County Fermanagh, as its proud residents and delighted visitors know, is a region of extraordinary beauty with unique landscapes and unrivalled habitats for rare species of wildlife and plants. This link takes you to the Northern Ireland Environment Agency’s list of Areas of Special Scientific Interest in the county, many of them in West Fermanagh, in or close to the area where shale gas extraction is planned.
The photograph on the left shows Lough Melvin, about which the Agency writes:
“Lough Melvin is a large mesotrophic lough of high scientific interest for its flora and fauna.The ASSI includes the open waters of the lough in addition to a range of associated wetland and terrestrial communities.
Habitats include swamp communities, boulder and rock shore, fen, woodland and species-rich grassland. This wide range of habitats is reflected in the diversity of plant and animal communities present.
Plants with a restricted distribution in the British isles include lesser meadow-rue, chaffweed, fragrant agrimony, upland enchanter’s-nightshade, northern bedstraw, slender-leaved pondweed and water lobelia.
Blue-eyed-grass and globeflower are of particular note and occur on Schedule 8 of the Wildlife (Northern Ireland) Order 1985.
The waters of the lough are unpolluted and in a relatively pristine state and support a unique salmonid fish community which dates back to the end of the last Ice Age. Three distinct sub-species of trout are found in Lough Melvin : sonaghen, gillaroo and ferox; providing one of the few examples of a once widespread situation of sympatric populations.
There are also stocks of the rare Atlantic salmon which is listed in Annex II of the EC Habitats and Species Directive and the Arctic charr, an Irish Red Data species.”
The Delaware, on the Atlantic coast of the United States, is one of America’s largest and most important rivers, providing water to millions. Issues such as conservation, flood mitigation and development are decided by the Delaware River Basin Commission, which is made up of the four governors of Delaware, Pennyslvania, New Jersey and New York together with a representative of the US government (currently a Brigadier General from the Army Corps of Engineers).
Our recent Fracking awareness meetings in Florencecourt and Cashel have been well attended by local people including many from the farming community. There was also a good turnout of fishermen at the Cashel meeting.
Farmers were particularly concerned about the potential impact of hydraulic fracturing (fracking) on the local agri-food industry. These small businesses are dependent on quality production to maintain their position in this niche market. The slightest suggestion of contamination of beef or milk could mean financial ruin. Speaking after the meeting Dr Carroll O’Dolan, spokesperson for FFAN, noted that where the farming community are struggling to survive in the current economic climate “even the perception of contamination could destroy the local agri-food industry”. At the end of the Cashel meeting committee members of the Garrison-Lough Melvin Anglers Association spoke of their concerns about fracking and its impact on the fishing on the famous waters of Lough Melvin.
Farmers who had diversified into tourism were equally anxious. They spoke of huge personal and public investments in Fermanagh’s tourism industry. This investment has created a brand recognised both nationally and internationally – ‘Fermanagh welcomes you naturally’. But will tourists still want to come here if Fermanagh loses its green and clean image to become one of concrete, heavy industry and heavy traffic? If there is a long term risk of water contamination and/or toxic chemicals getting into the food chain how will our fishing and Lakelands fare? There is a real concern that secure jobs in Fermanagh’s tourism industry could be under threat if ‘fracking’ is allowed to go ahead to be replaced by short term “potential” jobs.
Looking ahead, many were concerned about what happens when the extraction process is over. “Industrialised land” covered with concrete and contaminated with chemicals both above & below ground, cannot be farmed; indeed the landowners may find themselves responsible for difficult and expensive clean-up operations.
Other farmers were downright angry; if they are strictly regulated and penalised if they deviate from DARD & DOE regulations, then why were four exploration licenses for shale gas and oil extraction issued in Northern Ireland with very little consideration as to the impacts on health, the environment, the rural way of life and no public consultation?
Fracking for unconventional gas and oil is a relatively new technology which is causing much controversy around the world and has been banned or put on hold in many regions. It is significantly different from fracking for conventional gas & oil reserves, which has been used for the last sixty years. The British Geological Survey has concluded that fracking was the likely cause of the recent earthquakes near Blackpool, and that these earthquakes were between 10-100 times stronger than the usual low-level seismic activity that can normally occur in that area. A recent poll in the Guardian newspaper showed that 68.3% of respondents were opposed to fracking in the UK.
Closing the meeting in Florencecourt Dr O’Dolan said “We don’t know the long term impact that fracking will have on our health and the environment thus the precautionary principle should apply. The Governments should wait for the outcome of the very detailed studies being carried out in the USA & Europe, and both due for release in 2014. The ‘Sure we’ll see how it goes, if it turns out bad we’ll stop’ attitude is too dangerous.”
The next Fermanagh Fracking Awareness ‘Frack Aware’ public meeting will be held in the Tir Navar Centre in Derrygonnelly on Tuesday 29th November at 8.00pm. The meeting will include a presentation, with full details of the pros and cons of the shale gas extraction proposals, together with time for questions and discussion. As always, all are very welcome.
As many people are becoming aware, the area in which hydraulic fracturing is planned includes the Marble Arch Caves Geopark, one of less than sixty designated geoparks in the world, selected for their exceptional geological heritage and natural landscape. Within the Geopark are eight Special Areas of Conservation, at least eighteen Areas of Special Scientific Interest and a Special Area of Preservation.
Sonya O’Dwyer Oldham has prepared notes and a presentation about the area, its geology, flora and fauna and has kindly made this available to users of the frackaware site.
Her presentation shows us the landscape, which includes blanket bogs, turloughs, limestone pavement and karst underground cave systems and the beautiful, scarce and endangered species of plants and animals which live there. Rare butterflies, bats, otters, golden plovers, fish whose species dates back to the Ice Age, the evocatively named melancholy thistle, the unique cave dwelling water beetles of Boho, the Irish damselfly, the curlew and many more depend upon these habitats for their home. In many cases these are the only remaining populations of their species within Northern Ireland, and sometimes the only known examples in the world.
You can see Sonya’s presentation in Open Office or Powerpoint formats or the notes only (without pictures) on our Documents page (as item 11).
Once upon a time, something over a hundred million years ago, an awful lot of plankton lived and died and ended up on the muddy bottom of sea and lake beds mixed up with bits and pieces of vegetation. Sediment gradually built up over the plankton layer, heating it up and exerting such huge pressures that it eventually formed oil and natural gas. The gas migrated upwards until it reached a layer of non-porous rock such as certain types of shale formation. (Shale is a mixture of clay and tiny fragments of other minerals). The gas couldn’t get any further and stayed where it was.
And stayed where it was.
Even when the world had discovered the wonder of fossil fuels, and was burning them as though there were no tomorrow (which, for millions of species, turned out to be pretty much the case) the shale gas was still left alone because it looked so darn impossible to get out.
Meanwhile, the 1964 Petroleum Act declared that all the oil and gas (yes, technically gas is a type of petroleum) under the ground in Northern Ireland belonged to the Ministry of Commerce (now the DETI), and regulations were drawn up so that they could license private companies to extract it. They didn’t, of course, envisage drilling for shale gas, but the legislation was broad enough to come in very handy much later.
Over the next couple of decades, oil and gas companies in the United States spent a lot of time and money working on a process called hydraulic fracturing. The technique, basically blasting a mixture of sand and water underground, had been used for some time to force awkward bits of oil and gas out of conventional wells. But now, by using much more liquid, far higher pressures and a lot more chemical additives, they could use it to break open shale layers and get their hands on the natural gas inside.
It was, and still is, a pretty crude and unsubtle business, involving drilling down a kilometre or two, then horizontally a few more km, setting off explosives to start the destruction, then shattering the rocks with water at pressures of up to 15,000 psi (pounds per square inch) and holding the cracks open with ‘proppants’, tiny particles of sand or synthetic materials. There’s no way of controlling how the rocks fracture and consequently where the gas goes, the process uses some very nasty, toxic and carcinogenic substances, brings up more (heavy metals, radioactive materials etc.) from the depths and creates pollution of every kind – air, water, visual, noise and greenhouse gas emissions. But cheap, fossil fuel energy is the lifeblood of big, big business, and with conventional supplies drying up and oil-producing countries not always doing as they’re told, the idea of being able to get hold of burnable stuff under good American soil was just too tempting. And, if your citizens aren’t quite sure, you can always introduce a jolly and reassuring cartoon character…
So, the friendly fracosauri went ahead and drilled over 35,000 shale oil wells in the United States alone, plus more in Canada. Along with other ‘unconventional energy investors’ (sounds, cool, doesn’t it, like a banker who’s thrown away his tie and just, like, shimmied on down to pick up his bonus in a T-shirt?) such as those nice guys ripping up the Alberta tar sands, they made a great deal of money, assisted by their top government connections and exemption from most health, safety and environmental laws. But, oddly enough, people started to complain. It seems that the patriotic thrill of having an indigenous gas source wasn’t quite enough to make up for having drinking water contaminated with methane, radium and benzene, poisoned creeks and rivers, explosions and fires, depleted water supplies, subsidence, earthquakes, polluted air, clouds of silica particles, noise and light pollution, massive HGV traffic and serious health problems for animals, birds, fish and people. By the time Josh Fox’s award-winning documentary Gasland came out in 2010, the trickle of unease had become a steady stream of opposition. As the president of the Colorado Oil and Gas Association said in September 2011,
“These nuts make up about 90% of our population, so we can’t really call them nuts any more. They’re the mainstream.”
Fortunately for the industry, North America isn’t the only part of the world where shale layers lie deep beneath the ground, holding the possibility of lucrative gas. As the United States and Canada grow a little heated for comfort, gas companies are busy staking out their claims elsewhere: in China, India, Australia, New Zealand, and, yes, the United Kingdom and Ireland. They’re banking, literally, on the assumptions that people don’t take much notice of what happens in other countries, don’t communicate, don’t learn from one another and from history. They think, like colonists dangling shiny strings of beads, that the suggestion, not even a promise, of a few jobs and a little state revenue will be enough to overcome enquiry, caution and common sense.
In some places they’ve been surprised. In the Karoo region of South Africa, a country that needs economic good news more than most, a level-headed and hard-working campaign has kept their unique landscape safe so far. Across the world more and more people are waking up to the realities of hydraulic fracturing and what it could mean for their environment, their lives and those of their children. We have yet to see whether or not the ‘nuts’ become the ‘mainstream’ in time to make a difference.
Finally, back to Northern Ireland. On April 1st 2011 (but probably not as an April Fool’s prank) the DETI granted four licences in relation to oil and gas exploitation in different parts of the region, including Rathlin Island and West Fermanagh. Links to the licences and a map of the licensed area (which includes the Marble Arch Caves Geopark) are on our Documents page. The Fermanagh licence has been granted to an Australian company called Tamboran Resources who have also been granted a similar licence by the Irish government in relation to the parts of the Lough Allen basin which are within the Republic. Tamboran is at present a small company founded by a former investment banker but it is expected that, with these licences and land purchased in Botswana and elsewhere, it will be floated on the Australian stock market next year for over a hundred million dollars.
The licence is for an initial period of five years, during which various types of exploration and test drilling can be carried out. After this, if the company (or their successors) wish it, and have complied with various requirements, the licence can continue for a further twenty-five years or more. During this period a thousand individual wells could be drilled in the area on around a hundred sites linked by access roads and including buildings, heavy machinery and vehicles, and 50 x 50 metre water storage ‘ponds’. According to the company’s own website, each site, called a ‘wellpad’, “could be required for the full 65 years“.
As soon as the grant of the licences became known, people on both sides of the Irish border began asking questions. It was clear, from the experiences of many communities in the United States and Canada, that hydraulic fracturing was not the clean and simple process promised by Terry the Fracosaurus and that our landscape, economy and daily lives would be entirely altered if the proposed operations were to go ahead. Tamboran held several ‘Information Evenings’ at which some of these concerns – about the effect upon tourism, risk to agricultural production, depletion of water supplies, potential effects upon health, levels of HGV traffic, risk of water and air contamination etc were raised. It is fair to say that, in the clear view of a large majority of the audiences, the representatives from Tamboran, including the CEO, did not provide satisfactory responses to these questions.
Since then, public meetings have been held in several towns and villages (and more are planned) to explore these issues more fully. Details of these meetings and other news are available on this website. The Fermanagh Fracking Awareness Network exists to provide information about shale gas and hydraulic fracturing in our area, to help coordinate local groups within the county and to work closely with similar groups in the Irish Republic and elsewhere. Please feel free to contact us if you have any questions, or would like to help in any way.
p.s. Tamboran’s website is obviously a work in progress and many of its pages are as yet blank. We don’t know, therefore, where its name originates from. However, the only other major references to ‘Tamboran’ on Google are to Mount Tambora in Indonesia.
Mount Tambora is an active stratovolcano on the island of Sumbawa. In April 1815 it exploded in the largest and most deadly volcanic eruption in recorded history. The explosion could be heard two thousand miles away in Sumatra. Around twelve thousand people were killed directly by the eruption and another sixty thousand from the consequent starvation and disease. The explosion caused widespread tsumamis across the region and abrupt changes in the world’s climate including the ‘volcanic winter’ of 1815/6. On the island of Sumbawa itself, all vegetation was destroyed and flames and aftershocks were still being observed four years later. As a direct result of Tambora’s eruption, 1816 was known across the northern hemisphere as the ‘year without a summer’, with frosts and snow in temperate areas as late as June. Crops failed and livestock died in Europe, North America and other regions, resulting in the worst famine of the nineteenth century.
But it wasn’t bad news for quite everyone. As Ballard C. Campbell explains in his book Disasters, Accidents and Crises in American History,
“Speculators hoarded and sold farm goods to Canada, and parts of Europe also suffering crop shortages, further driving up the prices of necessary commodities in local markets.”
Closer to home, Dr. Antony Ingraffea, one of the pioneers of hydraulic fracturing has said, referring to Tamboran Resources’ proposals for the Lough Allen basin,
“The trade off here is between wealth and health, there will be a few people who will derive very high wealth from this and everyone else bears the risk of human health concerns.”
Perhaps we can learn from history, after all.
The celebrated film Gasland will be shown on Tuesday, October 18 from 6:00pm – 9:00pm at Queen’s University Belfast, Room 0G/007, Peter Frogatt Centre (PFC). The showing will be followed by a talk by guest speaker Tom Hyde.
GASLAND is an award-winning independent documentary exposing the perilous effects of natural gas drilling on communities in America.
The film has been called a ‘horror movie and wake up call’ to the increasingly pervasive process of energy extraction called Hydraulic Fracturing or, as it’s commonly known, ‘fracking.’ Fracking pumps water at high velocity into the ground with a mixture of chemicals, some of which are harmful to the environment, to extract gas from below. The film highlights communities who, lured by the promise of profit, are now experiencing the consequences of hydraulic fracturing – including the loss of potable ground water, flammable taps, environmental degradation and being perpetually beholden to the plans of the energy companies.
This event has been organised by a group of concerned students to raise awareness of the hydraulic fracturing operations planned for large areas across North and South of Ireland, in counties ranging from Fermanagh and Antrim to Roscommon and Leitrim.
The guest speaker is Tom Hyde who has been an active campaigner on this subject. He will be able to answer any questions the audience has after the showing of GASLAND.
GASLAND was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature in 2011 and won the Sundance Festival Special Jury Prize for Best US Documentary in 2010, among other awards.
Click here to go to the Facebook page for this event.