Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Tuesday, 31 January 2017
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Communications, Climate Action and Environment
Policy Issues arising from the Exploration and Extraction of Onshore Petroleum Bill 2016 and the EPA report on Hydraulic Fracturing: Discussion
The purpose of this meeting is to consider policy issues arising from the Prohibition of the Exploration and Extraction of Onshore Petroleum Bill 2016 and EPA-led joint research programme on the impacts of hydraulic fracturing on the environment and human health.
I welcome our witnesses: from the Department of Communications, Climate Action and the Environment, Mr. Matthew Collins, assistant secretary in the natural resources area, and Ms Orla Ryan, principal officer in the petroleum exploration division; from the Geological Survey Ireland, Ms Monica Lee, principal geologist; from the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, Dr. Alice Wemaere, research manager, and Dr. Matt Crowe; and, from CDM Smith, Mr. Alan Hooper.
Opening statements have been circulated to the members. I propose that the witnesses speak for five minutes each. We will then have a question-and-answer session.
This is with all due respect to everybody who has waited so long for this session to begin and to the people in the Gallery. As I mentioned to the Chairman earlier, I am baffled as to why we are going through this process of looking at the EPA report and hearing from CDM Smith on the question of fracking. I am baffled because the Bill, the purpose of which is to ban fracking, passed Second Stage in the Dáil and that is the reality with which we should be dealing now. We should be scrutinising the tightness and clarity of that Bill, rather than going through the facts - or the lack of facts - yet again, hearing the opinions of various bodies that think fracking should or should not have a place in Ireland or discussing reports from the EPA on whether those opinions are valid. We dealt with all of that in the Dáil. On Second Stage in the Dáil, it was quite clear that the sentiment of Deputies was that we disagree with this, that and the other on the EPA report and that CDM Smith is compromised. We want to move on now and get this Bill through.
During the debate in the Dáil, the Minister recommended that this committee consider this issue. The EPA report was also referred to this committee. In the context of the new make-up of the Dáil, it is very important that this cross-party committee gets the opportunity to discuss these issues. I hope we will have a productive meeting. I take on board the Deputy's views but it is important that the committee has this opportunity today. I ask-----
I am sorry, Chairman. The Minister did not recommend in the Dáil that we go through the EPA report. That probably happened outside the Chamber. In the Dáil, he said that the Bill was tight and needed to be legally checked. This is not a legal check. This is going over the arguments for the Bill yet again.
The role of the committee is to look at the issue of fracking. That is our remit. It is a very important role that the committee has. The EPA report was referred to this committee, which I think is a very valid pathway. It is something that we should be capitalising on now in that we should be examining these issues. We are using the correct format in this regard. As elected representatives, we have the power to consider it in this format. I take on board the concerns of the Deputy and they are on the public record. If we could just move on-----
Okay. In that case, I will ask the Chairman about something mentioned in private session regarding the new Dáil and how it works. There was a new standing order passed in respect of every Bill coming back for full scrutiny. I am a little confused about the procedures. Standing Order 141(3) states that we can or must scrutinise a Bill under the new Dáil regulations. My understanding, as a new Deputy, is that parliamentary procedures are such that the Bill, at this point, should come to a select committee comprising only Members of the Dáil and that the latter would examine it. Later on, it would be returned to the Seanad. Now, we have the Bill coming to a joint committee of both Senators and Deputies for scrutiny. Is this not a new departure? Does it not fly in the face of the whole procedure of the Dáil looking at the Bill, making a decision on it and then it being returned to the Seanad in order that it might copperfasten matters?
I wish to explain that we are looking at the policy issues here. Policy is always considered by the joint Oireachtas committee, which includes Senators. That is the process.
I will move on to our witnesses. I ask our first witness, Mr. Matthew Collins, assistant secretary for natural resources from the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment-----
It is. I raised it in private session. I was of the same opinion as Deputy Bríd Smith. It was debated in the Dáil on 27 October. The Bill was voted down. The Government withdrew its amendment and the Bill was voted down. My understanding was that fracking was not on the agenda any more. It is unfortunate------
I am sorry. I wish to explain. This committee decided to consider the EPA report. It was a decision made by this committee. I know that Deputy Scanlon is not a member and I will explain. It was a decision made by this committee to consider the EPA report. That is what we were doing here today.
I return to our first witness, Mr. Matthew Collins. He has five minutes.
Mr. Matthew Collins:
I thank the Chairman for inviting the Department to participate in the hearings on the EPA joint research programme. I understand that my statement is available to the committee. Therefore, I will limit myself to some introductory remarks to save time.
I confirm that the moratorium declared by Ministers on any fracking activities in Ireland has been in place since 2011 and continues. No applications have been approved. The Department acknowledges that the timeline envisaged for the research was longer than anticipated but the report does answer some questions about the impact of the unconventional exploration for gas on the environment and health. Three significant areas require to be addressed before we can conclude that the methodology for this extraction could be used in a compliant manner. Two relate to groundwater concerns and the third is the implications for air quality. While not highlighted in the three recommendations, it is also noteworthy that the report finds there are significant gaps in the legislative framework covering this activity not only in Ireland but in several countries. As the Minister indicated in the Dáil that he would like to see science-led research as the basis on which we make decisions and conclude this matter, it is considered appropriate that we discuss the findings and move on to the legislation. The Minister indicated that the issues raised in the report justify maintaining the moratorium until a definitive view is taken. This committee's conclusions on the findings of the joint research programme will inform this conclusion and view.
The Minister has indicated that he supports a Private Member's Bill proposed by Deputy Tony McLoughlin which proposes to introduce a ban on fracking. It has passed Second Stage in the Dáil. The Minister indicated at that time that he would table some technical amendments based on the language on Committee Stage. This is to ensure that the complexity surrounding the technology is properly captured and that no unexpected or unintended consequences might arise from the legislation.
We are very happy to answer any questions from the committee.
Dr. Matthew Crowe:
We are very happy to be here to help the committee with its deliberations in whatever way we can on the report and the Bill. As our statement is available to all members of the committee I will pick out a couple of points.
The EPA's licensing role is relevant to this work and that is why we were involved in this research. Onshore extraction of gas, if it were ever to happen in Ireland, would require a licence from the EPA. We also have a research role as the national co-ordinator of environmental research in Ireland. We have a broader role in respect of environment reporting which is relevant to the broader issue and I am happy to discuss that issue in respect of climate change and carbonisation if that is helpful to the committee. The opening statement gives the history and context of the research, which I will take as read.
The overall aim of the programme and the questions we were asked to address are set out on page 4 of the statement. It is some time since the terms of reference for the joint research programme were drawn up and it is easy to forget what the purpose of the research was when we set out to do it. Now that it has concluded we should consider its overall aim when the work commenced. It was originally intended to happen in two phases. The phase one work is complete, the reports have been published and are available on the EPA website and the phase two work did not commence. The EPA has no plans now to do further research in this area in light of the decision of the Oireachtas in October 2016.
The EPA did not do the research, it funded it. As a director of the EPA, however, I have read the summary reports which are available to anyone who wants to read them. It is clear to me from reading them that the research was independent, objective and extremely thorough. Many people with a range of expertise and backgrounds were involved and contributed to the work through the consortium, the steering committee and the technical review groups. This shines through the reports.
Two answers emerged from the research. Notwithstanding that the baseline monitoring intended to happen as phase two did not proceed, the research has gone a long way towards answering the two questions originally asked of the research. As Mr. Collins pointed out, the research raises questions to be answered. The research also makes clear that these issues should be resolved prior to any authorisation of hydraulic fracturing.
While the research poses specific questions, as always happens, there is added value from the work, for example, the lifecycle assessment approach to this technology and some of the work done on health impact assessment. These will have broader implications and use for regulators and those involved in the environmental protection area.
Overall, I am satisfied that the EPA and its joint research programme partners have provided very good value for money to the State. Ireland is somewhat unique in having taken such a precautionary approach to unconventional gas exploration. We are one of the few countries where it has been decided to do the research, to consider what baseline monitoring needs to be done in advance of allowing there to be exploration or extraction. That is something to be proud of. In time, the work may be seen as a good case study in the application of the precautionary principle in practice and evidence-based policy making supported by independent research. I also pointed out that the work was very controversial and generated a lot of public interest and engagement, particularly in the two studies. The public sector can learn from that how best to involve and engage local communities in decisions that can have a very direct impact on the quality of their lives, their health and wellbeing. On the broader issue, as we start to figure out what we are going to do about the challenges of climate change, engagement with communities will be very important.
We are very happy to answer any questions the committee might have. If it has questions we cannot answer we will get the information to the committee as soon as we can after this meeting.
Mr. Alan Hooper:
Unfortunately, I cannot use my powerpoint presentation because the IT system is not working. I will skip through some of the slides quickly. As the members of the committee have hard copies of the presentation, they can follow me as I go through it. The third slide shows the scope of our work. We undertook a technical research programme. There were no political, economic or considerations in the study. There were five projects. We had two study areas, one in County Clare and the other on the Border in counties Leitrim, Sligo, Cavan and Fermanagh. Our approach was based on evidence. We used peer-reviewed data. We got information and data from regulatory bodies. We looked at the regulatory structures. We used our own experience and knowledge of the industry. We did not take any information from newspapers, social media, anecdotes or Hollywood.
Members will see the slide that sets out the structure of the five inter-linking projects in the EPA's scope of work. In projects A1, A2 and A3, we looked at the specific impacts on water, seismicity and air quality. In the fourth project, we looked at the impacts of unconventional gas exploration and extraction projects around the world, the mitigation measures taken as part of those projects and the success of those projects. In the final project, we looked at the regulatory framework in EU and Irish law and in other jurisdictions. We examined these matters in the context of the two study areas. We looked at the EU requirements and we studied what is going on in other jurisdictions. It was quite a broad project.
The next slide indicates that the consortium was led by CDM Smith and was supported by the British Geological Survey. University College Dublin and the University of Ulster were involved in the seismic activities. The consortium also included Amec Foster Wheeler, which has done a great deal of work for the European Commission on regulation and best practice in fracking. Philip Lee offered us local expertise regarding the regulations in Ireland and Northern Ireland.
I will not go through the description of the individual projects. I will move on to the slide entitled "potential impacts", which sets out how the fracking process is divided into four main stages for our purposes. Unconventional gas exploration and extraction projects typically last between 15 and 25 years. The first stage we normally look at is exploration. We split that into two parts: baseline monitoring and characterisation, which is fairly benign, and test hydraulic fracturing. As test hydraulic fracturing is new and rather different, we pulled it out as a separate entity. The second stage, which applies if it is decided to proceed with fracking, involves a great deal of activity on pad development and the development of infrastructure such as roads, water pipelines and wells. The third phase is the production stage, when all of the development goes away and the field starts to produce gas. The fourth stage involves a closure exercise. Our analysis of the impacts across these four stages was based on five reports, which we drew from an awful lot of information.
Members will see that a number of slides feature pretty tables, or not-so-pretty tables. These simple tables rate the potential impacts of the activities in each phase of the fracking process and assess whether those impacts are normal from the perspective of society. It is not unusual to be building a road or a pad, for example. It is unusual, from the perspective of society and the regulations, to be doing hydraulic fracking so it is going to be a bit of a problem. We looked at whether the regulations that apply to each activity need modifications or additions. If I had more time, I would go through the various tables to illuminate what we found. I can do that by reference to the conclusions.
The first slide dealing with conclusions follows all the tables to which I have referred. The first conclusion we came to is that fracking projects and operations involve multiple activities which have the potential to affect human health and the environment in different ways. The relative importance of these impacts varies from place to place, because these projects are very site-specific, and with time. As I have said, many of the activities are conventional in so far as they involve things that happen frequently. People build roads to allow materials to be transported and install pipelines to transfer water. Much of this activity is fairly typical of society and of behaviour across many industries and is therefore well regulated. There is a lot of regulation in place and the mitigation measures are quite well developed.
I ask members to turn to the next slide dealing with conclusions. When we looked at other jurisdictions, we found that the operational requirements and therefore the practices that are going on are quite different from country to country. That is a reflection of the fact that this is a new industry that is evolving rapidly, especially in the US. We noted that the regulatory environment in the US differs significantly from that in Europe, partly because the US authorities approach things differently and partly because ownership issues are completely different there. In the US, the resource is owned by the landowner rather than the state. This means the landowner has a much bigger incentive to get involved. That is a fairly basic difference. Many of the more damaging practices in the US would not be allowed in Ireland because of EU regulations. I refer to the use of open-wastewater lagoons, for example, or to practices like flaring and deep underground reinjection. Many of the bigger problems in the US simply would not be allowed here under EU regulations. It is quite ironic that industry best practice - the United Kingdom Onshore Oil and Gas group, for example, has developed best practice guidance in this area - addresses many of the issues that are raised by stakeholders. There is a nice body of work there that should be incorporated in the regulations if this goes ahead. The industry has set out what it is prepared to do. I suggest the public authorities can achieve a great deal of benefit from holding the industry to that.
In the next slide dealing with conclusions, we set out our view that many of these activities could proceed in Ireland without causing too much damage to the environment or to health as long as the best practices we have identified in the report are followed and current regulations are applied with a small number of additions and modifications. This needs to be complemented by adequate implementation of the regulations by the industry and enforcement of them by my friends in the EPA.
We are of the view that an unsatisfactory risk status is still attached to three impacts. We could not say that mitigation measures would work in these contexts. I have listed the three impacts in question on one of the slides. We believe there may be a risk of groundwater pollution from failed boreholes, of groundwater pollution caused by gas migrating through the cracks created during fracking, and of emissions after the closure of the wells. We did not have enough evidence to say that problems would not arise in these areas. In our view, there is still a problem. I will go through the three risks individually. When we say there is a risk of groundwater pollution from failed borehole integrity, we are referring to the possibility of the pumped materials going down leaking into the aquifers. It is also possible that the returning gas or the production waters - the deep waters that naturally come out of rocks and are usually highly polluted - could leak out as well. If the well fails, there is a problem.
When one engages in fracking, one creates cracks. Fracking releases gas into the well. Potentially, those cracks could be a route for migration of gas and polluted water. There is quite a debate about how long those cracks might be. The industry will say they are 10 m or 20 m in length, but a great deal of data points to the possibility that they are over 200 m in length. We think they might extend to 300 m in extreme conditions. We know from the statistical analysis we use that they could theoretically extend to 500 m if long cracks can go vertically from the oil-bearing strata to the aquifers. If these cracks extend to the aquifers, the possibility of gas and pollutant migration presents itself. That is worse if there are existing faults that link in with the natural cracks as a sort of double-whammy.
The third unsatisfactory risk is the possibility of post-closure gas emissions. Things should be straightforward when all the gas is out and the well is capped, but that is not the case. There are international examples of leaks from conventional and unconventional wells. In principle, the design of these elements should be straightforward. It should be easy enough to do, but leaks can happen. We cannot say it is not a risk. The levels of gas emissions from a well are typically low, but if there are gas emissions from a number of wells over a long period of time, those levels can be significant.
They are the three issues that we really highlight as being problems. We suggest they should be addressed by anyone who wants to do hydraulic fracturing. They can be addressed, to some extent, by baseline monitoring. If we had baseline monitoring of water and seismicity for the two study areas, we could say with a lot more certainty how likely it is that gas and pollutants will migrate from the wells to the aquifers.
Similarly if there is going to be any seismic activity, seismic surveys will be done before anything happens to provide us with better knowledge of the sub-surface geology and hydrogeology. The structure of the geology and hydrogeology, which is the way water moves around, is fundamental to two of these issues. If the data are there ahead of time, there is a reasonable chance of being able to say whether we think it is a problem but that cannot be done without the data. In a sense, we will not know the long-term gas emissions because they are long term. There are ongoing studies but it will take a long time to find out. If countries want to proceed with this, there is no reason why the design cannot be well specified and well implemented. The testing of the closing procedure could be done and then linked to long-term monitoring. We would recommend a bonding issue so if there are problems the operators pay rather than the Government. They are the three activities the Government could move forward on to make it a more satisfactory industry.
The last issue is the regulatory environment. Many regulations have come out of the EU. They are widespread and are quite applicable to these types of operations but there are some deficiencies and ambiguities on which clarification is needed. One is the mining waste directive which the EU is clarifying. There are issues associated with the reuse of wastewater. Wastewater is not supposed to be re-injected. The argument is that the water that has been injected down and comes back as part of the fracking process is wastewater. If it was to be reused, there would be a much lower demand for water and the water resource, which is a concern. That is an issue we felt need clarification. It is not clear in the environmental impact assessment directive what scale of projects that should be applied to. In Denmark, they have taken a view that all fracking projects, whether only for exploration or not, have an environmental impact assessment. Similarly, it is not really clear at what scale the strategic environmental assessment, SEA, should be. If one was doing an exploration well or a few wells, one probably would not do it but if one was going to do the whole of the northern carboniferous basin throughout Leitrim and Fermanagh, then an SEA is needed. The application of SEAs needs to be clarified. Extraction licensing in Ireland needs to be strengthened because there is such significant water demand in this industry. The European Commission has developed recommendations for this industry and it attempts to cover the gaps in the existing regulations. It is quite good and covers most of those gaps. We think it should be included in guidance. Similarly, the best practice coming out of industry should be included in guidance. With those two together, with the existing legislation, the Government can go a long way to controlling this industry quite well.
We were asked to look at what role health impact assessments might have. They are not well developed in Ireland. Hydraulic fracturing is a new industry. Those two things do not go together very well. There is not much data. We thought the best approach would be to incorporate health impact assessments within the EIA as a best practice requirement for this industry.
I am pleased to take any questions the committee has.
I thank the witnesses for their brief statements this evening. I will start with a question for the Department on its position versus that contained in the EPA's report. The conclusion of the EPA report is that there are concerns that can be mitigated by certain measures, whereas the Department's position is there is sufficient evidence to maintain the ban. What are the problems that the Department sees as warranting the ban? Will the witnesses expand on that?
In its conclusion, the EPA states there is a lack of data and experience to permit a reliable assessment with regard to fracking. There are a lot of peer-related reviews such as, for example, the Cornell Medical College New York report and the US EPA report, both of which have issues with fracking. How did the EPA decide there was not enough data or experience out there? In layman's terms, does it come down to the fact that fracking has not been in existence for that long? Will the witnesses expand on those questions?
I will ask the witnesses to bank those questions. I will call on Deputy Stanley and Deputy Eamon Ryan.
I thank the witnesses for their attendance. I also thank them, as well as those in the Gallery, for their patience while waiting. If one is going to do something that is a risk, the first thing one has to do is ask whether it is necessary. If there is a pedestrian crossing where one can walk safely across the road, why would one go 20 yd. up the road to cross the road without a red light for traffic to stop? It seems as though the risks involved here are substantial. The witnesses have waited a long time and other people want to ask questions. There are huge risks involved, which is clear from the report and the Department's conclusions on it. A more comprehensive report on a seven-year study done in New York concluded that the administration should ban it completely. There are risks to the environment, air and water quality and Mr. Alan Hooper touched on some of those. The report that was done here did not deal with the effects of burning shale gas; it simply dealt with the extraction of shale gas. In this country, we are already way behind our international obligations in terms of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Will the witnesses from the EPA share any thoughts they have about the effects of burning shale gas in terms of what effect it would have on our CO2 emissions and whether it would increase those or not?
The conclusions of the Department on its potential to pollute ground aquifers is of huge concern to people. I am from the midlands but I know there is huge concern about that in the north west. The potential for cracks has been outlined very vividly. There could be cracks of up to 500 m from hydraulic fracturing. The closing of wells was also addressed. We are doing a study in this country where it has not yet happened. Perhaps Mr. Alan Hooper will address this point. The studies in the United States addressed a situation where it has happened and where the environmental consequences can be seen, felt and measured. Does CDM Smith agree it is difficult to do it here because it has not happened here yet?
What is the impact of burning shale gas? Will it exacerbate the appalling situation in this State where we are far behind and will fall far short of the very modest targets we set ourselves to meet in 2020 and 2030? I cannot figure out why, as an island nation, we are even entertaining this because surely we have enough, in that we have an abundance of renewable sources of energy. The EPA has looked at all of this in the past, as I am sure have some of the people here with scientific backgrounds. We are only scratching the surface in terms of exploring and researching such sources and developing the technology to harvest wind, wave, solar and all the other bioenergies that are available and into which we should be tapping. Why we are even taking the risk of going down the road of shale gas is beyond me. Why cross the road 20 yd. from the pedestrian crossing when one can press the button and have a red light to stop traffic? It is beyond me why we are taking the risk.
It is a strange situation because there is consensus. In the Second Stage debate, we reached an important decision so it is strange that we are stepping back a bit.
However, it is not a permanent step back. In fact, we have respect for this process and for the submissions that various people with an interest in this matter have been asked to present and the work they have done on them.
Two or three issues arise. Dr. Crowe referred to climate change. For me, that is the quintessential first obstacle for any development of fracking. We need to keep four fifths of fossil fuel resources underground. If we burn the shale or tight oil and shale resources, we will have runaway climate change that we will not be able to stop. There are also secondary issues around methane release, which I believe is an acute problem in the shale fracking industry. The analysis we have been presented confirms to me, specifically for the sites in Leitrim, Sligo and Roscommon, that the issue of water pollution is very significant. There are many other concerns that could be raised. From all the analysis I have read here, this is a geological formation in which there are natural risks, as there are already breaks in the fracturing in the natural sediments of the area. There are real risks. The concerns in the hydrological analysis presented by SWAN are being backed up. In that geological area, there is a risk of contamination of the most critical water resource we have, namely, the mouth of the Shannon. It seems to me to be a non-starter. It gives us a certain comfort in following the process of restricting the application of fracking in Ireland. In my mind, it makes ever more sense.
I would be interested to hear from Mr. Collins from the Department on one final matter. In our earlier considerations today, the other reassuring development - if I am not breaking confidence - is the sense that the Bill, as presented, is fundamentally legally sound, although there may be a need for a tweaking of words. I think it may be appropriate for the Department, with its drafting expertise, to provide wording suggestions for the definition of "land", "the State" and other examples mentioned earlier. The reassurance for those campaigning on this side is that we have a process whereby, as we agreed under Standing Order 141, we are carrying out the pre-legislative process, which is not going to be long and drawn out. This legislation is heading towards Committee Stage, for which the select committee will be responsible. Subject to the Dáil agreeing Report Stage and the Bill's enactment, it will go to the Seanad. I would be interested to hear from Mr. Collins, as he has a similar assessment, whether there is anything in the legislative process that, in the Department's view, screams "Stop". If there is, I am not aware of it. That is the good news from my perspective. We have a fairly clear path to bring this legislation to Committee Stage and to enactment.
Mr. Matthew Collins:
I am happy to go first. The reasons for maintaining the moratorium are quite simple. There are a number of unresolved issues in the risks that have been identified. They relate to groundwater and air quality. Those risks mean that the frameworks are unresolved at the moment. That is the justification for the Department maintaining the moratorium, particularly in light of the Oireachtas examining a legislative basis for preventing fracking. It seems clear to us that, in the interim, we are satisfied that those risks exist. It is in line with the policy goal of the Oireachtas in terms of the legislation. The Minister has already said that he accepts the Bill. He is supportive. He flagged quite a long time ago his specific concerns about groundwater and air quality. It is important that the research that was carried out flagged that as well.
Having the research is useful because it provides comfort in terms of the direction in which the legislation is going. We have a very clear basis and rationale for what we are doing and the approach we are taking. Rather than allowing this activity to take place and examining it in retrospect, which some jurisdictions have done, we have probably benefited from the fact that the better approach has been to prevent the activity, do the analysis in advance of the activity and to then allow a policy and legislative framework to be developed that addresses that activity.
In terms of the legal soundness of the Bill, I am not a lawyer and I know there are parliamentary draftspersons who are professionals in this area. What I can say is that the intention of the legislation is very clear. It is to achieve a prohibition of fracking. We want to ensure we achieve that through the legislation. Sometimes, legislative drafting can be complex and this is a particularly technical area as well. It will probably be a drafting issue, but I think people on both sides agree on the intent of the Bill and that is what we want to ensure occurs.
Dr. Matthew Crowe:
I wish to respond to the Chairman's question on the data and the evidence. Thinking back to 2010 and 2011, when this first came on the EPA's radar, there was a lot of talk about fracking in America and other parts of the world. There was the possibility that it might happen in Ireland at some point. Our concern at that time was to get more information about the Irish context. The Irish underground is very specific to Ireland. Even within different parts of Ireland, it varies from one place to the other. The study addressed that to a certain extent. It looked at whatever available data there is in Ireland right now. Of course, at the time the study was originally designed, there was also an intention that there would be monitoring done in terms of boreholes, seismic monitoring, etc, but it was never done. We are where we are on that. The key thing is to get the Irish context of the data, information and evidence from a regulation point of view. If we were ever in a situation in which we had to consider an application for the extraction of shale gas, we would want to have all of the knowledge and information that we needed about the specific area in which that was going to happen. Some of that would be gathered in the course of an application. However, there are issues such as the strategic environmental assessment, which was mentioned earlier. There are things the State can do to provide that baseline information, which makes the job of regulators more efficient and effective.
In terms of risk, an issue Deputy Stanley raised, the main point is that hydraulic fracturing has not happened in the Republic of Ireland. The approach that has been taken in Ireland is the precautionary approach to do the research, get the data, collect the evidence and then base policy on whatever that happens to be. The policy context has changed since 2011. We now have a White Paper on energy, which we did not have then. There is a much broader context in which to examine whatever energy systems may be considered for Ireland in the future.
We also have the climate legislation, very specific targets for 2050 in residential and transport electricity generation and an 80% reduction of carbon dioxide compared to 1990 levels. The broader issue will be addressed in the national mitigation plan, which is to be prepared this year. The whole point of that plan is to set out a roadmap for how Ireland is going to reach the targets in the legislation that have been set for 2050. Everything has to be considered on that basis. Essentially, we are talking about decarbonising the energy system. At present, that system is heavily dependent on fossil fuels.
A total of 90% of energy in Ireland comes from fossil fuels. There is a much bigger issue at play in respect of the challenges posed by climate change which relate to how we move from an energy system that is heavily dependent on fossil fuels to one that is not. If there was ever a possibility that shale gas would be considered as part of a national energy resource, it would have to be considered within the broader policy consideration of decarbonisation and the targets set out in dealing with climate change.
Yes. I asked about the study carried out here and the studies in the United States, particularly the one in New York State. The Americans have experienced and live with the consequences of shale gas extraction. Can Mr. Hooper comment on this?
Mr. Alan Hooper:
We did examine the work done in New York State and other states in America. One of the big problems, which to an extent returns us to the Department's comment, is that the Americans did not do any baseline work before they started, which makes it very hard to know what was caused by fracking. Ireland is right. It was a good study to have carried out before anything was put in the ground. The lack of baseline data does make life very difficult and it invalidates much of the information available because researchers do not know what they are comparing against. It is also very site specific. The geology of New York State is very different from that of Ireland. It is seismically much more active than Ireland; therefore, there would probably be a lot more fractured rock than here. One of the big problems, which brings us back to Deputy Eamon Ryan's point about water pollution, is that it depends on the underground geology, hydrogeology and fracturing. Those data are not available. It is not possible to say if there are or are not many fractures. That piece of information is vital in the assessment of the risk.
I thank the delegates for their presentations. I was very sceptical about this process before we started and have already questioned the legitimacy of going down this road. I am even more sceptical now, having heard the presentations. Dr. Crowe and Mr. Hooper repeatedly say "if ever," "maybe some time," "if we do have to," "should we have to reconsider," "we do not have the evidence and is that not unfortunate," "we are where we are," "we do not have the proper evidence to be able to say definitively" and "Ireland is different." I get a very strong sense, although they do not say it, that they are hedging their bets and that we might some day be able to revisit the question of fracking shale gas in this country. The research is by CDM Smith, a pro-fracking company which is working with a State body tasked with protecting our environment, including our water and population. I see a big compromise in that relationship and get the impression that they sort of regret the decision of the Dáil before Christmas to move to ban fracking in Ireland. I would like them to comment on this in a genuine way as scientists and people who are interested in the industry because I am very concerned that we are going through this process for a different reason. I am not a conspiracy theorist, but I find it extraordinary that we are going through the process of listening to the delegates report on something we have rejected democratically. We should be moving to another stage.
Earlier we heard the legal opinion which advised us of some interesting points connected with language such as how to describe the State and land and whether we would have to link this with amendments to previous Acts dating from the 1960s dealing with petroleum. That is the advice we, as an Oireachtas committee, need to hear to move on. I am suspicious that it will be dragged out and that the industry regrets that a door has not been left open to allow fracking in this country.
I thank and give credit to the people in the Visitors Gallery and their communities for their work in presenting thousands of petitions and going through Governor Cuomo's research in the State of New York and bringing it to Leinster House. Deputy Tony McLoughlin is a local Deputy of the Fine Gael Party and were it not for the rank and file, ordinary decent farmers and citizens who live with the potential danger that their environment will be destroyed, this issue would not have been brought to the floor of the Dáil. The delegates have admitted that it is a danger and that we do not know enough. Why would we want to take it out of the ground in the first place? If we are hurtling towards climate change and bound by the Paris Agreement to seriously reduce our carbon emissions within the next 20 to 30 years, this proposal flies in the face of the idea that the committee even consider the concept of extracting more fossil fuel from the ground. It should be left there to protect the environment and the people living in it. Alternative ways to produce energy should be found.
I hope my suspicions that the industry wants to leave a chink open on the basis that this will not get through or that it could be revisited in the future are utterly and totally misguided and wrong, but I would like to hear that is the case. We need to deal with climate change and protect the environment. Any idea of shale gas becoming part of an industry in this country flies in the face of that need.
I thank the Chairman for giving me the opportunity to contribute, although I am not a member of the committee.
This is a huge issue in Sligo, Leitrim and west Cavan. For many years we have examined the possibility of shale gas extraction and the dangers it would present to communities. There is disappointment that we are consulting on the issue. The majority of those whom we represent - I speak for all of the Deputies who represent the constituency - thought this issue had been put to bed and that we had banned extracting shale gas from the soil, but now we find ourselves here talking about it. We hope we are not stepping backwards but can move forward. It is good, however, to have the opportunity to listen and try to learn something.
How does the notion of examining the extracting of shale gas at a time when as a society we are trying to move away from fossil fuels fit with the Department's position? How does it match its stated strategy to move away from fossil fuels? For most lay people, it does not match and they cannot understand it. Deputy Bríd Smith said it: most people smell a rat. They say individuals with big money and big businesses are pulling the strings behind the scenes. We seek reassurance that is not happening.
Science is fine and we all deal with it, but the people who live in the community must also have a say. How much of the lived experience of ordinary human beings who have lived there for generations has been taken on board because their lives will be affected? Although there are recommendations that certain conditions be imposed on companies which extract shale gas such as sealing the wells, this is a very precarious industry.
The business that might bore for and extract the gas might be bankrupt and gone ten years later but the mess will be left. That also needs to be dealt with. Whose responsibility will it be? Will it be the responsibility of the State to clean up the mess in such a situation? That would be a very regrettable path to go down.
I may have to leave early because I have to go to the Chamber.
-----to contribute to the meeting. I am not a member of the committee. As somebody who comes from the north west of Ireland, I have a significant interest in this matter. I visited sites in America where shale gas was extracted. This is not a new industry; it has been going on for the past 20, 25 or 30 years. Some of the sites I attended are environmental disasters, quite honestly. I have talked to people who live close to these sites. Often there is not just one pad; there could be 150 or 200 pads within a small area. This destroys the whole area and the quality of life for the people who live there. I see that CDM Smith has been in business for 70 years and is a big company with 5,000 staff and 140 offices globally. Mr. Hooper says there is no doubt but that there are risks involved in this process. I know he cannot make guarantees in this regard. I come from the north west and represent the constituency of Sligo-Leitrim. We do not have much up there and struggle to survive much of the time, quite honestly, whether it be the farming community or people trying to get employment. However, two things we have are clean water and clean air, and I, as a person elected democratically by the people of that constituency, will never support fracking to be allowed in this country.
I will explain to members the process regarding the referral of a Private Members' Bill to the select committee. It is up to the select committee and this committee to engage in detailed scrutiny of the provisions of the Bill, after which we report back to the Dáil prior to Committee Stage. I say this just in case there is any confusion as to what we are doing. It is agreed that we are in the middle of that process. The Minister, Deputy Naughten, in the Dáil referred the Bill to the committee and advocated strongly that the committee play a key role in this process. We are having a very productive session, and it is important that we engage in this process.
I ask the witnesses to reply to those last three questions.
Mr. Matthew Collins:
I will respond to some of the questions Deputies Bríd Smith, Martin Kenny and Scanlon raised. I wish to clarify that there has been no fracking in Ireland, and the Minister is very clear that there is no window to the arrival of fracking, so the moratorium remains in place. We expect we shortly will have in place legislation that will prohibit fracking in Ireland. I wish to be clear also that the Minister is the licensing authority, so a licence would have to be approved by the Minister for any fracking activity to take place. Without that authorisation, it cannot go forward. If the Deputies would like some clarification on the process involved in this regard, I can ask my colleague to clarify it for them, but I hope my comments provide some reassurance to Deputies as to where we stand regarding the policy. No fracking has happened to date, and the moratorium remains in place and will remain in place until legislation to the contrary is in place.
Ms Orla Ryan:
To reiterate what Mr. Collins has said, the Minister is the licensing authority. No petroleum activity of any description can take place without the Minister issuing a licence. No licences have been issued; no licences will be issued. The Minister has confirmed he supports the legislation that will set out to ban this process, so there is no concern in that regard.
Regarding Deputy Martin Kenny's question as to whether the concerns of local people were taken into consideration, our Department insisted that the terms of reference be put to public consultation and it was on foot of this public consultation that people's concerns regarding human health were added to the terms of reference and that somebody from the HSE was co-opted onto the committee to consider these issues. Therefore, there was quite detailed public consultation on the terms of reference that would consider in the first instance the potential impacts of fracking on both the environment and subsequently human health.
Dr. Matthew Crowe:
Whether this technology is introduced in Ireland is a policy question and a question for the Oireachtas. The EPA, like all public bodies in Ireland, is fully accountable to the Oireachtas. When the legislation was introduced in October, it brought some policy clarity to the situation which had not been there before and clarity is always good when it comes to figuring out where we are going. Again, the research programme was set up for a very particular purpose. I mentioned in my opening remarks that a specific aim was set for the programme. It was a joint research programme involving a number of different organisations. In judging the research, one must go back to the original questions and aims the programme was established to deal with at that point in time. As I said in my opening remarks, overall, the research has gone a very long way towards answering the questions it was originally asked to answer. The research was independent. This is not EPA research. It is EPA-funded research but it is also funded by other bodies. The programme was set up for the research to be conducted independently, and this happened as a result of the way in which the consortium was established. Then there are the many other public servants in particular who were involved through the steering committee and the various review groups that contributed to the development of the materials, which the members of the committee all now have as they have since been published in the reports. I reiterate the point I made earlier that Ireland has adopted the precautionary principle here. This will be seen in time as a case study in how to deal with a controversial issue such as this: one should get the evidence, get the information, get the data one needs, take the time to do it, produce the research, produce the reports and then make one's policy decisions in that kind of informed, evidence-based position that will help with the policy.
I apologise for being late. As the Chairman knows, I am not a member of the committee but I was anxious to hear some of the comments made. My colleagues here, Deputy Scanlon and the other Deputies who also represent my constituency of Sligo-Leitrim, gave commitments on this issue many months ago. It has been a major issue in our area for many years. I was very pleasantly surprised by the unanimous decision in the Dáil in October on Second Stage. To be quite honest, I am a little concerned. I know the Chairman was trying to clarify the process of going from Second Stage to Committee Stage and the fact that we are now listening to comments being made. I was of the opinion that perhaps on Committee Stage, more advice and more detail should be sought. However, having read some of the comments made in the past by CDM Smith and others, I was very concerned. I heard some speakers talking about what has happened only this evening. A colleague of mine who has a huge interest in the United States came to me and expressed huge concern and told me I should be here to express concern again this evening. There is no justification for anybody in this room to water down in any way the concerns of the people about fracking under any circumstances.
When I approached colleagues from all parties and none, it was most unusual for a backbencher in a Government party to have a Bill succeed. It was a unanimous decision. I hope that will stand when we go to Committee Stage. Irrespective of what comments are made and what detail is forthcoming, given what we have seen and heard and the evidence that has been given to me and others, under no circumstances can the people of this country be subjected to fracking.
Having been here and having listened to some of the comments, I would be concerned if there were any change of heart. I ask the Chairman and his colleagues on this committee to ensure adherence to what was stated in the Dáil in October by every party and none. Everyone supported the idea that under no circumstances would we have fracking and nobody would be subjected to it. We are concerned on the health grounds. We talk about it, particularly in my area, due to agricultural concerns and concern for the general well-being of people in this country, not only of this generation but for generations to come. I would be concerned.
Are there any final comments from the witnesses before we finish up? No. I thank the witnesses for attending the meeting and for their patience. We had a long agenda. It was a worthwhile engagement. I propose that the committee publishes the submissions received in relation to this meeting and the letter received from the Minister. Is that agreed? Agreed.