Study of Fracking Released by Irish EPA

The Irish Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) today released a report, a “preliminary study” that seeks to gather up what is known, and not known, about hydraulic fracturing. The 26-page study (full copy embedded below) was authored by Dr. David Healy from the University of Aberdeen’s School of Geosciences. Titled “Hydraulic Fracturing or ‘Fracking’: A Short Summary of Current Knowledge and Potential Environmental Impacts,” the study provides a good general backgrounder on what hydraulic fracturing is, how it works, and the main issues and objections to its use.

The main findings of the study are set out under three headings: (1) potential environmental impacts, (2) regulatory approaches used in other countries and (3) establishing best practice. Ireland has not seen fracking of any kind, but expects it may happen in Ireland within the next few years, hence this report and another that is planned.

A summary of the report’s findings:

Potential Environmental Impacts:

According to the study, the integrity of the well is vital for minimising potential impacts, particularly with regard to groundwater contamination from leaks and well blowouts, where fracking fluid in particular could enter groundwater aquifers. Fracking fluid could possibly contain chemical additives, methane (natural gas), and other substances present in the shale such as metals and naturally occurring radioactive material.

The research notes that knowledge of local geology is important in order to assess the potential for impacts on groundwater quality and tremors/earthquakes. Shale formations in Europe are generally more complex than in the US, where many such projects have taken place, and detailed knowledge of local geology may therefore be of more importance in Europe.

The report found that there is uncertainty surrounding the “carbon footprint” of natural gas from shale, with disagreement as to whether it is equivalent to conventionally extracted natural gas, or whether the effective footprint is significantly greater due to leakage of methane to atmosphere during the extraction process. This is an issue for the global environment because of climate change and may become increasingly important if shale gas extraction continues to develop.

The report also outlined other potential impacts due to the large volumes of water used in fracking, and provides information on the nature of additives which have been used in fracking operations, as well as outlining some of the options currently available for storage and disposal of flowback fluid.

Regulatory approaches used in other countries:

The study looked at regulatory approaches in Europe, North America and other regions, and presents available information on regulatory approaches in various jurisdictions. The study states that the US has the most experience in this area, as the industry is most developed there. However, it makes clear that EU Directives on Mining Waste and water protection (i.e. the Water Framework Directive) will place significant constraints on shale gas extraction activities in Europe which do not exist in the US, with regard to disposal of wastes and waste fluids.

Establishing Best Practice:

The report suggests topics for further research to determine best practice, such as the feasibility of additive-free fracking fluids, flowback fluid treatment, the disposal and minimisation of methane losses to air and an increased understanding of shale geometry in complex formations.

The report also presents a list of requirements to be considered in establishing and achieving best practice. These include adequate monitoring and assessment of shale gas extraction installations and the receiving environment.*

*University of Aberdeen (May 11, 2012) – Environmental Protection Agency releases University of Aberdeen study into the use of fracking technology