Over the past few months a lot has happened, so here’s a quick summary of what has been going on.
April 1st 2011
DETI (the Northern Ireland Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment) granted a licence to Tamboran Resources to ‘search and bore for and get petroleum’ [the term includes gas] in a large area of County Fermanagh. The licence included a Work Programme divided into two parts. Part 1 was to cover years 1-3 (i.e. 2011 – 2014) and to include studies, assessments, sampling and reviews. Part 2 was to cover years 4-5 (i.e. 2014 – 2016) and to include finalising drilling locations, applying for permissions and drilling two wells in which hydraulic fracturing (‘fracking’) would take place.
December 6th 2011
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 stated that ‘no hydraulic fracking licence has been issued’, apparently unaware of the terms of her department’s April 1st licence.
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.”
It is understood that Tamboran Resources has advised Fermanagh District Council that it has completed its initial studies etc and that it will soon be seeking permissions to proceed to the drilling and hydraulic fracturing stages of the Work Programme. A statement to this effect from Tamboran is anticipated in the next few days.
These events raise several serious questions. These questions are likely to be asked not only by those opposed to hydraulic fracturing but also by those who are as yet undecided and those who are broadly in favour of the use of the technique.
1. How detailed and careful can the initial studies and assessments have been, if they have been completed in less than nine months? The industrial process of shale gas extraction has implications for geological formations (including the Marble Arch Caves), the local water system, including loughs, the water table, rivers and streams, public health including the necessity for clean air and drinking water, transport and congestion on small rural roads, agriculture, tourism, fishing and flora and fauna, including many rare and endangered species. Each of these areas needs to be looked at in great detail, over at least an annual cycle, in order to have any hope of protecting our community and environment from damage.
2. No public consultation was carried out by DETI before awarding the licence to Tamboran and no prior notice was given to the Northern Ireland Assembly or Fermanagh District Council. Now both the Assembly and the Council have had the opportunity to debate the issue, and both have raised serious concerns, so serious that they have called for a moratorium on hydraulic fracturing. In view of this clear line taken by our elected representatives, and the widespread public concern which it reflects, is it really in the interests of democracy for DETI to carry on regardless?
3. Although it suits the gas industry to claim that it is highly regulated here, the truth is that neither Northern Ireland nor the UK as a whole have any laws or regulations specifically about hydraulic fracturing. It is very unclear whose responsibility it is to ensure the safety of workers, local people and the natural environment. The granting of licences is made under a law dating from 1964 and takes little or no account of nearly half a century of scientific, technological and environmental change. Here in Northern Ireland the situation is especially serious as we, unlike almost all other developed countries and regions, have no independent Environmental Protection Agency, and the nature of our ministerial system makes it very difficult for departments to work together. The whole process is far from straightforward, leaving local people with an unsettling question – Who is watching the gasmen?