Wednesday, 7 March 2012
Question 10: To ask the Minister for Communications; Energy and Natural Resources when he expects to receive the Environmental Protection Agency report on fracking; if he intends to publish a green or white paper on this subject; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [12868/12]
In October last year I requested the Environmental Protection Agency to conduct research and advise me on the environmental implications of hydraulic fracturing as a means of extracting natural gas from underground reserves. The agency is funding preliminary background research into the environmental aspects of shale gas extraction and the regulatory approaches of other countries, with a view to helping to establish best environmental practice. This research is in the form of a desk-based study being carried out by the University of Aberdeen.
The EPA proposes to commission further, more extensive, research on hydraulic fracturing in 2012. A working group involving representatives of my Department and the EPA has been established to develop the scope of this study. However, the final specification for this research will only be prepared after the EPA, an independent statutory body, has considered the output from the study under way at the University of Aberdeen. I understand the EPA expects to receive the report on that study in the coming weeks and expect it will make the final results of the study accessible to me as soon as they are available. Although my hair is grey with the subject, I have no plans to publish either a Green or White Paper at this stage.
Will the Minister explain why he has no intention of publishing a policy discussion paper on the subject? It is fair to say there are environmental concerns, but there are also human, social and community concerns, of which we have seen evidence in documentaries on the issue. For example, we know that fracking has been banned in France. A number of preliminary licences are at issue. Does the Minister not consider it would be preferable to have a national policy, rather than having hit and miss policies across local authorities? Why would we not opt for a broader national policy at this time?
We should opt for a broader national policy and I absolutely agree that is the right approach. However, I simply do not have the expert evidence available to me at this stage. A little over one year ago the previous Government issued licences for exploration to three companies, but essentially they were for no more than desktop-style surveying. I await the report of the EPA which I requested. It has advised me that this is not a simple overnight matter. Its opposite number in the United States has been examining this subject for the best part of three years and its report is due this year. This is also a major issue in the United States and it has had a dramatic impact on the price of gas which has fallen dramatically. However, it has not been without allegations in some states.
I have met groups here which are concerned about the issue and taken on board what they said. I commissioned the EPA to carry out a study as a result and I am making further money available to it, but we cannot design the project until I receive the findings of the University of Aberdeen study. In the interim, I know there are public meetings taking place in various places and that people concerned about this issue have been to Leinster House to make presentations; at least one of the companies involved has been heard here. All of this adds to the debate, but we are a long way from being able to a have an evidence-based national policy on fracking.
The Minister has said the EPA is carrying out a study and is using the study of the University of Aberdeen as part of it. Have there been consultations with the EPA's counterpart in the Six Counties, given that the fracking project will straddle the Border? Have there been consultations with the EPA's equivalent in France on the reasoning behind the ban imposed on fracking by the French Government? Is there concurrent evidence in this country to suggest the same?
Yes, I have had discussions with our colleagues in Northern Ireland about this because they seem to be further along the road than we are, and were about to commence fracking in Fermanagh in particular. They too now are pulling back somewhat and waiting until more information is available in this area.
No, I have not spoken to the French EPA, but we have spoken to some people politically in France. I understand the decision to ban is not an absolute one; it is a decision to ban until more evidence is compiled. They may well continue the ban then but I do not know. The ban is sometimes explained as conclusive evidence on the subject, but as I understand it from political sources, it is a ban pending research. Everybody across the European Union, bar one member state that is well disposed towards it, is anxious to get evidence to allay the fears of citizens about the issue and at the same time trying to balance that with the possibility of safely extracting such gas as it would have a considerable economic impact on whatever country made such finds.