Warning over social downsides of fracking

Tue, Nov 6, 2012, 00:00

Ireland needs to guard against the “boomtown effect” of a go-ahead for large-scale fracking, according to the Canada-based Irish author of a major report on the issue.

This effect can include increased crime, drug and alcohol abuse, sexually transmitted diseases and domestic violence, says Eilish Cleary, chief medical officer in the province of New Brunswick.

Other impacts can include housing shortages, increased cost of living and strains on hospitals, infrastructure and social services.

Dr Cleary is the author of a recent report on the possible health effects of hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) in New Brunswick, which is about the size of Ireland but with a population of less than one million.

She says there are many similarities between Ireland and the Canadian province. Both areas have experienced “boom and bust” economies in recent years and are attracting interest from the fledgling fracking industry.

“The public debate about fracking in Canada is polarised and there isn’t a lot of factual information available. I wanted to put down what we knew about the health impacts and to identify what we don’t know,” she said.

Growth opportunities

Her report recognises the economic growth opportunities the development of a shale gas industry can bring, but says it is important that the overall health gains are greater than the losses. It calls for government to take strategic actions to prevent and mitigate negative health impacts before development is allowed.

Her review finds no clear evidence of an indirect positive health benefit from increased incomes and employment. It points to significant data gaps about the health effects of the new technology and stresses the need for broader studies, not just confined to examination of the possible dangers of the chemicals used in the process. The report recommends disclosure of the chemicals used in fracking, monitoring of air, water and drinking water quality, a ban on fracking in sensitive areas and health monitoring of people living near affected areas.

The New Brunswick administration initially decided not to publish Dr Cleary’s report but relented after a public outcry. She says that, while the content isn’t controversial “it was seen as controversial”.

“The main negative comments have come from within my own government, and strong industry supporters. They have been along the lines of, ‘she went beyond her mandate’, which I disagree with because social impacts very much relate to human health.”

Dr Cleary, who grew up in Malahide and was educated in Trinity College Dublin, has lived in Canada for the past 14 years. “In making a decision whether to allow it to go ahead, you have to look at all the risks and benefits. Fracking is frequently promoted as a ‘jobs or nothing’ scenario, but it doesn’t have to be that way,” she said.

Fracking study due 2014

Fracking has become a contentious issue worldwide – and in Ireland, before a single fracking well is drilled. The process in Ireland began just before the last general election when then minister for natural resources Conor Lenihan gave a licence to two companies to carry out exploratory work in Co Leitrim. The only company still involved, Tamboran Resources, has to complete its work programme presently and decide by next February whether it intends to apply for a licence.

A study carried out for the Environmental Protection Agency found the process “does not pose a significant environmental risk”, but there are potential risks to ground water from “poor well design or construction”. The study was based on desktop data; a more comprehensive analysis is being commissioned by the Government. Minister of State for Energy Fergus O’Dowd said such a report would not be completed until 2014 and no fracking would be allowed in the meantime.

RONAN McGREEVY