Fracking up the water supply

Feidhlim McGowan


Since the failed attempt to establish a nuclear power station at Carnsore Point in the 1970s, Irish policy makers have not considered nuclear power as a solution to the country’s growing energy needs on the basis that it is perceived as unsafe. France, on the other hand, has 59 nuclear power stations and 75% of its electricity is produced using nuclear power. So when France bans a source of energy extraction on environmental grounds it seems that, in the interests of consistency, Ireland should seriously consider doing likewise.

Hydraulic fracturing, commonly known as fracking, is a technique whereby water is mixed with sand and chemicals, and the mixture is injected into a well at high pressure in order to extract oil or gas from shale. Former French president Nicolas Sarkozy explained the ban introduced in 2011 by stating that, although extracting the gas in the future was a possibility, “this won’t be done until it has been shown that technologies used for development respect the environment, the complex nature of soil and water networks.”

The argument in favour of fracking is a simple one: it allows access to natural resources that would otherwise be impossible to reach. This creates jobs and is good for the economy. The poster boy for fracking in this regard is the U.S state of North Dakota, which is using this energy extraction technique to access what is touted as possibly the largest oil field ever discovered in America. The result of this oil boom is an incredibly low unemployment rate in the state of only 2.7% (as of October 2013).

However, comparing North Dakota and Ireland may not be valid because of the large differences in demographics. Ireland, according to a 2012 World Bank report, has a population density of 66.45 inhabitants per square kilometre. This is quite low compared to most developed countries, but practically Singaporean compared to North Dakota, which registers an extremely sparse figure of 3.8 inhabitants per square kilometre. In purely pragmatic terms, one could argue that pollution, or the risk of pollution, is a less serious problem in areas where fewer people live. Environmental fundamentalists may baulk at such a notion, but the U.S brought it to its logical extreme when they tested hundreds of atomic bombs in the Nevada desert.

“Since the failed attempt to establish a nuclear power station at Carnsore Point in the 1970s, Irish policy makers have not considered nuclear power as a solution to the country’s growing energy needs on the basis that it is perceived as unsafe.”

The other benefit of fracking is that it may lead to a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions if increased access to natural gas, which is considered a clean fuel, means a reduced reliance on ‘dirty’ coal. This point, however, is disputed, as a 2011 study from Cornell University reported that large volumes of methane leak into the atmosphere as a result of fracking. If true, then the net effect on the atmosphere could be negative, as methane has a much higher warming impact per unit than carbon dioxide.

The main concern of those opposed to fracking is its impact on the availability and quality of water resources. There are numerous examples of chemicals used in fracking leaking through the well casing and contaminating the water supply. Tamboran Energy, the Australian company who intend to begin fracking on the Leitrim/Fermanagh border, attempts to assuage fears with regard to contamination by promising on its website to “utilise absolutely no injected chemicals in our hydraulic fracturing operations. We will conduct fracture stimulations with only sand and water cleaned or recycled at the surface”. This raises the question of why other energy companies would go to the bother of adding chemicals (presumably at some added cost) if the job can be done effectively without them?

In the event of a contamination of the local water supply, the consequences could extend far beyond the Border region. In 2006, a report commissioned by Dublin City Council from consultant engineers RPS proposed that one way to meet the growing demand for water in the capital would be a network of pipelines from the river Shannon. A ¤500 million water supply project, currently set for completion in 2020 at the earliest, would pump 350 million litres of water a day from the river Shannon for use in the Greater Dublin Region.  Given the proximity of the proposed fracking sites to the source of the Shannon, the viability of this pipeline project may depend on developments far from the capital.

The Irish government is proceeding with some caution when it comes to fracking, recently stating that no licences for will be issued until the Environmental Protection Agency report on the impact of fracking on health and the environment is issued in late 2014. Worringly, however, our nearest neighbours are much more gung-ho about the whole idea. David Cameron declared that his government is “going all out for shale” while environmentalists have compared his proposal to allow local councils to keep 100% of the business rates from shale gas companies to a bribe.

It seems reasonable that the more fracking sites established in Britain, the more likely it becomes that the ear-marked sites in Fermanagh will begin production too. This area is within the catchment area for the Shannon, so the risk of Ireland’s largest river becoming polluted would be considerable even in the event that no fracking goes ahead south of the border. But if a moratorium is passed in the Republic, then it may pressurise Northern Ireland into doing the same. There is a precedent of neighbouring jurisdictions acting in unison in this regard, as the states of New York and New Jersey both passed moratoriums on fracking within a short time frame.

The risks of water contamination from fracking could impact negatively not only on the Border region, but also indirectly on the Greater Dublin Area. It is of course possible that when enough peer-reviewed evidence has been gathered, that the benefits of fracking will be shown to outweigh its costs. Or perhaps a safer, cleaner method of shale extraction will be developed. Either way, Ireland should not feel it is missing out on a golden opportunity by not immediately following Britain’s lead.  After all, gas in the ground is safer than money in the bank.