I’m pleased to see that Roisin Henderson of the Fermanagh Herald has followed up this news on Tamboran, which I sent to the paper last week. This article appeared in yesterday’s edition.
To give a bit of background about how we found out about this, here is my original press release:
It has been revealed that Tamboran Resources (UK) Ltd, the company which previously held a licence to frack in Fermanagh, has lodged yet another legal application to support its bid to return to the county.
In a reply to a request for information from the Enterprise, Trade and Investment Committee, which includes Steven Agnew MLA, leader of the Green Party in Northern Ireland, a Departmental Response has been produced by DETI’s Minerals and Petroleum Branch.
This contained the shocking news that Tamboran had submitted an application to the High Court to challenge the adoption of the Strategic Planning Policy Statement. This statement, published in September 2015, included a presumption against fracking in Northern Ireland, and was widely welcomed. This is the third application for judicial review proceedings to be launched by Tamboran since its licence was terminated in September 2014, the other two being still ongoing.
Steven Agnew, responding to the revelation, said:
“The community has shown its opposition to fracking in Fermanagh and across Northern Ireland.
“The Northern Ireland Assembly has also voiced its opposition having previously passed my motion calling for licences to be withdrawn.
“Tamboran should stop wasting their time and the community’s patience, with this legal challenge.”
Green Party member and prominent frack-free activist Tom White from Belcoo added:
“This is the type of industry we’re dealing with; one which will throw legal challenges at every opportunity. We saw an inkling of this with the injunction that was issued when Tamboran were on site. The more we learn about this industry, the more it shows itself to have no place in our society.”
Tanya Jones, Green Party candidate for Fermanagh and South Tyrone, and a founder member of the Fermanagh Fracking Awareness Network said:
“I am appalled, but sadly not surprised by this development. The fracking threat has not gone away, and we cannot afford to be complacent about the future of our beautiful county and our children’s health. I, with my Green Party colleagues, will continue to campaign, inside Stormont and out, until this dangerous, speculative and experimental industry is banned from Northern Ireland forever.”
Tom’s excellent blog, The Gasman Cometh (yes, I’m a Flanders & Swann fan too), is, as ever, well worth reading. He has written recently about the implications of Tamboran’s latest financial deal, as well as about these court proceedings.
Everyone is anti-fracking now, at least in Fermanagh, as the election approaches, and the bandwagon begins to creak as more rush to scramble aboard. It’s worth remembering, though, the full story of what has happened over the past four years. The highlights include:
April 2011. The Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (DETI) granted a licence [click to download] to Tamboran Resources to ‘search for bore and get petroleum’ (which includes gas) in the Lough Allen Basin, including the requirement to drill two exploration wells ‘including fracturing’ i.e. fracking. The licence was granted for an initial period of five years. At the end of this period, provided that the licensee had complied with the terms of the licence (i.e. the work programme etc.) it could apply for the licence to be extended for up to another five years. At the end of that second term, again if the terms had been met, and petroleum was shown to be extractable in ‘commercial quantities’, the licensee could apply for the licence to be extended again, this time for a full production period of thirty years.
Autumn 2011. When news of the licence was discovered, the Fermanagh Fracking Awareness Network (FFAN) was set up including several Green Party members with key roles. I set up the FFAN website and edited it until 2014, as well as researching legal issues, writing leaflets and speaking at events.
December 2011. Led by Steven Agnew MLA, the leader of the Northern Ireland Green Party, 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, Arlene Foster, stated that ‘no hydraulic fracking licence has been issued’, apparently unaware of the terms of her department’s April 1st licence. This insistence that no fracking licences exist was to be DETI’s continuing justification for ignoring the clear decision of the Assembly.
January 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.” Again, this motion led to no change of policy by DETI.
At some point, as was discovered later by a Freedom of Information request, and confirmed in response to an Assembly question from Steven Agnew, Tamboran decided that it didn’t want to drill the shallow cored boreholes provided for in the licence but would prefer to drill one deep borehole instead. This was agreed to by DETI with no apparent consultation or publicity.
June 2013. The powerful documentary film Fracking in Fermanagh, made by local young people, had its premiere in Enniskillen to widespread acclaim. Shortly afterwards, the G8 summit was held in Fermanagh, met by a peaceful and dignified local protest, mainly concerned with the issue of fracking.
March 2014. As the deadline for the completion of Part 1 of the licence approached, Tamboran made a last-minute request to DETI for a six month extension, which was granted. No public consultation, discussion with concerned bodies or debate in the Assembly took place.
April 2014. The Green Party MLA Steven Agnew launched a petition calling for DETI’s decision to be debated by the Executive. This would have forced the issue of fracking to be properly considered at the highest level. The petition required only thirty signatures out of 108 MLAs. Sinn Fein alone had twenty-nine MLAs, none of whom signed, not even Fermanagh’s own representatives. Neither did any MLAs from the SDLP, Alliance or the DUP. The only two signatories other than Steven himself were members of the Ulster Unionist Party, and neither represented Fermanagh. The petition, therefore, despite huge public goodwill and pressure, was unable to go ahead, and Tamboran’s licence continued in force.
July 2014. Tamboran arrived on site near Belcoo and prepared to drill its deep borehole. Campaigners including many local people, FFAN and Green Party members, worked together to raise awareness of the need for a proper planning application and environmental impact assessment to be carried out.
August/September 2014. The Minister of the Environment agreed that the borehole could not be drilled without full planning permission, and, since Tamboran had not completed its work programme by the extended deadline, its licence expired.
October 2014. Tamboran issued judicial review proceedings against the two departments, seeking a reversal of their decisions and a reinstatement of the licence. Those proceedings are still ongoing, with Green Party members working hard to ensure that the community’s interests are not forgotten.
I am deeply proud of the immense hard work which has been carried out over these years by Steven and many other Green Party members, by my fellow FFAN activists and by other campaigning and community groups such as Belcoo Frack-Free. With very little by way of resources, we have worked together, giving up time, money and health to keep our county safe and clean. I have written, in a response to a request from Peru, about how and why I believe that we succeeded.
It is only natural now, when public opinion has become so clearly opposed to fracking here, and an election is close, that the Executive parties will want to shine up their anti-fracking credentials. It is easy for them to use their large funds, unknown in origin, to attach themselves to the cause. It’s not so easy, though, to persuade the people of Fermanagh to forget who has been there for them over the past four years. As I wrote in almost the last post of my old decombustion blog:
“We’re used to having our policies pinched; we hang them out in full view, with all their supporting arguments, and positively invite our neighbours to run away with them. But they ought to realise that they really need the whole ensemble to look the part. Being anti-fracking makes sense, but not when it’s combined with support for TTIP, growth-at-all-costs, other polluting industries such as gold mining in the Sperrins, and the continued failure to enact a Climate Change Bill in Northern Ireland.
Fracking is a terrible business, but it doesn’t stand alone. To banish the spectre for good, we need to make some fundamental changes to the way that we do politics, and the way that we live in our communities. I’m proud to have played a role in what has been achieved, but even happier to be a part of what we can do together in the years to come.”
We don’t have any more time to mess around. We have to make real and substantial changes now, if our children and grandchildren, and the most vulnerable and blameless of the world’s people, are not to pay a terrible price for our stupidity and greed. The best piece of news recently is the anticipation of Pope Francis’s forthcoming encyclical. If he speaks out as trenchantly as we hope, it’s possible that millions of Catholics, the other Christians and people of other or no faith who respect his judgment, and global leaders both political and religious, will take notice and act. That is my first prayer and hope for our new year.
2. The departure of this cruel and duplicitous coalition government in the UK.
David Cameron and his cronies, facilitated by the spineless LibDems, have succeeded in overseeing a massive shift of resources from the poor to the rich, an increase in fear, suspicion and selfishness, the destruction of hopes for a sustainable future and the worsening of every measure of the common good. Their friends in the media, fellow beneficiaries of the Tory Robin-Hood-in-reverse, have gone along with every step, setting up only the straw Farage as a pseudo-opposition. My second hope, therefore, is that the people of the UK will come to their senses before May and choose a genuine alternative.
3. The Green surge continuing throughout the British Isles.
This isn’t mere party loyalty. The growth in membership and support of the Green Party has been the only effective counterbalance to the media-fuelled rise of UKIP and will serve not only to bring more much-needed Green MPs into Parliament but also to remind parties such as Labour that there are people out there who respect principle, know that ‘aspiration’ means more than a fatter wallet and that our children’s futures are not to be gambled for a cheap soundbite. Without the Greens, I fear we’d only have shades of blue.
4. Northern Irish politicians acknowledging their mistakes and seeking a wider vision.
Between Sinn Fein, whose wafer-thin progressive credentials were accidentally exposed by Gerry Adams this year, and the DUP, who increasingly glory in having none, politics in Northern Ireland is increasingly petty, bad-tempered and out of touch with external standards of behaviour. The results aren’t just embarrassing; they’re positively retrograde and damaging to our hopes of a positive and prosperous future for this beautiful and gifted region. It is no coincidence that Steven Agnew has won numerous independent awards for his integrity, professionalism and hard work as a Member of the Northern Ireland Assembly. If other MLAs followed his example, our shared future would be a real prospect instead of a ragged hope.
5. An end to the threat of fracking in Fermanagh and beyond.
2014 has brought great successes to the frack-free movement both locally and worldwide, with Tamboran forced to postpone their plans for Belcoo, increasing evidence of the futility and destructive nature of the technique, and bans in the most unexpected places, including New York and the ‘fracking capital’ of Denton, Texas. It would be foolish, though, to think that we have won. The UK government is more keen than ever to subsidise its friends in the fossil fuel industry, Tamboran are bringing judicial review proceedings to try to recover their licence, and more areas of Northern Ireland are under threat from the experimental process. Nearly all of our politicians here in Northern Ireland, and especially those standing for election in Fermanagh and South Tyrone, claim to be ‘anti-fracking’ but few, apart from the Green Party, have taken any action to stop it (1). And with political funding still secret here (2), we have no way of knowing what might be in their interests during the months and years to come.
There are a few more things on my long wish list, including new brakes for my bike and the loss of the few pounds I’ve put on in mince pies, but these will do for a start. Very best wishes to you all for a peaceful, happy and hopeful New Year.
(1) At the recent vote on the government’s Infrastructure Bill, which will change the law of trespass to allow fracking under people’s homes against their will, only ten MPs voted No, including Caroline Lucas of the Green Party. Sinn Fein MPs do not attend the House of Commons and so did not take part in the debate or the vote.
(2) The Green Party does not accept corporate donations, and publishes details of all donations over £500.
My talk at the Frederick Street Quaker Meeting House today (not exactly as I gave it, but mostly the same).
Thank you very much for inviting us today, and for your hospitality. Thank you too, to my Green Party colleague Clare Bailey, from the South Belfast group, for coming along this afternoon. If you don’t mind, I’ll read what I want to say; there’s quite a lot in it, and hopefully this way I’ll keep the ums and ers to a minimum. I’ll also put the text up on my website, which is called greenlassie.com, so you can refer to it later. I don’t do Powerpoint, so there isn’t anything to look at except one another, but I’m sure we can make faces when necessary.
The basic concept of fracking is one that I think we’re quite familiar with by now. We’ve all seen the little diagram with the well going vertically down, past all the aquifers, then at a right angle so it continues horizontally. Then there’s usually a little icon to indicate the explosives sent down to start fracturing the rock, then the water with sand and chemicals that do the rest. It all sounds quite simple, and looks rather neat and tidy.
The truth, of course, is that it doesn’t look like that, not in messy reality. And the more disturbing thing is that we can’t actually know what it looks like, or even very much about what’s going on down there. One thing that we should have learned from the Deepwater Horizon disaster is that when you’re doing dangerous things far underground, or underwater, you’re quite literally in the dark. Informed guesswork is about the best you can hope for.
That’s a problem at the drilling stage, when the operators don’t know exactly what kind of geology and hydrology they’re passing through, where the aquifers are, what kind of underground stream network exists – that’s a particular problem in Fermanagh – and what kind of substances they’re coming into contact with. It’s a problem when they’re cementing the wells by remote control, gambling that they’ve got it right, guessing at when it’s going to be dry and safe, with constant financial pressure to do things as fast as possible.
And it’s an enormous problem when it gets to the fracking process itself. A very senior figure in one of the companies said that trying to control where and how far the fractures go, is like dropping a plate on the floor and trying to guess exactly what shaped pieces it’s going to smash into. They just don’t know.
You’ll often hear it said that fracking has been carried out for sixty years or more. That statement, to put it politely, is somewhat misleading. The use of water to flush out the last vestiges of oil or gas from conventional wells has been going on that long, yes. But what we’re talking about now, high volume, high pressure hydraulic fracturing using horizontal wells; that’s new, only around a decade old, and some of the techniques, like fracking on several levels, are even younger than that.
It’s rather like the way in which when you’ve got to the end of a jar of sauce, you might use a bit of water to sluice it out. If you decided instead to use one of those power jets that people clean their gutters with, you’d get rather different results. You might say to the paramedics, as they pick the shards of glass out of your face ‘I’ve been rinsing out jars with water all my life’ but you’d still be an idiot.
Another thing you’ll hear is ‘It’ll be done very carefully.’ I’ve already suggested one difficulty about this; the fact that, however careful they are, there’s a huge amount of uncertainty and guesswork about what’s actually going on down there. I’ll also go on to talk about what is statistically bound to be go wrong, no matter how careful you are, and also about the many negative effects even if nothing whatsoever does go wrong. But first I want to ask the basic question, ‘Who is it that’s going to be careful?’
Is it the gas companies themselves, their directors, executives, managers? I don’t think so. We’ve developed a culture where the only imperative for a corporation is making money; dividends for the shareholders, salaries, bonuses, benefits for the men (and one or two women) at the top. That is literally all that matters, all that’s allowed to matter. Yes, the probability of accident is considered, briefly, it’s a factor in the calculations, but it carries no moral weight. We’ve seen this, of course, in the car industry, where dangerous defects were known about by the manufacturers, but it was more cost-effective to pay out compensation when someone was killed than to fix the original problem.
And the fossil fuel industry is, let us say, not known for being unusually conscientious. So if there’s a risk, they’ll probably take it, and gamble on any accident not being too bad. And if it does turn out worse than they expected; well, they have plenty of friends in government, they always have money for lawyers and if the worst comes to the worst, they can wind up the company and walk away. Tell the people of Bhopal about corporate responsibility.
Okay, you say, but on the ground there are people who know what they’re doing, who take pride in doing a good job. Take the geologists. They’re scientists, after all. That’s what I used to think. When we set up FFAN, the Fermanagh Fracking Awareness Network, one thing we needed and couldn’t find was expert geological advice. In the end I put a desperate “Wanted’ notice on the website. I received one response to that, from a retired geologist. She explained to us that no one younger, no one who would be looking for a job anywhere, was going to be prepared to help us. It would simply be career suicide.
Naomi Klein, in her new book about climate change, This Changes Everything, points out that while 97% of active climate scientists believe that humans are a major cause of climate change, the proportion of ‘economic geologists’ who believe that is less than half, only 47%. We know it as a form of cognitive dissonance, the inability to process information that conflicts with our own interests. We all have it. We’d struggle to get through the day without it; but we can’t afford to pretend that gas company employees miraculously don’t.
All right, so self-regulation won’t work. That’s all right, we have governments, we have laws. The trouble is, we don’t. From the late nineteenth century through most of the twentieth, the response of democratic parliaments and assemblies to new and developing industries was to look at them carefully and see what regulation was required. That wasn’t in order to punish entrepreneurs, or to tie business up with red tape. It wasn’t even, on the whole, to protect the environment. It was simply to go some way towards safeguarding the health and interests of citizens, those who worked in the industry and those who were affected by its activities.
But from the 1980s onwards, under the influence of Mrs Thatcher and Mr Reagan, and continued by their successors, that process virtually stopped, at least at a national level. Regulation ceased to be seen as a benefit, a protection for the majority of the people, and was redefined as a burden, something which slowed and jammed the wheels of commerce. The result of that, as far as fracking is concerned, is the fact that there is no specific legislation about it. Shale gas extraction, like any other petroleum production, is governed principally by laws passed in the 1960s, a time when we didn’t know about climate change, we didn’t know about peak oil and the main imperative was getting as much fossil fuel out of the ground as fast as possible.
What legislation on environmental, consumer and worker protection there has been over the past three decades has principally been on a European level. This is not, I’d speculate, wholly unconnected with the growth of Euroscepticism among those currently in power. A diagram was produced, last year I think, showing the connections between the fossil fuel industry and the members of the coalition government. It was, to put it mildly, intricate. I’ll put it on my website if you’d like to take a look later.
Unfortunately Mr Cameron’s government is mirrored by similarly pro-fracking governments in central and eastern Europe, so efforts by the European Greens and others to deal with the problems of fracking within the European Parliament have so far been blocked. There are various directives – on water, habitats etc. – that have some bearing on shale gas extraction, but only incidentally. Sometimes these can be of great help in frack-free campaigning, but none of them deal with the core issues and activities of the industry.
In America, as you may know, government has gone even further, in exempting the fracking industry from even much of the legislation that already exists. The so-called “Halliburton loophole” of 2005 exempted the industry from the provisions of the Safe Drinking Water Act, and it is also exempted from some provisions of the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts and state water use regulations.
There is nothing to suggest that the UK government won’t do the same if it can get away with it. They are going ahead with a fundamental change to the common law of trespass, specifically to benefit the fracking industry, allowing it to frack, run pipelines and inject substances in the ground beneath people’s homes without their permission. A public consultation was held in which 99% of responses were against the change in the law, but this has made no difference whatsoever.
So, it’s done in the dark, by remote control, by an untrustworthy and greedy industry and it’s largely untested and unregulated. What could go wrong? Well, according to most of the news stories, if you’re a redneck American with your own well, you might be able to set your tap water on fire. Except that those boys already had methane in their water, they were just too stupid to notice it before. Nothing to see here, move along.
Only, as you might imagine, that isn’t the whole story. Contamination of private wells from fracking is a known and fairly widespread issue. There’s a difficulty, by the way, both in estimating how frequent these problems are and in the language that we can use about them. If you get the chance to see the film Unearthed, that deals with these difficulties very well. They are:
Firstly, because fracking is exempt from so many regulations, the environmental agencies don’t monitor it, don’t take baseline measurements and don’t keep records.
Secondly, where serious health problems have arisen in people living close to fracking sites, the gas companies have reached out-of-court settlements with them, usually including the provision of alternative water supplies and invariably including a gagging clause preventing the victims from speaking out about what has happened to them. The same sort of enforced secrecy is imposed on health professionals treating their patients; commercial confidentiality prevents them from sharing information about the chemicals which have caused the diseases.
Thirdly, whereas when most of us say ‘fracking’, we refer to the whole shale gas drilling, extraction, compression and transport process, the industry uses it to mean just the stage in that process whereby the water is sent down to physically shatter the rock. Now that stage obviously occurs underground, and has no absolutely direct effect on anyone. The problems happen before and after that, above ground and in the water table. But defining fracking in that very limited way, allows gas company spokesmen to say that it hasn’t caused any health problems. It’s a sort of semantic fingers crossed behind your back, but if people don’t know that, they take it at face value.
It’s also very far from being just a question of escaped methane. You also have the chemicals that are used in the fracking fluid, and are often considered as a proprietorial secret and not disclosed. One thing you’ll hear said about those is that they’re similar to the cleaning products you might keep under your kitchen sink. That may, in some cases be true. However, most of us don’t drink the contents of the bottles under our kitchen sinks, and we do like to discourage our children from doing so. You’ll also hear that the proportions of these chemicals in the fluid are very low. Again, to an extent that may be true. But when you’re talking about millions of gallons of water being used for each frack, a low percentage equals a very large quantity. And they’re often, I believe, mixed on site, so there is the potential for spills and escapes of the concentrated, not just the dilute substances.
There’s also the very important issue of what comes back up after each frack. Of the millions of gallons that go down, a proportion stays underground (this varies enormously) and the rest comes back up, along with whatever substances it has picked up on the way. This can include arsenic, lead, benzene, radioactive compounds and will always contain very high salt levels. This flowback fluid will obviously be highly toxic, and cannot be decontaminated in normal water treatment facilities.
A few moments’ thought will bring to mind a few of the ways in which the original fracking fluid, its ingredients or the flowback fluid could affect humans, livestock, wildlife and habitats. Accidents on the way to the site, at the site, insufficiently cased wells, fractures extending into the water table, spillages while pumping out the fluid, incidents during storage, evaporation, flooding, road accidents while transporting the fluid away, mistakes at treatment plants, insufficient integrity of underground storage; sadly the list is as long as our imaginations.
There are other potential accidents as well. The subject of earth tremors is one that the media like to set up as a sort of Aunt Sally, to knock it down again. ‘Look at these silly Nimbies worrying about earthquakes. We got them all the time with the coal mines.’ They’re missing the point. The problem with the seismic activity that’s triggered by fracking isn’t that it’s going to shake your house to pieces or even knock your ornaments off the mantelpiece. It’s that underground, where the tremor is strongest, is also where the fracking infrastructure is most vulnerable. That concrete drill casing is what separates the gas and fracking fluids from the water table. If that’s being moved in random ways, the results are accordingly unpredictable. And anyone who knows about concrete, knows that it’s not the most reliable of materials.
These problems are quiet, insidious ones, but sadly fracking also has its share of the dramatic. Explosions and fires, both at fracking sites and during transportation are far from uncommon. I did a random search on the internet while writing this, and quickly came across the following, from just three weeks ago:
Oct. 29–A pipeline carrying condensate, a toxic substance produced during natural gas and oil processing, caught fire in eastern Ohio early this morning. It burned several acres of Monroe County woodland before the pipeline pressure dropped low enough for the fire to burn itself out. Keevert said the fire started sometime after 2 a.m. near Cameron, in the eastern part of Monroe County and about 130 miles east of Columbus. It burned for several hours. Firefighters left the scene around 7:30 a.m.
This was one of the minor ones; no one was killed, and it didn’t make any headlines. It was published on firehouse.com, a sort of trade website for firefighters.
Because accidents, in the fracking industry, aren’t occasional occurrences caused by freak conditions or wild coincidences. They’re a part of the everyday operation. Naomi Klein quotes an investigation which showed that during 2012 there were more than six thousand spills and what they called “other mishaps” at onshore gas and oil sites in the United States. That’s an average of more than 16 per day. And it’s getting worse, rather than better.
If that’s the situation in the US, where the population density is low, and fires like the Monroe County one burn acres of woodland, rather than acres of housing estates, what is it going to be like in the UK? Think about our patterns of settlement, our topography; hills, rivers, lakes, the kinds of roads that we have, the stress that already exists on space and resources. If fracking causes problems in North Dakota, why would it succeed in Northern Ireland?
Because it’s not even just the accidents, predictable as they are. There are other things that fracking would bring, even if everything always went right. As I mentioned earlier, each frack requires millions of gallons of water. The plan for Fermanagh is for sixty wellpads with up to 24 wells per pad. That’s 1440 wells. At a conservative estimate of five million gallons per frack, that’s 7200 million i.e. 7.2 billion gallons, to frack each one once. Then they go back and do it again. And remember that a lot of this water will stay underground, and the rest will be pretty irrevocably contaminated. This isn’t like using water to drink, or to wash with, or to water your vegetables. That water stays in the system, it’s treated and comes round again and again. This doesn’t. It’s more or less gone for good, and unless it’s decontaminated, which is difficult and expensive, we don’t even want it back.
In Northern Ireland we tend to take water for granted; in Fermanagh we feel as though we see far too much of it. But we’ve had reminders fairly recently that, though it might fall from the sky, we can still end up short of it. Can we really afford to be losing seven billion gallons at a time? And do we really have safe places to store all that flowback fluid?
And what about transport? Transport of the water, the equipment to build the infrastructure: pipelines, compressors, waste pools; transport of the chemicals, the flowback fluid, the gas itself? We’ve mentioned accidents, but what about the effect of these vehicles on our rural roads, the congestion?
It’s been estimated that each wellpad will require over five thousand journeys by twenty ton trucks for a single frack. For sixty wellpads in Fermanagh, that would be 300,000 truck journeys. I don’t know how many of you have driven on Fermanagh’s country roads, but if you meet a tractor you have to start reversing….
Both this transport and the diesel machinery used at the sites and in between will create huge amounts of noise and more disturbingly, very serious air pollution. This will, quite simply, be fatal to the most vulnerable among us.
Finally we have the social and economic effects. Fracking is a boom and bust industry; it comes into an area, bringing with it drugs, prostitution, division and violence. It leaves, taking away what short-term jobs it briefly offered, and taking away the livelihoods of many who had nothing to do with it. In Fermanagh and the border counties of the Republic, our prosperity, such as it is, depends on agriculture, on food production and on tourism. None of those can co-exist with fracking. A large part of the milk produced in Ireland is used to produce powered infant formula. Whatever we think about Nestlé, killing babies with benzene is unlikely to create confidence in the Irish dairy industry.
Someone, I think it might have been Sammy Wilson, suggested that Fermanagh could instead be a zone for lots more polluting, unsustainable industries. A fertiliser factory was one of his suggestions. In a region notorious for dissident activity, what could possibly go wrong?
The last pro-fracking argument is that all the above may well be true, but we have no alternative. This is variously couched as being because of energy security (avoiding nasty Mr Putin), peak oil or climate change. All are red herrings. The idea has been promoted that shale gas can be a ‘transition fuel’, a bridge between dirty coal and a renewable future. The truth is that, although gas burns in a power station more cleanly than coal, the process of fracking, with its inevitable leaks and flaring, creates a total carbon footprint as large as that of coal, while methane itself is a much more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.
And we don’t need a bridge; we could walk straight into our sustainable future if we wanted to. There have been several serious and credible studies, detailed in Naomi Klein’s book, showing how we could move to 100% renewable energy worldwide within the next twenty to forty years. We don’t need fracking to help us do that; we just need the political will, and governments who aren’t deliberately obstructing that future to enrich their fossil fuel friends.
I was going to add a section here about why, as Christians, we should care about fracking. But I’m not going to. I wrote a piece about this a few years ago, and I’ll link to it from my website, but to be honest, for you it’ll be stating the bleeding obvious. Essential Gospel imperatives: loving our neighbour, putting the poor first, bringing peace, caring for creation; they provide the bedrock for why we should respond, and how we do so.
Finally, I think you’d like me to say a little about what’s happened in Fermanagh. Again, I have written about this in more detail, and I’ll link to that. Essentially, a five-year licence was granted by DETI in April 2012 to a company called Tamboran Resources. The licence included an exploratory work programme which specifically included the drilling and fracking of two test wells. If that work was completed, then at the end of the five year period, further licences would have been granted, giving Tamboran the right to frack in Fermanagh for around thirty years or more.
In response to the licence, various actions were taken including the setting up of the Fermanagh Fracking Awareness Network, of which I was a founder member, and, led by Green MLA Steven Agnew, a motion passed in Stormont calling for a moratorium on the process. Sadly, DETI and the Minister, Arlene Foster, ignored that motion.
In the early stages, people in Fermanagh were cautiously welcoming of the idea of fracking. It was sold with the promise of hundreds of jobs, a promise that was subsequently whittled away until now it’s scarcely mentioned. It was a hard slog, especially in the early days, to collect the information about the industry – there was far less than there is now – and to put it into a form that people would understand and respond to. The very fact that there are so many side-effects of the process, made it more difficult than if there had been only one. Gradually, though, the information we put out did start to filter through, though there was still a lot of complacency and misplaced trust.
By the end of March in this year, the company were supposed to have completed the first part of their work programme, which included drilling a test well. They hadn’t done this, so DETI granted them a six month extension. Steven Agnew tried to get this decision referred to the Executive, but apart from two Ulster Unionists, neither from Fermanagh, no other MLAs supported us.
Finally, at dawn one summer morning, the people of Belcoo were woken up by heavy goods lorries coming through their village carrying security guards and equipment. Later in the day they learned that Tamboran had taken a lease on a disused quarry near the village and was planning to drill its borehole there. Its plan was to use what are known as ‘permitted development rights’ which mean that no planning permission or environmental impact assessment is required.
Several things happened then. A community camp was set up at the gates of the quarry, lots of people came along to support it, local residents who’d ignored the whole business suddenly leapt to their feet and started work, local residents who’d been campaigning for three years got even busier, Protestants and Catholics worked together without even thinking about it and a lot of policemen got a lot of overtime. It was entirely peaceful, despite attempts to suggest otherwise, and an exemplary demonstration of grassroots community.
Meanwhile, away from the campfires, people were looking closely at the legislation about permitted development rights, and realising that what Tamboran proposed to do didn’t fall within it at all. Fortunately Mark Durkan, the Minister for the Environment, came to the same conclusion, and told Tamboran that, if they wanted to drill there, they had to apply for planning permission.
By now they were within a few weeks of their extended deadline, which ran out on September 30th. Arlene Foster decided not to push her luck by giving them another extension, and so the licence quietly breathed its last. Not that it was the last we heard from Tamboran. They then issued judicial review proceedings against both the Department of the Environment and DETI. I was in the High Court in Belfast this week for one of the preliminary hearings. A date has been set in February for the hearing of the leave application in those cases. So, we’re not out of the woods yet. There is currently no valid licence to frack in Fermanagh, but it is possible that the licence could be reinstated or a new one issued. Tamboran also had a licence across the border in the Republic and any fracking there would obviously have direct effects on us in Fermanagh.
There are also potential fracking sites elsewhere in Northern Ireland. Rathlin Energy has a licence for the Ballinlea area, and is preparing an Environmental Impact Statement in relation to its planning application for an exploratory well. It is proposing to use an experimental process of fracking with nitrogen, which I’m going to have to find out about now.
Meanwhile another company, InfraStrata, has been granted permitted development rights to drill close to Woodburn reservoir, which provides drinking water to several areas including Carrickfergus and parts of Belfast. The company says that it is only planning to extract conventional oil, but it is looking at the shale layer….
I’ve probably gone beyond my allotted time, for which I apologise. And I haven’t even talked about what happens, or doesn’t happen, when the well closes down, or about the fact that shale gas isn’t even economically viable, or about lots of other things that will occur to me on the way home. But I hope I’ve given you an outline of some of things you won’t hear from the mainstream media. Thank you very much.
An early start this morning – up at half-past five in time to set off for the High Court in Belfast and the latest hearing in Tamboran’s judicial review case against the Departments of the Environment and of Enterprise, Trade and Investment.
For those new to the story, Tamboran is the company which had a licence to extract petroleum (in this case shale gas, using hydraulic fracturing) in County Fermanagh. As part of the licence, the company was obliged to drill an exploratory borehole, and this they planned to do just outside Belcoo during the summer. Their intention was to use ‘permitted development rights’, which would have removed the need to obtain full planning permission and an environmental impact assessment. However, Environment Minister Mark Durkan ruled that the borehole could not be permitted development and so the company would not be allowed to drill without planning permission. By this stage, Tamboran was in the last few weeks of its (already extended) licence, and the Enterprise Minister, Arlene Foster, declined to extend it further.
The company then issued judicial review proceedings against both departments and these cases are at present proceeding together through the court system. I was anxious to see for myself what was happening, and so arranged to attend this morning’s hearing. It’s a long time since I was in court, not since I was practising as a solicitor twelve years ago, but after the initial mistake of going to the wrong building (the High Court is in the Royal Courts of Justice – see Wikipedia‘s photograph above, not in the new Laganside Courts complex) I began to feel back at home.
The hearing was fairly short and straightforward, with various directions made by the judge about technical matters, including permission for Tamboran to add a claim for damages, ‘potentially billions of pounds’, and a date of 5th February 2015 set for the leave hearing. This will be an opportunity for the court to consider the case (or cases) in outline and decide whether it is strong enough to go to a full hearing. Judicial review proceedings are different from other types of court case in having this initial stage which is designed “to filter out unmeritorious or frivolous applications and in that way to safeguard decision-makers from unnecessary legal proceedings” (Gordon Anthony, Judicial Review in Northern Ireland). Around half of all judicial review applications don’t get past this initial hurdle, so it is more than a formality, although the threshold is fairly low, and obtaining leave brings with it no promise of winning at the final hearing.
Meanwhile the frack-free future of Fermanagh still hangs in the balance, and there is plenty of work for us still to do.
p.s. Now that we have over a month’s worth of posts, I’m aware that it could get cumbersome for new visitors to read them all chronologically. M has therefore created a widget that will reverse the order of the posts, so that you can start at the very first (17th October). Just click on the “read from the beginning” button, below the tag cloud. If you want to switch back to latest post first mode, just click it again. Any feedback about the operation of the widget would be very helpful, as it’s a new invention. So please be our guinea pigs – in a warm, cuddly, plenty-of-carrots sort of way …
Back on the bus from Dungannon yesterday I was cold and tired. My plan was to check my emails quickly, make some dinner for myself and the boys and then spend the evening catching up on my online courses. (I’ll tell you about those one day, when we get a quiet moment.)
But it was not to be. One of the emails told me that Tamboran’s judicial review applications were in the Belfast court lists for this Friday. In case you haven’t been following the full convolutions of the fracking saga (and I don’t blame you if you haven’t) I had better explain.
Tamboran, a mini-multinational with aspirations to make a fracking fortune, had a licence to extract petroleum (including gas) in Fermanagh. This licence contained a work programme with a timetable, which the company was supposed to follow. It had got itself woefully behind, perhaps because, as a company, it had never done this sort of thing before, and had already received a six-month extension from DETI, the department which granted the licence on April Fool’s Day 2011.
By this extended deadline of 30th September this year, it should have completed the first part of its work programme, which included drilling a test borehole. This was why lorryloads of security men and fencing arrived at a quarry near Belcoo at dawn one July morning. The company’s plan was to drill the borehole under what are called ‘permitted development rights’. PD rights are a way of avoiding excess red tape for minor and uncontroversial pieces of development, small projects that can go ahead without the need for planning permission or an Environmental Impact Assessment.
However, this borehole was neither minor nor uncontroversial, and the quarry where they planned to drill it had serious outstanding issues with its own planning status. Mark Durkan, the Environment Minister, recognised this, and announced that PD rights could not apply in this case. If Tamboran wished to proceed on that site, it would have to apply for full planning permission.
Of course, the company had left it far too late to do any such thing,within the time left to it, less than two months of the three and a half years it had held the licence. Even DETI minister Arlene Foster, who had appeared an enthusiastic enabler of fracking in Fermanagh, wouldn’t give them any more leeway, and the licence came to an end on 30th September.
It is both of these decisions, of Ministers Durkan and Foster, which Tamboran declared its intention to take to judicial review. Now the Courts NI website showed that they were not just grandstanding, they really do plan to gamble more of their investors’ money on trying to get back into Fermanagh.
It’s not a great surprise; we all knew that we’d only triumphed in a couple of skirmishes. The war won’t be won until we achieve the European Green Party’s aim of banning fracking across the entire continent. (And beyond.) But it really would have been nice to have had an evening off….
12pm, somewhere near Kells Now it’s midday, and I’m on another bus, to Dublin this time, visiting the Green Party offices there with my GPNI membership secretary’s hat on. I’d hoped to be able to get some updates on the Tamboran situation this morning, but the Bus Eireann wi-fi isn’t working and so I doze instead, having been awake since a quarter to five this morning. The bus is very busy, and the nice girl sitting next to me has a giant teddy bear on her knee. I’m tempted to ask to borrow it.
In between writing, nodding off and trying to coax the internet into action, I’m reading Greg Palast’s book Vultures’ Picnic. Somehow the tale of banks’, governments’ and fossil fuel companies’ skulduggery seems appropriate for this grey day. Greg came to Enniskillen a couple of years ago to talk about the book, and the US experience of being fracked, and I chatted to him then about our campaign. So it’s not just a Vultures’ Picnic; it’s a VP with a flamboyant inscription to me, and that raises my spirits.
They were lowered a little earlier when I bought this week’s Fermanagh Herald and found that they hadn’t included the piece or picture about my candidacy (or should it be candidature?). But as it happens (and this sort of thing happens surprisingly often in Northern Ireland), the reporter who wrote the article is on the same bus this morning, and he assures me that it’s probably only been nudged out for a week by the big brothel story. Far be it from me to compete with a big brothel.
9pm, Enniskillen Well, that was a good day. Walking into a room and having someone say “Are you Tanya Jones? I’ve just tweeted about you.” makes up all the self-esteem lost by my omission from the Herald. And Anna and I had a very useful conversation about computer systems. Now that our membership, along with those of the Scottish and England and Wales Green Parties, is surging upwards, I need to find more efficient ways of managing it, and it looks as though I’ve found some of them.
Back on the bus, still with the same wi-fi issues, though I downloaded my email at the Dublin office, so I continued to enjoy the vultures. At the airport stop a stylish Southern Italian woman came to sit beside me until Cavan, where she got off to start a new job and new life. We talked about architecture and pizza and I wished her buona fortuna. Maybe some of it will come back to me in May.
Home again, to five days’ worth of things to catch up on, and some press releases to send out. Email makes that a little easier than back in the eighties, when I worked in charity PR, but it still takes longer than I expect. Then the Fermanagh Herald asks me to call in for a photograph, so an emergency hairwash gets added in. (Ah, the vanity.) The Impartial Reporter already has a picture of me, taken at Tamboran’s proposed drill site near Belcoo, on the evening of the shared prayer service, when we’d just heard the news of Mark Durkan’s decision not to grant them permitted development rights. (See my decombustion blog for more details.) That was a joyful evening, and definitely no time for hair-washing. Sure enough, they’ve used the picture in their story in today’s online edition. By the way, the dog whose lead I am holding isn’t our Robbie, but my friend Lynn’s Dobby. Lynn took the picture I was actually posing for, the one on the Fermanagh & South Tyrone Greens site.
p.s. (10pm) Sinn Fein have just announced that Michelle Gildernew, the sitting (well, not quite sitting, more staying away – Sinn Fein don’t believe in the House of Commons) MP will stand for them again. No great surprise there; it will be her fourth time and she’s been the MP since 2001. Maybe time for a change now, though.