Fracking (or high pressure hydraulic fracturing) was developed in the USA by a number of large oil/ gas MNCs to enable them to recover gas that was uneconomical through conventional means of extraction. The process involves drilling straight down for about 1km before diverting the well tunnel horizontally along the target ‘shale-rock’ layer for another 1km. Over a dozen rig-compressors are used to build up huge pressures (over 50,000 psi) exploding an injected water-sand suspension (much like a pipe-bomb). The sand is blown deep into the resulting cracks where they act as props allowing small bubbles of trapped methane to escape and be piped away.
A single well can be fracked over 10 ten times. On average up to 6 million gallons of chemically-treated water are used per frack. About 60% stays in the ground (where it can percolate through the resulting cracks reaching up to 600 feet vertically) – the other half explodes back to the surface as ‘muddy water’ contaminated with the toxic chemicals injected to hold the sand in suspension and any chemicals present in the shale layer (including cancer-causing hydrocarbons, poisonous heavy metals and radioactive elements (like radon). This mud is ‘treated’ –usually burnt on site – and the ‘cleansed’ water stored in huge tanks before being reused.
Approximately 1% of frack water injected is toxic chemicals used to keep sand in suspension and proposals for fracking in Fermanagh (first phase) are for up to 2,800 wells (giving a sense of the scale of water and chemicals involved).
The proposal to frack Fermanagh will see its large-scale industrialisation. The company claims only 60 frack-pads will be needed (area of each 7-acres of concrete) but this would result in between 16 and 24 wells at each pad – the higher this ratio goes the more likely well walls are to collapse as the ground under pads becomes ever more weakened.
The threat is not just to health but the water supply in Fermanagh as any chemical leaks in the area will eventually find their way to Lough Erne (which is the county’s drinking water source). Local tourism (one of the only major employers) and agriculture/agri-food (the main employer) are very much threatened by despoliation of the countryside and threatened benzene leaks.
Local opinion on the ground across the country is strongly anti-fracking (one recent report suggest at least 70% were against with most of the rest still not knowing enough). Two anti-fracking groups are very active and conducting activities on a weekly basis.
DETI awarded a license to Tamboran Resources providing them rights for two exploratory frack-wells back in 2011. Despite the stated opposition of both Sinn Fein and the SDLP to fracking, the veto that they have through the Executive has not been used and three other licences for Gas exploration have been issued (including one for ‘unconventional’ gas in Rathlin). The DUP locally are more reticent on the issue (they only want to explore opportunities not push fracking) while the UUP are undecided. Only the TUV have come out fully in favour of Fracking on the grounds that it will benefit HM Treasury.
Before Christmas, a presentation from Tamboran Resources was leaked highlighting their desire to proceed with ‘exploratory’ drilling over the next few weeks. Local campaigners responded by organising a gathering of anti-fracking activists from across the island and Britain. The meeting was combative reflecting the strength of activist opposition.
In a powerful intervention, a socialist campaigner suggested that local activists study the experience of Rossport protesters and supported the idea of working towards a large anti-fracking march on Stormont. Local Sinn Féin MLA, Phil Flanagan, then spoke and in response to the hostile reception and incisive questioning, committed his party to using their Executive veto to stop Fracking. If this was delivered, fracking would be stopped in its tracks but almost immediately afterwards he reverted to a contradictory position that only local campaigners on the ground would stop fracking.
Ban Fracking Fermanagh placed a large Anti-Fracking billboard at a prominent position in the town over the busy holiday period. Upon hearing that a Tamboran representative was going to present to a closed session of the local council, campaigners organised a protest and twitter-storm targeting Stormont politicians on the issue. The initiative received strong interest with the campaign facebook page receiving over 47,000 hits in two days. Following this and only days before he was due to appear, the Tamboran representative called in the council saying that he was unable to appear.
Campaigners plan to continue with the protest and twitter-storm despite the cancellation (as it is not clear that a miraculous recovery would not occur). It looks clear that the campaign will heat up further over the next few weeks and months as Tamboran moves to drill exploratory wells locally.