Fracking Hell - how it is coming to Ireland & the development of resistance

Date:
On the 26th of March 2010, the Fianna Fail / Green governing coalition announced that they were inviting applications for ‘Onshore Licensing Options over the Northwest Carboniferous Basin and the Clare Basin.’ The senior minister in the department at the time was Green Party TD, Eamon Ryan. Conor Lenihan (Fianna Fail) was the department’s junior minister. 
 
On the day this invitation to the oil and gas industry was announced Conor Lenihan stated that “over recent months there has been renewed interest in targeting the natural gas resource potential of the two basins, which had been identified in earlier exploration. Finding and producing our indigenous natural gas resources is critical to enhancing Ireland’s security of energy supply and reducing our reliance on imported fuels”.
 
A similar licensing process had been underway in the UK from 2007 onwards. The process there has been sped up by the Cameron government over the last two years and at this point in time, pending the outcome of an Environmental Assessment report commissioned by the UK Government from a fracking related engineering firm - AMEC, 60% of the land mass of the UK may soon be licensed for exploration.
 
Campaigners, established environmental groups such as Greenpeace, and the Guardian Newspaper have made clear over the past 12 months that the present UK government is thoroughly penetrated by a network of advisors, led by Lord Browne, with substantial financial interests in the nascent Fracking industry. It is thus highly likely that massive areas of the UK will be added to those already licensed in the very near future, leading to an intensification of the ongoing and increasingly public conflict between communities and the fracking industry. This conflict has become highly visible over the past year at test well locations at Balcombe outside London and Barton-Moss outside Manchester.
 
A trail of destruction
On the same day in 2010 that the Fianna Fail / Green Party government made their initial announcement, Reuters published a story concerning the problems surrounding this industry with particular emphasis on problems in terms of water pollution. This article was, at that time, the latest in a trickle of stories that were beginning to emerge from communities and organisations all across the U.S. outlining the trail of destruction this industry was causing as it moved closer to areas where people were living.
 
The release of ‘Gasland’ in 2010, an American documentary film by artist Josh Fox which picked up on some of these stories, was the key catalyst in the appearance of what can now, considering the explosive growth of campaigns against Fracking in the US, UK, Poland, Romania, South Africa and Ireland etc., confidently be described as a global movement in opposition to the extraction of shale gas using hydraulic fracturing. The film provided a shared reference point for the numerous groups which were rapidly appearing worldwide as a host of companies began to move to bring fracking outside of the U.S. to the rest of the planet. 
 
Global risk consultancy firm 'Control Risks' in a 2014 report on the growth of the Anti-Fracking Movement noted that the formation of collectives and protest groups in opposition to fracking internationally routinely followed community screenings of the documentary. In their words ‘Gasland brought anti-fracking sentiment to the masses’.
 
Almost a year after inviting applications for onshore licenses, on February 14th 2011, Conor Lenihan announced “the completion of a detailed evaluation by his Department of the applications received for Licensing Options in the Northwest Carboniferous Basin and the Clare Basin”. In offering the Licensing Options Minister Lenihan said that he was very pleased by the level of interest shown in the competition and by the quality of the applications submitted by the companies.
 
One license was awarded to Tamboran Resources for an area covering 243,635 acres in the Northwest Carboniferous Basin. Another license was awarded to Lough Allen Natural Gas Company for over 115,398 acres, also in the Northwest Carboniferous Basin. The last license was awarded to Enegi Oil covering an area of 122,317 acres in the Clare Basin. Between the three licenses awarded, vast areas of eleven counties in the republic were zoned for exploration. Tamboran Resources also by that point held a license for exploration in Co. Fermanagh. At this point in time in 2011 in the UK Fracking was being used by Cuadrilla for the first time in Lancashire. The process caused two small earthquakes leading Cuadrilla to suspend operations voluntarily.
 
Much of the area in Ireland which was zoned is in the Shannon Basin Region and stretches from Fermanagh all the way down to Cork and Kerry. This area covers the natural drainage basin of the Shannon itself. Under the EU Water Framework, this area, its waters and ecosystems are supposed to be “protected”, “enhanced” and “promoted” as a sustainable environment and as “quality” water resources. This ecosystem includes the rivers, lakes, canals, groundwater and surface waters of the region.
 
A strange shade of green
The licensing options were signed off on by Conor Lenihan in the very short period between the Green Party pulling out of government in late January 2011 and the election which took place on 25th Feburary. Some activists are convinced that, despite these options being a live concern for Eamonn Ryan in early 2011, he failed to bring this process to any kind of public visibility. 
 
He confirmed in a telephone conversation with an activist, after having left government, that while Minister he had met with at least one of the companies who were subsequently granted licenses. This was confirmed at that time by Martin Keeley then of LANGCO who said that Eamonn Ryan was 'very much behind the project'. In the same phone conversation Ryan confirmed that he was aware, while in office, of the substantial controversy in the US around issues linking Fracking to water contamination.
 
In the eyes of activists - the way in which these options were given out - without any public scrutiny whatsoever - by a government who by that stage had no democratic legitimacy - has contaminated the process from the beginning. It is also worth noting the failure of the remnants of the southern Irish Green Party to provide leadership on this issue in the period since, despite this clearly being the type of issue that is within the remit of such a party. Conor Lenihan has since his period in government taken up employment with San Leon, a company involved in Fracking in Poland.
 
Over just the few short years since the release of Gasland, in the United States, Canada and Australia, as onshore fracking for unconventional gas has drawn closer to inhabited areas, where there are water systems, aquifers and rivers, local communities have continued to suffer the consequences of this rapidly expanding industry. Anecdotal reports of contaminated water in rivers, lakes and domestic water supplies have increased into a flood. As time moved on further reports of disappearance, sickness and death in wildlife and livestock were also being reported, as well as a rise and commonality of various illnesses, including various cancers and respiratory problems in people living in areas where unconventional gas extraction was taking place. Over the last number of years in the U.S. thousands of complaints have been lodged with the government, the EPA, public representatives, health authorities and the industry.
 
Simultaneously – more and more peer reviewed scientific reports have cast doubt on the safety of the industry for communities. A key recent example is a study of Pennsylvania birth records from 2004 to 2011, by researchers from Princeton University, Columbia University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which found that infants born within a 2.5-kilometer radius of fracking sites have increased likelihood of low birth weight and of other health problems. According to a 2011 report by the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, invasive breast cancer is on the rise in the six Texas counties with the Barnett Shale’s most intense gas drilling development, even as the incidence rate for the disease is falling across the rest of the nation. 
 
There is a very real sense that the quite sudden ‘dash for gas’ that is apparent in the Uk and Eastern Europe constitutes a race between the slow process of peer reviewed scientific investigation and an industry that fears the consequences for communities that scientific enquiry will reveal.
 
Manufacturing consent, organising dissent
A massive billion dollar public relations campaign by the industry followed the release of ‘Gasland’ and many professionals and individuals who were outspoken about the effects of the industry were issued with gagging orders. In the U.S. the national mainstream media began to pay some attention, and as New York State became the industry’s latest target, the New York Times decided to devote a whole series of investigative articles to ‘fracking’.
 
This series was entitled ‘Drilling Down’. One of these articles included leaked, insider emails describing the economics of the industry as boom-bust. Other articles covered issues of land, air and water pollution, serious health risks, political interference, a crash in the value of land and housing, problems of toxic waste disposal, accidents and spills. The list goes on. Deborah Rogers, a financial analyst and Obama administration advisor who visited Ireland in 2013, concluded in a report she authored that the hydraulic fracturing  boom could lead to a "bubble burst" akin to the housing bubble burst of 2008. “It is highly unlikely that market-savvy bankers did not recognize that by overproducing natural gas a glut would occur with a concomitant severe price decline. 
 
This price decline, however, opened the door for significant transactional deals worth billions of dollars and thereby secured further large fees for the investment banks involved. In fact, shales became one of the largest profit centers within these banks in their energy M&A portfolios since 2010. The recent natural gas market glut was largely effected through overproduction of natural gas in order to meet financial analyst’s production targets and to provide cash flow to support operators’ imprudent leverage positions”.
 
The growth of an anti-fracking movement in New York, again in a manner mirroring events in Ireland and the UK, was boosted by the Occupy movement which quickly provided a high visibility platform for anti-fracking activists. Sadly for many communities all over the U.S., Australia and Canada, the damage is already done. But because of these people speaking out and standing up alongside others who are currently being threatened by this industry there is a truly global people’s movement emerging right now to ban unconventional gas extraction. In the U.S. some opponents of the industry say it is not possible to shut down the industry immediately - that this would take time. However it still is possible to stop it from spreading and being introduced elsewhere and that is what is happening presently in New York state and elsewhere in the US.
 
In a chemical world, It's very, very, very cheap
The extraction of unconventional shale gas is inherently a contaminating, flawed industrial process. A mixture of up to 500 chemicals is used during the process. Eighty to three hundred tonnes of chemicals can be added to one to eight million gallons of water each time a well is fracked. Scientists in the US are still trying to find out which chemicals various companies are using during the process. This mixture of chemicals, sand and water is pumped down through aquifers at high pressure which fractures the shale and props open fissures that enable natural gas to flow out of the well. Apart from chemicals being added to the water, scientists have stated that the process is also dislodging and mobilising naturally occurring radioactive compounds such as uranium, radium, and strontium, as well as other heavy minerals.
 
Problems of water contamination mainly come from leaking well casings. In Josh Fox’s more recent short documentary ‘The Sky is Pink’, the director explains how through leaked industry documents, the problem of leaking well casings for the industry has been known for some time and is, by their own admission, insolvable. From information obtained from industry documents, Fox states that over thirty years, 50% of all well casings fail.
 
He goes on to say that there is a period for which we need these well casings to last, so that they do not allow our water to be polluted, that period of time is “forever” and this is one of the major problems that the industry will not own up to. In Europe and here in Ireland, the industry, aided by the EU and our government are trying to tell us, that shortly the process to extract unconventional gas will be improved through regulation, more monitoring and better cement well casings. 
 
They are also claiming that very soon there may be fracturing which does not use chemicals or even water. As the industry, supported by government, scramble to sell us a non- existent improved process - what they fail to realise, is that the problems surrounding this industry are not just about the technology or one aspect of how it pollutes. The problems caused by this industry are multi-faceted. Basically speaking, the problem is the industry itself, from beginning to end.
 
Scientists have clearly indicated that the full effects this industry will have on people and the environment will not be known for years to come. Not only will the industry cause irreversible pollution to our water, land and air through various stages of the process, it will also industrialise hundreds of thousands of acres of our landscape. It takes hundreds of trucks over two months to service one well.
 
North-West networks of resistance
Tamboran who intend fracking in Fermanagh and Leitrim propose to have up to sixteen wells on each well pad. A well pad can be up to five or six acres in size. They envisage having hundreds of pads all over the north-west, which would entail miles and miles and miles of pipes linking these pads. Once these wells have been drilled they are there forever. There is no ‘fill them in and forget about it’ option. These wells will continue to leak and release highly toxic substances for their entire lifetime.
 
The introduction of this type of industry on this scale, will threaten existing sustainable industries such as farming, tourism and renewable energy. It will also threaten the future supply of the country’s domestic water. Plans are already underway to take water from the Shannon Basin region for the Dublin metropolitan area. Unconventional gas extraction and the resultant local use of this fossil fuel will also threaten any hopes we have of meeting our carbon emission targets, and seriously undo efforts to reduce the growing negative impacts of climate change.
 
We will receive nothing beneficial from this industry apart from a few short-term, low paid jobs. The gas extracted will be sold on the global market to the highest bidder. In a recent article in the Irish Times it was reported that there is perhaps just enough shale gas in the North West Carboniferous Region to supply Ireland for a mere 12 years. Five Irish county councils have called on the government to ban shale gas extraction in Ireland and two of these – Donegal and Leitrim are in the process of inserting bans on Fracking into their County Development Plans. Several countries, various states in the U.S and federal regions in other countries have banned or are putting in motion plans to ban the industry.
 
The campaign which has emerged in Ireland since summer 2011 began according to the ‘Gasland’ script identified by the ‘Control Risks’ report. Filmaker and Green Party activist Johnny Gogan, in his role as curator of the 'Leitrim Mobile Cinema' began in early 2011, to screen Gasland in Leitrim. The screening of Gasland which took place in Drumshanbo in summer 2011, was the first opportunity for a relatively large group of interested locals to get a sense of what the shale gas industry was and what fracking was. At that point it was already quite widely known in the north-west that a number of companies had been granted onshore licensing options, allowing for desktop studies of the potential for shale gas extraction, by the Fianna Fail led government immediately before the Feburary general election. 
 
In the aftermath of that screening a campaign began to form. After a number of meetings, drawing in activists from the geographically dispersed areas for which licencing options had been granted - more localised ad-hoc campaign groups began to form in Leitrim, Sligo, Donegal, Clare and Dublin. During these early meetings a reasonably clear consensus emerged, that a top down national campaign would be less effective than a series of networked but largely autonomous campaign groups. 
 
A network of activists - working with the tiny Lough Allen Conservation society - began in August 2011 to plan a meeting to take place in Carrick on Shannon. This was in response to the fact that Tamboran Resources, one of the companies granted a licensing option, had very clearly begun a public relations campaign in the Leitrim area. In retrospect, this period was vital for the emergent campaign - and the speed with which it responded to Tamborans 'campaign' in the area was key in successfully undermining their story about gas and its potential for development in Leitrim.
 
Five days before Tamboran were due to meet with Leitrim County council, to brief them on their plans for the area, a meeting organised by the LACS drew a massive crowd to the Bush Hotel in Carrick on Shannon. The hotel management at the time estimated that over 600 people attended and the tenor of the meeting was clearly in opposition to the prospect of a Fracking industry making any headway in Leitrim. 
 
A substantial protest greeted the initial meeting of Tamboran with Leitrim County Council just five days later. When Tamboran held a public information meeting just two days after that in Carrick on Shannon - a huge and again mostly hostile crowd turned out to grill them on their plans. The combination of these three events served to make clear that Tamboran had failed in this initial push to gain the consent of the local community. This initial failure of the company to gain community consent gave activists time and space to strengthen and deepen their campaign over the following two years – a process which led eventually, despite the opposition of Fine Gael members of the Council, to a majority vote in early 2014 in Leitrim County Council to insert a ban on Fracking into their draft County Development plan.
 
The ‘dash for gas’ in the Republic is ‘on hold’ at present as a comprehensive EPA report on Fracking is in the process of being commissioned and completed. This delay in the eyes of campaigners is due to the unwillingness of the current government parties to push through a clearly unpopular initiative in the runup to local, European and national elections. Campaigners very much suspect that this process will not go ‘live’ again in the Republic until after this cycle of elections. 
 
They have also noted the ominous nature of Centrica’s imminent takeover of the gas infrastructure presently operated by Bord Gais. Centrica are a leading energy company in the UK and have substantial investments in Fracking companies including notably Cuadrilla. It is a different story at present in the North. There it seems that the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Industry, led by the DUPs Arlene Foster, are determined that Tamboran begin test drilling in Fermanagh in the next 6 to 9 month period. At present an increasingly intensive process of networking and planning for this eventuality is taking place between activists and groups in Fermanagh and Leitrim.
 
 
 
Info on Campaigns in UK and Ireland
1. Frack Off UK: http://frack-off.org.uk
2. Fracking Free Ireland: http://frackingfreeireland.org/
3. Facebook: NO FRACKING IRELAND group.
 

This article is from issue 9 of the Irish Anarchist Review - Summer 2014

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