Category Archives: Fracking

As the Dodo said

“Everybody has won, and all must have prizes.” So it seems this evening, following Arlene Foster’s announcement that Tamboran will receive no further extension to its petroleum licence in Fermanagh. Fracking, at least for the time being, has been turned away at our county boundaries, and everyone is celebrating.

Everyone, that is, except Tamboran itself, which has stomped off, Malvolio-like, with the promise “I’ll be revenged on the whole pack of you”, translated into the modern idiom as proposed judicial review proceedings of both the DoE and DETI decisions. It was probably inevitable that it would do this, slender as its chances of success are. After all, the whole shale gas industry is a giant speculation; one more gamble is hardly a surprise.

Meanwhile even the DUP, the last bastion of pro-fracking sentiment, can bask in a little green glory. It’s odd to look back to the situation three years ago, when in Stormont only the Green Party was unequivocally opposed to shale gas exploitation, and FFAN was the only community group asking awkward questions. Now no one wants to be fracked, at least not in the UK’s most marginal constituency.

That’s fine. We’re used to having our policies pinched; we hang them out in full view, with all their supporting arguments, and positively invite our neighbours to run away with them. But they ought to realise that they really need the whole ensemble to look the part. Being anti-fracking makes sense, but not when it’s combined with support for TTIP, growth-at-all-costs, other polluting industries such as gold mining in the Sperrins, and the continued failure to enact a Climate Change Bill in Northern Ireland.

Fracking is a terrible business, but it doesn’t stand alone. To banish the spectre for good, we need to make some fundamental changes to the way that we do politics, and the way that we live in our communities. I’m proud to have played a role in what has been achieved, but even happier to be a part of what we can do together in the years to come.

 

 

How we made it this far

TJ at BelcooWell, we’ve had some good news, as those of you keeping up with these things will know, and our good news has spread as far as Peru, where the threat of fracking is looming on the horizon. One of their campaigners has contacted us in Northern Ireland and asked for our story, and any lessons we have learned. I suppose there are as many stories as there are activists, and that we’ve all taken slightly different conclusions from the past three years, but for what it’s worth, here is my bit of the jigsaw.

I first heard about fracking in the summer of 2011, from one of my teenage sons. A fistful of new petroleum licences had been issued by DETI (our Department of Trade) earlier in the year. One of those licences, granted to an unknown Australian-registered company called Tamboran, covered a large part of western Fermanagh, a rural region of unparallelled beauty, including lakes, mountains (small Irish mountains – you’d probably call them hills in Peru) rivers and forests. Much of the area is designated as being of special scientific interest for its wildlife, habitats and geology and it includes rare species protected under European law and even a UNESCO Global Geopark.

Incredibly, despite this complex and unique ecology and hydrology, Tamboran’s licence gave it the right to drill and frack two test shale gas wells. Provided that it kept to the terms of the licence (which gave hardly any protection to local people or the environment) it would be able to renew the licence for a total period of at least forty years and to drill and frack over a thousand wells in the region.

For a few weeks in the summer we spread the word via social media and conversation, and in the autumn met up to form what would become the Fermanagh Fracking Awareness Network. Meanwhile in other parts of Northern Ireland, especially in the capital, Belfast, others were doing the same. Most of us, in those early stages, were, broadly speaking, environmentalists and/or health professionals who were aware, from the studies beginning to come from the USA, how many hazards the industry created.

Personally, my initial concern was related to climate change, as I knew that we could not afford, for the sake of the vulnerable and future generations, to extract and burn even the fossil fuels we knew about, let alone to find more sources of greenhouse gas emissions. This has remained the core of my opposition to fracking, supported by what I have sadly learned about its other effects, on human health, wildlife, livestock, social well-being and the economy.

It wasn’t always easy. The local media, especially in the early months, tended to parrot, uncritically, the company’s line that fracking would create jobs, reduce energy prices and stimulate our lacklustre economy. We were presented as Luddites, Nimbys (‘not in our backyard’ i.e. people who only care about their own comfort and prosperity) or daft tree-huggers, idiots who wanted to hold Northern Ireland back for the sake of their crackpot views. The film Gasland, which had been shown in rural travelling cinemas, made many people aware of the issues, but also, with its burning tap water, presented an easy target and distracted attention from our other, less dramatic concerns.

Even when we did manage to explain why fracking would be bad for Fermanagh, the reaction of local people was often muted. “Well,” would come the response, “if it’s that bad, they won’t let it happen.” Who exactly They were, nobody seemed quite sure.

Within the group, and the wider frack-free network that was building up across Ireland, there were sometimes difficulties; personality clashes, political differences and varying ideas about what was the best way to resist fracking, whether by education, lobbying or demonstrations. We had to work hard to ensure that these differences did not create damaging rifts, and to create a tolerant and positive environment in which different groups and individuals could use their own strengths, skills and talents.

Between us, we made films, wrote novels, performed in fundraising gigs, started prayer networks and letter-writing campaigns, assessed and summarised scientific papers, examined the fracking companies’ claims, brought about anti-fracking motions in local and regional assemblies and bombarded government departments with Freedom of Information requests. There are so many different aspects to fracking, and so many different ways to resist it that there is room for everyone, and everyone’s help is needed.

Tamboran was very slow in carrying out the initial work under its licence (which was extended for it by DETI) and so not much seemed to be happening for a long time. It almost appeared as though this ‘phoney war’ was a permanent part of the landscape. “How’s the fracking going?” people would ask me in jolly tones, as though it was an eccentric hobby of mine that couldn’t possible affect them.

Then, suddenly, though we knew it was likely, shortly after dawn one morning, Tamboran’s trucks, fences and security guards arrived in the corner of a remote quarry close to the village of Belcoo. Instantly there was a change of pace. People who had never noticed our public meetings, posters, newspaper articles, election campaigns, social media posts or leaflets, all of a sudden woke up to the reality of fracking on their doorstep. New groups sprang up and new ways of getting the message across appeared. In addition to press releases, now there were tractor rallies, and as well as committee meetings, a fully-fledged community protection camp.

But it was vital to continue the behind-the-scenes work that had gone on for so long. Tamboran was planning to drill a borehole that would then allow it to go ahead and construct and frack the two test wells. If we could hold up the borehole, then the test wells, and the prospect of full-scale fracking, would be pushed further down the line. Already public opinion and vote-hungry politicians were moving in our direction, while more and more international studies were showing that fracking helped no one but shale gas executives and shareholders. The more time we had, the more likely it was that fracking could be banished forever.

The solution, it seemed, was within reach. Tamboran was proposing to construct the borehole under what is known as ‘permitted development rights’, without needing to apply for planning permission or to carry out an Environmental Impact Assessment. But it was the duty of the Department of the Environment, and its Minister, to assess whether these ‘permitted rights’ really applied in the particular circumstances of the case. In our view, they should not, particularly as the quarry itself had been the site of unauthorised activity for which planning permission had not been obtained.

We needed all the technical, legal and political expertise that we had built up in order to set out to the Minister the reasons why permitted development rights should not apply. Old and new networks got together in an urgent email campaign presenting solid and sensible arguments based on fact, evidence, precedent and the operation of the precautionary principle.

And it worked. The Minister made his decision and it was in accordance with the clear and rational reasoning which we had set out. If Tamboran wished to drill a borehole in that location, it would have to apply for full planning permission with the necessary environmental information. As I write, the company is considering its position.

It isn’t the end of the struggle by any means; this licence is still valid, as are others across Northern Ireland where the danger is more imminent. Even here, we have a breathing space rather than a reprieve. But it is a significant step, and worth celebrating.

Why have we succeeded so far? I think there are six main reasons.

1. We have all had principled and deep-rooted reasons for opposing fracking, whether these have been Green or Socialist political beliefs, a religious faith that prioritises the care of creation, a concern for public health or the environment or simply a love of our locality.

2. We have taken the trouble to find out as much as we possibly can about the issues surrounding fracking, not relying upon rumours or second-hand ideas but researching solid scientific evidence.

3. We have taken care to find out about the legal and political background against which decisions would be made, and have spoken with politicians and officials in a rational and courteous way which has won their respect.

4. We haven’t given up when we’ve been opposed or frustrated, but have stood by essential principles of tolerance, non-violence and respect for those who disagree with us.

5. We have used individual and group talents creatively, understanding that we come from different places and use different techniques and strategies.

6. We have worked together generously, especially when the situations have been most urgent.

As I said at the beginning of this piece, there will be as many stories as there are campaigners, and others will take away different lessons for the future. That is as it should be. One final personal note: I have made some of the best friends I have ever known through the frack-free campaign and I look forward to continuing to work with them for as long as this takes. And for others who are wondering whether or not to get involved – come and join us! I won’t say that the water’s warm, but it’s certainly bracing…

 

[Tanya Jones is a member, and former committee member of the Fermanagh Fracking Awareness Network, and chair of the Fermanagh & South Tyrone Green Party.]

 

 

 

 

 

Fighting fracking: a view from a rock

403One afternoon last summer I was sitting on a rock in the middle of the Dreisdam river in southwest Germany. The family was on a camping holiday in Freiburg im Breisgau, and my son Rory and I had gone down to the river, like many of the locals, to read, with our feet pleasantly cooled by the babbling water. But I’d left my book on the bank; I had a lot of thinking to do. It was one of the first days in nearly two years that I hadn’t written the word ‘fracking’, mostly because I hadn’t written anything at all that day. Since the news had emerged of the granting of a petroleum licence for Fermanagh, where I live, to Tamboran Resources, a licence with an integral work programme including the fracking of two shale gas wells, I’d been very busy.  As one of the first members of the Fermanagh Fracking Awareness Network (FFAN) I had taken on the dual roles of editing its website, frackaware.com, which in practice meant writing almost all of its articles, and of legal co-ordinator, which involved lots of research, more writing, and plenty of Freedom of Information requests. I’d even written a book called Fracking Up.

It was a tiring business, but satisfying; we could see around us the change in public opinion that solid scientific and economic evidence had brought about. At first people had been dazzled by wild promises of jobs and cheap energy but now these were proving to be largely mythical, and the reality, of potential health problems, damage to the region’s essential tourism and agriculture sectors, and irreparable destruction of an extraordinary natural environment, was becoming ever clearer. But public opinion could only do so much; more was dependent on the actions of politicians, and though we were able to talk to many ministers, MLAs (members of the Northern Ireland legislative assembly) and local councillors, their ultimate motivations were beyond our influence.

It was with that, rather dampening awareness, that I’d gone away on holiday, grateful for a few days’ respite from well casings and the Habitats Directive. But Freiburg was beginning to make me think again.

The distinctive nature of the place had been shown to us on our first evening, sitting outside a small bar drinking beer, eating pizza and noticing that forty bicycles passed us for every car. And those cars that did pass were driven with such courtesy and care that we, a few feet away, scarcely noticed them. A major road separated the campsite from the river, but at night all we could hear was the lapping of water. But it wasn’t only transport that was different. Freiburg is a centre of solar power industry and research, and home of international organisations such as Local Governments for Sustainability. All new buildings in the city must comply with low-energy specifications and neighbourhoods have been designed and constructed with sustainability as their guiding principle.

How had all this happened? For most of the twentieth century Freiburg had apparently been a rather sleepy and conservative place. But the threat of a nuclear power plant nearby had galvanised the local people into action, and they had succeeded in preventing its construction. An inspiring example, but if that had been all, Freiburg would simply be another pleasant small European city without a nuclear power plant. Instead, the success of the anti-nuclear campaign catalysed the growth of environmental politics in the area, and the Green Party in particular. Freiburg has had a Green mayor since 2002 and the Greens have the greatest number of seats on the city council. It is this that has allowed Freiburg not simply to oppose destructive development, but to lead and champion  positive changes that have benefited all its citizens.

305There seemed to be a message here for me. I had been a member of the Green Party for many years, but my energies had been so bound up by the anti-fracking campaign that there was little left for the wider questions. But now, still perched on the rock, I began to wonder whether I was missing the bigger picture. A world without fracking but with runaway climate change, plundered resources and growing inequality would be a cold comfort, while our best chance of eradicating the process for good would be to get more Greens into government. For now it was only the seed of a thought, and I collected my book and towel and wandered back to the campsite.

It’s now nearly eight months later, and though still a committed and enthusiastic anti-fracking campaigner and member of FFAN, I’ve stood down from my website and legal roles. There are plenty of people who know the issues now, people with a longer-term stake in Fermanagh than I have, who are better placed to take the campaign forward. Meanwhile elections, local and European, are looming, and fracking looks to be a major issue, at all levels. Some parties are still gung-ho about the process and its so-called benefits, though I suspect that the enthusiasm may be tempered as it reaches frackable constituencies. Some are still sitting on the fence, while others are keen to court the anti-fracking vote.

Does it matter who we vote for, as long as she or he claims to be opposed to hydraulic fracturing? I think that it does. The following are my thoughts, addressed to a hypothetical anti-fracking voter . One or two of the points are particular to Northern Ireland, where I’ve lived for the past eight years, but most apply equally to Britain, the Republic of Ireland and indeed most of Europe. I think that voting Green is the best way to stop fracking – this is why.

Why your anti-fracking vote works better in Green

1. The Greens are a European-wide party. It is only on a European basis that fracking can be eradicated permanently from the UK and Ireland. It’s no good expending energy on campaigning against one gas licence when another can be granted the next week. We need to ensure that we get robust environmental and health legislation that prevents fracking altogether, and that can only realistically be done at European level. The Green Party is working across Europe to do just that, with representatives at every level; on local councils, in national assemblies and in the European Parliament, a network of informed and passionate people committed to preventing fracking in our communities, and to outlawing it for good.

2. The Greens are consistently anti-fracking. Whether it is José Bové, the campaigning French farmer turned MEP, Caroline Lucas MP, who was arrested while protesting against fracking in Balcombe, Steven Agnew MLA who led the successful vote for a fracking moratorium in the Northern Ireland Assembly, Ross Brown, the Northern Ireland European candidate and founding member of Belfast Not For Shale, or the many grassroots Green Party members who have been tirelessly active in local frack-free groups, the Green Party at every level is solidly opposed to fracking. Members of other parties may make high-sounding pronouncements at their conferences and cosy promises at local meetings, but back at Stormont or Westminster it’s business at usual, and that means making life as easy as possible for the fossil fuel industry. Only the Green Party, which accepts no corporate donations whatsoever, is able to speak with one voice, saying that fracking is unacceptable always and everywhere.

3. The Greens have the policies we need for a frack-free future. “How will you keep the lights on?” “What about jobs?” “Won’t we have to depend on the Russians?” You know them, the questions that always get raised when you say you don’t want fracking. But they need answers, and the Greens have those answers. The Green Party has spent years developing sensible, fair and workable policies on energy, the economy and all the areas of political action that affect our daily lives. These policies show how we can have secure and safe energy supplies and a sustainable economy without depending on damaging and scarce fossil fuels or on the boom and bust of greedy speculation. The Greens don’t just say no to fracking; they say yes to a bright and better future for the common good.

4. The Greens are committed to a shared and non-violent future. Fracking is an emotive issue, bringing out our deepest feelings about the place where we live, our homes, our health and our children’s future. It’s natural that people should feel angry and upset about it, whatever their views. But it’s also very dangerous. We live in a society which has been tragically torn apart, again and again, and with wounds that are only beginning to heal. Issues like fracking can all too easily be used to reopen sectarian divides or to justify the use of violence. The Green Party is free from the damaging divisions of the past, entirely cross-community and committed to non-violence. You can have confidence that in voting for a Green representative at any level, you will be choosing someone who will present the anti-fracking case peacefully, fairly and in a way that works towards a genuinely shared future.

5. The Greens are growing. In 2010 we saw the first Green Party MP, Caroline Lucas, voted into the UK Parliament, a significant achievement in a first-past-the-post electoral system. Since then she has spoken fearlessly and effectively, often acting as the only real opposition, especially on subjects such as fracking, to the dismally similar policies of the Coalition and New Labour. The following year Steven Agnew became the second MLA to be elected as a Green Party candidate. Like Caroline, he has been the effective opposition to the Sinn Fein/DUP consensus and the voice of conscience on many issues, including fracking, in the Assembly. More Green Party groups are springing up across Northern Ireland, including in the potential fracking zone of Fermanagh, and more and more people are recognising that Green policies represent common sense and fairness in a world of intensifying climate change, bloated banks and the greedy and callous exploitation of both people and natural resources. A first preference vote for the Green Party will not only be a powerful anti-fracking message, but also a step  towards a greener and better future for us all.

 

Tanya is the current chair of the Fermanagh and South Tyrone Green Party

 

 

 

Fracking Up

My new novel, Fracking Up, was published yesterday.  It’s the first entirely new book I’ve written (Summer 17 was rediscovered and revised) since Girotondo in 2006, so merits a small celebration.  I’d started a novel set in Northern Ireland in between the two, but my imagination wasn’t really caught, and so I don’t suppose it will get any further.

Like most of my books, the plot for Fracking Up came to me very quickly, on a walk through the woods into town, with only minor additions and developments popping up later.  It was obviously going to be a book ‘about fracking’ in the sense that fracking was its background and the engine of its plot development, but I  didn’t set out to write a treatise, and hope that’s not how it’s turned out.

Firstly and lastly, it’s a story, and it’s as a story that it will stand or fall.  The plot is less complex than some of my previous ones (I’ve just seen an American review of Girotondo that complains about it being ‘a bit convoluted’) but there are, as usual a lot of characters (the American reviewer doesn’t like that, either) and a lot of jokes.

One of the really important things to point out that it isn’t, is a roman à clef.  I don’t particularly enjoy reading novels that are depictions of reality  overlaid with a fictional gloss, and I certainly wouldn’t want to write one.  One of the greatest pleasures of writing, for me, is being able to use, and stretch, my imagination, to create a new world and populate it with the people who, I confess, live and move inside my head.  That, I suppose, is one reason why, with notable exceptions, most of my characters are generally sympathetic;  I don’t want to give brainspace to the others.

So when I write that the Island and its inhabitants are fictional, I mean just that.  There aren’t any disortions or upside-down viewpoints that will bring it into a focus as a real-life original.  Sometimes people have difficulty with that.  I remember that when I wrote the Ophelia books in the 1990s, I’d be constantly ambushed with questions about Rambleton, the town in which it was set.  ‘Is it Helmsley; is it Masham, is it Kirkbymoorside or Thirsk or Ripon?’  It had elements of them all; but it was indubitably Rambleton, and couldn’t be anywhere else.

In the case of Fracking Up, a fictionalised version of real life would be particularly uninviting to me as a writer, as sadly, it would be so dull.  As anyone who has been involved in a long-term campaign knows, most of the work that has to be done is a long, often repetitive slog.  A novel containing descriptions of proof-reading leaflets, agreeing minutes and operating overhead projectors would be unlikely to provide any serious competition to  Fifty Shades.  So anyone hoping to read the secrets of the Fermanagh Fracking Awareness Network in FOOI’s rash adventures and steamy encounters will be bitterly disappointed.

Similarly, though real life politics and corporate behaviour are often stranger than fiction, they’re also more complicated and rarely as funny.  The creation of the Island’s government, the town council, Anonymous and the Island Bank allowed me to introduce a sort of satiric fairy-tale element, a Magnus Millish irony, which I hope readers will enjoy as much as I did. Another advantage of an entirely imagined world is that it contains areas of complete mystery, to the writer as well as the reader.  I know no more than anyone else about what Jenny’s job really was or whether Hilly put gin in her tonic (or vice versa).  And as for the cat …

The elements of Fracking Up that are soundly based on reality are the effects of fracking, on the environment, health and the local economy.  All the descriptions of these are based on observed incidents and consequences in the real world, transferred from their North American context across the Atlantic.  So far we have not seen in practice what fracking will mean for rural communities in Europe, so much more densely populated and topographically complex than the plains of America, and one thing I wanted to do in the book was to explore what those effects might be.

There is, additionally, another plot element which was central to my thinking and writing in this book.  I don’t want to specify it here, as it would be a substantial spoiler, but it arose out of a news story a couple of years ago, which shocked me deeply and has haunted me ever since.  I hope that Fracking Up will be the sort of book that merits rereading; that people will race through it firstly to find out what happens next and read it more slowly again later, understanding its layers in the light of what is revealed at the end.  Once you’ve read it, you’ll know what I mean.

So, what am I hoping that Fracking Up will achieve?  As I said above; it’s a story, and, like any other storyteller, my first wish is that people will enjoy the tale, that the plot will fascinate them, the writing entertain and that the characters will populate their own imaginations as vividly as they have mine.  If, as a result of reading it, they start to ask questions about the hydraulic fracturing process, about the vaunted benefits of shale gas extraction and about the ways in which local communties are exploited along with their resources, then I will be doubly delighted, and will hold my head up high at our next FFAN committee meeting.  If only we had the Rat’s Finger to adjourn to …

What I would have said…

I’d prepared something to say at Saturday’s Green Party NI AGM (see Slugger O’Toole for a full account) in support of the motion,

“The Green Party in Northern Ireland is opposed to all oil drilling in Northern Ireland particularly in areas of special scientific interest and opposes the licensing of exploratory or exploitation activities that atttempt to harness shale gas reservoirs using the process of hydraulic fracturing or fracking.”

As it turned out, however, we were by this time running so late that we risked missing our parsnip soup, and since no one appeared to oppose the motion, it was passed without the need for my thoughts.  So, for what they’re worth…

 

Six months ago, like most people,  I knew nothing about fracking.  Now I feel a bit like Homer Simpson – I don’t know how much old stuff has been pushed out of my brain ….  Because it’s a complicated issue.  Not because it’s technically complex – the process itself is frighteningly crude: they drill down a mile or so, across another mile or so, send down explosives and follow them with huge quantities of water, sand and those chemicals which may or may not be added (and in practice always are) at enormous pressures, to shatter the rock in all directions.  It’s about as subtle as a toddler having a tantrum.

And it isn’t complicated, either, because there are finely balanced arguments on both sides – this isn’t a GM foods or a nuclear power issue.  No, it’s complicated because there are just so many ramifications that affect so many areas.  With some campaigns you can say “Stop this and save the ozone layer” or “Stop this and save the dolphins”.  But with fracking it’s “Stop this and save – just about everything.”

So, since you don’t want to hear me talk about just about everything, I’ll stick to just one point.  The pro-fracking people say this is an economic issue.  And they’re right, it is.  Not in terms of jobs that the industry will bring  – the headline figures of 7 or 800 are a maximum, over several counties, north and south, and over half a century.  What that boils down to is probably a very few, temporary, low-skilled and low-paid construction jobs, a tiny fraction of the real careers that the renewable sector could bring.  No, the important thing about fracking is the jobs and the livelihoods that it will almost certainly take away.

For years Fermanagh has been building up its reputation and success as a tourist destination.  But not just any tourist destination – we don’t have an Irvinestown Disneyworld or a Lisnaskea branch of Centre Parks.  We don’t even have an Enniskillen Eye.  All we’ve got are loughs and forests and moutains.  And that’s what people come for – to walk and climb and fish and cycle and sail and paint.  They come because it’s quiet and peaceful and clean and beautiful.  And that’s what it won’t be if and when shale gas extraction goes ahead.

The industry calls their sites “wellpads” which sounds quite cosy, the sort of thing that Jeremy Fisher would perch on with his fishing rod.  But what they really mean are huge concreted industrial facilities.  They’re full of heavy machinery, pumps, processors, generators and so on,.  In America these usually operate 24hours a day, they create incredible noise and light pollution, serious air contamination, great clouds of smog and the foulest of smells. Just what you want for your next eco-holiday.  Then there are giant pits to collect rainwater, which of course belongs in the local water table, and more pits for the wastewater flowback which is by now strongly saline and contaminated with heavy metals and often radioactive materials.  And there are wells themselves, of course.  Initially there’ll be eight on each ‘pad’ rising to sixteen or more as time goes on.  And we’re not talking about just one or two sites – they’re planning on around a hundred in the Lough Allen basin alone.

These sites will of course be connected by new access roads and along these and our small country lanes will come the HGVs  bringing and taking away water and materials.  It’s been calculated that each wellpad (and remember, we may be talking about a hundred or more) will need over five thousand one-way, so ten thousand return trips by twenty-ton trucks and tankers.  Would you go on a cycling holiday in the middle of that?

And so where will these pads be built?  Some may be on farmland, which will then remain contaminated and unusable for decades or more.  But it seems likely that many of them will be built right in the forests, or what used to be forests.  A lot of people think that couldn’t happen, that the reason we have publicly-owned woodland is to keep it safe from this kind of exploitation.  That’s what I thought, so I emailed the Forest Service just to check with them. This is the entirety of their reply.

Hi Tanya,
Thank you for your email. The Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (DETI) is the Government department charged with the statutory responsibility and power to prospect or grant prospecting licences in relation to mineral and petroleum exploration.
Any licence issued by DETI entitles the licensee to carry out exploration on any land stipulated on the licence, including land managed by Forest Service, DARD.
Licensing this activity is a matter for Minerals and Petroleum Branch, Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment, Colby House, Stranmillis Court, Belfast BT9 5BF.
Regards, Alex Brown (Forest Service)

That’s it.  What that tells me is that we can’t rely on  existing leglislation, we can’t rely on public bodies and we can’t rely on those who are charged with acting for the common good.  That’s why Northern Ireland needs a moratorium, and we need to pass this resolution.
I haven’t talked about Fermanagh’s other main industry, agriculture and the production of food for the rest of the country.  I haven’t talked about what happens if the smallest amount of benzene, say, gets into any dairy farmer’s milk, and the effect of that on the whole sector.  I haven’t talked about the myths that shale gas could somehow lower our carbon emissions  (it’s likely that its net emissions are actually higher than coal) or that it can act as a ‘transition fuel’ – transition to what? – we already have the technology, the skills and the resources to produce abundant renewable energy.

I haven’t talked about what happens at the end of a well’s active life when it’s capped off and abandoned, with its protective casing designed to last for a hundred years and nearby acquifers which are needed for thousands.  I haven’t talked about the effects on human and animal health, on drinking water and fish stocks.  I  haven’t talked about the likelihood of earthquakes and the effect of those on the Marble Arch Caves or of  the risks of explosion and fire and what that would do to the forests.  But I won’t.  I won’t talk about anything else.  I’ll just urge you to support this motion and to get involved in the worldwide campaign.  This isn’t a Nimby matter.  We’re not saying, like people do about wind farms,  yes this a good idea but it’s not appropriate here.  Fracking isn’t appropriate anywhere.  In America, where they’ve lived with the consequences, they’re coming to realise that.  The president of the Colorado Oil and Gas Association said last month, talking about opponents of fracking:

“These nuts make up about 90% of our population, so we can’t really call them nuts any more.  They’re the mainstream.”

We in Northern Ireland need to learn from the experience of that mainstream. We need time, we need research and we need a proper framework that will protect our people, our landscape and our resources.  We need this resolution.

 

 

The fracking gasman cometh

In County Fermanagh, the beautiful Irish lakeland region where I live, we’re in danger of being fracked. For those of you lucky enough not to know, fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, is the industrial process used to extract shale gas for commercial exploitation. Tamboran, the company who have an exploratory licence here [1] are holding an “Information Night” in a couple of days time to pat us peasants on the head and tell us that there’s nothing to worry about. To prepare myself I made a few notes based on the sorts of things they might want to say to us:-

 


Natural gas is a clean, green fuel.

So-called ‘natural’ gas is a fossil fuel just like conventional gas, oil or coal. It is made up mainly of methane together with other gases and requires extensive processing before it can be used as a fuel. Much of this processing takes place on site where its toxic elements are burned off into the air. It is therefore not an ‘alternative’, sustainable or renewable energy source remotely comparable to wind or solar power. [2] Methane is a greenhouse gas fifty-six times more powerful than carbon dioxide and, to make matters worse, the production of gas by fracking produces 30-50% more methane emissions than conventional gas. We are invited to see ‘natural’ gas from shale as a solution to the disastrous levels of greenhouse gas emissions produced by the burning of coal. In fact, however, this type of gas creates at least 120% and possibly 200% of the emissions attributable to coal. [3] Far from being an answer to the urgent problem of climate change it is potentially one of the worst elements of the problem.

 

Hydraulic fracturing (‘fracking’) has been used for over sixty years

The process was first used in the middle of the twentieth century but, crucially, not in its modern form for the extraction of shale gas. It was used in conventional oil and gas wells as they began to run dry, to push out the last vestiges of fuel. Fracking as it is now practised involves much higher pressures, longer durations, volumes of liquid and complex cocktails of chemicals. [4]

 

The process is safe and controlled

If all goes well, this type of extraction involves drilling down around six thousand feet to the shale layer then turning in a right angle and drilling between one and three thousand feet horizontally. This shaft is then cased in steel and concrete under high pressure. The drill is sent down again and drills into the shale beyond the cased section of the shaft. A pipe gun goes down next, firing explosives into the shale through perforations in its length. These explosives create mini-earthquakes, fracturing the rock. Fracturing (fracking) fluid is then pumped into the cracks at extremely high pressures, expanding them and causing new fractures to branch out deep into the shale layer. The gun is withdrawn and a temporary plug put into the shaft after which the process is repeated along its length. At each stage there is a huge quantity of mud and fluid to be pumped out of the well up to the surface together with whatever minerals and compounds they have collected on their way. When sufficient fractures have been created, the gas is pumped to the surface where VOCs (volatile organic compounds) and other chemicals are burned off into the air before the gas is transported away. [5] The whole business is characterised by machinery and explosives operating at very high pressures, using high quantities of fluid at great depths and great distances in geological formations whose precise nature and fluctuations cannot be foreseen. The CEO of Cuadrilla Resources, the company operating near Blackpool where recent earthquakes have been attributed to their fracking operations, has admitted that “You never have control. Fractures will always go into the path of least resistance.” [6]Another expert has explained that the attempt to crack the shale predictably is like “trying to hammer a dinner plate into equal pieces”.[7]

 

We’re not going to use chemicals in our fracking fluid

This is a recent claim by Richard Moorman, CEO of Tamboran, made as a response to concerns raised by local people in the Republic and Northern Ireland, people he describes as “anti-developers”. [8]  It contrasts dramatically with his earlier comment that a “whole truckload of stuff” would be “going down”. Dr. Anthony Ingraffea, Professor of Engineering at Cornwell University, who has over thirty years experience as an expert in rock fracturing, has stated that it is “highly unlikely” that Tamboran will in fact be able to carry out these operations with, as Moorman claims, nothing but sand and water. As far as I can tell, no other company in the world involved in hydraulic fracturing of shale does so without using a complex and usually secret combination of highly dangerous chemicals.

In Colorado, for example, 245 chemicals have been identified as being used, 91% of which have at least one detrimental effect on human health. [9] Many are carcinogenic and/or cause reproductive damage. (The other 9% aren’t necessarily safe but there isn’t sufficient information to know one way or the other.) 35% of the products used contain endocrine disruptors which affect the development of the brain, thyroid, pancreas etc, especially in unborn and young children, even in the ratio of one part per trillion.

The “only water and sand” claim has been made elsewhere, including in Pennsylvania where the Department for Environmental Protection repeated the claim, saying to enquirers, “What do you have to be afraid of? It’s only sand and water.” [10] Later it was shown that the gas company involved had in fact used fearsomely toxic chemicals in their fracking fluid which a DEP official admitted was “nasty, nasty stuff”.

The potential for confusion and obfuscation in this area is assisted by several factors. First of all, the proportion of additives to the fracking fluid is very small in percentage terms – Cuadrilla, for example, say that their fluid is 99.75% water and sand. [11] This may well be true, assisted by the fact that water and sand are denser than many of the chemicals added to them, but it’s the remaining 0.25% that causes the problems. As the example of endocrine disruptors shows, it only takes minute proportions of poisons to injure and kill us and the huge amounts of fluid involved mean that the quantities involved are far from negligible. Incidentally, in an area characterised by an almost complete absence of regulation (see below) Dick Cheney’s Halliburton managed to break one of the very few fracking laws by including diesel in their fracking fluid. [12]

Secondly, fracking fluid is only one source of hazardous chemicals in the whole extraction process. During the initial stages of the well’s construction, “drilling muds” are used to lubricate the drill bit. These harmless-sounding muds can contain toxic substances including arsenic, barium and strontium. [13] There are also dangerous naturally-occurring compounds deep in the geological layers which are exposed during the drilling and fracking processes and brought into our environment via the opened fractures or in the discarded waste liquid brought out of the shaft. These include pyrite, an iron sulphide which upon exposure to air or water forms sulphuric acid and iron hydroxide, heavy metals and radioactive materials. [14] Mr. Moorman has stated that there are no radioactive elements in the rocks where Tamboran will be operating, [15] but it is difficult to know how he can possibly be sure of this, especially as no independent verification has been offered. As we will also see, there are other health implications of the most serious nature involved in the drilling and processing stages of the operation.

 

There’s no danger of water contamination

This claim has repeatedly been made by gas companies operating throughout the world and sadly has been refuted by repeated experience. Sometimes they assert that, because there is no groundwater in the particular shale formation, such contamination cannot take place. [16] But a moment’s thought will show that this is entirely irrelevant. The drill which tunnels out the initial shaft may easily pass through rock formations which contain groundwater and the chaotic fractures created by explosive and high-pressure fracking fluids aren’t well-behaved enough to respect geological boundaries. Indeed, in the Blackpool operations, the bore passed through an aquifer about which the company could have had no foreknowledge. [17] These types of contamination have potentially deadly effects upon domestic and community water supplies, and upon the wildlife and vegetation of water and wetland habitats. Water pollution has also been caused by documented spills of wastewater onto roads and into rivers. [18]

The film Gasland highlighted numerous cases of families whose drinking water had been contaminated by nearby gas extraction operations including dramatic cases of tap water which could be ignited as it ran into the sink. The gas industry cannot deny the flammability of this water, demonstrated as it is on countless videos and television programmes. Instead they have put forward irrelevant technicalities and non-sequiturs: One is that no case of water contamination has officially been proven as being caused by fracking (only because the official bodies refuse to investigate and it’s impossible to separate fracking from the rest of the production process). [19] When chemicals associated with fracking fluids and drilling muds are found in nearby domestic water supplies, the logical conclusion is that these are the probable sources. It is only the power of the gas companies which reverses the burden of proof.

Another favourite claim is that the methane found in the water is biogenic (produced by decomposing vegetation near the surface) not thermogenic (caused by pressure within deep rock formations). In fact it isn’t always biogenic, and even if it was, the important point is its migration path not its geological source. Whichever type of methane it is, it’s getting into the water via the ruptures opened up by the drilling operations. [20] The truth in the worst cases has often been bought – when gas companies agree to supply affected families with transported clean water they usually insist on a gagging clause so that nothing more can ever be said. As it has starkly been put, they “trade silence for water” [21] .

 

It won’t affect your landscape or daily lives

Read any account of the experiences of communities near fracking facilities to find out the truth. Like our region, these are usually rural areas with little or no previous industry, often with stunning natural scenery and resources and depending upon agriculture and tourism. Once the drilling operations begin, the former peace and beauty of the landscape are torn apart with criss-crossed roads, huge concrete pads, ugly buildings and machinery and open pits like wounds in the earth. But the visual effect, horrific though it is, is only the beginning. Local residents tell of enormous clouds of dust and smog, twenty-four hour operation of immensely noisy diesel compressors, pumps, wellheads and dehydrators, sites lit up all night like sports stadia and noxious smells so that “the whole valley stinks”. [22] It isn’t just those closest to the wells who are affected; the pollution, smells and noise travel long distances to make life unbearable for people miles away who have received no royalties or sweetening payments.

A typical well density is one per forty acres, which sounds light until you realise that it means around sixteen wells per square mile. Each well requires between two and nine million gallons of water, all of which has to be transported by lorry – a conservative estimate is that one thousand return trips will be made by truck or tanker per well. That’s thirty-two thousand journeys for each square mile. [23] The country roads of Virginia aren’t almost heaven any more. Then there’s the question of where the water’s going to come from…

And all that’s when things go according to plan. As we’ve seen, gas is flammable stuff, and flammable stuff burns from time to time. In Colorado there have been fires in wells; one with two hundred foot high flames. [24] They’re worried about how their small town fire department could cope, and so should we be. In Virginia in 2008 a pipeline carrying the gas exploded, producing a fireball half a mile long. [25] We all watched in horror earlier this year as fires broke out across our forests and Mr. Moorman foresees that Tamboran’s operations will take place primarily in wooded areas. Well, I suppose at least there won’t be that many trees left to burn once they’ve finished: in Pennsylvania the trees and vegetation started dying even after the exploratory well was dug, before any actual fracking began, owing to an escape of chlorides from the shale. [26]

 

There’s no danger to your health

As we’ve seen above, contamination of air and water supplies are tragically common as a result of gas extraction, either from chemicals used in the extraction processes or from the sudden release of deeply buried naturally-occurring substances. There are also serious health hazards resulting from the constant operation of heavy diesel machinery which pump nitrogen oxides and VOCs into the air at dangerous levels. [27] In combination with sunshine (and yes, we do get the occasional shaft of sunshine, even in Fermanagh) these oxides produce ozone which can plume over 200 miles and burns the tissue of our lungs, causing or exacerbating potentially fatal respiratory conditions. ‘Fugitive’ gases such as benzene (for which the safe level is none at all) also escape into the air in the vicinity of the wells. [28] As Dr. Ingraffea says, “There will be a few people who will derive very high wealth from this and everyone else bears the risk of human health concerns.” [29]

 

There’s no danger of earthquakes

The earthquakes near Blackpool were almost certainly caused by the nearby fracking operations [30] and it is highly likely that the recent quake on the east coast of the United States also resulted from the high level of fracking activity. The US Geological Survey have confirmed that fracking and similar processes can cause earthquakes. [31]

 

We’ll abide by all regulations

Cold comfort, I’m afraid, since there are so few. Unlike the coal and other established industries, fracking has grown up in the past couple of decades when governments throughout the world have been in the pocket of big business. It’s no coincidence that one of the big players in the field has been Halliburton whose connections at the heart of the US government have been notorious. The “Halliburton loophole” whereby the gas industry in the US is exempt from almost all environmental protection law [32] has its mirror in many other countries, including the UK where Caudrilla’s operations haven’t been subject to an environmental impact assessment, health impact assessment or life cycle analysis (of greenhouse gas emissions). [33] Sadly, we can’t rely on either national or local government to look after our interests or those of our vulnerable children.

 

We’ll protect your interests

In a recent letter to the Anglo-Celt newspaper, Mr. Moorman promised that “To the citizens of Ireland, we will always do our best for you in our operations.” [34] It would be an impressive sentiment if quite so many people hadn’t heard the same from gas companies seeking lucrative mining rights. Somehow it tends to fade away as soon as the agreements are signed. In Colorado all sorts of promises were made by the mining company that it was concerned about the well-being of local people. But now they are sadder and wiser. One resident said that the most important words you’ll ever hear from a gas man are “for now”. [35] It means nothing, and it means that they can change their minds whenever it suits them. In New York State, at one of the most productive and “successful” sites, the chastened landowners noted that the company carrying out the work there broke its promises about the extent of the area involved, the location of roads, the lining of wastewater holding ponds, the frequency with which the ponds were emptied, the length of time taken, the attitude of the employees, who were abusive and threatening, and most of all the restoration of the land at the end of the operation. “It began to feel as though something terrible had been unleashed.” [36] Mr. Moorman has promised that his boards of directors will sign declarations regarding the operating practices which Tamboran will use. [37] Very laudable, no doubt, but he knows that such declarations have no legal power whatsoever. As a commercial company, Tamboran’s paramount duty is to maximise profits for its shareholders. If the interests of Fermanagh’s people and wildlife stand in the way of these profits, which will he really choose?

 

It’ll bring prosperity to the region

In what ways could that happen? There are unlikely to be significant numbers of jobs available for local people and those that might appear would be unskilled and short term. Neither are contractors likely to spend substantial sums of money in the local economy. Landowners on whose property the initial wells are sunk may receive one-off and/or royalty payments (though they may, as in Montana, have to sue the gas company for them[38] ) but these are unlikely to compensate them for the losses they will suffer. In the United States the licence agreements offered are recognised as being unfair on the landowner, who ought really to have the protection of a proper commercial lease, but the unequal balance of power between the parties precludes this. [39] Once the wells are in operation, the gas company has the right to continue as long as it wants to, and to drill as many additional wells as it chooses, regardless of the expiration of the initial lease or wishes of the landowner. The owner of the land is personally liable for any damage or injury caused by the drilling operations but is unable to obtain insurance against these enormous risks. Both landowners themselves and their neighbours see the value of their properties plummeting and find themselves unable to either sell or mortgage their land. Not exactly everyone’s idea of prosperity.

Here in Fermanagh the traditional industry has been agriculture and the developing source of income is tourism. We have little or no other sources of wealth. Both of these areas are likely to be very seriously impacted by fracking. Pollutants such as ozone dramatically reduce crop yields while others cause disease and death to livestock. As for tourism, Fermanagh’s immense and unique strength is the beauty, purity and unspoiled expanse of its lakes, forests and mountains, attracting fishermen, hikers, climbers, naturalists and artists. Would any of these come to view concrete pads, wellheads, polluted holding ponds, constant heavy goods traffic and dead animals and fish? Would those who walk the hills breathing in the clean air and silence rejoice in constant engine noise and diesel stink? Nowhere in the world can fracking operations co-exist with a thriving tourist industry, least of all here where the importance of our geological and natural heritage, enshrined in the Marble Arch Caves Global Geopark, has been recognised by the United Nations. We are in real danger of throwing away what is most precious, economically as well as spiritually, in return for nothing at all.

 

Other communities have benefited from fracking

No they haven’t. The only people who have benefited are the directors, and sometimes shareholders, of gas and oil companies. As people in Colorado, Montana, Virginia, New York and many other places will sadly testify, fracking destroys communities, lifestyles and landscapes. Some are learning: in Dryden, New York, a prosperous and independent community, the town council has banned gas drilling [40] and in South Africa, despite tempting inducements by Shell and other companies in the poor Karoo region, the government has placed a moratorium on future permits. [41] As they point out, the promise of much-needed jobs is temporary; the destruction of their unique environment would be chillingly permanent. Meanwhile our neighbours in the Irish Republic whose communities would also be affected by this proposal are actively opposing it: at a recent public meeting organised by the Lough Allen Conservation Society (unlikely to be an anarchist front) more than five hundred people attended, more than the building would hold, so many had to listen from outside.

 

The film Gasland has been discredited.

No it hasn’t. An anonymous document called “Debunking Gasland” was produced by Energy-in-Depth, a lobbying and PR firm funded by the American Petroleum Institute, but all the criticisms made have been fully replied to by the director and his panel of experts. [42] Some of those issues have been mentioned above (biogenic/thermogenic methane etc.)

If fracking were really safe, could allow our unique landscape to remain unspoiled and our people to benefit from a sustainable source of energy and income, there would be no reason to oppose it. Sadly, the experiences of communities across the world, particularly in the United States which has had the longest exposure to fracking operations is very different. We need to ask hard questions before it is too late.

Sources

http://e360.yale.edu/feature/in_arid_south_african_lands_fracking_controversy_emerges/2430/

http://www.monbiot.com/2011/08/31/shale-fail/

http://www.friendsoftheirishenvironment.net/index.php?do=paperstoday&action=view&id=14394

http://www.lawyersandsettlements.com/settlements/09138/natural-gas-royalty.html

http://un-naturalgas.org/Affirming_Gasland_Sept_2010.pdf

http://un-naturalgas.org/

  1. [1]   DETI. Petroleum Licensing in Northern Ireland. [online] Available at: <http://www.detini.gov.uk/deti-energy-index/minerals-and-petroleum/petroleum_licensing_2.htm>
  2. [2] Chenango Delaware Otsego Gas Drilling Opposition Group, 2008. Frequently Asked Questions. [online] Available at: <http://www.un-naturalgas.org/hydraulic_fracturing_a-z.htm#hydraulic%20fracturing>
  3. [3]   Monbiot, George. The UK’s lack of fracking regulation is insane. Guardian. [online] Available at: <http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/georgemonbiot/2011/aug/31/fracking-issues-resolve>
  4. [4]   Fox, Josh. Affirming Gasland. [online] Available at: <http://un-naturalgas.org/Affirming_Gasland_Sept_2010.pdf>
  5. [5]   SMTLearningChannel, 2011. Hydraulic Fracturing – Shale Gas Natural Extraction. Available at: <http://youtu.be/lB3FOJjpy7s>
  6. [6] quoted Monbiot, op cit
  7. [7] quoted Chenango Delaware Otsego Gas Drilling Opposition Group, op cit
  8. [8] McCarney, Damien.
    Tamboran’s claims of chemical free frack fluid challenged by expert, 2011. Friends of the Irish Environment. [online] Available at: <http://www.friendsoftheirishenvironment.net/index.php?do=paperstoday&action=view&id=14394>
  9. [9] YogaBill, 2007. Rural Impact: What to Expect from the Gas Industry Part Two. Available at:
  10. [10] Bateman, Christopher. A colossal fracking mess, 2010. . Vanity Fair. [online] Available at: http://www.vanityfair.com/business/features/2010/06/fracking-in-pennsylvania-201006
  11. [11] quoted Monbiot, op cit
  12. [12] Bell, op cit
  13. [13] ibid
  14. [14] Chenango Delaware Otsego Gas Drilling Opposition Group, op cit
  15. [15] quoted McCarney, op cit
  16. [16] Monbiot, op cit
  17. [17] ibid
  18. [18] YogaBill, op cit
  19. [19] Bell, op cit
  20. [20] ibid
  21. [21] ibid
  22. [22] YogaBill, op cit
  23. [23] Chenango Delaware Otsego Gas Drilling Opposition Group, op cit
  24. [24] YogaBill, op cit
  25. [25] Chenango Delaware Otsego Gas Drilling Opposition Group, op cit
  26. [26] Bell, op cit
  27. [27] YogaBill, op cit
  28. [28] ibid
  29. [29] quoted, McCarney, op cit
  30. [30] Monbiot, op cit
  31. [31] Chenango Delaware Otsego Gas Drilling Opposition Group, op cit
  32. [32] Bell, op cit
  33. [33] Monbiot, op cit
  34. [34] quoted McCarney, op cit
  35. [35] YogaBill, op cit
  36. [36] Triquet, Antoine, post on Facebook group Protect Our Environment: No Fracking Here, available at https://www.facebook.com/groups/243550102336845/
  37. [37] McCarney, op cit
  38. [38] Lawyers and Settlements, 2007, available at http://www.lawyersandsettlements.com/settlements/09138/natural-gas-royalty.html
  39. [39] Triquet, op cit
  40. [40] Chenango Delaware Otsego Gas Drilling Oppostion Group, op cit
  41. [41] Pittock, Todd, 2011. In Arid South African Lands, Fracking Controversy Emerges, Yale Environment 360 [online] available at:http://e360.yale.edu/feature/in_arid_south_african_lands_fracking_controversy_emerges/2430/
  42. [42] Bell, op cit