Fracking in Fermanagh

County Fermanagh sits atop billions of pounds worth of natural gas, which can only be extracted by fracking. Finbarr Bermingham reports on the dilemma it faces

There are 365 islands on Lough Erne, the body of water that covers almost a third of county Fermanagh; one for every day of the year. On a summer's day, the lough is dotted with rowboats and cruisers. Its shores are lined with visitors from all over the world, fishing for rainbow trout or, on a very lucky day, salmon. In all of Ireland, only neighbouring county Leitrim is more sparsely populated than Fermanagh and the local economy is as reliant upon the annual influx of tourists as it is on its significant beef and dairy farming industries. It's hard to argue with the signs on each of the county's border roads when they "welcome you naturally".

Thousands of metres beneath the idyllic countryside, however, lies a commodity that has attracted attention from over 10,000 miles away, in the shape of Australian gas exploration company, Tamboran Resources plc. After being granted an exploratory license last year, Tamboran has completed the first phase of analysis and have found "a potential 2.2 trillion cubic feet" of natural gas lying in the shale rock thousands of metres beneath Fermanagh. Accessing it, Tamboran says, "could create 600 direct jobs, 2,400 indirect and deliver security of energy supply in Northern Ireland for 50 years". Chief executive Richard Moorman claims that "realising these reserves would secure the gas supply for decades, protect consumers and businesses from market uncertainty and negate the risks associated with being over dependent on unpredictable external supplies", as well as generating "up to £6.9 billion in tax revenues".

The average wage in Fermanagh is among the lowest in Northern Ireland. In recent years, unemployment has been rising and the future of one of the region's biggest employers, the Quinn Group, a manufacturer, is uncertain (its owner, Sean Quinn, has recently been declared bankrupt). Figures like these therefore would, you'd think, be a cause for celebration, but, for locals, the champagne is on ice. Residents have become wary of a drilling methodology that has caused a storm across the world, and which may be coming to rural Fermanagh and north Leitrim.

What the frack?

Tamboran wants to extract the shale gas using hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. The process involves drilling first down and then horizontally into the bed of shale rock, miles beneath the surface. Fluid and propping agent, usually a combination of sand, water and a cocktail of chemicals, are then pumped down the wellbore under high pressure to create fractures in the hydrocarbon-bearing rock (hence the name "hydraulic fracturing") and to keep the fissures open. These fractures start at the injection well and extend as much as a few hundred metres into the reservoir rock. Gas is then able to flow into the wellbore and up to the surface.

Fracking has been in use since the 1940s, albeit on a much smaller scale than in recent years, and the drilling has traditionally been at much shallower levels, extracting natural gas from close to the surface. The shale gas was, until relatively recently, out of reach, but technological advancements have made it attainable. 30 per cent of America's natural gas is now derived from shale - up from 1 per cent in 2001, as the country tries to become energy independent and less exposed to the volatile energy prices of the Middle East. But despite the undoubted riches to be gleaned, the industry has been beset with problems, many of its own doing, and most of which are well-documented in the media.

In 2005, a provision was inserted into an energy bill in America - the infamous "Halliburton loophole" - by then vice president Dick Cheney (former chief executive of Halliburton, one of fracking's innovators) which stripped the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) of its authority to regulate hydraulic fracturing. It also stated that oil and gas companies would not have to disclose what chemicals they were pumping into the shale rock, no matter how close to water wells they were drilling. Although it was repealed in 2009 with the FRAC Act, it led to years of unregulated fracking, with consequences that have, occasionally, been disastrous.

Muddy waters

In a landmark ruling late last year, the EPA found that groundwater in an aquifer near Pavillion, Wyoming had been contaminated with "compounds likely associated with gas production practices, including hydraulic fracking". It found chemicals like benzene and methane at levels that far exceeded those laid out by the Safe Drinking Water Act. The chemicals are suspected to have migrated from the fissures into the drinking water supply. It was the first time the EPA returned such results in two years of regulation, but investigations are ongoing across America, albeit at a glacial pace. The town had been featured in the documentary Gasland, which depicted people living near drilling wells turning on their taps, holding a match to them, and watching the water catching fire. Scientific American has billed the finding as "a turning point in the heated national debate about whether contamination from fracking is happening", as the country assesses the damage of four years of no-holds-barred drilling.

The troubles haven't been limited to that side of the Atlantic. Last year in Lancashire, 50 separate earth tremors occurred after Cuadrilla Resources fracked an enormous reserve of shale gas near Blackpool. A report, independently commissioned by the company, found that it was "highly probable" that its drilling was the cause of the tremors - the biggest of which registered at 2.3 on the Richter scale. The litany of PR and environmental blunders has led to moratoria on fracking in countries and regions as disparate as Bulgaria, France and New York state while investigations into its safety are conducted.

Nigel Smith, a geologist at the British Geological Survey, says that earthquakes are an inevitability in any sort of underground drilling, but that the tremors are unlikely to be big. "Whenever you introduce fluid under pressure into subsurface," he says, "you're going to produce micro-earthquakes. Geothermal [drilling for renewable thermal energy in the earth] does exactly the same."

Smith thinks the contaminated drinking water in America was a likely consequence of deregulation: it's much easier to cut corners when nobody's watching. With the eyes of the world on fracking companies in the UK and Ireland, however, he suggests that it's unlikely to happen here. Many geologists agree that fracking itself, if done properly, shouldn't be harmful to drinking water wells. The problem is, it's been done irresponsibly so often, that its very name is muck. "They fracked very close to a lot of water holes which were really old," says Smith. "They might not have any casing or cement and leakages were a real possibility. I don't think that'll happen here. There'll be stringent environmental regulations about keeping away from water wells."

Tamboran has said it will conduct an Environmental Impact Assessment, "which will set out the specific criteria under which the company must safely and responsibly conduct its operations" in Fermanagh. It has also said that it won't use chemicals in the fracking process (however, how they propose to keep the sand suspended in the propping agent is unclear). Given the intensity of the media spotlight and the level of opposition from some quarters, it's unlikely that Tamboran will act as irresponsibly as its American counterparts. Yet many in the county aren't satisfied. Recent research has suggested that fracking would be hazardous to the bread and butter of Fermanagh's economy: the tourism brought by the loughs, and the favourable agricultural conditions provided by lush fields of rolling green.

Tourist trap?

Phil Flanagan (Sinn Fein) represents Fermanagh and South Tyrone in the Northern Ireland Assembly. He says that no matter what the results of Tamboran's assessment are, his primary concern is the potential damage to the preexistent local industries. "They've said they'll lay between 300 and 400 four-acre concrete pads," says Flanagan of Tamboran, "which'll completely devastate the landscape, regardless of whether it's done safely or not. No amount of telling me that regulation will sort this out will alleviate those fears. People come on their holidays to Fermanagh because it's quiet, with lovely countryside and clean air. You also have to wonder if somebody would buy beef or milk that came from a cow that was grazed in Fermanagh. When you're eating food, it's not facts you're dealing with; it's perceptions and what people think."

However, such concerns are backed by facts from numerous authorities. Canada's National Farmers Union has called for a moratorium on fracking because their "ability to produce good, wholesome food is at risk of being compromised by the widespread, virtually unregulated use of this dangerous process". Michelle Bamberger and Robert E. Oswald, a veterinarian and professor of molecular medicine in Ithaca, New York respectively, have "documented cases where food animals that have been exposed to contaminated water, air and/or soil were eventually sent to slaughter, thus entering the food chain". The conclusion to their lengthy research (Impacts of Gas Drilling on Human and Animal Health, 2012) is that "without complete studies, given the many apparent adverse impacts on human and animal health, a ban on shale gas drilling is essential for the protection of public health".

In a letter to Northern Ireland's Enterprise Minister Arlene Foster (whose department granted Tamboran's licence and who failed to respond to repeated queries from The Gateway), Dr Adam Law, a board member of Physicians, Scientists & Engineers for Healthy Energy (PSE) in New York and member of the Royal College of Physicians, London, wrote that fracking "has yet to be perfected and its development is at least in part, experimental". As well as the possibility of groundwater contamination, Dr Law drew attention to "excess cancer risks from air pollution alone", with five to 58 additional cases of cancer per million having been detected in fracked areas by a study in Colorado. "The overwhelming consensus among the experts gathered at this conference [held by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences in Washington, DC]," wrote Dr Law, "was that the process should be postponed until epidemiologic data is gathered."

What's your hurry?

Anti-fracking campaigners in Fermanagh have raised all of the above concerns in calling for drilling to be put on hold until the long-term consequences are clear. The gas isn't going to lose its value, goes the argument, so why not wait until the method of extracting it has been declared safe? They've also questioned the logic behind some of the economic statistics provided by Tamboran. One local group, Frack Aware, has noted that Fermanagh, like most of Northern Ireland, has no natural gas infrastructure. For Tamboran to provide "up to 50 years of the present daily gas consumption of Northern Ireland" as it has suggested, it would require next to no production. Phil Flanagan MLA has also challenged Tamboran's estimates on job creation. "The levels they're talking would create 30 jobs per county, per year," he says. "That's not very many jobs."

Geologist Nigel Smith, however, thinks fracking is inevitable, wherever you find shale gas. "The regulators have to keep a watch on it," he says. "But unless you start doing it on a very small scale and tightly monitor it, you won't find out what the answer is [regarding the dangers of fracking]." For Nigel, the real potential risks come with mass production. "Smaller, one-man and his dog operations would probably be more suitable to Ireland and have less impact on the environment. There are alternative techniques they could use, for example they could acidise or put explosives down. There are all sorts of techniques that have been used in the past, even in water wells. It won't happen though, because the big companies are in on this, and the rewards are large if they can pull it off."

While we're happy to (often rightly) question the morals of energy companies, the fact remains that until we kick our addiction to fossil fuels, fracking remains a viable option for energy provision and will be pursued by those in industry and government. But the complex subject can't be reduced to a coin-toss: greenback versus greenbelt. In Fermanagh, the very fabric of the county's culture and tradition is on the line - issues that should receive the debate and consideration they deserve.**

* As The Gateway went to press, a government named panel of experts has recommended that fracking continue under strict monitoring in the UK.

Note: Tamboran Resources plc was offered the chance to comment on the situation in county Fermanagh, but declined to do so.