On 17 April, 2013, I attended the Information Session on Fracking at the Royal Irish Academy. The Academy hosted this discussion in order to place scientific facts on the record in a measured manner. Speakers at this meeting included, Professor Shannon, Geosciences Committee, Professor Richard Davies University of Durham, Professor Padraic O’ Donoghue, Chair Engineering Sciences Committee, Dr. Rob Ward, British Geological Survey and Dr. Gareth Ll Jones, Institute of Geologists of Ireland and Conodate.
I spoke at the information session and provided an update on Ireland’s current position with regard to fracking in terms of the award of Licensing Options over parts of the Lough Allen and Clare Basins, advising that such Licensing Options are designed to allow companies assess the natural gas potential of the area; that they are largely based on desktop studies of existing data from previous petroleum exploration activity and that any drilling activities that would involve hydraulic fracturing are excluded under these Options. I confirmed that since those Options were granted, my Department has not approved any application for, nor licensed the use of, hydraulic fracturing in the Irish onshore.
I acknowledged in my address that there is a considerable and genuine concern about the potential environmental and health considerations related to this activity and that the nature of the debate so far has tended to exacerbate these concerns and I welcomed input from the Academy because whatever decisions are taken must be based on transparent assessments of solid evidence. For this reason in October 2011 I asked the EPA to examine the whole issue of fracking and its potential environmental implications. I have commissioned the EPA to undertake a broadly-based study, in order to identify best practice in respect of environmental protection for the use of hydraulic fracturing techniques. The terms of reference for this research have gone out to public consultation, and have elicited a large response. It is anticipated that this research will commence in the second half of this year. The conduct of the study is expected to take at least 12 months, and I confirmed that any applications for exploration licences proposing the use of hydraulic fracking that may be received in the interim will be put on hold, pending publication of this important research.
In the context of my address, I also briefly discussed the global economic perspective to the unconventional oil and gas phenomenon, including the US boom in unconventional fossil fuels which has, in the main, been supported by populations already accustomed to onshore oil and gas production, favourable fiscal regimes, financial interest of land owners in oil and gas production on their property, and the already existing infrastructure in the form of pipelines and service industries.
It is recognised that the advent of unconventional oil and gas has been a 'game-changer' on the US energy market with global repercussions, but is also playing a significant role in economic development in the US. As the EU is likely to remain a "higher" energy cost region in the future, it is unavoidable that we consider the impacts that unconventional oil and gas production will have on security of supply, energy prices and competitiveness. At the end of April as President of the EU Council, I hosted an informal meeting of the EU's Energy Ministers. Several EU member states are weighing the benefits and risks of exploiting shale gas reserves and this meeting afforded an opportunity to compare notes on this issue for the first time.
It will be the end of 2014 before Ireland completes a rigorous interrogation of the geological and ground water data, impacts and mitigating measures and regulatory issues to inform the policy options here and I can confirm that scientific analysis will inform any actions that might be contemplated in Ireland thereafter.