To frack or not to frack

Tue, Aug 12, 2014, 01:00

To frack, or not to frack: that is the question. This fateful decision confronts us here in Ireland, just as it has confronted others elsewhere – whether to permit landscapes to be industrialised by the fracking industry, with potentially widespread negative impacts, for the sake of exploiting valuable deposits of shale oil or gas lying deep underground. Australian-owned Tamboran Resources certainly believes in the prospects on both sides of the border, and it has invested heavily in progressing its plans for counties Fermanagh and Leitrim. The first step was to involve a trial borehole to be drilled at a quarry near Belcoo. The company said it would assess the results of this prior to making a “drill or drop” decision on the project but yesterday Northern Ireland’s Environment Minister Mark H Durkan refused to license the exploratory drilling. Last week Enterprise Minister Arlene Foster, who has responsibility for energy policy, called for an “objective assessment” of fracking. “At the moment there are a lot of very loud voices and frankly they are drowning out some of the local voices,” she noted.

Nobody could underestimate the level of public opposition to Tamboran’s plans in both counties. There have been several large protests at the gates of the quarry and some of the protesters are now maintaining a “vigil” outside the site. What concerns the opponents of fracking in Fermanagh is that it could despoil the county’s picturesque lakeland landscape and contaminate its water supplies, to the detriment of long-established economic sectors such as agriculture, fishing and tourism.

Other jurisdictions have taken different approaches. In the US state of North Dakota there is virtually no barrier to fracking shale oil – even to the extent of permitting the companies involved in exploiting it to flare off surplus gas. British prime minister David Cameron is a recent convert, claiming “uncertainties, worries and concerns” derived from a “lack of understanding”. As a result, the UK government has opened up land totalling 96,000 sq km, from central Scotland to the south of England, to applications for fracking licences.

France, by contrast, banned fracking in 2011 and Germany now looks set to follow its example by imposing a moratorium at least until 2021, though exploitation of its substantial shale gas deposits would reduce the country’s dependence on Russian gas. Fracking prospects in the Republic must await completion of a comprehensive assessment by the Environmental Protection Agency and would need to be given a “clean bill of health” before the Government could consider whether there was “merit in us exploring to see whether we have resources in the area”, according to former energy minister Pat Rabbitte. Only after the EPA’s assessment is published in 2016 will we be faced with our own “drill or drop” decision.