Is this a fracking issue?

Image of exploration well

The short and somewhat cryptic answer is yes and no. Or rather, no and yes.

Rathlin Energy Limited are at pains to point out that that this exploratory borehole is to be conventionally drilled. And to be fair nobody doubts this. But it is important to look at the license granted by DETI to Rathlin Energy Limited in more detail to understand what Rathlin Energy Limited are tasked with and what the implications of their findings will be.

The Petroleum license, PL3/10 (Rathlin basin), signed on 15 February 2011 by  Rathlin Energy Limited and DETI, compels Rathlin Energy Limited “to search and bore and get petroleum”. The extraction method, whether conventional or unconventional, is not specified.

The Works Programme of Petroleum license, PL3/10 (Rathlin Basin), sets out that, in Year Three, Rathlin Energy must, “Drill a well to a minimum of 2700 metres depth, or to penetrate the Visean (Ballycastle Group or equivalent) or older strata, whichever is reached first, subject to obtaining all necessary permissions”.

In Year Four the Works Programme states that Rathlin Energy Limited must, “Complete, as necessary, the drilling and well testing programme and seismic data acquisition, and make full evaluation of data.” And, “Depending on results from well and seismic, develop further programme of exploration and development”.

In other words, Rathlin Energy must drill down to, explore, test and evaluate the strata containing Deltaic sandstone, Limestone, Sand, Sandstone, and Shale to “search and bore and get petroleum”.

Now, here’s a simple question, “How will this oil and gas then be extracted?”

On their website, the Geological Society explains, “In ‘conventional’ hydrocarbon reservoirs, oil and gas have migrated from where they were formed, upwards through permeable rock such as sandstone, to become trapped beneath an impermeable bounding layer. When gas is instead formed in impermeable shale and cannot migrate, it is trapped within the shale both as adsorbed molecules on grain surfaces and as free gas. Because shale is not permeable enough to allow the gas to flow to a well bore (as is the case for ‘conventional’ gas extraction), shale gas is extracted by other means, and is referred to as an ‘unconventional’ resource.”

As we understand it the only unconventional method of extracting such resources being considered in Northern Ireland is hydraulic fracturing – fracking. Rathlin Energy Limited state that this current proposal, E/2013/0093/F, is not for unconventional drilling, however they are equally clear and have equally stated publicly on record that they refuse to rule out the use of hydraulic fracturing at the same site should they so decide it necessary at a later stage in the getting of petroleum.

The Northern Ireland Assembly published a research document in March 2012 entitled, “Onshore hydrocarbon exploration on the Island of Ireland.” The document identified the four companies who have been awarded licences in Northern Ireland. These are; Infrastrata plc. and eCORP Oil & Gas UK Ltd; Tamboran Resources Pty Limited; Rathlin Energy Limited; and P.R. Singleton Ltd. The report states, “Of the four licences, only Tamboran’s refers to the process of hydraulic fracturing. The company is also the only one that has explicitly stated that hydraulic fracturing is a method under consideration.”

The document further qualifies, “Rathlin Energy UK Limited’s publicly available information on the exploration of the Rathlin Basin does not indicate that they intend to use hydraulic fracture in the area.” It also notes, “Rathlin Energy UK Limited’s parent company Connaught Oil and Gas’ mission statement, however, reads: Our mission is to maximize value creation for our shareholders through the identification, capture and development of a portfolio of conventional and unconventional exploration projects. (Emphasis added)”.

Fracking is a controversial process and has attracted significant criticism, especially from environmentalists. It has been argued that risks can be minimised with robust regulation. This view has been supported by the Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering. The controversies in the US have been put down to poor regulation and the hope is that the United Kingdom will utilise much tighter controls over the industry. It might be worth an investigation to discover if there is any merit to this assumption.

Also, just because unconventional methods of extraction are undesirable in green circles, it doesn’t follow that conventional methods are therefore desirable. Similar risks and dangers exist in normal oil and gas drilling – the chemicals, flaring, noise air and water pollution. The Good Energies Alliance Ireland explain that, “exploratory drilling can include drilling a mile or more deep, using drilling additives, and producing drilling waste that can include heavy metals, radioactive substances and VOCs – volatile organic compounds. As well as construction of drilling pads and access roads, erection of drilling rigs, much increased traffic and noise and light disturbance”.

It could be argued that conventional drilling is the lesser of two evils. In the context of the north coast, it is our belief that there is no benefit or positive outcome in commercial onshore oil and gas extraction of any description. And as this website illustrates, there are plenty of reasons why it will be detrimental to our local communities, landscapes and environments.

In summary, the initial exploratory activity will employ conventional drilling methods. But one of the intended outcomes of the license is the exploration of the shale layer to find viable resources to extract. Which in turn implies that fracking is an intended outcome of this exploration – how else can this extraction be achieved?

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