I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
I thank the Ceann Comhairle for the opportunity to bring this Bill before the House. I am very much aware that many Members have Private Members' Bills and are awaiting an opportunity to move them to Second Stage and on this basis I am privileged and honoured to have the opportunity to do so with my Bill. The Bill, which I have drafted with the aid of a number of local and national organisations, aims to prohibit in domestic law the extraction and exploration of onshore petroleum in this country.
The legislation, if enacted will make it illegal to look for and to extract oil and gas from Ireland’s many different types of rock which are currently deep underground, where oil and gas would usually be extracted by using techniques commonly referred to as fracking. Before I discuss the key contents of the legislation and the reasons I believe it needs to be enacted, I want to highlight briefly the context for it.
Since I was first elected to Dáil Éireann in February 2011, this particular issue has consistently come to my attention as a Member for the Sligo-Leitrim constituency. However, I must remind the House that the process for granting option licences for fracking had begun prior to the election of the Fine Gael-Labour Government in February 2011. The process began back in 2009 and 2010 when the Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources sought applications for onshore licensing options for the Northwest Carboniferous Basin and the Clare Basin. Licensing options give the holders of licences the first right to an exploration licence over all or part of the area covered by the option. Subsequently, in 2011, during his final days in office, the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources awarded licensing options to two companies. They covered an area of approximately 1,500 sq. km in counties Cavan, Donegal, Leitrim, Mayo, Monaghan, Roscommon and Sligo. As these developments occurred before I was elected, my knowledge of them originally was limited. However, local activist groups such as Love Leitrim and Good Energies Alliance Ireland have to their credit consistently raised the issue of fracking with me over the past six years and they have kept me up to date on developments. Over the years, I have assisted these local organisations to the best of my ability as a Deputy, often tabling parliamentary questions and arranging various meetings with relevant Ministers when requested to do so. During the build up to the last general election, I, like every other candidate seeking election in the Sligo-Leitrim constituency, signed a pledge to support legislation which would seek to ban fracking in Ireland. Following the election, when "new politics" emerged, and with a minority Government in place, I believed that there was a great opportunity to develop my own Private Members' Bill on the issue and this has led to this debate.
There is no Government policy on fracking or onshore extraction of oil and gas. The Petroleum and Other Minerals Development Act 1960, Energy (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1995 and other similar legislation contain no details about fracking.
The former Minister, Mr. Pat Rabbitte, decided that no new licenses would be granted until the completion of an all-Ireland scientific study of the process by the EPA. That study was halted in 2016 by my colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy McHugh, when he ordered the EPA to report the findings after phase 1. This meant that, until such time as we had scientific research available that would help the Government to form a policy on fracking, no further action would be approved by the Government.
On this basis, the purpose of this simple Bill is to provide for a clear and unequivocal position on the exploration and extraction of petroleum from shale rock, tight sands and coal seams onshore and in Ireland's inland waterways. The Bill aims to prohibit the issuing of permits to facilitate the extraction of petroleum from shale rock, tight sands and coal seams and the use of any process to increase the permeability of shale rock, tight sands and coal seams for the purpose of extracting petroleum. It prohibits any Minister, agency of the State or body acting on behalf of the State to engage in prospecting or exploration for petroleum from shale rock, tight sands and coal seams, the development of any infrastructure or facility required for such extraction within the State, and the processing or disposal of any fluid or waste used in extraction processes within the State.
The act of extracting petroleum from shale rock, tight sands and coal seams requires a process commonly referred to as unconventional petroleum extraction or unconventional oil and gas extraction. This method involves drilling a well to reach the targeted geological deposit and requires the use of additional processes to increase the permeability of the rock for the purpose of stimulating natural gas or oil well production. This can include, but is not limited to, the process of fracturing rock by man-made, high-pressure, fluid-driven fracturing techniques, including hydraulic fracturing. Fluids used in this process may include water or a fluid combined with chemicals and-or sand that is pumped into the well. A percentage of the fluid, and any petroleum, is then drawn out of the well through the overlying geological deposits and groundwater. Therefore, the Bill does not seek simply to ban the process of fracking, but to ban the act of taking oil and gas out of the ground where usually fracking would be needed.
This is the key point of the Bill and is where my Bill differs from other similar Bills offered by other Deputies on the issue. It takes this approach because I am advised by experts, such as Ms Kate Ruddock from Friends of the Earth, that the technologies associated with the fracking industry are constantly changing and advancing as more research is conducted. Therefore, any legislation aimed only at the technology would become out-dated in a short period. It would also be open to abuse by companies that could simply change their processes of extraction.
The House might be wondering why the legislation that I am proposing is necessary or why I am advocating for the banning of fracking. The Department granted licences for shale gas exploration. If the companies are permitted to go ahead with gas production, fracking could occur in counties Sligo, Leitrim, Roscommon, Donegal, Cavan, Monaghan and Clare. This makes it a serious public health and environmental concern for tens of thousands of people in the Republic, people who may not even know that these licenses are currently in place. Therefore, I must highlight the fact that there are a number of serious risks associated with these unconventional methods of exploration and extraction. They include the risks of environmental pollution and damage, risks to our public health and the greater effects that fracking could have on our climate.
On this basis, the Bill is proposed in the context of Ireland's ongoing and significant failures in respect of the EU's Water Framework Directive, Article 4.1 of which requires that member states shall "implement the necessary measures to prevent deterioration of the status of all bodies of surface water" and "protect, enhance and restore all bodies of surface water [and groundwater] ... with the aim of achieving good surface water [and groundwater] status at the latest 15 years after the date of entry into force of this Directive". With 47% of Irish rivers and 57% of Irish lakes failing to meet good ecological status, Ireland failed to comply with this directive by the deadline of 22 December 2015.
The process of extracting petroleum from shale rock risks contaminating groundwater with polluting fluids that, when pumped into the ground, are uncontained and free to flow. This risks contaminating overlying groundwater with petroleum that, once released, may travel unconstrained to overlying geological layers. Further contamination of water and land can occur through leaks or accidents associated with the well or the storage and disposal of waste fluids. There are additional chemical contamination risks posed by the transportation of chemicals to drilling sites and the storage of high volumes of fluids that are produced through the drilling process.
These points are further supported in the recently published Sustainable Water Network, SWAN, Ireland report, which found that there was a substantial risk to our lakes and rivers from fracking, there was limited capacity to regulate this risk, and fracking for shale gas was incompatible with good water quality. It recommended prohibition of fracking in Ireland.
This Bill is proposed in the context of the December 2015 UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, UNFCCC, which established an ambition to reduce global warming and hold the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2o Celsius above pre-industrial levels. The Bill is also proposed in the context of the Climate Action and Low Carbon Development Act 2015, which I supported and contributed to on Second Stage in this Chamber. It aims to achieve a low-carbon climate and environmentally sustainable economy.
The use of hydrocarbons for heating or electrical purposes contributes greenhouse gases to the atmosphere, which leads to increased global warming and will increase Ireland's carbon emissions. Analysis by the EPA suggests that Ireland will not reach its EU 2020 emissions reductions targets. The continued use of hydrocarbons obtained via fracking would make it even more difficult to reduce emissions in the energy sector. Extracting gas or oil from Ireland's onshore unconventional reserves is directly in conflict with this position.
I welcome the recent action by the Minister, Deputy Naughten, in the Oireachtas that has begun the process of Ireland's ratification of the UN Paris Agreement on Climate Change. Among its many measures aimed at combating climate change, the agreement requires Ireland to produce a plan to reduce emissions by at least 40% by 2030 compared with 1990 levels. It would run contrary to the goals of the Paris Agreement were this Bill not allowed to pass and, as such, would call into question Ireland's commitment to tackling climate change.
My final concern is the potential damage of fracking to public health. Research is continually proving that significant long-term human health impacts are associated with this process. In an interview in The Irish Times in May 2016, Dr. Paula Gilvarry of the organisation Concerned Health Professionals of Ireland stated that the evidence was "extremely strong" that fracking affected human health. She has stated that rashes, sore ears and runny noses, along with respiratory illnesses in children with asthma, have been proven to have been caused by fracking. She has also stated that chemicals in water can cause leukaemia.
I am further advised that there are more than 500 peer reviewed studies that suggest a link between the gas extraction process and poor human health. This scientific and academic knowledge with regard to public health must be taken on board and considered by the Government. It is disappointing that no public health element was considered in the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, research study.
This is my Bill. I have set out the reasons for my bringing it before the House. Like many others, I am very concerned about the damage and harm this process could cause in Ireland. I want to see action taken to stop it occurring. I look forward to hearing the contributions of Members to this debate.