Familiar with fracking? That super-safe (and fun!) method of producing magic energy by pumping tasty drinks into the ground? Ok, fair enough, we’re only messing! Thankfully there are many in Ireland who aren’t messing when it comes to resisting the faceless frackers. Jamie Goldrick investigates.
Sligo, Donegal, Leitrim, Roscommon, Fermanagh, Cavan, Clare and Kerry County Councils have all passed motions calling for county wide bans on fracking, following big campaigns on the ground.
Eamonn Crudden of the No Fracking Ireland Network explains:
“It was slow growing in terms of support at the start, as [the] issue was associated with ‘germans, hippies, UK blow-ins,’ but it has widened to include farming community, people involved in tourism etc.”
This story has been unfolding ever since Fianna Fail’s Conor Lenihan, the then Minister for Natural Resources, awarded commercial gas exploration licenses to Tamboran Resources for the Lough Allen Basin and Energi Inc. for the Clare Basin in February 2011.
In Northern Ireland, also in February 2011, the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment granted an exploration license to Rathlin Energy Limited to explore the Rathlin Basin. Further licenses were also awarded to Tamboran Resources to explore the Northern Irish portion of the Lough Allen Basin.
How exactly is fracking done? Water. Lots of it. Anywhere between 10 – 30 million litres, combined with sand and a “top secret / trade protected” fracking fluid, is injected into the ground at extremely high pressure. This breaks open small formations of gas or oil which were previously out of reach of conventional drilling. The recent rise in the price of oil and gas, coupled with new technologies has now made this practice economically feasible.
Fracking is big business. In the United States, the Marcellus Shale formation which stretches across Virginia and Pennsylvania was first thought to have a minimal potential for gas extraction. Thanks to fracking, it is now the largest hydrocarbon reserve in the US with an estimated 88 trillion cubic feet of gas.
Yet this supposed windfall comes at a cost. Tests in people living and working nearby have discovered levels of chemicals such as benzene, toulene, xylene, and arsenic in their blood along with an unusually high reportage of symptoms such as intestinal, pancreatic and blood cancers, tremors, difficulty balancing, and even skin and spinal lesions. Animals have suffered too: sudden deaths and stillborns in livestock, sterile livestock and fish kills in ponds have all been reported.
The proactive and direct stance taken by local councils and communities is in stark contrast to current state activity in the Republic. The issue has effectively been parked until the results of an impending (widely believed to be pro-fracking) EPA report.
Leitrim County Council passed a motion calling for an outright ban on fracking on the 13th January 2014. On September 12th it emerged that pressure from above was being put on County Council Officials to change the wording of Policy 124, which outrightly rejected fracking, to an altogether more watered-down version which is reliant on the results of the said EPA study.
Many believe that this is fracking by the back door. No Fracking Ireland Network believe that this will leave the “gates wide open for fracking” and fear that the policy, with the altered wording, “in reality is useless to prevent it”. On September 15th, to the backdrop of sustained pressure from local activists, the councillors voted to retain the original wording of the motion, effectively banning fracking in Leitrim (for a second time).
The most recent example of action being taken on the ground was by Tamboran Resources who attempted to carry out a test drill in Belcoo Fermanagh. Crudden told us how, “People in Belcoo woke up literally on the eve of test drilling to big newspaper adverts and to similar information being put in their letterboxes. Tamboran’s compound at Belcoo was set up literally the morning the notices were distributed.”
A camp was promptly set up outside the compound with support coming from all sides of the community. Attempts by NI Minister Arlene Foster to describe the camp and subsequent events as a gathering of “dark forces” were rubbished by activists and concerned residents present.
William Methven, commenting on the No Fracking Ireland Facebook page said “these were people from all backgrounds who want to use clean water, full stop”.
Dianne Little, from LAMP Fermanagh, a local cross community organisation explained that, “when people are informed, support rises above party politics. Once you know about fracking, you know that this cannot be allowed to happen, normal life is put on hold, our peace is gone. We should be planning afternoon tea in our church hall, events for men’s health, parties for children to bring people together and enjoy our long awaited peace. Instead now we have been licensed, and sold off, zoned for fracturing and exploitation.”
On the 11th August following a concerted effort by locals and activists outside the heavily fortified drilling area, NI Minister for the environment Mark Durkan, denied Tamboran permission to carry out a deep bore test drilling at Belcoo. These actions were supported by local councillors and MLAs, opposing any drilling in the area.
This (temporary) victory in Belcoo, does not mean that the fight against fracking is over by any means. Further papers have been submitted for a test drilling at the Lough Neagh Basin in Northern Ireland by Infrastrata Plc who had planned to drill September 2014, but there has been no activity as of yet, presumably as a result of Tamboran’s experience in Belcoo.
Much like in the States, the situation here has become quite murky. Tamboran have taken out a two page advertorial in the Fermanagh Herald, followed by two articles explaining the benefits of fracking in Fermanagh, with one headline reading “Potential for up to 600 jobs insist fracking company.”
The Farmer’s Journal published on September 11th, which can only be described as an advertisement for the pro-fracking Industry, thoroughly explained the economic benefits of fracking yet only payed minimal lip service to the health “concerns” involved.
Tamboran Resources have also repeatedly insisted that no chemicals should be used in their fracking fluid, yet these claims have been rubbished by experts in academia, and also by oil & gas experts in the field. Just like in Pennsylvania, the transparency and objectivity of certain organisations may become questionable and corrupted when such great sums of money are at stake.
This is a lot more than a NIMBY protest. At the heart of this issue lies a debate on how value is measured. Dianne Little outlines what lies ahead: “We must communicate effectively the choice between health of all and wealth of a few. We are now educating ourselves and others, planning, networking, hiring solicitors, campaigning, lobbying, fighting, and defending our health, our heritage and our homes”.
Organisations like LAMP Fermanagh, No Fracking Ireland Network and others will not simply disappear, they are in this for the long haul. “Peer reviewed science is catching up with the frackers. We just have to hold them off until it becomes undeniable that it is a dirty dangerous industry,” explains Crudden.
Just before going to print, NI Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Investment Arlene Foster terminated Tamboran’s exploration license. The company have said they’ll be seeking a legal recourse.