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The Energy Debate: touch choices

Posted on August 15, 2014 by Tom Healy

Tom Healy, Director NERI
Tom Healy, Director NERI

Fracking – or Induced hydraulic fracturing to give it its full technical term – is rapidly developing as an issue of public debate. In the United States where fracking has been in operation for many years the output of oil and gas is making a significant contribution to opening up alternative sources of fossil fuel energy (gas or oil) to those coming from the Middle East. US production of gas is also impacting on global prices (as well as a much lower price of gas, there, compared to Europe). Europe is in a different albeit changing space where fracking is increasingly talked about but is treated with misgivings and caution by governments and their electors. Across England-Wales up to two thirds of the territory has been identified by the UK Government as potentially useful for fracking. At the same time the potential for disruption and volatility (upwards) in energy prices is heightened as a result of a possible cold war mark two with huge implications for Western Europe and especially central European countries which have depended, up to now, for most of their fossil fuel imports from the east.

For a technical introduction to the process of fracking see here. In simple terms the process involves blasting deep down through drill holes into the earth and through porous rocks with water, chemicals and sand in order to extract natural gas from a distance under the earth’s surface. The exact make-up and type of chemicals used will vary. Some may be highly toxic or carcinogenic and dangerous to human health.  Unlike conventional methods of natural gas extraction, fracking is likely to exhaust wells quickly and thus require more frequent drilling into new wells. The biggest concern and risk is to drinking water where the use of water and chemicals in the extraction process involves the creation of highly toxic waste water which is so toxic that treatment will not normally clean it.  In addition there are risks to both soil and air arising from leakages or contamination.

if production of gas through fracking is well regulated, so it is argued by its supporters, shale gas can have lower emissions than imported natural gas.  Although less damaging than the burning of coal, fracking does give rise to significant greenhouse emissions as well as highly intensive uses of water and energy in the process of extraction. A significant proportion (possibly between a third and a half) of the toxic waste is not extracted but left deep in the ground (or in open air pits in some cases) after fracking is completed in a given area. Given Ireland’s clean image in relation to food production and exports as well as the significance of tourism it is all the more important to know what environmental effects any proposed fracking operation could have.

An aspect of fracking which is also giving rise to concern is the triggering of earth tremors and minor earthquakes in places where this technology has been used. For example, tremors were reported in the Blackpool area of England in 2011 following fracking.

The potential for fracking technology to deliver not only cheaper gas but many more jobs, investment and stimulus to the fledging economies of Europe, the UK and Ireland is undoubtedly there. However, at what price for the environment, communities and human health?

The arguments for fracking are reminiscent of early debates around nuclear power: that the earth is running out of key energy resources, that it is irresponsible not to invest in new forms of power given geo-political uncertainties and that we shouldn’t depend on a few sources. The claimed impact on jobs, local economies, investment and energy cost-reduction is emphasised. In many respects, fracking is seen by some as the answer to the challenge of diminished natural resources and the needs of an ever-expending, ever-consuming and hard to please markets. With the rise of new sources of consumption demand – often carbon-intensive – the claim is advanced that it would be wrong for people living in the relatively prosperous economies to deny the same access to markets and goods for the new emerging economies (and the new rising ‘middle classes’ in these). Like the challenge of high cholesterol it is argued that it would be a least worst option to administer medication rather than (unrealistically) alter the diet of the patient. If people want to consume and live according to carbon-intensive 20th century standards (your own house and garden, a car or two in the driveway, foreign holidays) plus carbon-intensive production in agriculture, transport and manufacturing why be unrealistic and mean?

But no technology or energy supply arrangement is cost-free or trouble-free. The point about fracking like nuclear power generation is that (a) technology is constantly changing and evolving (and one would hope in the direction of greater safety and less environmental damage), and (b) the chances of an accident or a leak or contamination (e.g. of the local water supply) no matter how limited in probability the promoters of fracking may claim carry disastrous results.  Sometimes, something really bad only happens once very few decades and but when it does it affects only some people. So, cold calculus comes into play.

In Northern Ireland the decision by Minister Mark Durkan to block an application for a licence to undertake exploratory drilling in County Fermanagh has been welcomed by many including people living in Fermanagh while being criticised by others for its claimed negative impact on the Northern Ireland economy, investment and jobs. See here. In the Republic of Ireland the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has released a preliminary study in 2012 on the issue.

On closer reading the decision to block the application is not necessarily definitive or irreversible especially if the company involved, Tamboran Resources, pursues a judicial review and provide what Minister Durkan described as ‘a full environmental statement’.

People are right to be at least sceptical and cautious about fracking if not downright opposed. However, to be opposed to something puts the onus back on those of us who are concerned about community and environmental impacts to identify alternative approaches including policies of sustainable investment in energy and balanced economic development. It is not enough to say ‘down with that sort of thing’.

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