In 2012, the Government decided that no decisions on granting exploration licences for fracking would be made until a comprehensive research study would be done, coordinated by the EPA. Public consultation on the Terms of Reference of this study was carried out in 2013 and over 1,300 submissions were received by EPA, largely coordinated by GEAI. This delayed the process considerably and the contracts to carry out the 24-months study on the “Environmental Impacts of Unconventional Gas Exploration and Extraction (UGEE)” were only issued last August. It is ironic that this is exactly the same month when Tamboran was stopped from drilling their first borehole in Fermanagh!
Interim reports on the research study will be given, possibly at 6-month intervals and definitely at the end of Year 1 and Year 2. These reports will be given at public events, giving an opportunity for public engagement and discussion. The final outputs of this research will not be published until end 2016. This means that no decisions on fracking can be made in the Republic before 2017.
The consortium that will carry the research is led by the management company CDM Smith Ireland Limited. Queens University Belfast, British Geological Survey, University College Dublin, University of Ulster, AMEC, and Philip Lee Solicitors are also part of the consortium.
The 24-month research programme is composed of five interlinked projects and will involve field studies (baseline monitoring of water and seismicity) in Clare, Leitrim and Fermanagh, as well as an extensive desk-based literature review of UGEE practices worldwide. The ‘key questions’ the research programme sets out to answer are:
- Can UGEE projects/operations be carried out in the island of Ireland whilst also protecting the environment and human health?
- What is ‘best environmental practice’ in relation to UGEE projects/operations?
The campaign against fracking is, in general, not satisfied with those parameters. The majority of submissions asked for a Health Impact Assessment of proposals for fracking be carried out. This was not agreed and is not included in the final Terms of Reference. Also, the research is too much focussed on the capacity of regulations to limit the impacts of fracking.
However, the study will provide more scientific information on the geology of target sites and potential environmental impacts of fracking in Ireland.
Fracking in the North
Despite the delay in the South, fracking projects are still going through the planning process in Northern Ireland.
Tamboran Resources Ltd is seeking a judicial review of the Fermangh licence termination. The case has been listed in Belfast High Court for this month (November). Counsel for Minister Arlene Foster has asserted that an expired licence to carry out exploratory shale gas drilling cannot be reinstated through a legal challenge.
InfraStrata is ready to drill in Woodburn Forest in spring 2015, beside Carrickfergus (Co. Antrim). The company denies the use of fracking on the site because “geology is not suitable”. This means that hydraulic fracturing will not be used in the initial exploration drilling. This statement does not guarantee that fracking will not be used during its entire project. Any on-shore extraction of oil and gas has profound and extensive impacts on the environment and on communities.
Rathlin Energy is also ready to drill in Ballinlea, near the Giant’s Causeway. They have completed their Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) and will be submitting that to the Council. They also plan to commence drilling in early 2015.