NFU (Canada) calls for fracking moratorium

The National Farmers Union of Canada has called for a moratorium on hydraulic fracturing, concluding that the process poses a danger to water, food and farmland.

“Many farmers in my area who either have direct experience with the destructive nature of hydro-fracking technology on their water wells, or who have neighbours who have been affected have come to me with their concerns” says Jan Slomp, Rimbey area dairy farmer and Region 7 (Alberta) Coordinator for the National Farmers Union (NFU). “We are in the heart of Alberta’s oil and gas country where our ability to produce good, wholesome food is at risk of being compromised by the widespread, virtually unregulated use of this dangerous process.”

At NFU Region 7’s recent public meeting dozens of concerned farm families heard how their neighbours, the Campbell family from Crestomere, Alberta, had their water well contaminated by highly toxic compounds, which they clearly linked to the fracking of a nearby oil and gas well. Several other attendees then brought forward their stories of losing water wells to fracking near their own farms. “Not many of these stories get made public because the oil and gas companies usually force farmers to sign confidentiality agreements in return for replacement of their water wells” said Slomp.

Iain Aitken, an Alberta cattle rancher and local NFU member observed, “Farmers across Canada largely depend on ground water aquifers for both domestic use and livestock production. The quality of ground water is critical to raising high quality food. Unfortunately in the experience of too many Alberta farmers and ranchers hydraulic fracturing has been associated with water well contamination and damage. That is why our organization is calling for a moratorium on this technique until these problems can be addressed.”

Jan Slomp concluded “The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers have really acknowledged there are problems with fracking by releasing several useful suggestions for guidelines to prevent further problems. However these voluntary guidelines are no substitute for strong regulations enforced by an impartial government body. That is what is needed before we can support any resumption of fracking.”

The NFU represents thousands of family farms across Canada. At its 2011 annual convention members passed a landmark resolution calling for a moratorium on the use of hydraulic fracturing of sub-surface oil and gas formations.

Jessica Ernst speaking in Belcoo

Jessica Ernst on her land, photograph by Colin Smith

Fermanagh Fracking Awareness Network is pleased to announce that Jessica Ernst will be speaking on the issue of ‘Fracking Inhumanity’ at the Belcoo Community Centre at 8pm on Tuesday 21 February, describing her personal experiences of living with the effects of hydraulic fracturing (fracking).

Tamboran Resources recently announced that they are ready to progress to the next stage of their plans to extract gas by hydraulic fracturing in County Fermanagh. However, people from Fermanagh and beyond have pointed out the dangers that this process poses to public health, the environment and local industries such as agriculture and tourism. Indeed, in recent months, both Fermanagh District Council and the Northern Ireland Assembly have passed motions calling for a moratorium on the technique, though their calls have as yet gone unheeded by the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Industry, which granted the licence to Tamboran.

In the wake of these important events, this talk will be of interest to anyone who would like to know more about hydraulic fracturing and the realities of living in an area where such activity takes place.

Jessica Ernst is an environmental scientist, with 30 years’ experience in the oil industry. Fracking has been taking place near her farm in Alberta, Canada for the past 10 years. As a result she is forced to get water from outside sources because her well is poisoned and contains explosive levels of methane gas. She has filed legal actions against oil and gas company Encana, the Energy Resources Conservation Board and the Alberta Government with respect to their responsibility for this situation.

Jessica’s career and personal experience make her uniquely qualified to speak upon this subject. Don’t miss this rare opportunity to hear her as she exposes the dangers of fracking and answers questions about what the process has meant for her and her neighbours and how it could affect us here in Fermanagh.

Read more about Jessica here.

Latest research

  The chair of FFAN, Dr Carroll O’Dolan, has put together this very useful list of the latest authoritative research available on the subject of fracking.

1) TYNDALL CENTRE, UNIVERSITY of MANCHESTER.
SHALE GAS REPORT COMMISIONED BY THE CO-OPERATIVE BANK { 2011}

http://www.tyndall.ac.uk/publications/technical-report/2011/shale-gas-provisional-assessment-climate-change-and-environmental

2) U.S. ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION AGENCY DRAFT REPORT INTO GROUND WATER CONTAMINATION IN WYOMING {2011}
“ EXPLANATION BEST FITTING THE DATA [IS THAT] CONSTITUENTS ASSOCIATED WITH HYDRAULIC FRACTURING HAVE BEEN RELEASED INTO THE WIND RIVER DRINKING WATER AQUIFER”

3) EUROPEAN PARLIAMENT: POLICY DOCUMENT {2011}
IMPACTS OF SHALE GAS AND SHALE OIL EXTRACTION ON THE ENVIRONMENT AND ON HUMAN HEALTH.
EXECUTIVE SUMMARY PAGE 9.

4) THE ENDOCRINE DISRUPTION INDEX, COLORADO.
REPORT – NATURAL GAS OPERATIONS FROM A PUBLIC HEALTH PERSPECTIVE { 2011}
www.endocrinedisruption.com ON HOME PAGE CLICK INTO THE REPORT.

5) DOCTORS FOR THE ENVIRONMENT AUSTRALIA INC. [ D E A ] http://www.dea.org.au
INQUIRY INTO COAL SEAM GAS { 2011 }

Gasbagging

There’s been quite a flurry in the local media this week over Tamboran’s much-trailed ‘announcement’. In fact the press release, written by the PR giants Weber Shandwick (specialisms include ‘baby-boomer marketing’ and product placement), contained a lot more fluff than substance and several of the industry’s hoarier old tricks.

State the obvious

“Energy company Tamboran Resources Pty Ltd (“Tamboran”) is pleased to announce that initial studies have confirmed that a substantial natural gas field is present in southwest County Fermanagh in Northern Ireland.”

Even my dog knows this. The important question for Tamboran is ‘will they be able to extract and sell it at a rate which would make them enormous profits?’ The important question for the rest of us is ‘what effect would this industrial process have on our economy, environment and future?’

 

Think of a number …

“A gas exploration project for Northern Ireland could create 600 full time jobs, up to 2,400 indirect jobs”

No one knows where the 600 figure comes from; as the Green Party point out, Tamboran has previously estimated 800 for the whole of Ireland while according to TV3, the (same?) 600 jobs are going to be in Country Leitrim. Could it possibly be a figure plucked from the air, big enough to offer hope to the desperate while small enough to still sound plausible? 2,400 is another suspiciously exact number. Is there perhaps some list of economic pseudo-statistics that states that every direct job involves four indirect ones? (More or less, we discover later, from Domhnall Ó Cobhthaigh’s analysis.) In any case, the magic words ‘could’ and ‘up to’ make the whole exercise pretty meaningless – ‘up to 2,400 jobs’ could mean three as easily as two thousand. Contrary to some of the excited headlines, there are no promises here.

What jobs there might be; and we realise that if the fracking goes ahead then someone will be paid for doing something, are equally vague. Full time is not, of course, the same thing as permanent, and we suspect that many of these will be contracts to dig a hole or drive a lorry. If you employ someone for a week three times a year over a ten year period is that one job or thirty? In neither case is it a lot of help. Meanwhile the few plum jobs; mining engineers and the like, will almost certainly go to people brought in from the gas industry in North America.

The numbers that of course aren’t mentioned are the jobs and small businesses that will be threatened by fracking. The twin poles of our county’s economy are farming, specifically food production, and tourism, particularly eco-tourism. Both of these depend absolutely upon the perception of Fermanagh as clean, safe and unspoiled. We can’t afford to gamble with that.

 

Compare like with unlike

“and deliver natural gas energy security for the next 50 years.”

This is later explained as the

“[p]otential for ultimate production of up to 2.2 trillion cubic feet (tcf) of shale gas. This equates to 50 years of the current daily consumption of gas in Northern Ireland;”

We don’t, of course, expect either Tamboran or Weber Shandwick to know it, but in Fermanagh, as in much of Northern Ireland, we don’t consume any mains gas at all. Fifty times hardly anything is, er, not very much. It’s a bit like asking an old lady how much lager she drinks, multiplying it by fifty and presenting her with a six-pack, saying that should deliver her liquid requirements for the next 50 years.

 

Think of a bigger number

“The company, which proposes to invest £6 billion in Northern Ireland, was commenting following completion of the first part of its analysis to determine the feasibility of shale gas exploration in Northern Ireland. Tamboran’s technical team of over 20 professionals have been involved in substantial natural projects worldwide and have very high confidence that they can commercially develop this project in Northern Ireland. The full analysis will be published by the end of this year.”

£6 billion may well be an amount of money Tamboran are hoping to obtain for this project from shareholders and banks following their planned flotation on the Australian stock market this year. That’s not quite the same thing as investing in Northern Ireland in the sense that most of us would understand.

 

Repeat it

“Tamboran, who last year was granted an Exploration Licence by the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment, is focusing its Northern Ireland operations in the southwest area of County Fermanagh. The Company has been granted a Licensing Option in an adjacent area in the Republic of Ireland where it is focusing in north County Leitrim.

The north-west region of Ireland is the only part of the island which is not currently connected to the gas network.

Outlining its initial analysis, which was based on its own and other recent studies, Tamboran identified a range of economic and energy benefits for Northern Ireland from the project, including:

§ Potential for ultimate production of up to 2.2 trillion cubic feet (tcf) of shale gas. This equates to 50 years of the current daily consumption of gas in Northern Ireland;

§ Full natural gas security of supply in Northern Ireland for at least 20 years and a substantial reduction in imports for over 30 years leading to removal of Northern Ireland’s 100% dependency on imported gas;

§ Excess gas supply at peak production, enabling Northern Ireland to become a significant net exporter of natural gas;

§ The creation of 600 direct jobs and an estimated 2,400 indirect jobs in County Fermanagh;

§ Tax revenues of up to £6.9 billion (including royalties, corporation tax, Vat, employment taxes and exploration tax); and”

Yes, that £6 billion had a nice ring about it, didn’t it? Well worth using again, of course with the safety precaution of ‘up to’. There’s no mention of what period this is supposed to cover – if it’s over the fifty plus years they’ve referred to in other contexts then it doesn’t sound quite so exciting. What is certain is that for any of this money to come to the UK government (and it would not of course, be earmarked for Northern Ireland) Tamboran would have to be making pretty substantial profits out of a resource which is supposed to belong to the people of this country.

And somehow, quite legally of course, companies that make enormous profits don’t always end up paying quite as much tax as the initial figures would suggest. Barclays Bank, for example, made profits in 2009 of £11.6 billion. Incredibly, their tax bill, which at a rate of 22% would have been over £2.5bn, came out as a mere £113m – around 1 per cent. It would, we think, be very unwise for any country or region to depend on getting tax revenue from a foreign-owned company, especially when that company’s activities threaten the balance sheets of local businesses.

 

try a sweetener

“§ A community investment fund directed entirely within County Fermanagh, estimated to lead to additional local benefits in excess of £2 million per year once the project reaches expected commerciality in 2015.”

Out of those hoped-for profits, £2 million would of course be peanuts. But then, peanuts are a useful thing to fling around when you want to distract the monkeys from what you’re doing to their tree. Again, nothing is promised, but we can expect to see some small boys in glossy Tamboran football shirts for a great photo-opportunity.

 

quote yourself as an authority

“Describing the project as ‘an energy and economic game changer for Northern Ireland’, Richard Moorman, Chief Executive of Tamboran said:

‘Our initial analysis suggests very substantial shale gas reserves in the southwest Fermanagh area. Allowing for even modest rates of recovery, the energy and economic benefits would be tremendous.’

‘Security of energy supply is a primary concern for all governments. Our analysis indicates that the island of Ireland is in the fortunate position to have substantial gas reserves under its feet. In southwest Fermanagh alone, we believe that there is up to 50 years of the present daily gas consumption of Northern Ireland. Realising these reserves would secure gas supply for decades, protect consumers and businesses from market uncertainty and negate the risks associated with being over dependent on unpredictable external supplies. County Fermanagh would be able to attract additional businesses that would benefit directly from a secure local natural gas supply.’”

As we’ve pointed out, we have no gas infrastructure here, and there is no reason to think that this gas would be used within Northern Ireland or indeed the Republic, rather than being exported. ‘Market uncertainty’ is about price rather than supply, and Tamboran’s profits will depend upon the price being as high as possible.

The real problem with fossil fuels, as every primary schoolchild, though oddly not Richard Moorman, realises, is that they are creating devastating levels of climate change which will alter all of our lives for the worse within just a few short years. Shale gas, because of the crude nature of the extraction process and the amount of gas which is consequently wasted, is at least as bad if not worse than coal in this respect. If we really care about our children’s future we will take steps to switch to the renewable energies in which Northern Ireland is naturally and richly endowed, rather than wasting time and worse on unecessary hydraulic fracturing.

 

quote a celebrity – or even better, two

“Natural gas from shale has made a substantial positive impact in North America already. In his State of the Union address on the 25th of January, US President Barack Obama stated: “We have a supply of natural gas that can last America nearly one hundred years, and my Administration will take every possible action to safely develop this energy. Experts believe this will support more than 600,000 jobs by the end of the decade. And I’m requiring all companies that drill for gas on public lands to disclose the chemicals they use. America will develop this resource without putting the health and safety of our citizens at risk.”

President Obama’s comments are similar to statements by former US President Bill Clinton in his recently published book “Back to Work: Why we need smart government for a strong economy”, in which he wrote: “With proper care, I think we can extract the gas. We need it, and it can make us both more energy independent and contribute to job creation and growth.”

Somehow other parts of President Obama’s address, the bits about renewable energy, wind turbines, and energy efficiency, didn’t get quoted, along with the bits condemning lax regulation, overpaid executives and gambles that lead to people losing their jobs. But we know all about the problems that the fracking industry has created in America and how impossible it has been for those charged with protecting health and the environment to do anything about it. Richard Moorman has told us many times that the American experience has nothing to do with the situation in Ireland, which makes it rather odd that his PR people are now wheeling out not one but two US presidents. Did they try, and fail, to find a respected Irish or European politician who would support their case?

 

repeat yourself

“Mr Moorman further stated ‘Our projections of the economic gains for Northern Ireland from this proposed £6 billion investment includes up to £6.9 billion in tax revenues over the lifetime of the project, 600 full-time, long-term direct jobs by 2025 (with up to 2,400 indirect jobs), for a total of about 14,000 direct person-years of employment through to the year 2050. Tamboran expects to provide comprehensive and continuous training to all of its local employees to ensure they can commercially succeed within Tamboran.’”

We get some more figures here, along with the headline ones, but they don’t quite seem to add up. Between now and 2050 is 38 years and 14,000 ‘person-years of employment’ divided by 38 gives 368, not 600. As for ‘comprehensive and continuous training’, isn’t that what burger-flippers get at McDonald’s?

As Tamboran know, the prospect of jobs is the only real aspect of their plans which is likely to appeal to local people. It’s therefore in their interests to play it up as much as possible. Equally, if we care about the future of our young people, and hope that they will be able to stay in Fermanagh and raise their own families here, we need to look carefully at what is, and what isn’t likely to happen. Domhnall Ó Cobhthaigh has done just this on his excellent blog at http://networkedblogs.com/tvnua which gives a full analysis of the figures used by Tamboran in this statement. On the question of jobs, he says;

“Tamboran say that 600 full-time and long-term jobs will be created if this proceeds. I fail to see how that could be true.

Most jobs created in this industry are associated with building the pads and then with the actual fracking process itself. Once a well is fracked it continues to release methane over many months until it has to be refracked.

Once a well has been fracked the only thing that requires employment is watching that the flow continues from all the wells in the field (one person could almost do this with the appropriate equipment) and with security. 600 full time jobs? It doesn’t sound realistic.

So the direct jobs created sounds like a massive over-estimate. But there’s even worse. The construction phase and development of 150 4-acre pads in this region will destroy the local tourism industry. The threat of benzene-infused waste water escaping into the local water courses will probably kill off any growth in agriculture and organic food and drink production in this area will just disappear as a result. Who wants to drink beer brewed in a place where the water is potentially contaminated by fracking waste-water? Fishing in Lough Melvin and Lough MacNean are potentially finished not to mention the impact of the water demand associated with each of these wells (6 to 8 million gallons of water per well and there could be up to 16 each pad). The environmental impact on agriculture and tourism will be devastating.

These happen to be the only industries in West Fermanagh and North Leitrim so even if Tamboran does create 600 full-time jobs for 25 years it will be at the cost of hundreds of jobs lost in tourism and in agriculture.”

 

 

make a virtue out of necessity

“Tamboran is proceeding with its agreed work programme of analysis, required under its existing licences, and will publish an update later this year. Additionally, the company will undertake a comprehensive Environmental Impact Assessment which will include a 12 month baseline study of all aspects of the environment, including soil, groundwater, air quality, noise levels, and seismic activity. The company will publish these findings upon completion in early 2013 and will then outline its intentions as to how it will request permission to proceed to the next stage of the licensing and planning processes.

Concluding, Mr Moorman said ‘In recent months we have met with and listened to a wide range of stakeholders at community, business, regulatory and political levels. We will continue with this approach, outlining the reality of our proposal while acknowledging that a project of this scale will attract requests for clarity and support.’

‘Tamboran will not utilise any chemicals in its hydraulic fracturing process in Northern Ireland, and we will be bringing together the best technologies developed worldwide into this one project to ensure the safe and responsible development of a tremendous resource for Northern Ireland.’

‘We are undertaking a full Environmental Impact Assessment, which will set out the specific criteria under which the company must safely and responsibly conduct its operations to the very highest standards.’

‘Additionally, we will establish a substantial community investment fund to ensure all benefits are shared at local as well as national levels. We consider it essential to deliver a direct benefit for local residents. Tamboran undertakes to operate safely and our commitment to openness and transparency will remain every step of the way.’

International studies worldwide have shown that natural gas has low carbon content relative to other fossil fuels, which would also allow it to play a significant role in reducing CO2 emissions, acting as a bridge to a low-carbon future (see editors’ notes).

Tamboran invites all stakeholders, especially local residents, to engage with the company and work closely with us to ensure that the project is conducted responsibly to meet the essential economic needs of the community and Northern Ireland.”

The company is legally obliged to carry out an Environmental Impact Assessment: what is significant is not that it will do it, but how independent, complete and reliable it will be. Past experience sadly doesn’t promise much, but we can hope.

The point about chemicals continues to be unclear. It has been pointed out by experts that no hydraulic fracturing for shale gas extraction has been carried out worldwide without using chemicals in the fracking fluid – without them the sand would not remain suspended in the liquid and the equipment would rapidly deteriorate. Tamboran has not explained how it proposes to overcome these basic obstacles. It is also the case that not all the toxic chemicals are strictly within the ‘hydraulic fracturing process’ – many are contained within drilling muds, engine exhausts etc or are brought up from deep underground with the flowback waste. Finally, there is no extension of this pledge (itself not of course legally binding) to the activities of any subcontractor or subsequent purchaser of the licence.

Sadly, there is no evidence that Tamboran has listened to the concerns of local people or done anything tangible to address the issues which they raise. Indeed, on TV3 this week, the company’s Tony Bazley accused people like us who ask questions about their plans of trying to ‘intimidate the local communities’. It is difficult to see how, given such an attitude, local residents are able to engage with the company in any other way than mindlessly agreeing with everything it says. However, we will continue, in our quiet way, to ask the difficult questions, share the information which we have and speak out on behalf of the most vulnerable in our environment and society.

 

p.s. The ‘editor’s notes’ re gas and climate change refer to a study by Massachusetts Institute of Technology which receives significant donations from the gas industry. Their studies on this issue are partially funded by the American Clean Skies Foundation, formed by the billionaire CEO of Chesapeake Energy, the second largest producer of natural gas in the US. Other academic reports have come to different conclusions.

 

 

 

Fuelling Ireland’s public health problems

Fuelling Ireland’s public health problems — Irish Medical Times. (click on link to read the article in full)

“[F]ive issues can be identified that raise concerns about the impact of fracking on health.   Firstly, the process of fracking uses a wide variety of chemicals,  including friction reducers, surfactants, gelling agents, scale inhibitors, acids, corrosion inhibitors, antibacterial agents and clay stabilisers. Additional naturally occurring heavy metals and radioactive materials may also be mobilised from the rock during its fracture, including arsenic, cadmium, chromium, thorium and uranium and these may also interact with the chemicals in the fluid.

In addition, the possibility of accidental release of chemicals and gases through fire, vandalism, or spills and leaks from poor practices is an ongoing risk.

Toxic mud and fluid by-products from the drilling and fracking, as well as spills of oil and gas wastes, are not uncommon. The health impact of such chemicals depends on factors such as the toxicity, dose, route and duration of exposure, and the vulnerability of the people being affected…

Secondly, air may also be contaminated by volatile chemicals released during drilling (combustion from machinery and transport) and from other operations, during methane separation or by evaporation from holding ponds. Methane gas is also explosive….

Thirdly, fracking requires substantial amounts of water, 1.5 million gallons per well …  A shortage of water would pose considerable threats to health and well-being of people living in the area. The company proposes using some of the waste water for fracking. However, this will very possibly involve the burning off some of the toxic residues leading to additional air pollution, as well as storage difficulties.

Fourthly, the soil may be contaminated by drilling sludge, which may contain drilling mud, hydrocarbons, radioactive material and heavy metals. This would have serious consequences for grasslands used for leisure or agriculture purposes. The consumption of meat and or milk from animals grazing on such land would also give rise for concern.

Finally, the British Geological Survey states that it is well established that fluid injections can cause small earthquakes and fracking has been associated with two small quakes near Blackpool.

It is widely recognised that we need to reduce our emissions of greenhouse gasses. The adoption of fracking is a step away from a solution to the problem of climate change. We must leave any remnants of fossil fuel in the ground, instead of seeking ever more expensive and environmentally destructive methods of extracting them. … In the interests of public health, we must not allow fracking in Ireland.

Any tragedy is upsetting; an avoidable tragedy is all the more so.”

(Dr. Elizabeth Cullen)

 

Farmers express fracking fears

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 story so far

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.

And stayed where it was.

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.