering from headaches, fatigue, dizziness, nausea, nosebleeds, and rashes including deaths of farm animals.
When we look at fracking the first thing we have to do is dispel the myth that natural gas can be used as the ideal bridge fuel in the transition from fossil fuels to renewable. Although conventional gas produces less CO2 then coal when burned, Cornell University published a report in 2011 which stated that gas which is produced from fracking may even be dirtier than coal, This is because you must take into account that Methane (CH4) is up to 25 times more potent a greenhouse gas than CO2 and Methane is released due to the fracking process. The fracking boom in the US has also diverted much needed investment in the development of renewable energy infrastructure, although there have been some jobs created in rural areas. This is nothing when compared to what would have been created if there had been renewable energy investment. Also it doesn’t take into account the jobs lost because of fracking contamination. In North Dakota last year alone, emissions from fracking flaring was equivalent to emissions from one million cars. Parts of the rural USA where fracking is taking place now look like cities from space with the air pollution to match!
Fracking comes to Ireland
So where do we stand in relation to Ireland and fracking? In 2010 the coalition government at that time (Fianna Fail and Greens) invited application from companies for onshore petroleum licensing options and there were three options that were granted in February 2011 Enegi Oil Plc, Tamboran Resources Pty and Lough Allen Natural Gas Company Ltd. In total this could cover up to 12 countries in the Republic. In Northern Ireland five of the six counties have the potential to be fracked, including Rathlin Island. Four companies have applied for licences in the North with Tamboran Resources again applying for one of these licences. In recent weeks, there has been a scary development with Tamboran indicating its intention to start to drill a test borehole in Fermanagh in early 2014.
The current government holds no position when it comes to fracking in Ireland, but recently there have been some pro-fracking remarks by certain members of the government. During the summer, the Taoiseach Enda Kenny linked fracking to reducing emigration, creating jobs and lowering the cost of energy. Meanwhile, another Fine Gael party member, Junior Energy Minister Fergus O’Dowd said in Dáil on 17 July 2013 ”Hydraulic fracturing is not an industrial wasteland. I have been to the United States and looked at a site after hydraulic fracturing had taken place and it looks like any normal rural landscape”. All you have to do is look at the photo attached to see that there is nothing normal or rural about fracking. Due to a citizen’s campaign, the government said that they would not issue any exploration licenses for hydraulic fracking until the EPA coordinated research is completed. Earlier this year, the EPA received over 1,300 submissions as part of a consultation program on the issue of fracking. The majority of these submissions called for a total ban on fracking in Ireland. Currently the research is out for tender with the completion date in two years.
Fracking and America
There are a couple of things we need to know in relation to the US and the fracking boom there. One of the major points is that fracking currently enjoys exemptions from parts of at least seven major national statutes, including the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act and Safe Drinking Water Act. Many of these exemptions were introduced by the Bush administration under the guidance of Vice President Cheney. This became known as the Halliburton loophole due to the Cheney connection to the company Halliburton. He was CEO of this company before coming into office. Fracking in the US cannot be compared to Ireland on a number of other grounds! Firstly, some of the area which has been fracked in the US would be far more sparsely populated then you would get in Ireland. In addition, the US is like a gas island where the majority of gas is for the domestic supply, unlike in Ireland we are connected up to the European grid. With our current generous tax laws for the oil and gas industry, the gas doesn’t even have to be sold to the Irish market. What we are now seeing in the US are the wheels beginning to fall off the fracking boom band wagon. There has been a spending slowdown by a number of the major fossil fuel companies like Royal Dutch Shell and BHP. In the last 12 months, both Shell and BHP have written off nearly five billion in assets due to plunging price for gas and for the disappointing well returns.
If this is allowed to proceed think about what could be damaged or lost! The Shannon flows through many areas where fracking could take place and this could affect the water supply of the Dublin area in the future. We cannot risk any damage to this vital resource. Also, Ireland is viewed as a green country and this is how we market our multi-billion euro food and tourism industries. The government hopes to expand food exports under the harvest 2020 plan and Tourism Ireland also has big plans to increase visitors to Ireland. Our beautiful clean green image would be destroyed if fracking is allowed. I recall a friend of mine asked me to explain fracking but on the energy aspect alone and not the environmental issues. I compared this to looking at smoking as a pastime without considering the negative health effects. You see you can’t separate them. Be it on economic, environmental or health grounds fracking must be stopped in Ireland and across the globe.
This link explains fracking well : http://switchboard.nrdc.org/blogs/fbeinecke/the_fracking_boom_do_we_want_t.html