On the 20th of April 2010, the Deepwater Horizon oil rig blew out in the Gulf of Mexico, killing eleven men instantly, then destroying 600 miles of coastline. On 9 September 2010, a natural gas pipeline exploded in San Bruno, California, burning eight to death, one of several recent pipeline explosions in the USA. In 1992, in Chicago, a gas pipe leaked and 18 houses exploded, incinerating three people.
What do these deaths have to do with plans for “fracking” for natural gas in Ireland?
Everything. It was my job to investigate these three explosions, the Deepwater Horizon and California explosions as a reporter for the UK Channel 4’s Dispatches, the earliest as a US government investigator. In all three cases, the deaths were preceded by the same reassurances about the safety of drilling and piping that I read now in the debate about fracking in Ireland.
First, the Deepwater Horizon. Eleven men died when the ‘mud’ – drilling cement meant to cap the wellhead – failed and methane gas blew out the top of the pipes and exploded. The Shannon Basin is not the Gulf of Mexico, but your safety will be just as dependent on Halliburton’s mud.
Can we trust Halliburton’s reassurances? The owners of the Deepwater Horizon have told a US court that they’ve discovered that Halliburton hid critical information that the well cement could fail. Halliburton denies the cover-up. But cover-up or not, the cement failed as it has several times recently in the US in wells drilled for fracking. In all cases, including the contamination of water supplies in Pennsylvania (where some residents could set their tap water alight with a match), drilling was preceded by mollifying studies indicating that all was safe. But they failed to see all the looming dangers.
In Ireland, you haven’t even done the studies. The University of Aberdeen study for the Irish Environmental Protection Agency has been played as some kind of endorsement for charging ahead with fracking in Ireland – but this is not the case if you actually read the study. The University study is, in fact, a long series of warnings that proposed drilling methods, the local geology and the potential impacts on water quality all require studies not even begun. It also points to the necessity of creating a regulatory system not now in place which can cope with watching thousands of explosive, toxic well-sites.
The Shannon river basin is a truly eyebrow-raising place to blindly drill thousands of wells. It’s located in proximity to one of Ireland’s few major aquifers (your drinking water supply) and the drilling will be relatively shallow. Where I live in the State of New York, the government, though a major booster of fracking, has banned the fracking of shallow shale deposits and banned the process from all locations near our aquifers. The US experience is not comforting.
Horizontal fracking (as proposed for Irish deposits) requires explosive charges to be fired along miles of pipe underground (and under houses and water supplies) followed by the pumping of fluids at high pressure through these pipes. The result has been man-made earthquakes. Buildings don’t fall down, but cracks bring hydrocarbon poisons into the aquifers. In the vast uninhabited wastes of the American Dakotas, we simply abandon water systems. Where in Ireland can you do that?
And then there are the pipelines. The fracked gas doesn’t get to market by carrier pigeon. Ireland has had virtually no discussion of the difficulties, danger and cost of running hundreds, and ultimately, thousands of miles of gathering pipes. I’ve been investigating the horror of pipeline explosions for three decades now and the problem is exponentially worsened by the new web of lines created by fracking. Highly explosive transport systems require an elaborate system of on-site government regulation which Ireland does not have and cannot now afford. And it’s simply too easy for the PIGs to cheat.
A PIG is a Pipeline Inspection Gauge, a robot that looks like a mechanical porker with wire whiskers that crawls through pipes hunting for corrosion, cracks, leaks and trouble. When the PIG ’squeals’, the pipes must be dug up and replaced. And that’s frightfully expensive.
It especially frightens the executives who have to pay for pipe replacement. So, what I’ve found and reported is that the providers of software and its users are aware that the PIGs’ diagnostic computer code, which converts the squeals of the PIG into warnings, has flaws which understate dangers. And the results have been horribly predictable: Despite the reassuring noises from the PIGs, pipes have leaked, polluted, exploded and killed.
Is there a safe way to frack? Probably: but not profitably; and certainly not within the geology of a little emerald isle. I am weary of appearing at scenes of death and destruction when cement fails, pipes crack and tremors spew poisons only to hear a gas or oil company executive’s PR flack issue an apology. I doubt those apologies will sound better in Gaelic.