22nd September

Why is fracking under the spotlight when it has been practiced here for over thirty years?

Now that exploration licences have been issued to several companies to explore for shale gas throughout Ireland, the debate is hotting up on the process that could be used to extract it - hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.Graphic courtesy of Tamboran

Graphic courtesy of Tamboran

To find out more about this controversial hydrocarbon extraction process Inshore Ireland spoke to Gareth Jones of Conodate, a geological consultancy that specialies in biostratography, petrographic analysis, karst interpretation and geothermal energy. Mr Jones is also professionally accredited by the Institute of Geologists of Ireland and by the European Federation of Geologists.


What is fracking?
The term fracking derives from hydraulic fracturing, a process to extract gas from rock formations where it doesn’t flow out of the ground easily. It’s worth saying here that 2012 is the 50th anniversary of the discovery of gas onshore in Ireland, in Dowra Co Cavan in 1962. And it’s thirty-one years since the first fracking here. So there’s nothing new about any of this; development of this resource does not involve new technologies but the refinement of old ones.

It involves drilling a deep well down from the surface up to 1.5 kilometres deep to reach the layer in which the gas is trapped. Then what was a vertical well is turned into a horizontal well and drilled sideways for up to a kilometre along the shale bed. Water is then pumped down under pressure into the shale bed to break it up and cause it to crack. Sand included in the water keeps these cracks open and the gas can then flow out.

Why has there been such opposition to fracking - in the US in particular?
I’m not sure why it causes so much extreme concern. The reasons probably break down into three generally: The large volumes of water required to carry out this process -millions of litres. In arid parts of America the problem of getting water is significant. But here in Ireland it probably isn’t such a problem.

Another aspect is the possibility of contamination - the escape of methane up to the surface or into groundwater. This is a very confused area however. There’s a classic scene in the documentary film Gasland where water coming out of a tap is set alight. That gas is in fact methane from a natural source close to the surface and is not due to the gas wells that have been drilled in the area.

The locals have been setting fire to their water for decades - long before fracking was developed there. It’s crucial that drilling companies test what is in the water already before they start work. There’s a difference between the biogenic methane that occurs near the surface and the thermogenic methane deep down which is what they want to extract. A lot of the scare stories were not true, and those that were, are due to bad practice in the well-drilling system.

Does Ireland have significant reserves of methane gas?
It’s impossible to know that until somebody starts drilling and producing gas. That will then give a good idea of what is likely to be present. We do know there is some gas because it was found as far back as 1962. Gas was re-found in 1981, and again in 2002, so we know it’s there.

Tamboran, one of the exploration companies already here, estimates there may be 2.5 trillion cubic feet of gas present. Others say it could be more. If that is proved correct it would probably provide Ireland with forty years of gas supply. But again, we won’t know until somebody actually gets in there and finds out.

What impact would a discovery have on our national economy?
Ireland is extremely dependent on imported energy in the form of oil, gas, coal and electricity - some of it nuclear. We import over €5bn worth of energy each year – that’s a major outflow of money. Of that, €1.35bn is for gas. So anything we can do to reduce that figure is going to be very important.

But there are other opportunities as well. The fracking process itself obviously would spend a lot of money locally, and there certainly would be local jobs. Also, the supply of water, although a problem, is also an opportunity.

Then there’s the issue of disposal and cleaning of processed water which is often sub-contracted and offer great opportunities. And there’s the requirement for sand. In the US for example, stock values of companies supplying water and sand for fracking are currently rocketing up the stock exchange.  

How can we ensure that fracking will not contaminate groundwater?
There are different parts to this question. First, regarding surface water there are examples in the US where surface pits used to contain and recycle processed water have not been properly constructed and lined, and that has caused problems.

The companies involved here however say if they used pits they would line them properly but that they would probably use tankers instead of pits. Another issue to consider is possible contamination of the aquifers that contain drinking water.

This is a question of good drilling practice. It will be absolutely essential that wells are drilled and cemented properly as they go through these aquifers, to avoid any contamination whatsoever. We are quite fortunate in Ireland compared to the US because we have many regulations already in place –  derived from national and EU regulations. The Water Framework Directive is one of the most powerful pieces of EU legislation and there are others that would also apply.

Does fracking require using many different chemicals?
Control is really in the hands of the EPA, and they have some very powerful tools at their disposal. A figure of six hundred chemicals is often quoted but in practice it’s more usually around five or six.

The five most commonly-quoted chemicals are things like hydrochloric acid; glutaraldehydes; dimethyl formaldehyde; polyacrilamide and citric acid. These are all commonly-used to clean swimming pool water and as disinfectants in medical and dental laboratories and clinics. And citric acid is what you put your in your gin and tonic.

So the commonly-used ones are usually reasonably harmless. Tamboran say that as they’re looking at relatively shallow depths they will require practically no chemicals.


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