Fracking: are the benefits worth potential pitfalls?
Study being done as gas firms eye exploration
AS many as three exploration companies have expressed an interest in looking for natural gas using a controversial process known as 'fracking'.
Energy Minister Pat Rabbitte said "tentative" approaches had been made in recent months but that no exploration licences would be granted until an in-depth study on its environmental effects was completed.
The move comes as the debate on shale gas ramps up across Europe with the British government recently announcing tax breaks for local authorities that approve projects in their areas.
Other countries including Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic are also keen to exploit the technology, which is subject to widespread environmental concerns.
Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, involves sinking wells up to 2km below the surface of the earth to access pockets of shale gas trapped in rock.
Large volumes of water mixed with sand and chemicals are pumped underground at high pressure to create cracks in the rocks, which frees the trapped gas, allowing it to flow to the surface where it is captured and sent for processing.
Opponents say fracking is linked with earthquakes and environmental damage including water pollution, but the companies involved say it is safe if properly conducted.
Today, the Irish Independent publishes the first of a two-part special report on fracking, setting out the issues, the views of affected communities and those with international experience.
Mr Rabbitte said that two companies, Enegi Oil and Tamboran, already held exploration licences to seek shale gas in the north-west and Clare Basin, but that these licences had since expired.
However, as many as three other companies had since expressed an interest in securing licences to explore.
"There were two or three," he told the Irish Independent. "They immediately read the tea leaves. We made plain we wouldn't be granting licences until we received the report from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)."
He also said that incentives introduced by the UK might not be in place here, adding that fracking would be more difficult in Europe than in the US where it has reduced gas prices by as much as 40pc.
"Hydraulic fracturing is going to be more problematic in Europe than in the US," he said. "Some countries will be more adventurous than others. The UK has certainly weighed in with incentives but you won't necessarily see that here."
Potential reserves of shale gas have been identified across Ireland, with some 2.2 trillion cubic feet of shale gas believed to lie in the north-east which could be worth billions of euro.
The companies say that if tapped, natural gas could be provided for up to 12 years and hundreds of jobs created.
However, full-scale production will not be allowed take place until the EPA completes a wide-ranging study on the possible environmental impact.
This study is not expected to be completed until "at least" the end of 2015, the Irish Independent has learned. The EPA said experts to undertake the study were expected to be appointed over the coming months.
Among the counties potentially affected by fracking, if approved, include Clare, Sligo, Leitrim, Cavan and Fermanagh.
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