Nerve-racking wait for protesters as ‘drill or drop’ day approaches

Opponents and proponents of fracking vie in Belcoo, Co Fermanagh, as Tamboran weighs decision on drilling

Protesters at the Belcoo anti-fracking demonstration in Co Fermanagh. Photographs: Kelvin Boyes/Press Eye

Protesters at the Belcoo anti-fracking demonstration in Co Fermanagh. Photographs: Kelvin Boyes/Press Eye

Sat, Aug 9, 2014, 01:00

Shale gas exploration company Tamboran has until the end of next month, the time limit set by Stormont, to make a “drill or drop” decision.

If it decides to “drop” and walk away, then the protesters gathered near Belcoo, Co Fermanagh, may fold up their tents and walk away, satisfied that they have helped to thwart the ambitions of this international exploration concern. Other anti-fracking protests in Fermanagh, Leitrim and Cavan may also begin to die off.

If Tamboran gets the go-ahead to drill, then large tracts of Fermanagh and Leitrim could be transformed into gas fields with reserves that some reports estimate could be worth €50 billion-€100 billion – although nobody really knows for sure the value of what’s under the ground.

How shale gas fracking works

The fracking project is reaching a climactic moment. This was demonstrated by a petrol bomb attack last Sunday on the family home of a local man involved in providing security for Tamboran at the Belcoo site, which is near the Border with Cavan and Leitrim.

The anti-frackers condemned the incident but it led to warnings from DUP Minister with responsibility for energy and local Assembly member Arlene Foster of “dark forces” aligning with the protesters.

There was nothing sinister about the people gathered at the Belcoo protest site when The Irish Times visited this week. In the morning Tom White from the Belcoo protest group was there chatting to some of the people helping maintain a 24- hour watch at the gates of the quarry. Inside this Tamboran hopes, later this month, to drill a bore hole 750m deep and 15cm wide to test whether fracking would be viable. This information would also be used to judge whether full drilling would be feasible across the Border.

Controversial process

Extraction of natural shale gas would be by hydraulic fracturing or fracking – a controversial process opponents believe has serious public health implications and threatens farming and tourism by wrecking the environment. Fracking involves the shattering of oil- and gas-bearing shale deposits by forcing down fluids and sand, thus releasing the fuel. Local businesses could make a killing, but others are horrified at the prospect.

Also here are Friends of the Earth members, including its Northern head James Orr. Later in the day Eddie Mitchell, head of the Love Leitrim anti-fracking group, arrives with Joan McKiernan, an American involved in the anti-fracking movement in upstate New York. On Sunday Gerry Adams turned up to show support.

The protesters and Tamboran realise Belcoo is the focal point. What happens here – and soon – should tell whether fracking has a future in Ireland.

The protesters mightn’t like the comparison but the site is not unlike the makeshift, almost chaotic nature of Twaddell camp in north Belfast where loyalists are protesting the ban on the return Orange Order parade past the Ardoyne shops.