Submission to Governments’ Proposed Fracking Study

TO: Steering Committee of the EPA; Department of Environment, Community & Local Government; Department of Communications, Energy & Natural Resources; the Geological Survey of Ireland; Commission for Energy Regulation; An Bord Pleanála; Northern Ireland Environment Agency; and, the Geological Survey of Northern Ireland.

RE:  Submission on PROPOSED TERMS of REFERENCE for Research Programme on Environmental Impacts of Unconventional Gas Exploration & Extraction (UGEE) a/k/a Hydraulic Fracturing or Fracking (herein referred to as fracking).

FROM:  Robert Emmet Hernan

A.  Background

In order to assist government bodies in making informed decisions about possible future licensing and management of fracking on the island of Ireland, the steering committee has developed Proposed Terms of Reference for an extensive and comprehensive programme of research addressing the potential environmental impacts of fracking.  The public has been invited to make submissions commenting on these Proposed Terms of Reference.  The research is supported by and applicable to the Republic of Ireland (RoI) and Northern Ireland (NI).

There are of course a host of specific technical issues arising from any possible fracking on the island of Ireland, including but not limited to: fractures and other geological conditions that would promote seismic impacts from fracking; types and levels of toxic chemicals used as additives; potential pollution of water resources from fracking; handling of flowback waters and waste; truck traffic impacts (as many as 6,790 one-way trips for each fracking well in US); methane and other greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from operations and use/consumption of the natural gas; and other matters. 

The Proposed Terms refer to “the potential environmental impacts” of fracking.  Environmental impacts from fracking arise not only from specific technical matters, e.g., types of well casing or nature of chemical additives, but also from policy considerations.  For example,  any assessment of the methane emission impacts from fracking has to also, at the same time, consider the increase in methane emissions that will result from the Harvest 2020 policy.  The policy implications of fracking need to be addressed through this research programme along with the narrower technical elements of fracking. Both are necessary to fully protect the people from the adverse consequences of fracking.


B.  Comments on Proposed Terms of Reference

 1.  Fracking and Water Supply and Usage:

Comments related to Project A-1 and Project B, including for Project A-1:

Task #6: Assessment of the vulnerability of groundwater resources from both surface and subsurface UGEE activity related (including fracking) potential hazards and pathways.

Task #7: An assessment of the direct (e.g. abstraction) and indirect impacts (e.g. drinking water, other receptors) of using of local water sources for UGEE and specifically, fracking.

These comments relate to Tasks #6 and 7, as well as to other tasks outlined in Project B, Issue 1: Water Impacts and Mitigation Measures

The Proposed terms describes the fracking operation as using “water-rich fluid”  — in other words, huge amounts of water that include toxic chemicals.  Besides also containing toxic additive chemicals, the fracking fluids require massive amounts of water. 

According to studies in the United States, each fracking well (not well pad) requires from 2.4 million gals to 7.8 million gals, for an average of 3.6 million gallons of water.  All this water has to be delivered to the well site by trucks or pipeline, absent a water source adjacent to the well pad.  

The availability of such large amounts of water for fracking operations needs to be assessed on a general scale applicable to the areas being considered for fracking, but also for each fracking well, if fracking is permitted.

Certainly the overriding concern for members of the public is the risk of contamination of their drinking water, either through contamination of surface water or groundwaters.  The risks come from drilling the wells, the actual fracking, the failure or leaking of well casings, the handling and disposal of flowback waters, and spills of chemicals on the surface.  Many people likely will submit comments to EPA and NIEA on the risks to individual water sources from any pollution from fracking operations. 

But a larger issue also needs to be analysed, certainly for the RoI.  What is the potential impact from fracking on the Shannon River watershed and the potential future use of water from this watershed for drinking purposes by large populations in Dublin and surrounding communities.  The costs of developing this water resource for Dublin and environs has been estimated at a cost of €500 million.  If fracking constitutes a threat to drinking water, and it does, then the risks have to include the impact on Dublin water resources.

The State of New York, which has carried out one of, if not the, most extensive assessment of fracking, has already made clear that even if fracking is permitted in parts of New York — and that is a very big “if” —— no fracking will be permitted in the watershed that supplies water to New York City or the City of Syracuse because water contamination from fracking does occur and the threat to these very large water resources is too great a price to pay.

To the extent any fracking would occur in or near the Shannon River watershed, any accidents, surface spills, leaks and other releases from fracking operations could adversely impact the quality of that water for all the communities that depend on it.  If fracking creates too great a risk for the NYC drinking water supply, is there any reason to believe the same risks do not exist for Dublin’s water supply.

An issue of equity and justice remains.  If fracking presents too great a risk of contaminating the drinking water for residents of the metropolis, including surrounding populous counties, why is the risk acceptable for the individual farmers and small communities outside the metropolis?  What is good for the goose ought to be good for the gander.

2.  Fracking and Energy Matters

Comments related to Project B, including but not limited to Issue 2 on global “(i.e. CO2)” and “climatic factors,” and Issue 3 on “assessment of other energy sources.”

Fracking is an operation to generate natural gas to be used as an energy source, presumably on the island of Ireland but also available for export. The benefits and risks of fracking must be seen in the context of each government’s total energy policy, to the extent that such policy exists.  If no such policy exists, then an overriding energy policy needs to be adopted before fracking is allowed, if at all.

In this context, the movement toward low-carbon energy sources is espoused by both governments in order to reduce as far as possible GHG emissions on the island, to meet existing European Union legal requirements and, hopefully, to avoid the devastating impacts from global climate change, including more and more-intense extreme weather events, more rain in winter in the west and drier water-shortage in the east, as well as other impacts.

The continual reference to “low-carbon” activities is dangerously misleading.  It completely ignores the critical issue of methane emissions from the agriculture sector.  Methane is a much more intense, although short-lived GHG, and GHG emissions from agriculture, predominately methane, constitute about 29% in RoI and 26% in NI.  The Harvest 2020 policy adopted and on the way to being implemented in the RoI by the government will increase the methane emissions from agriculture.  The only unknown is to what extent.  NI also hopes to increase the level of farm production in the near future.

Any analysis of fracking must account for the increased loading of methane to the environment, from leaks, productions, and venting, and how such increases will fit with the plans for increases in methane from agriculture.  Any proposed plans for more efficient farming practices to reduce the intensity of methane have to be examined with a sharp eye toward the scientific, realistic and cost-efficient basis for such plans.  Moreover, the absolute increases in methane emissions have to be considered, not just any reductions in GHG emissions per unit of production.

Given the inevitable, and likely significant, increase in methane from agriculture, and from fracking if it is allowed to proceed, just what other sector is going to pay for any such increases in order to comply with EU GHG emission reductions?

How can Ireland support the release of more methane gas into the environment from fracking when it cannot control or reduce the methane emissions from farming and where the government plans on doubling dairy farm production.

A clear, comprehensive energy policy —and particularly how methane emissions will be controlled —must inform the analysis of the possible impacts from fracking.

 3.  Regulatory and Enforcement Regime on the Island of Ireland

 Comments related to Project B, including but not limited to Issues 5 and 6 on monitoring, and to Project C on the regulatory framework.

Suppose that the governments in RoI and NI came up with the toughest, most strict regulatory regime in the world to control the technical dangers from fracking, then what?

Regulations are useless unless backed up by legal authority and authorities that enforce the regulations.  Who is going to do this on the island of Ireland — local authorities?  They have neither the financial resources nor the legal and technical expertise for such oversight.  The current financial crisis only worsens the chances that resources will be made available to supervise fracking operations, especially since the shale gas formations are located in areas where the local authorities are most vulnerable to these deficiencies.  

EPA has general expertise in many areas but likely would require expanded legal enforcement authority and extensive training for its staff to oversee, monitor, inspect and enforce fracking regulations when developed.  There is no sign of this to come.

In addition to regulatory monitoring and oversight, there needs to be put in place an enforcement regime that provides the appropriate penalties and legal authority to pursue fracking operators that abuse their responsibilities, flaunt the law, and/or put people and their environment at risk.  There is no independent enforcement regime on the island with sufficient financial and legal resources to prosecute environmental polluters.

The explosion and resulting oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, by BP and others, resulted, in part, from a failure of the well casing.  We learned from the US President’s Commission that that “technical” failure was in turn the result of a “culture of complacency” within the governmental regulatory agency, with little inspection or enforcement, that created the conditions for that worst environmental disaster in US history.  We need to be watchful that fracking does not become the island of Ireland’s environmental disaster for those same reasons.


For further reviews of numerous studies on fracking, from Pennsylvania, New York, the European Union, and Ireland, see the Reports section of irish environment electronic magazine: “The European Commission’s Three Studies on Fracking: On Risks, Climate Impacts, and Market Possibilities” (November 2012); “International Energy Agency’s Golden Age of Gas and Golden Rules on Fracking” (July 2012); “The Irish EPA Preliminary Assessment of Fracking:   A Good Start but a Long Way to Go” (June 2012); “New York Plans to Frack, The Public Reacts:  Implications for Fracking on the Island of Ireland” (May 2012); “Fracking in New York: accidents, spills, releases, ETC” (December 2011); and the Commentary section for Frank Convery and Yvonne Scannell, “Fracking and Local Credibility in Ireland” (June 2012) and Jim Morris on “The Pennsylvania Experience With Methane Extraction, or Fracking,” (November 2011).


Robert Emmet Hernan


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