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Issue No. 84 - July 15, 2016

1. Fracking is not just an onshore problem

Fracking is not just an onshore problem
Truthout, a US independent media NPO, published a report based on documents it obtained under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), which revealed that "Hydraulic fracturing (or "fracking") technology has been widely used to maximize oil-and-gas production in the Gulf of Mexico in recent years, and the government allows offshore drillers to dump fracking chemicals mixed with wastewater directly into the Gulf".

The documents reveal that in the years from 2010 to 2014, the Obama administration approved more than 1,500 permit applications for offshore drilling plans that included fracking, at hundreds of wells across the Gulf of Mexico. As all of the requested documents have not yet been released, the scope of offshore fracking in the Gulf of Mexico is likely to be larger.

The Truthout investigation reveals that even as the Deepwater Horizon oil spill disaster unfolded in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, government regulators approved several drilling plans involving fracking in the Gulf.

Desmogblog, one of the first online publications to pick up on the story, highlighted the fact that it was being entirely ignored by the mainstream media. This continues to be the case.

The Center for Biological Diversity (CBD), which joined with Truthout to make the FOIA request, published a report in September 2014 examining the potential dangers associated with offshore fracking, after the revelation that more than 200 offshore wells had been fracked along the southern coast of California.

The CBD report analyzed the following dangers associated with offshore fracking:
  • Toxic fracking chemicals' threats to marine life
  • Health risks to coastal communities and climate damage caused by hazardous air pollutants
  • Increased earthquake risk
  • Unique environmental concerns related to unusually shallow fracking in California, with higher concentrations of chemicals.
The report concludes that "Offshore fracking and similar methods of oil extraction are inherently dangerous, posing unacceptable risks to our fragile marine ecosystem, the health of coastal communities, our climate, and California’s infrastructure through increased earthquake risk."

In March 2015, the Environmental Defense Center (EDC) published an in-depth report on offshore fracking in California, which included a number of recommendations to regulators intended to prevent offshore environmental disasters. These recommendations include a moratorium on offshore fracking "unless and until such technologies are proven safe through a public and transparent comprehensive scientific review" and a formal evaluation of offshore fracking and other forms of well stimulation through a Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement.

On January 29, 2016, the EDC announced the results of a settlement agreement requiring federal agencies to conduct a "comprehensive environmental review of oil drilling permits authorizing the use of well stimulation, including acidizing and hydraulic fracturing ("fracking"), from oil platforms of California's coast."

In Ireland, according to the website of the Department of Communications, Energy, and Natural Resources (DCENR), "No decisions will be made on any proposal for the use of hydraulic fracturing in exploration drilling as part of an unconventional gas exploration programme" until the findings of its UGEE research programme have been considered. "Any proposal" would suggest that this covers offshore and onshore fracking. Details of Ireland's petroleum licensing are available on the DCENR site here. The Licensing Terms for Offshore Oil and Gas Exploration, Development and Production 2007 does not mention fracking or other well stimulation techniques. The 2012 report on the potential environmental impacts of hydraulic fracturing, commissioned by the Irish Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), notes (page 18): "There is no evidence to suggest that fracking in offshore wells is prohibited anywhere."

2. Possible implications of Brexit on UK and EU fracking policy

Prior to the Brexit referendum vote, Greenpeace published on June 21 a report entitled How Brexit could make it easier to frack in the UK, which found that if the UK voted to leave the EU, "almost all of the UK's environmental regulations on fracking could be removed" and that "Brexit could lead to moves that would fast-track fracking across the country."

Noting that most EU rules derive from 15 European Directives, the report found that the UK parliament would be able to amend or undo them in the event of a Brexit. The EU regulations that could be undone include those on water use and contamination, the safe use of chemicals, air pollution, noise, climate change, biodiversity, and environmental liability.

The report notes that the British government has opposed the setting of EU rules for fracking, and succeeded in 2014 in blocking a proposed law that would have required specific environmental impact assessments (EIAs) for shale gas projects.

While outgoing Prime Minister David Cameron has been an outspoken advocate of fracking in the UK, the report notes that fracking also has strong support on the winning Leave side, including Andrea Leadsom, the newly-appointed Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Secretary. Leadsom is described by Greenpeace as a "fierce fracking advocate", a characterisation supported by this article in which she is interviewed on fracking, and which describes her as being "almost evangelical" on the subject. The views of Greg Clark, the new Business and Energy Secretary, on hydraulic fracturing are outlined here by

The position of Theresa May, the new Prime Minister, is less clear. A Greenpeace summary of the Conservative Party leadership battle, published July 6, indicates that "May has been largely silent on the issue of climate change since becoming an MP", while her environmental voting record "mirrors that of her party". She was absent for a vote on allowing fracking in national parks, which prominent Leave campaigners Michael Gove and Ian Duncan Smith voted for.

A report published in April 2016 by the Centre for European Reform (CER) notes that while the UK has been a leader on climate change issues as a member of the EU, it has opposed attempts to regulate fracking, notably in 2014 and 2015, along with countries such as Poland. This report comments that "France and others who oppose fracking might use Brexit as an opportunity to try and get EU level restrictions in place."

On July 14, Energy Voice reported that industry body Oil & Gas UK "welcomed the appointment of Theresa May as Prime Minister" and called for the abolition of the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC). The same day, The Independent reported that the DECC had been abolished.

3. Sea ice levels falling at record rate

Arctic Sea Ice Extent June 1979-2016

The Guardian reported on July 7 that from mid-June, Arctic sea ice cover disappeared at an average of 74,000 sq km per day, about 70% faster than the typical rate of ice loss for the season. Overall, the Arctic sea ice extent was 260,000 sq km lower than the previous June record, set in 2010. The data is from the U.S. National Snow and Ice Data Center.

As reflective white ice cover melts in the polar regions, more dark, absorptive, ocean water is exposed to solar heat, which warms the water, raising air temperatures, and melting the ice further. This process reinforces the warming process, in what is known as a "climate change feedback loop".

The record sea ice loss in June followed that of May, which also set a new record, at half a million sq km less than the previous record of May 2012.

This Greenpeace report explains the likely effects that the loss of sea ice is likely to have on the global climate system. These effects include changes in oceanic circulation patterns and in global atmospheric circulation, in addition to reinforcing global warming through an unstoppable feedback mechanism known as the albedo effect.

Among the weather changes predicted by the report are hotter summers in the US and Canada, colder winters, wetter summers in northern Europe, and droughts in North America and East Asia. The report notes that due to rapid changes in conditions in the Arctic and the rest of the world, extreme weather events are more likely to occur. Greenpeace calls for the establishment of an Arctic Sanctuary, "a highly protected area prohibiting all extractive industries in the international waters around the North Pole beyond the Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs)", as well as "clear rules to prevent oil drilling in icy Arctic waters".

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