Well, 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.]