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.