April 1st 2011 (sadly not an April Fool) As part of a new licensing round, the Northern Ireland Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (DETI) granted a licence to Tamboran Resources to ‘search for bore and get petroleum’ (which includes gas) in the Lough Allen Basin.
The licence incorporates a work programme divided into two parts. Part 1 was supposed to cover years 1-3 of the licence, i.e. the period ending on March 31st 2014. It includes the acquisition and analysis of data, a seismic study, a ‘preliminary environmental review’ (not a very onerous requirement) and the responsibility to ‘drill shallow cored boreholes at target intervals and analyse core material’. At the end of this part of the work programme the company is supposed to make a ‘drill or drop decision’ i.e. decide whether to abandon the licence or to proceed to Part 2 of the work programme.
Part 2, which was supposed to cover years 4-5 of the licence, i.e. 1st April 2014 to 31st March 2016 includes the requirement to finalise drilling locations and also, crucially, to drill two exploration wells ‘including fracturing’ i.e. fracking. (Remember this; it’ll come up again later.)
It also includes provision for an application for a second term of the licence. This again is very important. The core legislation under which the licence was granted is the Petroleum (Production) Act of 1964. This Act was passed long before most people knew anything about climate change, when Silent Spring had only recently been published, and just after Harold Wilson had spoken of the ‘white heat’ of technological revolution. There was no conception at the time that extracting and burning as much fossil fuel as possible was anything but a Good Thing.
The details of the licensing process are set out in the Petroleum Production Regulations of 1987 (by which time the government should have known better, but probably didn’t). Under these regulations, a licence is granted for an initial period of five years (as Tamboran’s is). At the end of the five years, provided that the licensee has complied with the terms of the licence (i.e. the work programme etc.) it can apply for the licence to be extended for up to another five years. At the end of that second term, again if the terms have been met, and petroleum is shown to be extractable in ‘commercial quantities’, the licensee can apply for the licence to be extended again, this time for a full production period of thirty years. Yes, thirty.
The grounds upon which DETI could refuse to extend the licences for these second and third terms are very limited, and none of them provide any effective protection to the health or well-being of local people, to the natural environment or to local industries and employment. Of course, it might not even be Tamboran which holds the licence by then; it can be transferred to any other operator with DETI’s consent.
Autumn 2011 The Fermanagh Fracking Awareness Network (FFAN) was set up including several Green Party members as founder members with key roles. Over the past few years FFAN has worked consistently and effectively to increase local knowledge and understanding of the fracking process and its side-effects, and to raise our concerns with ministers, civil servants and organizations across Northern Ireland and the world.
December 6th 2011 Led by Steven Agnew MLA, the leader of the Northern Ireland Green Party, the Northern Ireland Assembly at Stormont debated the issue of hydraulic fracturing and passed a cross-party motion calling for a moratorium on the technique. Following the vote, the Enterprise Minister, Arlene Foster, stated that ‘no hydraulic fracking licence has been issued’, apparently unaware of the terms of her department’s April 1st licence. This insistence that no fracking licences exist has been DETI’s continuing justification for ignoring the clear decision of the Assembly.
January 9th 2012 Fermanagh District Council passed a motion ‘that this council opposes the use of hydraulic fracturing for gas exploration in the Lough Allen Basin and that in the light of the backing by the Northern Ireland Assembly for the motion put forward by Steven Agnew MLA on hydraulic fracturing, we call for the Minister for the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment, Arlene Foster to place a moratorium on the licence granted to Tamboran Resources.” Again, this motion led to no change of policy by DETI.
At some point, as was discovered later by a Freedom of Information request, and confirmed in response to an Assembly question from Steven Agnew, Tamboran decided that it didn’t want to drill the shallow cored boreholes provided for in the licence but would prefer to drill one deep borehole instead. This was agreed to by DETI with no apparent consultation or publicity. It would not be the last time that DETI agreed to Tamboran’s demands to change the licence terms.
2012/13 Tamboran kept rather quiet in Fermanagh, as more and more research from the US and Australia revealed the serious health and environmental damage caused by fracking, and the speculative nature of the industry, making money by financial instruments while selling shale gas at below cost price. The immediate focus turned to England, where fracking operations in Lancashire and Sussex met with widespread opposition. Green Party MP Caroline Lucas was arrested at a peaceful protest in Balcombe, West Sussex (and subsequently found not guilty of all charges). Meanwhile the powerful documentary film Fracking in Fermanagh, made by local young people, had its premiere in Enniskillen to widespread acclaim. Shortly afterwards, the G8 summit was held in Fermanagh, met by a peaceful and dignified local protest, mainly concerned with the issue of fracking.
March 12th 2014 As the deadline for the completion of Part 1 of the licence approached, Tamboran made a last-minute request to DETI for a six month extension. Despite the clear decision of the Assembly with regard to fracking, the weight of evidence showing its ill-effects, and the disturbing implications of Tamboran’s failure to comply with the timescales set down by the licence, DETI appear once again to have had no hesitation in granting the request. No public consultation, discussion with concerned bodies or debate in the Assembly took place.
April 10th 2014 The Green Party MLA Steven Agnew, deeply concerned at the democratic deficit revealed by the DETI’s action and at its facilitation of fracking in Fermanagh, launched a petition calling for the decision to be debated by the Executive. This would have forced the issue of fracking to be properly considered at the highest level and would, if the extension was revoked, have lifted the immediate threat from the county. The petition required only thirty signatures out of 108 MLAs. Not a problem, you might think, since Sinn Fein alone has twenty-nine MLAs, all of whom, according to their party propaganda, are deeply committed to the anti-fracking cause. Oddly enough, none signed, not even Fermanagh’s own representatives. Neither did any MLAs from the SDLP, Alliance or the DUP. (All right, the last one isn’t a great surprise.) Opposing fracking, it seemed, was a matter for headlines, leaflets and reassuring noises on local doorsteps, not for real political action. In fact, the only gentlemen brave enough to make their way to Steven’s office were members of the Ulster Unionist Party, not previously renowned for its frack-free credentials. The petition, therefore, despite huge public goodwill and pressure, was unable to go ahead, and Tamboran’s licence was safe.
July 21st 2014 With its licence secured for another few months, Tamboran, by all reports, chose 5am as an appropriate time to bring vehicles, machinery and security men and fencing on to the quarry near Belcoo where it plans to drill its deep borehole. (That’s the one not provided for in the original licence, nearly four months after the original deadline.) This might be seen as slightly premature, as it was not until a more conventional hour in the morning that the Department of the Environment appears to have received notification from the company that it wished to commence drilling.
Tamboran are assuming that the borehole can be drilled under what is known as ‘permitted development’ without the need to apply for planning permission. (Planning permission, of course, allows ordinary people to scrutinise and discuss, and put in objections, and all that messy democratic stuff.) There is a real question, however, as to whether permitted development is appropriate in these circumstances. The DoE website describes it as being intended for ‘minor non-contentious development’. The hundreds of people who gathered peacefully at the site within hours of the announcement certainly don’t see it as either minor or non-contentious. Though tiny in impact in comparison to actual fracking, the drilling of the borehole will not be negligible. Tamboran director Tony Bazeley’s own letter to local householders, also dated 21st July, said that it would be on site for thirty days and that the actual drilling would be “a 24-hour process” (i.e. the noise and vibration will continue day and night for as long as it takes).
There are further questions as to the environmental impact of the borehole. The DoE website states that permitted development rights can be withdrawn or limited in ‘protected and sensitive environments’. There are few parts of Europe with so many Special Areas of Conservation, Sites of Special Scientific Interest and other crucial habitats as west Fermanagh. Environment Minister Mark Durkan appears to be aware of this, and has stated that:
“before the company is given permission to proceed, a full “screening” process under the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) Regulations will be required to ensure that there is no potential for significant environmental impact. I will ensure that this screening process is rigorous and definitive before permitted development rights are considered. If any aspect of this development is likely to have a significant environmental impact, permitted development rights will not apply. I have instructed officials to consider carefully whether or not these rights apply and I will make a statement about the Department’s decision in due course.”
It is to be hoped that the DoE will indeed have the time, resources and independence to carry out this scrutiny, without being bounced into the wrong decision by Tamboran’s precipitate arrival on site or by pressure from DETI. After a couple of years of comparative peace, the focus is back on Fermanagh, and we need to keep it as clear as possible.