I thank the Chairman and the committee for the invitation to discuss unconventional gas exploration and extraction. As members will know, the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, is an independent statutory body established in 1993 under the Environmental Protection Agency Act 1992, with a wide range of responsibilities, including regulation of large-scale industrial and waste facilities, monitoring and reporting on the state of the environment, overseeing local authorities' environmental responsibilities, co-ordinating environmental research in Ireland and radiological protection. The main role which the EPA would potentially have in regard to unconventional gas exploration and extraction projects would be its regulatory role though integrated pollution control licensing, whereby a licence would be required for onshore extraction of shale gas on a commercial scale.
The EPA does not have a regulatory role at the exploration stage of these projects but is a statutory consultee with respect to any environmental impact assessment conducted by the Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources in assessing any applications received for exploration licences. The agency on behalf of the Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government and the Northern Ireland Environment Agency commissioned research into the environmental impacts of unconventional gas exploration and extraction, in particular hydraulic fracturing in shale gas.
The research programme is composed of five projects and will involve field studies, including baseline monitoring of water and seismicity as well as an extensive desk-based literature review of unconventional gas exploration and extraction practices worldwide. No fracking will be undertaken as part of the research programme. The five main elements include assessing impacts on surface waters, ground waters and related ecosystems; impacts on seismic activity; impacts on air quality; international operational practice and impact mitigation measures; and regulatory regimes for fracking in different countries.
I will respond to the observations listed in the correspondence from this committee to the EPA dated 4 November 2015. The first question related to the independence of the study. The unconventional gas exploration and extraction joint research programme contract was awarded following a robust evaluation process in full compliance with procurement guidelines. The contract award procedure chosen for this competition was by open procedure. Six tenders were received. The evaluation panel included personnel with the capacity to make informed decisions on the tenders received. I have given details about the evaluation panel in a previous appearance before the committee. The constitution of the evaluation panel was approved by the joint research programme steering committee. The evaluation panel found that the tender led by CDM Smith Ireland provided the best response and a contract was awarded to the consortium led by CDM Smith Ireland Limited in August 2014. This consortium includes commercial consultancies, academics, a geological research institution and a legal firm, each offering a particular specialism required by the project scope, as was detailed in the terms of reference. It is stated as, "The proposed project team is expected to include members who have comprehensive understanding of geology and hydrology as well as an in depth knowledge of a range of legal, environmental, health, socioeconomic and technical issues, as well as knowledge of mineral and fossil fuels (preferably unconventional gas) extraction practices and technologies."
The second question regarded the role of Queen's University. The role of staff from Queen's University, Belfast, QUB, was to contribute to the joint research programme Project A1, which related to groundwater, surface water and associated ecosystems. Specifically, the three researchers in the QUB groundwater group were proposed to work on a number of Project A1 tasks, leading tasks 2 and 7 and supporting other tasks. Additionally, a full-time academic was nominated as part of the consortium's internal technical review team, with an internal review process carried out by the consortium before submission to the steering committee for Project A1. On appointment, QUB informed CDM Smith Ireland Limited that the three researchers would not be able to fulfil their agreed responsibilities on Project A1. Following discussion with and agreement by the unconventional gas exploration and extraction joint research programme steering committee in November 2014, they were replaced internally with British Geological Survey and CDM Smith Ireland staff taking on additional tasks. However, QUB did not withdraw the permanent academic from the consortium's internal technical review team of Project A1. The full-time academic from QUB has since undertaken his review role in full on Project A1, as proposed in the tender, and our understanding is that this was done with the knowledge of the university and not in any independent capacity. The primary contributors to the overall research project in terms of staff resources are CDM Smith Ireland Limited and the British Geological Survey.
The third question was research into health impacts. The key research questions included in the revised terms of reference - I have circulated a reference to members - and they are:
Can unconventional gas exploration and extraction projects/operations be carried out in the island of Ireland whilst also protecting the environment and human health?
What is "best environmental practice" in relation to unconventional gas exploration and extraction projects/operations?
The EPA launched a public consultation on the draft terms of reference in January 2013, which closed in March 2013, with 1,356 submissions received. The EPA and the unconventional gas exploration and extraction joint research programme steering committee reviewed the submissions and the draft terms of reference were amended and strengthened after the public consultation.
Section 4 was added to the revised terms of reference to clarify and clearly define the scope of the proposed research with regard to human health. The wording "human/public health" throughout this tender document refers specifically and is limited to potential health impacts deriving from impacts on environmental media, such as exposure to chemicals, vibration, light and noise, and pollution of environmental media, such as soils, air and water. In addition, the wording "protecting human health" refers and is limited to preventing environmental factors from degrading human health.
The unconventional gas exploration and extraction joint research programme will not incorporate a health impact assessment as this was not part of the terms of reference signed off by the steering committee. However, there is a requirement in the terms of reference to specifically consider the potential role of health impact assessment in the regulation of unconventional gas exploration and extraction projects, based on the experience in other countries and to make recommendations towards developing a protocol in the island of Ireland context. The deliverables relating to task 3, the potential role of health impact assessment in regulation of unconventional gas exploration and extraction projects, will include a consideration of the approaches of other countries regarding health impact assessment to include but not limited to scope, process, timing, how it is used in the planning and permitting process, who carries out and evaluates the assessment, as well as recommendations for a protocol for Ireland regarding the potential role for health impact assessment in the regulation of unconventional gas exploration and extraction projects. The output of this task will form part of final report five.
I have circulated some examples of some specific references to "human health" in the terms of reference. I will not read all of them out but the first is:
Projects A1, A2, A3: Baseline Characterisation
Geology is the science comprising the study of solid Earth, the rocks of which it is composed, and the processes by which it evolves. Hydrogeology is the area of geology that deals with the distribution and movement of groundwater in the soil and rocks of the Earth's crust (commonly in aquifers). A comprehensive understanding of both these topics is a basic requirement in order to make an informed decision in relation to the potential impacts on the environment and human health which unconventional gas exploration and extraction projects/operations may present.
There are a number of other references in the tender that are similar.
The fourth question was on the availability and use of research outputs. The next phase of the research project includes baseline monitoring of seismic and water resources to be completed by a supplementary tender as provided for in the framework contract for the research. The primary purpose of this aspect of the research is to provide a greater understanding of the quality of the water resources and flow regimes and to determine the baseline seismic activity in the study areas. The programme is intended to assist regulators, both North and South, in making informed decisions about unconventional gas exploration and extraction activities and operations. The data obtained during the course of the current research will provide valuable information on the local and regional environment to a variety of stakeholders both North and South. That includes Departments, State agencies, academics, people in the industry and the public.
The intention is that all the final and summary reports, as well as the datasets, will be made publicly available on an online EPA research data archive once the project is complete. In terms of the timeframe, the next phase, the supplementary tender, can only be started once the interim reports for projects A1 and A2, which include tasks relating to the specifications for the baseline monitoring network, have been finalised. It should be noted that the EPA wrote to the funders about confirming the securing of funding for the next phase, and is currently awaiting responses.
The last question from this committee was the intended purpose of the research. The EPA’s position with regard to activities using hydraulic fracturing is in no way predetermined. The EPA is an independent body which makes decisions based on scientific evidence, and it is envisaged that this research will assist with providing such evidence on the risks and environmental impacts of this emerging technology.
As an environmental regulator, the EPA makes decisions on applications for licences and permits for many categories of activity. The primary decision the EPA must make is whether to grant or refuse a licence, and under the EPA Acts the agency is statutorily barred from granting a licence to an activity which would cause significant environmental pollution. The definition of “environmental pollution” in section 4(2) of the Environmental Protection Agency Act includes “the direct or indirect introduction to an environmental medium, as a result of human activity, of substances, heat or noise which may be harmful to human health or the quality of the environment."
This research programme has been designed to produce the scientific basis to assist assessment of the environmental impacts associated with high-volume hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, in Ireland. The programme of research is intended to assist regulators both North and South in making informed decisions about fracking. Ministers in both the Republic and Northern Ireland have publicly stated that the issuance of fracking licences will be dependent on the outcomes of a thorough, independent investigation of potential impacts on the Irish environment. The unconventional gas exploration and extraction joint research programme will not replace, or diminish the need for, any of the statutory processes necessary to seek permission for a fracking licence or development.
In summary, research reports are intended as contributions to the necessary debate on the protection of the environment. The key questions this research needs to answer are whether this technology can be used while also fully protecting the environment and human health, and, if so, what is best environmental practice in using the technology. The question of whether the existing EU environmental regulatory framework is adequate for unconventional fossil fuel projects is also being addressed.
This research project will examine the potential health impacts deriving from impacts on environmental media, such as exposure to chemicals, vibration, light and noise, and pollution of soils, air and water. The project will also examine the mitigation of environmental impacts that have the potential to degrade human health. The research team will review health impact studies worldwide to explore the potential role of health impact assessment in the regulation of unconventional gas exploration and extraction projects or operations based on the experience in other countries, and recommendations will be made towards developing a protocol in the context of the island of Ireland.
In conclusion, this joint research programme aims to inform policymakers and other stakeholders on a range of questions in relation to environmental protection. We will get a series of reports that will help regulators North and South in coming to an informed decision if and when a licensing application is received for unconventional gas exploration and extraction in the coming years. I hope I have provided the committee with a satisfactory response to the five points of the invitation letter, and I am happy to answer any questions the committee members may have for me.