How many people know what ‘fracking’ is? I knew little about this controversial new mining practice until a green-minded friend from Leitrim contacted me about it last month. Fracking is short for drilling for natural gas by fracturing rocks to get access to it.
I understand that the process goes something like this: holes are drilled into so-called ‘shale rock’ – which is common all over north west Ireland – and a mixture of water, chemicals and sand is forced under pressure (using explosives) into the natural fractures in the rock, further widening them. When the water and chemicals are pumped out the sand stays behind, propping the fracture apart, thus allowing the gas to be extracted.
So far so good: another modern extraction process which may sound a bit hairy to the layperson but is necessary in an energy-hungry world. However the real problems arise when it comes to getting rid of the hundreds and thousands of gallons of water and chemicals used in this process. The experience in the US, where fracking is widespread, is not promising.
A recent RTE radio programme(1) reported on what had happened in Pennsylvania, where around 3,000 wells have been ‘fracked’ over the past five years. Here there are claims that chemicals from the process have seeped into the drinking water (although the gas exploration companies strenuously deny this). The programme quoted environmental scientists and ordinary citizens talking about how the estimated 500 chemicals used by the fracking companies could be dangerous to people’s health if they entered the water supply, even in very small quantities.
The problem is that fracking is a young and rapidly evolving technology. Last year companies in the US had to change the type of concrete they were using in their boreholes because it was allowing the water and chemicals to leak out. The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Preservation has said it expects a ‘serious environmental concern’ of some kind for every 150 wells drilled.
The other side of the argument is that there are enormous reserves of natural gas in what geologists call the North West Ireland Carboniferous Basin in counties Leitrim, Sligo, Cavan, Donegal and Fermanagh. This could represent 1.5 billion barrels of oil equivalent (BOE, the basic unit used to measure gas production), worth €94 billion at current oil prices, though it could be much more if those prices keep rising. At a time of ever increasing oil prices and declining world reserves, and on an island with very few mineral resources, can we afford to ignore this gold well under our feet in one of the most economically under-developed parts of Ireland?
This was an argument frequently heard during the ugly and long-running Corrib offshore gas confrontation in north Mayo, so it probably won’t go down too well in Leitrim, Sligo and Fermanagh. In the first two of these counties it has become a live issue, especially around Lough Allen in Leitrim, where an exploratory well was first drilled 50 years ago but where the gas that was discovered was deemed to be too expensive to extract…until now.
Two companies – the Australian Tamboran Resources and the Lough Allen Natural Gas Company – have been granted onshore gas exploration licences in the area. Tamboran’s chief executive estimates the chances of success at 75 per cent. The companies are currently taking rock samples. Once these are analysed, they can drill bore holes, followed by proper test drilling, which could involve fracking, in two years. Proper commercial drilling could be four years away, or more.
Shale gas has only become commercial in the past decade. Its share of the natural gas market in the US is expected to increase from 5 per cent to 45 per cent within 20 years. The production of shale gas has been endorsed by President Obama and was the subject earlier this year of a Time magazine cover with the heading: “This rock could power the world.”
However a powerful US documentary shown around Leitrim and Sligo over the summer paints a darker picture. Gasland chronicles the environmental degradation and health problems caused by the contamination of water supplies by fracking chemicals. These include dizziness, headaches and even irreversible brain damage, according to an environmental health scientist, Dr Theo Colborn, quoted in the film.
The New York State Assembly has now banned fracking despite strong pressure from the gas industry. The French Government has suspended all onshore exploration for shale gas until conclusive proof has been produced that it won’t harm the environment. The Canadian Government has declared a two year moratorium on such exploration. In Britain a major fracking operation near Blackpool in Lancashire was suspended in June following two small earthquakes which the British Geological Survey said were likely to have been related to the mining operation.(2)
It is maybe too easy to blow up stories of water contamination and minor earthquakes into a full-scale environmental panic. All the facts have not yet been fully aired, a process not helped by the less than forthcoming attitude to public information by the exploration companies. However in the north west an alliance of green and community activists is already busy organising meetings and raising money for possible court actions. This is starting to turn (with the usual hiccups!) into a cross-border campaign, with onshore gas exploration licences having also been granted to four companies in Northern Ireland, including Tamboran in the Fermanagh area. The governments in Dublin and Belfast need to tread very carefully – and have another long look at the environmental and health impacts of fracking – if they don’t want to be faced by a cross-border version of the deeply divisive Corrib gas dispute.
Andy Pollak retired as founding director of the Centre for Cross Border Studies in July 2013 after 14 years. He is a former religious affairs correspondent, education correspondent, assistant news editor and Belfast reporter with the Irish Times.