Call for stricter 'fracking' rules
A MAJOR report compiled for the European Parliament has called for much stricter regulation of “fracking” for shale gas and oil, including a possible ban on the use of chemicals in the controversial process.
It is is expected to be studied closely by Minister for Energy Pat Rabbitte and his advisers in the context of pending exploration licence applications by Tamboran Resources and other potential developers of shale gas resources in the northwest, particularly in Co Leitrim.
The 87-page report, Impacts of Shale Gas and Shale Oil Extraction on the Environment and on Human Health, provides the most detailed analysis yet carried out in Europe of the risks associated with hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) largely based on experience in the US.
“Major possible impacts are air emissions of pollutants, groundwater contamination due to uncontrolled gas or fluid flows due to blowouts or spills, leaking fracturing fluid and uncontrolled waste-water discharge,” it says, adding that many of these fluids contain hazardous chemicals.
“Experience from the US shows that many accidents happen which can be harmful to the environment and to human health” – largely due to improper handling or leaking equipment – but recorded violations of legal requirements amount to about 0.5 per cent of all drilling permits.
“Groundwater contamination by methane, in extreme cases leading to explosion of residential buildings, and potassium-chloride leading to salinisation of drinking water is reported in the vicinity of gas wells,” the report says, citing investigations into several incidents in the US.
“The most impressive documented accident was the explosion of a dwelling house which was caused by drilling operations and subsequent methane invasion into the house’s water system,” it says, referring to a 2008 case in Pennsylvania involving Marcellus Shale.
It also refers to a case in Durango, Colorado, where “an emergency room nurse had almost died after treating a wildcatter who had been splashed in a fracking fluid spill at a BP natural gas rig”.
The nurse had merely “stripped the man and stuffed his clothes into plastic bags”.
Referring to the small city of Dish, Texas, the report says that many complaints of human illnesses and even animal deaths forced the mayor to commission an independent consultant to undertake an air-quality study of the impacts of fracking operations in the area
“The study, conducted in August 2009, confirmed ‘the presence in high concentrations of carcinogenic and neurotoxin compounds in ambient air and/or residential properties’ [and said] natural gas extraction activities . . . are believed to be the only source of these impacts.”
In terms of the environment, the report notes that “unavoidable impacts” would include the consumption of land for drilling pads “as shale formations are developed with a high well density”, plus roads and manoeuvring areas for trucks.
In recent years, as the environmental impacts became “more and more obvious”, there had been more debate about fracking in the US, most prominently over the Marcellus Shale, which “is suspected to be in conflict with areas protected for the water supply” of New York City.
“At present the US Environmental Protection Agency performs a study on the risks associated with hydraulic fracturing, the technology of choice for the development of unconventional gas fields,” it says.
“The results of this study will probably be published in the course of 2012.”
The report notes that fracking developments in Europe are “several decades” behind the US.
“The total European production volume of unconventional gas is in the order of several million cubic metres per year compared to several hundred billion cubic metres per year in the US.”
Since late 2009, however, “activities have been increasing”.
Most exploration concessions were granted in Poland, but activities also started in Austria, France, Germany, the Netherlands,Sweden and Britain. It does not mention plans for fracking in Ireland.
“Triggered by the information from the US, public opposition against these projects has risen fast.
“For instance, in France the national assembly set a moratorium for such drilling activities and banned hydraulic fracturing . . . but was not adopted by the senate,” it notes.
The full report is at europeecologie.eu/IMG/pdf/shale-gas-pe-464-425-final.pdf