What is fracking?
Fracking, also known as hydraulic fracking, is the process of drilling into shale and injecting a liquid composed of sand, water and chemicals, at high pressure. This then forces open fissures and releases the gas or oil trapped inside. It’s known as fracking because of how the rocks are fractured apart during the process.
What is shale?Shale is a sedimentary rock created by the compression of clay and silt at the bottom of a lake or sea. It is composed of fine layers, resulting in a flaky rock which can be easily split.
Fracking in Ireland
Fracking has been completely banned in Ireland since 2017. A bill proposing its prohibition was introduced in 2016 and 62% of the Dáil voted in favour of it. The parties in favour of outlawing fracking were Fianna Fáil, the Green Party, Independents 4 Change, Labour, and Sinn Féin.
How did the Irish manage to get fracking outlawed under heavy international pressure from large corporations? Two factors contributed to the downfall of fracking in Ireland. One, was the furore over the Corrib gas field. The Corrib gas project extracts natural gas off the coast of northwest Ireland and transports it on land via a pipeline, to a gas processing plant.
The project has faced heavy opposition from local residents, concerned by the proximity of the pipeline to their homes. Shell, one of the major bankrollers of the project, also requested that several protestors be jailed, and irregularities and issues with planning permission have beset the project.
Awareness of all the issues was then heightened by the documentary “The Pipe”, leading to public anger and an increased perception of the impact of such projects on communities and the environment. Also highlighted was the fact that if people banded together, grassroots movements could change the course of such controversial projects.
In 2017, Shell actually sold its 45% stake in the beleaguered Corrib project, taking a loss of $1 billion.
Due to Corrib, a large amount of environmental activists had already mobilised in Ireland, and were on the ground ready to confront fracking when the issue first arose. Lessons learned in the campaign against Corrib were also key, as campaigners sought to prevent the division and conflict suffered in Corrib communities.
The second major contributing factor to Ireland mobilising against fracking, was the influence of similar campaigns and studies against it emerging from North America (where fracking is legal), at that time. Jessica Ernst, an American prominent anti-fracking campaigner and oil patch environmental consultant, was particularly influential.
Fun fact: Even popstar Cher tweeted her support for the fracking ban in Ireland!
Why is fracking controversial?
Earth tremor concerns, chemicals contaminating groundwater, investing in fracking instead of renewable energy, are all reasons that contribute to fracking’s controversial reputation in Ireland. Opponents have argued that states shouldn’t be committing money to extract more fossil fuels while at the same time committing to lower greenhouse gas commissions.
When Ireland banned onshore fracking in 2017, it joined Bulgaria, France, Germany, and the Netherlands. Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales have all put in place suspensions of fracking, leaving England the only fracking location in northwest Europe. In 2011 France was the first European country to ban fracking, sending shockwaves through the European community.
The chemicals used in fracking are mainly for protecting the machinery in operations but concerns have pointed out the possible and probable contamination of water at fracking sites. The issue is also that some sites are more suitable for fracking than others - Ireland has a proliferation of underground water systems, aquifers, rivers and lakes, which make water contamination much more probable.
Are there any advantages to fracking?
Fracking increases the amount of oil and gas recovered from sites due to enabling access to previously inaccessible reserves. In the US, fracking has boosted oil and gas recovery and decreased prices for consumers. However the US' landscape is much flatter than Europe’s, and easier to carry out fracking on, when compared to Europe’s more “crumpled” landscape. Another advantage of fracking is that due to its nature, many jobs are also created in order to carry it out, largely in rural areas where employment opportunities are scarce.
Supporters of fracking say it could be used as a solution to transition to renewable energy, bridging the gap between fossils fuels running out and renewable energy scaling up enough to meet supply. They’ve also ventured that the money fracking brings in could be invested in research and harnessing renewable energy.
Finally, it can also be argued that changes in modern fracking practises have ruled out many of the disadvantages associated with it in the past.
Pros and cons of Fracking at a Glance
|Increases availability of oil and gas.||Distracts from emphasis on renewable energy|
|Lowers fossil fuel prices||Causes earth tremors|
|Creates jobs||Contaminates groundwater|
|Could bridge the energy supply gap between renewables/non-renewables||Considerable local opposition|
Fracking and earthquakes
In 2011 a company carrying out fracking operations in an area close to Blackpool in the UK had to stop operations after a series of small earthquakes (1.5 and 2.2 on the Richter scale) in the area. A later study concluded that it was very probable the tremors had been caused by fracking.
The British Geological Survey says that the small earthquakes (too small to be felt) generally accompany hydraulic fracturing. Regarding the earthquakes near the Blackpool fracking site, it’s important to remember that earthquakes that score less than 2 on the Richter scale generally pass unnoticed. Fracking is not the only cause of minor seismic events, mining is usually the most common culprit. Companies which carry out fracking in the UK have now committed to pausing operations if tremors of 0.5 magnitude occur.
One might think that it is the action of breaking apart rock and causing reverberations that causes earthquakes, but it is now believed that the disposal wells for fracking water are the main culprit. Injecting the waste water into these disposal wells is seen as the most cost effective way to dispose of the chemically-laden liquid.
However injecting wastewater can significantly increase pressure levels over much larger areas than those where fracking is being carried out.
How far is too far in our quest to extract every last drop or molecule of fossil fuel from the planet? Or are the health and environmental risks associated with fracking just the result of sensationalist coverage?
Money spent on researching areas suitable for fracking, and policing areas where fracking occurs (due to high levels of protest from locals) could indeed be spent on more research and investment in fossil fuels. However the same could be said for exploration licenses for oil and gas, which continue to be granted in Ireland.
The key takeaway from contentious issues such as fracking, is that these situations may not even become issues if we bear down on applying sustainable energy practices both at home and across industry, and increasing our use and support of renewables.
Even the best home practises concerning energy use and recycling are only the tip of the iceberg and pale into significance if not combined with similar practises across industry and commercial sectors. Apple, who is a major game player in the communication and entertainment device industry, announced in 2018 that its global facilities are now 100% powered by renewable energy, and if they can do it, others certainly can and should.
If nothing else, whether you support fracking or not, the lessons learned at Corrib and in combating fracking show that pressure can be successfully applied to corporations in support of the environment, and could now be brought to bear on industrial players in Ireland, ensuring we all move towards a greener future, together.