Why are they planning to create an LNG facility in the Port of Cork – a development which is opposed by activists along the Rio Grande and in Ireland alike?

Fracking is a controversial way of extracting natural gas from beneath the earth’s surface. Already proven to have triggered earthquakes, and with a potential to cause numerous other forms of ecological damage, it has been banned in Ireland. So why are they planning to create an LNG facility in the Port of Cork – a development which is opposed by activists along the Rio Grande and in Ireland alike

An array of quiet, semi-tropical cities are dotted along the Rio Grande Valley, as it winds its way across the edge of the vast expanse of South-West Texas.

At the lowest tip of the United States, on the historically disputed border with Mexico, and nestled beside the blue waters of the Gulf of Mexico, is Brownsville, a city of close to 200,000 inhabitants. The town is enriched with Hispanic mores and famous for its sweltering springs and summers.

Already the quickening heat is draining the Rio Grande itself. But another environmental concern presents an even more immediate, visceral threat to the communities living along the river. And its influence has spread across the Atlantic, to the city beside the River Lee in Ireland.

Largely under the radar, a plan has been hatched to import fracked gas from Brownsville to the Port of Cork. And an unusual alliance has formed in opposition…

The Irish connection began in 2017, when the Port of Cork signed a Memorandum of Understanding with an American company called NextDecade, to develop LNG-receiving infrastructure in the harbour.

Texas and Louisiana are two of the biggest LNG shipping hubs in the world, exporting natural gas to global markets. The global market for LNG is booming: people need energy to fuel the growth on which the world has long been fixated. And to satisfy the demand, gas companies now derive a significant proportion of their product through hydraulic fracturing methods – best known as fracking. Since the 1940s, around one million American wells have been fracked for natural gas. That number is growing.

Fracking is a controversial process, especially in Europe. But demand for gas is high. In the United Kingdom, where eco-friendly policies, including carbon pricing, aim to phase out coal by 2025, the gas market is thriving. In Germany, dormant gas-fired power plants have been returned to service.

In the Republic of Ireland, a ban on fracking came into effect two years ago. However, in many ways, this eco-friendly gesture has been rendered meaningless. To fulfil Ireland’s growing energy needs, the Government has supported proposed LNG projects in Shannon and Cork. It is a move which has led, not unreasonably, to accusations of outright hypocrisy.

Why is fracking so contentious? Many sandstones and shales, far below the earth, contain natural gas, accumulated through the decomposition of dead organisms in the rocks. Fracking is a process used to extract that gas by drilling into rocks and injecting pressurised water, sand and various chemicals to force it out, inevitably disturbing a terrestrial netherworld. The gas can be captured and used as a source of energy – but there are consequences, the scale of which are, almost by definition, unknowable.

Chemicals are added to the pressurised water. They are meant to kill the bacteria and dissolve minerals beneath the earth. The formula, known as the “fracking cocktail”, often includes the use of acids, detergents and poisons. No one knows for sure where this toxic liquid goes, but it is self-evident that there is a risk that these poisons will find their way into the environment, polluting drinking water reservoirs and killing wildlife.

Ever-increasing technological capabilities have added to the concerns, making the process more complicated and harsher on the environment.