By Paul Mullin
A Ballycastle councillor has warned of the damage a controversial new gas extraction process could cause to Northern Ireland.
The process known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking as it’s more commonly known, takes place by drilling rocks in order to get natural gas.
Shale rock, which is common all over the North West of Ireland, makes it an attractive opportunity for gas companies. The reserves of natural gas in counties Leitrim, Sligo, Cavan, Donegal and Fermanagh could be worth £80 billion at current prices.
The controversy of fracking comes in the methods used in order to get the gas. A combination of water, chemicals and sand, with the use of explosives, is forced into the natural fractures in the rock, which allows the fractures to widen further. The water and chemicals are pumped out, but the sand stays behind, propping the fracture apart which allows the gas to be extracted.
This process was the subject of an Oscar nominated documentary called “Gaslands” which showed the hazards caused by fracking. The documentary followed the fracking process in Pennsylvania, USA and its effect on the residents in the areas were drilling had taken place. It found that chemicals had found their way into the drinking water and in several instances it showed that a lit match next to a running tap turned it into a ball of flames.
The film contained interviews with residents and scientific experts which warned of the health risks and wider environmental impact.
Councillor Donal Cunninham from the Moyle District Council is one such person who opposes fracking in NI as it currently operates. He said: “The process has not achieved or proven itself safe, and it also increases greenhouse emissions which we should be looking to reduce.” The councillor plans on public showings of ‘Gaslands’ in both Ballycastle and Rathlin and urges the public to come along and see the potential dangers for themselves.
Two companies –Tamboran Resources and the Lough Allen Natural Gas company – have been granted onshore gas exploration licences in the North West. Although it is in the infancy stage proper commercial drilling could happen within four years.
Richard Moorman, the CEO of Tamboran, has moved to emphasise how safe fracking now is and the benefits it will have for NI. He said: “Tamboran is commited to brining forward a natural gas project in Northern Ireland that has the potential to create significant meaningful local employment, tax revenues and local commercial spending.”
He went onto add how important the process is for NI’s own gas needs. As it stands NI imports nearly 90% of its natural gas needs and by exploring fracking Moorman says it will: “Significantly reduce Northern Ireland’s vulnerability to potential future supply shortages.”
The impact of fracking goes beyond health and environmental issues and has raised concern about its impact on tourism in the North West of Ireland. Tourism is worth £120 million to the area and one of the major tourist attractions is the Shannon Erne, which is the longest navigable waterway in Ireland, it is feared that fracking could lead to water contamination, which could have a knock on affect on the Erne as a tourist attraction.
The two counties have 4,000 farm holdings between them and if fracking chemicals were to get into the water and food chain it could be devastating for the area. Residents have argued that if the fracking does go ahead it will affect the rural landscape with drilling pads of 12 acres every two square kms being deployed in the choosen fracking areas.
When asked about this Moorman stressed how paramount the issue of health, safety and conservation was to the company. He said: “It is essential that our operations are conducted without a single incident of water or air contamination and with respect for all landowners and residents by absolutely minimising surface impacts as well as traffic and noise levels.”
He went onto say: “All of our operations will be conducted to the highest standards of natural gas extraction, as demonstrated by our commitment to completely eliminate chemicals from the hydraulic fracturing process, as well as to conduct two month baseline surveys of groundwater quality, air quality, noise levels, and seismic activity before proceeding to drill any well.”
Concillor Cunningham remains unconvinced though and points to how the process is banned in France, and parts of Canada, Australia and even in the US (it is banned in New York state despite heavy lobbying from the gas industry)
Cunningham added: “Most of the industry are now claiming that they will eliminate chemicals from the fracking process. Chemicals made up 1% of the fluid. Two factors are responsible for the contamination of groundwater – fracking fluid and methane. So the industry is only addressing one of our concerns.”
He went onto add that the government and assembly should focus on developing renewable energy which he says will create new green businesses and jobs.