This report won’t make anybody particularly happy or unhappy. It neither gives fracking a completely clean bill of health nor does it say that it shouldn’t be used.
First off it is not a comprehensive study. It is a preliminary report, done at a desk in Aberdeen University without ever coming to Ireland. It only cost €6,000 and it doesn’t quiz the companies who want to drill here or study the geology of where they want to drill. It makes no assessment of the tourist impact or possible reputational damage to Irish agriculture. All of that may come in subsequent reports.
What it does do though is sort out the mythology surrounding Fracking that abounds in the media and online from hard and documented scientific fact.
This study of all other peer reviewed studies concludes that as far as the potential contamination of ground water goes there is nothing inherently wrong with Fracking. Where problems have arisen, and problems have arisen, it has been because corners have been cut, workmanship has been sloppy, or drilling has taken place too close to water sources.
The report’s author is Dr David Healy. He is a geologist in Aberdeen Univeristy. He has done consultancy for the oil industry in the past but has never done work for any of the companies operating in Ireland. I’ve podcast an interview with him here.
In approaching this subject Dr Healy would have had one very big problem. There is a distinct lack of research into the environmental impact of fracking. What little there is tends to come from the US and the geology of the United States is very different to Europe. Fracking in America tends to be conducted at anything up to 7000 metres depth. Here it would be much shallower. Specifically in the Lough Allen basin there are aquifers above and below the shale gas, and once you start fracturing rock there are no guarantees of what may happen.
On the basis of the sum of all knowledge out there the provable risk of contamination of drinking water is in the reports conclusion low to manageable. But there are still significant risks unless case by case geological examination of every well hole were to be conducted.
Earthquakes caused by fracking in the north of England have received a lot of media attention. Put in their correct seismological context though Dr Healy does not believe they are significantly different to the kind of quakes or tremors that occur every day. If they are shallow enough the worst they could do might be to knock a “few cracks in your plaster work”.
By far the biggest question mark raised by the report is the amount of water that will be used up by fracking. Anything between 90,000 and 13 million litres of water can be used during the lifetime of a well head. The report says – “Finding sustainable sources for these volumes of water is clearly a challenge”
Greenhouse gas emission could be a significant problem too with some studies suggesting that shale gas extraction could be dirtier than coal. But there is no scientific consensus on that.
Tamboran is the company most likely to frack first if it is given the go ahead. They say they can do it without adding chemicals to the fracking fluid. The report doesn’t say whether this is possible or not.
The one line summary of the report might read: There is nothing inherently significantly risky about the fracking process, but there is if it is not carried out with skill and attention to detail. That will put pressure on Tamboran – a relative newcomer in the fracking industry – to prove it has the experience needed. And on the government to properly resource the people who will be inspecting the frackers.