Author: Alice Whittaker, partner, Philip Lee Solicitors and head of the firm’s Environment, Planning and Climate Group
Despite a significant increase in wind energy production over the last six years, Ireland continues to import over 85% of its energy requirements. Our energy dependence makes us vulnerable to geopolitical developments, cost hikes and interruptions in supply.
Our energy dependence also limits our ability to respond to the threat of climate change. Some 90% of the energy we import is comprised of fossil fuels. The Fifth Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Report contains stark warnings about the rate of global warming and the world’s ability to cope with potentially catastrophic climate change. The message is clear: climate change is happening, and action needs to be taken now.
In a statement published in response to the IPCC Report, the Department of the Environment refers to a number of consultations and initiatives, including the Climate Action and Low Carbon Development Bill, which is due to be published very soon. The Department’s statement highlights that Ireland has a long way to go before it will have recovered from the economic and banking crisis, and that it is important to balance economic and environmental objectives as part of the recovery.
One gets the sense that our expectations in terms of the content of the Bill are being managed before its publication. There is certainly no great sense of urgency in the Department’s response to the IPCC Report.
The Department of Energy is due to publish the long-awaited Energy Green Paper around the same time as the Climate Action Bill. The Green Paper will consider various energy options available in Ireland from oil and gas, nuclear, wind energy and other renewables, interconnection, district heating and energy efficiency.
In the course of strategic energy planning, the various options should be identified, described and assessed in an integrated manner against key objectives, to include security of supply, sustainability (including water use), affordability, decarbonisation, competitiveness, environmental protection and human health. In view of the long-term impact of climate change, intergenerational equity as required by the Aarhus Convention should also be a key consideration.
A PLACE FOR FRACKING?
What will the Government Green Paper say about unconventional shale gas extraction, often referred to as ‘fracking’, and its potential place within the overall energy mix? Probably very little, as the Government’s official position on fracking is unlikely to be formed until a major research project to be commissioned by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), on behalf of the Department of Environment, Community and Local Government, the Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources and the Northern Ireland Environment Agency, is completed.
This project will look at, among other things, the environmental impacts of unconventional gas exploration and extraction, including identification of regulatory gaps and best environmental practices.
Fracking is a process which involves vertical and horizontal drilling, usually at depth, and the injection of large volumes of fracking fluids at high pressure to create fractures in layers of impermeable rock to release the shale gas contained within.
Fracking uses greater volumes of water than conventional gas drilling and extraction methods. The fracking fluid will often include chemicals and biocidal products (usually between 0.5-2% chemical content). Because the gas cannot be extracted from a single ‘field’, it is necessary to have a number of drilling and fracking operations on-going at well pads over a wide area in order for the gas to be extracted commercially.
Depending on the location of the fracking site, plant, equipment, personnel, water, fuel and other materials need to be delivered by road, rail or pipeline to the site. As a result, fracking has a considerable environmental footprint, both at the well pad and in the surrounding area.
Fracking is viewed as a geopolitical game-changer in the US, slashing domestic gas costs and projecting the US to become a net energy exporter within the next few years. EU countries currently dependent on gas from Russia via Ukraine are looking on with interest.
From an Irish perspective, the most significant potential economic benefit of fracking is security of supply. Even if substantial volumes of shale gas are capable of being commercially exploited, gas prices are unlikely to drop significantly due to market conditions. A domestic supply could however slash our import costs and, like any industrial activity, fracking would certainly create jobs and give the economy a boost.
While shale gas is another fossil fuel that could add to our greenhouse gas emissions, there could be climate benefits if the following two conditions are met: