23rd October

Flooding and fracking don’t mix

Sian Cowman

Even though it was a few years ago now, you probably remember the 2009 flooding across the country? It’s not often we get floods that fierce; although of course in a watery country like Ireland, minor flooding is a pretty regular occurrence. Colorado got some bad flooding this September - 17.15 inches of rain fell in the Boulder region over a few days, in what is being called a ‘thousand-year’ flood.

To complicate matters, Colorado has 50,000 oil and gas wells, and the Boulder area is one of the most intensely exploited in the State, with more than more than 20,000 wells. The State’s well inspectors are scrambling to assess the flood damage. As you may know, Ireland is currently considering whether to allow the practice of ‘fracking’ to exploit shale gas, which would involve drilling wells on land, like in Colorado.

Flooding at Carrick-on-Shannon 2009

Flooding at Carrck-on-Shannon 2009

Fracking is a process whereby fluid is injected into shale rock at high pressure to create small fractures where gas trapped in the rock can flow out. The terminology can be misleading, as there are different types of hydraulic fracturing. It is often said that it is a technology that’s been around for 60 years. But the process of high-volume slick water horizontal hydraulic fracturing (HVHF) that is being proposed in Ireland is a different type than the older vertical fracking. Only since the 90s has fracking evolved into the new creature of HVHF.

Four different technologies have made the change possible. Firstly, directional drilling means that additional to kilometre-deep vertical drilling, wells also extend a kilometre horizontally. Secondly, the volumes of fluid are higher, and hundreds of chemicals are used in the millions of litres of water. Thirdly, the water is known as ‘slick water’ because it includes lubricants. Lastly, technology has allowed for multi-well pads and cluster drilling, meaning there are several wells on one platform.

This new type of fracking comes with heavier infrastructure. Dr Anthony Ingraffea, Cornell University Professor, explains in Ecowatch:

‘Because it’s a spatially intense, heavy industrial activity which involves far more than drill-the-well-frack-the-well-connect-the-pipeline-and-go-away, it results in much more land clearing, much more devastation of forests and fields. There’s the necessity of building thousands of miles of pipelines which again results in destruction of forests and fields. There’s the construction of many compressor stations, industrial facilities that compress the gas for transport through pipelines and burn enormous quantities of diesel.’

Chemical-laced water

In Colorado, many oil and gas wells and their accompanying infrastructure, including at least one oil pipeline, were damaged or washed away by the floods. Some of the areas being considered for fracking in Ireland are parts of Leitrim, Fermanagh, Donegal, Sligo, and Clare. Many of these regions have a reputation for being a bit damp – and locals in Carrick-on-Shannon, Leitrim, have not forgotten the high water that covered a large part of the town in 2009.

The more commonly known contamination risk to water from fracking is the likelihood of chemical-laced water and methane migrating underground to drinking water aquifers. At first glance, flood damage to wells may not seem like such a big issue: surely the oil and gas companies will just have to pay to fix the damage? But the problem is more complex than just infrastructure damage. As Dr Ingraffea pointed out in Ecowatch:

‘The highest risk to water is when the fracking chemicals are on the surface being stored and being pumped down for fracking, and when they and the harmful materials that had been sequestered in the shale return to the surface after fracking in what is called flowback fluid.’

With the storage of hazardous substances a standard part of modern fracking operations, Colorado is now facing a potential long-term toxic contamination problem on top of the ‘regular’ flood damage. It’s going to cost a lot of money just to inspect the damage, let alone attempt clean-up. In a food-producing area, this kind of contamination can really affect people’s livelihoods.

Does Ireland have the resources to deal with a similar problem if it were to arise here?

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