The integrity of the Shannon would be secured into the future if Ireland was to follow the German lead in relation to the controversial mining practice of fracking, it was revealed this week.
Green politician, and ecological advisor to the German government Helmut Fehr made this suggestion in the Hodson Bay Hotel this week, as the keynote speaker on the practice of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking as it has been abbreviated in the USA.
Fracking has come to the fore in recent months when it became the favoured option of the Australian-owned Tamboran mining company to release the shale gases from beneath the Leitrim/Fermanagh border.
In line with State policy to reduce Ireland’s dependency on foreign energy sources (currently at 91 per cent, with two thirds of this being oil ), the discovery of these significant, if disputed levels of the gas was initially greeted positively at Government level.
Because of the high price of crude oil, mining companies are now looking at natural gas trapped in shale rock as a viable resource, despite its elevated extraction costs, initiated by pumping large quantities of water into fissures between the rock, thereby releasing the gas by fracturing the rock with large hydraulic pressure.
In 2000, shale beds provided just 1 per cent of America’s natural gas supply, but this has increased to just under 25 per cent today.
However, when stories began emerging from some states in the USA where the poorly regulated usage of this method led to the widespread pollution of groundwater sources, residents along the Shannon became concerned because of the proximity of this potential resource to its headwaters.
At the lecture in the Hodson Bay this week, Herr Fehr explained that though German policy tended to favour the mining industry because of its enormous importance in such a resource-rich nation, mining legislation in Germany went back to the mid-19th century, and as such, was leading the way in the EU for the proper regulation of this relatively new, if untested process.
With 30 years experience in ecology and politics, he said he saw “the same [concerns] in Germany 15 years ago” but that “now rural businesses know you can make money with alternative energy”.
He cited Saerbeck, a “village” of 10,000 people, that is completely energy self-reliant with just six windmills.
He pointed out the EU policy favoured the promotion of fracking to reduce energy dependence by between 5 and 20 per cent for the next few decades, but that “energy resources will cost more and more, it’s just a matter of time”.
Herr Fehr believes the Environment Protection Agency should have the last word on whether fracking goes ahead, and that its German counterpart was due to release a comprehensive report on the issue in November.
“For now I can only recommend no further fracking while there are at least dozens of questions to be answered. There are gaps in the knowledge, and there are gaps in the legislation because the industry is so new,” he said.
“The industry says there is no problem because mining law is bigger than the Constitution. This is the predominant expression in legal circles. It was tradition, and nobody cared until now,” he explained.
“They [the industry] simply believe their technology is safe, but best practice is to advise prudence until further studies are complete,” said Herr Fehr.
He referred to his nation’s primary waterway - the Rhine - and how polluted it had got over years of heavy industry exploiting it: “But, now you can occasionally get an eel”.