Arguments for and against fracking

Sat, Aug 9, 2014, 01:00

What is fracking? Fracking – or hydraulic fracturing – is a means of extracting natural gas from sedimentary rocks such as shale. The process involves drilling horizontal wells deep into underground rock and pumping in a mixture of water, sand and chemicals at high pressure.

The mix fractures the rock and creates and maintains openings that allow the gas to seep out into the well for collection. The practice has been successful elsewhere but has also courted plenty of controversy. The late US businessman George P Mitchell is regarded as one of the main pioneers of fracking.

Why are we talking about it?

How shale gas fracking works

Shale rich areas of Ireland, such as Fermanagh, will soon undergo test drilling which ultimately could see the locations transformed into shale gas fields. Australian resources firm Tamboran, which has been awarded a licence by the Northern Ireland Executive, has until the end of September to drill exploratory boreholes near Belcoo in Fermanagh to collect samples.

Should the tests show commercially viable levels of shale gas, further extraction is likely in the future but additional approval would be needed from the authorities for this to go ahead.

Why are they looking in Ireland?

The natural resource net is being cast wider as oil and gas supplies become increasingly scarce and more expensive to access. There are also concerns about energy security given political upheaval in resource-rich areas such as the Middle East and Russia. Exploration firms are keen to find new resources to bring to the market and governments want to ensure their energy needs are met. What have they found here?

Shale gas has been detected in an area known as the Northwest Ireland Carboniferous Basin, which comprises parts of counties Leitrim, Roscommon, Sligo, Cavan, Donegal and Fermanagh.

Exploration firm Tamboran estimates the Fermanagh site has the potential to yield up to 2.2 trillion cubic feet of shale gas, an amount it says could provide 50 years supply for Northern Ireland at current usage rates. The value of such a yield has been estimated at up to $50 billion.

Who benefits?

Some of those involved in fracking say the process could deliver security of energy supply in Ireland for decades, provide thousands of jobs directly and indirectly and boost tax revenues.

Increased supply and easier access to it should lead to cheaper energy costs, as it would lessen the reliance on imported fuels, but the truth of this remains to be seen. The associated jobs and activity are seen having positive spin-off effects by increasing spending, or at least spending power, in the local economy.

The companies involved in fracking would obviously expect a return on their investment. The burning of natural gas is considered less harmful to the environment than coal and oil. Former minister for energy Pat Rabbitte said the “shale revolution” had been a “game changer” in the US by having a positive effect on competitiveness in the economy.

What’s the catch?

Opponents of fracking say that because of the intense nature and depth of shale gas drilling it can cause a wider range of negative effects than conventional gas extraction for the environment and those living near drilling sites.

Concern has been expressed about potential gas leaks, contamination of underground water reserves (given wells may pass through them or gas could infiltrate them), air pollution and even small earthquakes due to its subterranean nature.