Sinead O’Brien Network Coordinator at Sustainable Water Network (SWAN)

With a climate change denier and ardent supporter of the fossil fuel industry elected as US President, the environmental threats posed by exploitation of oil and gas have come into sharp focus.SWAN wetlands

Fracking for shale gas poses a serious threat to the water environment

Potentially viable reserves of shale gas in Ireland, for which exploration licences have been granted, mean that these threats are not only related to global climate change. Shale gas extraction poses a significant potential risk to the local environment, especially in the licensed areas of Leitrim, Sligo, Cavan and Clare.

Due to concerns about the risks posed to water in particular, the Sustainable Water Network (SWAN) commissioned a research report Hydraulic Fracturing – Interactions with the Water Framework Directive & Groundwater Directive and Implications for the Status of Ireland’s Water, launched on October 25. It concludes that fracking and other shale-gas activities in Ireland is not consistent with a healthy water environment and therefore, should not be permitted.

Water contamination

The research, including a comprehensive review of the scientific literature, found there are numerous documented impacts on water bodies attributed to shale-gas activities, including increases in concentrations of salinity; acids; methane and heavy metals, as well as naturally-occurring radioactive material, some of which are hazardous to human and environmental health.

Impacts arise due to contamination from well-casing leaks; leaks through fractured rocks; transportation spills and disposal and spillage of inadequately treated wastewater.

The risk of leaking wellbores is high, with an estimated industry average of around 6% (In Pennsylvania, between 2005 and 2013, 6.3% of surveyed wells were reported to authorities for infringements relating to well barriers or integrity failure).

Although this may seem modest, given the number of wells involved, if only 1% of Irish shale gas wells experienced leaks, this could total more than 100 compromised wells. Therefore, it is extremely likely that contaminated fluids would be released into Ireland’s ground and surface waters.

Wastewater treatment

Leaks and accidental spills of wastewater caused by either operator error or equipment failure have also led to the contamination of soil, surface water and shallow groundwater. Overflow of lined holding ponds can also occur during heavy rainfall, and leaching of material into groundwater can occur through failures in the lining.

In addition, many wastewater treatment plants are not designed to process oil and gas wastewater due to its high salt, hydrocarbon and silt and clay. Current facilities in Ireland would not be capable of treating these. In Pennsylvania, high chlorine levels in effluent are believed to have resulted in algal blooms in rivers, and high levels of shale-gas-specific toxic metals, organic constituents and radionuclides in receiving surface waters were linked to shale gas discharge sites.

Inadequate legislation

In tandem with these risks, the report also found significant inadequacies in Ireland’s legislation and regulatory system. Irish law isn’t designed to regulate shale gas because it predates the industry. Likewise, the regulatory system for current oil and gas operations is fragmented, with multiple poorly-communicating agencies involved. It clearly does not have the capacity to adequately regulate shale gas.

Given the many documented impacts on water attributed to hydraulic fracturing, the complexity of this emergent industry, the lack of transparency around its operation elsewhere, combined with the absence of a coherent, effective governance and regulatory framework for the industry, it is clear to SWAN that Ireland is not capable of regulating fracking effectively in order to protect human health and the environment.

We have therefore released a position paper calling for an immediate and permanent prohibition of shale gas related activities in Ireland by way of primary legislation.

For that reason we welcome the fact that in a recent debate, the Dáil agreed to approve the recent Private Member’s Bill to ban shale gas extraction in Ireland and to refer it to the next legislative stage (the ‘Committee stage’).

There is a now a very real chance that shale gas extraction will be banned in Ireland. Nonetheless, there is still some way to go, and SWAN will be watching progress closely.

Based on the findings of this research, such a ban is the only sensible course of action in order to protect the quality of our water and the health of the communities that rely on it.