Billy Vaughan looks at the new anti-fracking Bill, and the fears surrounding the practice

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“Fracking”, or hydraulic fracturing, is a controversial practice to say the very least. In places where it has been legalised and carried out, such as in the US and UK, there have been protests and evidence of significant environmental damage.

North Yorkshire saw large anti-fracking demonstrations in May of this year. The state of Pennsylvania has so far reported 271 cases of water degradation due to fracking, and in certain areas of Parker County, Texas, the water is actually flammable due to high levels of methane contamination.

The practice involves the high-pressure injection of water into rock formations to create cracks, through which natural resources such as oil and natural gas will flow more freely. The problems stem from the fact that the water injected can spread underground to contaminate water supplies. The industry is also a very heavy user of water, with as much as 3 million gallons required per well.

“Fracking would have a seriously damaging effect on the environment, and potentially our nation’s public health”

Some in Ireland have begun to worry that the shale-rich areas of the north-west will soon attract the interest of fracking companies. One of those people is Sligo-Leitrim TD Tony McLoughlin, who recently tabled a private members bill in the Dáil to prohibit fracking onshore and in Ireland’s inland waters. His efforts came from a grave concern about future environmental effects: “fracking would have a seriously damaging effect on the environment, our lakes and water, and potentially our nation’s public health.”

Adam Boyle is a member of UCD’s emerging anti-fracking community, which has established a Facebook group in response to news of the bill. In terms of what the wider community is doing, he said “a core team of remarkably dedicated campaigners launched a highly successful campaign, making huge numbers of calls and sending off numerous emails to TDs across the country in support of the Bill.”

He mentions how several groups have been involved with them in the effort, including Earth Ireland and Love Leitrim. There is, as of yet, no dedicated environmental society on campus in an official sense, but Boyle maintains that this may change in the near future. “The bones are there for interested parties to really build this into a movement to be reckoned with”.

There was some tension when Fine Gael, McLoughlin’s own party, tabled an amendment to delay the passage of the Bill, pending the outcome of a study into fracking by the Environmental Protection Agency.

The amendment was, however, withdrawn due to lack of support from Fianna Fáil. “The EPA research needs to be understood by everyone, but six months is too long in my opinion, which is why I asked the Minister for the amendment to be withdrawn”, says Deputy McLoughlin.

“The bones are there for interested parties to really build this into a movement to be reckoned with”

There are some who say that fracking is largely safe, and any concerns are far outweighed by the economic benefit that it would bring to Ireland. McLoughlin, however, says that the safety risks are not exaggerated: “from what I have learned over the last six years, I am not of the opinion that it could be regulated in such a way as it would be safe to extract”.

Boyle says that in the future it could be made safer, but the effort could be better spent elsewhere. “If we are going to invest that kind of time and money into energy research, it should not only be into processes that won’t pollute our water, air, and people, but also that are environmentally sustainable”. He says that economically, Ireland would probably be at a net loss, due to the detrimental effect that fracking would have on tourism and agriculture: “the area where fracking is planned would be irreparably harmed, damaging tourism and agriculture in the region”.

“The area where fracking is planned would be irreparably harmed”

There is some concern over the fact that the Bill does not prohibit fracking offshore, in Ireland’s territorial waters. This is quite significant, as the seabed surrounding Ireland is rich in minerals. McLoughlin is clear that “my intentions are to prohibit it onshore and in Ireland’s inland waters only”. This means that offshore fracking remains an issue, and will have to be definitely dealt with in future.

The cross-party support for the new Bill is a clear sign that the general consensus in Ireland is very much against allowing fracking. It remains to be seen, however, if this consensus holds in the long term, in the face of diminishing supplies of fossil fuels and the prospect of a low growth economy.