What's your fracking problem?


A new gas-extraction method known as ‘fracking’ could open up huge energy deposits in the Lough Allen basin. But, with not a hole drilled, disagreements over its environmental effects have already begun. RONAN MCGREEVYreports

AS A PIECE of art, Gasland, a documentary about drilling for shale gas in the United States, was good enough to win the best-documentary award at last year’s Sundance Film Festival and an Oscar nomination at this year’s academy awards. But the film has a special resonance in the north-west of Ireland, which could soon undergo the controversial gas extraction process described in the documentary.

Gaslandwas made by Josh Fox, who was prompted by a $100,000 (€69,000) offer from a gas company to allow them to drill near his home in Milanville, Pennsylvania. His home state is the epicentre of the biggest natural-gas extraction in history. For decades geologists have known that there is a veritable ocean of natural gas locked up in shale deposits around the world, but nobody knew how to extract them economically. That is until a Texas entrepreneur, George Mitchell, developed the process of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking”.

All this has profound implications for the region around Lough Allen, known to geologists as the Northwest Ireland Carboniferous Basin, an area comprising counties Leitrim, Roscommon, Sligo, Cavan, Donegal and Fermanagh, where gas has already been found.

The most recent estimates suggest that there are 9.4 trillion cubic metres of gas in the area, or 1.5 billion barrels of oil equivalent (BOE, the basic unit used to measure gas production). It is worth €120 billion at current oil prices, though it could be worth much more if oil prices keep rising.

The first gas well in the area was drilled 50 years ago and the most recent in 2002. The gas there was deemed uncommercial until now, but fracking has transformed its prospects.

Richard Moorman, the chief executive of Australia-based Tamboran Resources, one of two companies to have been given an onshore petroleum licence in the area (the other is Langco, the Lough Allen Natural Gas Company), estimates the chances of success at 75 per cent. “We have a good feeling about this,” he says.

Moorman said that extracting 10 per cent of the Lough Allen gas would constitute a reasonable return and that the drilling process would take at least a decade. In the coming months, the companies will take rock samples. Once these are analysed, they can drill bore holes, followed by proper test drilling, which could involve fracking, in two years. Proper commerical drilling could be four years away, or more.

Shale gas became commercial in the early years of the millennium and its share of the natural-gas market in the US is expected to increase from 5 per cent to 45 per cent within 20 years. The production of shale gas has been endorsed by President Obama and was the subject earlier this year of a Timemagazine cover with the provocative heading: “This rock could power the world.”

But there is another side to the shale bonanza. Josh Fox’s documentary chronicles the environmental degradation and health problems caused by the contamination of water supplies by fracking fluid. These include dizziness, headaches and irreversible brain damage, according to the environmental health scientist Dr Theo Colborn.

The most memorable scene in Gaslanddepicts householders in Weld County, Colorado, setting their water alight. The gas industry in the US has seized upon this particular scene as evidence that the movie is hyperbole. It claims that the lighted water was a result of naturally occurring methane, first reported back in 1976.

Nevertheless the industry cannot explain away more than 1,000 infractions of groundwater regulations in six states, nor the decision by the New York state assembly to ban fracking despite considerable pressure from the gas industry.

IN EUROPE, THE French assembly has recommended a fracking ban, while a British parliamentary committee has come to the opposite conclusion.

The Co Leitrim-based film-maker Johnny Gogan, the man responsible for bringing Gasland to the attention of local audiences, has seen enough. He wants a ban on fracking in Ireland. Gogan, who stood as a Green Party candidate in this year’s general election, believes the process is too risky for the whole country. “We’re not just looking at a lake – this is the mother river for our country,” he says.

Gogan adds that some might see his objections as premature, given that exploratory drilling has not even started, but he believes one of the lessons from the Corrib controversy is that communities need to be proactive and not reactive in setting the agenda.

North Leitrim TD Michael Colreavy (Sinn Féin) has also seen enough to organise a screening of Gaslandin Leinster House. “People who have to make these decisions have to be informed about it,” he says.

The Drumshambo-based Fine Gael councillor, Enda McGloin, who this week met the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Pat Rabbitte, to discuss the Lough Allen situation, says locals are concerned, but he warns that too many people are rushing to judgment before the facts have been heard. “There were people in the room at the screening I was at who have political agendas. There was one guy over from Rossport. These people have already made up their minds about this,” he says.

The two companies who were granted onshore petroleum licences in February have remained silent about their intentions until now. A Langco source says they were waiting for their licences to come through. “It would be inappropriate to do anything until we had all the paperwork in order,” he says, adding that “we will not have our agenda set by activists”.

Richard Moorman of Tamboran says his company will start consulting local authorities next month. He promises to make himself available “24/7” to address concerns about fracking. “The good news is that everybody will know what we are doing. We will have a completely open process. There is no reason for any kind of secrecy around this.”

Moorman says that many of the problems caused by fracking in the US were a result of sloppy practice and loose regulation. Irish people can be reassured by the more stringent environmental standards that exist in Europe, he claims. “I would have every faith in Irish regulators. I say environmentalists are needed – they keep the companies doing the right thing.”

Gaslandwill be shown at The Dock Arts Centre in Carrick-on-Shannon today at 3pm and at the Guth Gafa film festival at Lough Altan Cinema, Gortahork, Co Donegal, on Sunday at 12.30pm and Tuesday at 2.30pm