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
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 processExtraction 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.
There’s a caravan warning against anyone taking drugs or alcohol and displaying a code of conduct demanding people act considerately and peacefully. There’s a big ramshackle tent where coffee and tea is offered, with a big kettle constantly on the boil. There’s a cheerful, almost hippie fellowship feel about the place.
‘Gates of Hell’The atmosphere is determined but relaxed. With all the homemade signs it’s clear no sophisticated PR firm has been commissioned. “Gates of Hell,” proclaims one of the signs at the razor-wired, high locked gates of the quarry, behind which Tamboran security staff are based. “You shale not drill,” says another sign. Then there’s the big FART placard – “Fishermen are Resisting Tamboran” and “Keep Calm and Don’t Frack.”
PSNI officers direct traffic and ensure that a court injunction banning anyone entering the quarry is observed.
The relationship between police and protesters is good. In the morning you’ll find maybe a dozen or so protesters at the Belcoo camp but by the afternoon and evening that number swells to more than 100. There are local people, farmers and families, middle-class townies and environmentalists, grey-bearded Green types and lots of children. Protesters say several hundred join the protests at the weekends.
Some protesters have insinuated the petrol bomb attack on Sunday may have been a dirty tricks operation to smear the anti-frackers, but police, politicians and other local sources insist such thoughts are “fanciful”. “It was what it was, a petrol bomb attack,” says one police source.
“We are a peaceful movement. If some buck eejit went and did something stupid like that, you have to understand it was not done in our name,” says Eddie Mitchell, a 41-year-old builder and farmer from Manorhamilton, Co Leitrim. He is convinced 95 per cent of people in the wider potential fracking area are against Tamboran.
He says there is strong solidarity between the Fermanagh and Leitrim opponents of shale exploration. “This campaign is cross-community, cross-Border and cross-party,” says Mitchell.
McKiernan says there is a significant body of evidence in the US to demonstrate that fracking is “inherently dangerous to people and their communities”. She says Tamboran’s talk of 600 jobs for Fermanagh is nonsense.
Tom White, who works in telecommunications and lives with his family in Belcoo, also believes the public is solidly with the protesters. He fears, however, that neither Stormont nor the Irish Government is on top of the issue.
He is conscious of the argument that drilling can only take place in Fermanagh with the permission of the Northern Executive. With Sinn Féin, which has an effective veto at Stormont, opposed, such permission might seem highly unlikely. But he is concerned that Tamboran, through the courts, could try to make “the rights of its investors” trump the right of Stormont.
Another Belcoo campaigner, Dónal Ó Cofaigh, insists that fracking, rather than being a long-term investment in energy security, is a get-rich-quick scheme. “We anticipate fracking will be over within about five years. Each of the wells has a very quick die-off period after they initially frack it and they have to re-frack it to bring it back up again in terms of flow.”
Some people also have very concrete worries. The price of fracking, according to local caravan park owner Cahal O’Dolan, will be steep: “If this goes ahead that’s me finished.”
Consulting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) says extracting natural gas, trapped in seams of shale rock hundreds of metres underground would boost economic growth, ease demand for other “dirtier” fossil fuels and help to reduce carbon emissions and man-made global warming.
The anti-fracking arguments demonstrate an “inability to cast off outdated concepts”, says Nick Grealy, director of energy consultancy No Hot Air.
Commissioned by the Impartial Reporter in Enniskillen to lay bare the arguments in favour of exploitation of shale gas resources, he insists it “is an enabler, not an enemy, of renewable”.
“The gas under Fermanagh, Cavan and Leitrim is the property of Dubliners, Londoners, Cork people and Yorkshiremen alike,” he argues. “Tamboran estimate that the area could contain enough gas to replace all imports. Each time Ireland imports gas it also exports money – over a billion pounds or euro each year. If that money stayed locally, it would be taxed locally, and could cut fuel poverty and provide competitively priced electricity to attract industry.”
IndustrialisationStories of widespread industrialisation across rural Fermanagh with dozens of drilling pads, many more drilling wells, processing plants, heavy traffic and storage facilities are just that, says Grealy – stories. “Scare stories over natural gas extraction are almost entirely based on anecdote, not scientific fact.”
Such fears must be addressed, he adds. But he warns: “Fermanagh cannot lock the gate to natural gas and ensure all Ireland suffers the consequences.
“The rest of the British Isles stands with Fermanagh to ensure that gas is extracted safely. In turn, the people of Fermanagh need to show solidarity with fellow citizens – and everyone else on the planet.”
And so the arguments are fought relentlessly as the end-of-September “drill or drop” deadline rapidly approaches.