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Column Ireland can't replicate the US shale gas boom – and it shouldn't try

Ireland would like to replicate the US shale gas boom but geography, history, and lack of energy infrastructure will prevent this – and the risks to the economy might not be worth the benefit from any gas produced, writes John O’Donnell.

IT’S BEEN A cold, snowy winter so far in Frackville*, Pennsylvania. Many of the long-term unemployed have been cut off from their benefits by Congress and there are few job prospects in the area. With less money for bills, it’s a good thing the price of gas has been tumbling to all-time lows. Manufacturing in the area, declining for decades, has begun picking up, albeit slowly.

It’s the sort of fill-up that would do wonders for rural, particularly Western, Ireland. At least that’s the theory. Fracking might lower the cost of gas bills for families, boosting spending on other goods and help rebuild the economy. Big building on infrastructure, pipelines, and the fracking wells themselves would see workers hired that were laid off in the construction bust. It seems like a pretty good match, even if a bit imperfect. The West needs a boost and this could only help. Right?

The facts in the ground

However the energy future in Western Ireland is less promising than advertised and much less promising than the current boom in the US. Legacy infrastructure in the US, such as useable and reversible pipelines, allows gas in the US to be moved quickly and cheaply from fracking regions to population and refining centres. This infrastructure will largely have to be built from scratch in Western Ireland. In Pennsylvania, with a large and robust energy industry, the pipelines, for a standard 24-inch natural gas transmission line, can cost between $2,400,000 and $5,000,000 per mile (€1,750,000 – €3,650,000). In Ireland, where these would have to be imported, the costs would be higher. Much of the actual fracking would have to be done by specialists likely brought in from the US, at least initially, so it would not help bring down the unemployment from the construction bust.

The Marcellus and Bakken shale formations are massive, each several times larger than Ireland itself. The size of these formations can sustain a fossil fuel industry and draw in enough firms to see real economies of scale to lower costs. Geologists can find ideal locations and the areas are large enough that suitable locations can be found away from more sensitive populations. The Claire and Lough Allen basins are comparatively tiny, which will drive up costs and shrink any benefits from fracking. Yet the environmental risks and costs would be on par with the larger formations and also impossible to move away from concerned communities.

While still rural, the West is still more densely populated than Pennsylvania, let alone barren North Dakota. The areas where fracking takes place are sparse or depopulated, often with a great deal of land between fracking sites and large residential communities. Hence, it is more popular in North Dakota than comparatively more populated Pennsylvania. Given the small size of the shale beds in Ireland and the larger resident and tourist communities, conflicts between people and fracking are virtually assured, without considering the possible risk to the tourist industry on the West Coast.

An energy model to avoid

Turf-cutting aside, the West of Ireland has never had been the large-scale energy producer; Pennsylvania was and continues to be. One of the original 13 US states, Pennsylvania has always been the boiler room the US. First the forests of “Penn’s woods” were chopped down for early fuel and construction. The industrial revolution in the US opened the great coal fields of Western Pennsylvania to exploitation. The age of oil started there as well, the first commercial oilfield in the US was drilled in Titusville, PA. Pennsylvania moved forward as well into the nuclear age until the Three Mile Island accident in Harrisburg, the state capital.

However, whereas the West from Cork to Donegal earns a great deal of tourist dollars, euros and pounds from its natural beauty and its farms, tourists to Pennsylvania stay away from its old coal mines and oil fields. Pennsylvania’s energy past has left a trail of environmental degradation that the fracking industry now contributes to. The news is full of stories about PA families who can now set their tap water on fire from gas coming up from the ground. Tourists would probably stay away from bed & breakfasts in Clare, Sligo or Leitrim if the same fracking problems reoccur. New studies from the US Natural Academy of Sciences confirm that fracking leads to just this sort of hydrocarbon build up in surface level water sources and aquifers around fracking wells and would likely occur here in Ireland as a result.

Water pollution risks

Further, fracking fluids, even when reused to maximum efficiency, will bring contaminants back to the surface along with the often-carcinogenic fracking fluids. The proper disposal of these fluids at the surface will require the costly upgrading of wastewater management facilities. Even then, in the best-case scenarios and using industry best practice, levels of contaminants linked to fracking have been found well over legal limits in streams near disposal plants. Retention ponds, full of fracking fluids can also overflow due to heavy rains, further damaging the same environment, which draws in all those international tourists.

Well failures and explosions, though mercifully rare, still occur. It is hard to imagine many residents enthusiastically embracing fracking after a well explodes near them. These events do occur in Marcellus shale fracking. Recently, after a major explosion near Pittsburgh, PA, Chevron, the company in charge of the well, gave out gift cards for free pizza to those affected in the area. The pizza has been the only benefit many of the residents of seen at all from fracking in their area although they are the ones running the higher risks associated with water pollution. Free pizza will not draw in tourists.

The elephant in the room

While gas and, by extension fracking, is seen as less carbon intensive than coal, this only takes into account the final emissions from power plants or other end-user emissions. Methane and other hydrocarbon leaks from ground water, mismanagement, or well explosions remain obviously unmetered and unmeasured. This is important because methane and other hydrocarbons are much more potent greenhouse gases than carbon dioxide. To what extent these gases coming out of the ground offset any reductions in CO2 from power plants or cars emissions remains unknown. The true damage can only be estimated, but given the potency of these gases, it could make gas from fracking more problematic for climate change than coal. While this gas could help Ireland meet its official CO2 emission targets, the true fact is that it would not cover the country’s real contribution to climate change.

Fracking therefore presents several major risks with large potential costs, including the building of a new energy infrastructure and possible environmental clean-up costs. Both the financial and environmental benefits are much lower than advertised and will not lead to the same jobs or economic benefits as seen in the States. The 100s of millions of euro needed for the infrastructure costs or to be set aside for potential environmental damages would be better put to use in increasing the insulation and environmental standards of current buildings, which would decrease gas usage and save consumers money on their energy bills.

Construction and renovation

This investment would also perk up the renovation industry and the main workers in renovation are the same as in construction. This would cost less than the fracking infrastructure and does not carry any of the same risks. It could also help many ordinary Irish people throughout the country as many of the buildings thrown up quickly during the housing boom were built with sub-standard insulation and waste tons of money on heating every winter.

Neither solution fully addresses the economic slowdown and continued recession in the West of Ireland. The West still needs help and has been hit by a loss in of jobs in the construction sector as well as tourist slowdowns from 2009–2011. However, a fracking quick fix will not address the economic and unemployment problems and could kill the tourist industry before it fully rebounds. Any plan for improving the economy in the West needs to bear this in mind.

* Frackville is a real town in Pennsylvania, but more known for the coal industry rather than natural gas.

John O’Donnell is a recent MSc. International Politics student from Trinity College, Dublin. He lives in Dublin and focuses on US-EU relations.

Read: Leitrim county councillors vote to ban fracking

Read: Pros and cons of fracking in Ireland to be examined by two-year research study

Read: Just four commercial gas discoveries since the 70s but minister remains positive

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