Since being selected as the Green Party Parliamentary candidate for Fermanagh & South Tyrone, I have started a new blog, greenlassie.com which will be my campaign diary. It will be updated much more regularly, but have shorter, more narrative posts. If there’s anything unconnected with the election campaign that I want to write about in more detail, that will happen here, but otherwise please visit the new one.
“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.
One 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.
There 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.
“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.
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.