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    Gas Exploration Issues: An Irish Case Study

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At the 2011 Shale Gas Environmental Summit in London, Elizabeth Muldowney, principal consultant at KFV and founder of the Irish Trust National Energy...

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Gas Exploration Issues: An Irish Case Study

At the 2011 Shale Gas Environmental Summit in London, Elizabeth Muldowney, principal consultant at KFV and founder of the Irish Trust National Energy Forum placed into context the shale gas predicament in Ireland.

“65% of Irish power is generated by natural gas, yet 95% of that is imported. So when you come to adding up the Irish portfolio, 80% of our electricity is generated from important fossil fuels and so we are in a very dangerous position from the point of view of security of supply,” she said.

Having said that, Ireland does have indigenous peat, she said. However, this is largely an inefficient energy source although its development does support the employment numbers for a large proportion of the Irish midlands.

“The rest of the Irish energy mix is essentially wind, cold storage and biomass. And as far is nuclear is concerned in Ireland; it is illegal. However it isn’t illegal to import it and we do so through the interconnector with Northern Ireland.”

This will soon to be followed in 2012 with an interconnection to England’s electricity market, with other interconnections being considered as a “saving grace”. Though, there still remains a severe concern about the future of power generation in the country.

Muldowney highlighted a dangerous juxtaposition between Ireland’s requirements for new sources of indigenous power generation and its population’s unwillingness to accept fresh approaches.

“We probably have the best wind in the world on the west coast of Ireland and perhaps have the best ocean energy potential in the world, but we are unable to develop it because of planning issues,” she said.

“A lot of people see wind turbines as a blight on the landscape and therefore there is a big problem with acceptance and there is a big problem with development. There is a massive problem with planning debates and these are issues that have been going on and on.”

The issue of gas development has over the past few years been one of real contention, said Muldowney.

The offshore Corrib field in the west of the country was discovered around 20 years ago and only in October 2011 was a legal settlement arrived upon between the Irish Government, the local community and the environmental NGO.”

As part of the settlement, the Irish Government has agreed to transpose EU environmental law, which means that the new onshore pipeline will have to be re-routed for a third time. The settlement follows a long well publicised battle between Shell EP Ireland and An Taisce - The National Trust for Ireland.

With this in mind, Muldowney suggested that using this as a case in point, the prospect for unconventional gas exploration was admittedly bleak. And in March of 2011, even though applications for license options were invited by the Department of Energy, desk studies only permitted subsurface penetrations that would not exceed 200 metres.

“In April and May, activist, community and environmental individuals and organisations were mobilised and in September of this year there was producer/public consultation,” said Muldowney.

“However a lot of the time that was hijacked by certain elements and so a lot of communities didn’t get a lot of say.”

In Muldowney’s opinion, the problem in Ireland is that too many disparate units - such as regulators and planners - fail to communicate with one another on a regular basis.

“The business sector has never sat down with the environmental sector for example. And the communities have never sat down with regulators. In answer to this, we have established the National Energy Forum in an attempt to make sure that people will sit down around the table and engage in dialogue.”

Although she admitted that the prospect of this may sound unwieldy, Muldowney has courted representatives from each of the associated business sectors – the result of which culminated with 40 people sitting around a table.

“Were the problems all solved and were the challenges overcome? No, of course not. But there was a significant improvement. It is all about building trust by getting to know and listening to each other,” she said.

This, she believes, will separate fact from fiction and by following the lead of the Irish National Energy Forum, the rest of Europe and the UK will be better positioned to progress with a roadmap for shale gas exploration.

Related Reading: Ireland Orders Investigation into Shale Gas Fracking