Ban on fracking expected to be extended after reports revealed major environmental risks

The process of fracking

Paul Melia Environment Editor

A ban on fracking should remain in place after a series of reports found there were major risks to the environment including water contamination and escape of gas.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says that although fracking is possible, there is a widespread risk and that further study is required before it is allowed.

Climate Change and Energy Minister Denis Naughten said the report’s finding justified the continued ban on fracking in Ireland, which is in place since 2013. The Dáil has recently agreed to a permanent ban in principle.

“I believe the report's findings justify the continuing prohibition on the licensing of hydraulic fracturing,” he said. “I am on record as having raised concerns with regard to the use of hydraulic fracturing. I am pleased that these matters of concern have been addressed in the report.”

Fracking involves drilling down into the earth before a high-pressure mixture of water and chemicals is used to shatter shale rock to release natural gas. Water, sand and chemicals are injected into the rock at high pressure, which allows gas to flow to the surface.

Deposits of shale gas are believed to be available in Leitrim, Clare and Fermanagh, but no exploration was allowing until the research programme from the EPA was complete.

The Joint Research Programme on Environmental Impacts of Unconventional Gas Exploration & Extraction (UGEE) involved five research projects which looked at the impacts of fracking on water, seismicity and air quality, as well as a review of operational practices around the world.

The work was commissioned and funded by the governments in Northern Ireland and in the Republic.

The EPA noted that the work was being carried out in the context that Ireland had committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions and eliminating oil and gas over time.

It found that fracking had the potential to “impact both human health and the environment”, and there was a lack of data or international experience which “did not permit” a “reliable” assessment of consequences.

They included concern about groundwater aquifers being polluted if wells failed, with cracking in rocks potentially allowing pollutants and gas to flow into water.

There was also a concern about gas escaping, even after wells were capped.

“Methane is an important greenhouse gas and therefore this is an issue of concern,” the EPA noted.

It found that these issues needed to be resolved prior to any fracking being allowed.