Fermanagh fracking fight perhaps a taste of things to come

Friday 15 August 2014 14.51
The government here has asked the EPA to carry out a study into fracking

The government here has asked the EPA to carry out a study on fracking

By Will Goodbody, Science & Technology Correspondent

@willgoodbody

In Belcoo, County Fermanagh opponents of fracking must be collectively exhaling. Over the past few months they took on Goliath. And yesterday they won – for now at least.

For months protests had been building there against an application by energy company Tamboran Resources to drill a fracking exploratory bore hole. Fracking involves the cracking open of deeply buried shale rock using high pressure fluid, which in turn releases gas that is then brought to the surface.

Tamboran estimates there could be up to £20bn worth of gas in the area around the border between Fermanagh and Leitrim. The problem is, however, the only way to get the gas out is from the northern side of the border, because fracking licences are currently not being issued by the government here while an in-depth study is being carried out.

Tamboran wanted to explore how much gas is under the ground there, by drilling a 750m deep hole in a quarry near Belcoo. It wasn’t planning to carry out fracking – just do some tests.

But the north’s Minister for the Environment, Mark Durkan, concluded the work needed an Environmental Impact Assessment before it could be carried out, and that permitted development rights do not apply.

The decision is a significant blow to Tamboran, which must now weigh up its options. It’s also a significant early stage victory for those who oppose onshore shale gas exploration in the north, and by extension south of the border.

The experience, however, is but a mere taster of what lies ahead for regulatory authorities, exploration companies and local communities in the Republic, if the government does eventually give the green light to fracking here. It is a deeply divisive subject, provoking strong emotions on either pole of the argument.

The big concern around fracking centres on the potential dangers and damage. Principally detractors claim the process of releasing the gas can cause earthquakes, lead to the contamination of ground and drinking water and the emission of damaging gases and other elements into the atmosphere. Concern is also often expressed about the impact the diversion of often millions of litres of water per well from rivers and water sources can have on local supplies.

On the other side, the big well-funded backers of fracking say it’s all much ado about nothing. They say the wells are drilled far below the water table and anyway, the sides of the bore holes are sealed with concrete and metal casing, particularly at shallow depths, to prevent leakage. They claim the economic spin-offs for the local and national economy are huge. And naturally they play down the overall environmental impact.

Unfortunately though, good definitive scientific data on the subject is in relatively short supply – though that is slowly changing. (It is surprising that this is the case, given that fracking has been carried out in some places for decades). As a result, the picture painted by both sides in such arguments is often muddied by dubious statistics, unsubstantiated claims and anecdote rather than hard analysis.

It also means that attitudes of countries with shale gas deposits around the world varies quite considerably. In parts of the US, they can’t drill the boreholes fast enough, with many predicting fracking will help propel the US to energy self-sufficiency within two decades. Even our nearest neighbours are at it, with David Cameron’s government backing plans for a significant ramping up of exploration in the UK over the coming years.

Others, however, have taken an opposite stance. France’s constitutional court last year upheld a 2011 ban on fracking, for example. Germany too is edging closer to prohibiting the practice, despite its obvious energy needs. Spain, on the other hand, which was until recently anti-fracking, is gradually altering its stance, as the economic realities of its impact on a stagnant economy dawn.

Here we will have to wait for the scientific evidence particular to Ireland’s geological and hydrological environment before a decision is taken. The government has asked the Environmental Protection Agency to conduct a broad-based study to identify best practice in respect of environmental protection around fracking. The two year project is just getting underway, and in the meantime any applications for exploration licences will be put on hold, pending publication of the research.

Currently, we import all our oil and 90% of our gas. Our efforts in growing supply of renewable energy are ongoing, but aren’t happening fast enough. In two years time, probably after the next election, the government should have all the data to hand that it needs to make a decision on whether or not to allow fracking here.

Memories of the reaction to proposals to drill a single exploratory fracking bore in Fermanagh in August 2014 may have faded by then. But they are unlikely to have been forgotten.

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