Thursday, 11 October 2012
Ceisteanna - Questions - Priority Questions
Hydraulic Fracturing Policy
To ask the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources when public information and the consultation process on hydraulic fracturing, fracking, will commence, either EU or Government sponsored; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [43959/12]
Following a request from the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources to conduct research into the environmental implications of hydraulic fracturing in May 2012, the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, published its preliminary high level research into the environmental aspects of shale gas extraction in the form of a small desk based study, which was carried out by the University of Aberdeen. This study found that further research should be undertaken. The terms of reference for more extensive research is being drawn up by a steering group, including representatives from the EPA and Department. The objectives of this further research are to establish what is best practice with respect to hydraulic fracturing, identify all possible environmental risks and ascertain if these risks are manageable.
It is anticipated that following the engagement of the relevant experts, the conduct of the study, including consultation with relevant parties and taking account of relevant international studies, could take in excess of 12 months, leading to a potential publication date in 2014. Until there has been time to consider the second stage of the EPA research, I confirm the use of hydraulic fracturing in exploration drilling will not be authorised. However, should an application to engage in hydraulic fracking be received in future, I also confirm that such an application will be subject to environmental impact assessment, including full public consultation.
I thank the Minister for his reply, but I am still confused. The EU Commissioner for energy regulation attended the joint committee dealing with energy matters several weeks ago at which he gave the informal advice that member states should not make a decision for several years on hydraulic fracturing. There are studies being undertaken in Poland and much more information has yet to come to hand. Yesterday the committee met departmental officials, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Good Energies Alliance and much of the discussion centred on how the information is not yet available to make a decision on fracking. Tamboran Resources which declined to attend the committee meeting considers any discussion would not be meaningful at this time, also stating more information is needed. In the September 2012 EU news bulletin for the Irish Brussels office, issue No. 94, I note the Directorate-General for Energy is offering funding to public authorities to organise early stage dialogue with citizens and launch information campaigns on shale gas as a basis for informing decision-making of its potential industrial exploitation. Not only that, but there is a budget of €200,000 to cover five or six hearings, which is 50% of the total eligible costs. Effectively, €400,000 will be spent by public authorities – I am not sure what is meant by "public authority" – to inform the decision-making process and engage in public consultations.
Why are we organising and spending €400,000 on a public information campaign when everyone knows we cannot answer simple questions on whether fracking will damage agriculture, tourism, animal or human health? Is there not a risk that public consultations along these lines and in the absence of full information will cause fear among communities?
The Deputy referred to the Directorate-General for Energy process. Our process has commenced. Under the previous Fianna Fáil Government, a licensing option was issued, which started the clock in our process. That clock will run until November this year. Then the company in question, Tamboran Resources, must present its work programme and, by February next year, decide whether it will apply for an exploration licence. Such a licence does not allow fracking for commercial exploitation purposes. As the Deputy rightly pointed out, there are national and international concerns about the fracking process. Key issues such as well integrity, the pollution of groundwater, the consequences of leaks and blowouts, fracking fluid leaking into aquifers, the disposal of methane, local geology knowledge, the carbon footprint and so forth must be considered. No decision will be made on commercial fracking until all of these issues are understood and the various studies completed. The earliest we expect the information to be on our desk is 2014. Nothing will happen until this information is available.
I have not been briefed on that aspect, but I thank the Deputy for bringing it to my attention. However, if an exploration licence was sought which involved fracking, there would have to be an environmental impact statement and full planning permission required, starting with the local authority and moving up to An Bord Pleanála. There is no question about this. The public will be fully consulted at every stage of the planning process.