Why Fracking of the Loch Allen Basin is being opposed


One of the final acts of the last Fianna Fail government was to award licences to a number of companies to explore for commercial gas in the Northwest Carboniferous Basin (more commonly known as the Lough Allen basin). The Lough Allen Basin is a huge area that covers parts of counties Cavan, Donegal, Fermanagh, Leitrim, Mayo, Monaghan, Roscommon, Sligo and Tyrone. It is an area of 8000 square kilometres in total.

Significantly this area covers the headwaters of two of our largest water systems, the Shannon and the Erne. Right in the middle of the basin is an area that has a dependence on water related tourism and recreation for its economic activity. The scale of the potential operation is massive. The area targeted covers 100,000 acres around Manorhamilton, Glenfarne and Ballinaglara, in which there would be 100 well pads, each capable of drilling up to 16 wells. It is estimated that 1,000 wells could be drilled. Similar plans are also being made for county Clare. The drilling method that would be used in these wells is Hydraulic Gas Fracking.

What is Fracking?
Hydraulic fracturing, often called fracking or hydrofracking, is the process of fracturing or breaking a rock layer, using a highly pressurized fluid, in order to release natural gas for extraction. This fracturing is done from a well-bore or hole, drilled directly into the rock formation. The energy from the injection of a highly pressurized fluid creates new channels in the rock which can increase the extraction rates and ultimate recovery of fossil fuels. A mixture of water, sand and chemicals is pumped into the rock at a very high pressure and it cracks it just like a windshield. The cracks go out a couple hundred feet on either side and that forms the pathway for the natural gas to migrate to the well bore and up to the surface. The fracture width is typically maintained after the injection by the sand or other particles that prevent the fractures from closing when the injection is stopped but still allow the gas to rise through them.

Why Should We Be Worried?
The process of deliberately causing fractures in the bed-rock is very risky and unpredictable. At the very least it raises some questions. For example what will be the effect on our groundwater or how can the engineers be sure of what the extent and effect of the fractures will be? I’m not a geologist and so am not in any position to answer these questions, but what I can do is look at what has been happening in similar projects around the world. The practice of hydraulic fracturing has come under examination internationally due to environmental, health and safety concerns and has been banned in France and in certain parts of the USA. There are also temporary bans in place pending further research into its environmental effects in New South Wales (Australia), Quebec (Canada), Karoo region (South Africa) and in parts of the UK.

What we are primarily concerned with is the effect this fracking may have on the groundwater. The fact that President Bush made fracking exempt from the federal “Clean Water Act” in 2005 is a big hint at its potential effects on water quality. My initial research into fracking shows that it involves a huge amount of water. There's at least 11.5 million litres involved in the initial fracking of just one gas well. All this water and chemicals has to be transported to and from the well heads causing a massive increase in traffic from the thousands of heavy trucks needed to do this job.

As well as this another result of fracking is the methane, brine and other fluids (some of them radioactive) normally trapped in the rock layers can come to the surface with the natural gas and these must be disposed of somewhere. There's also the problem of what to do with the millions of gallons of waste fracking fluid. In the USA environmentally damaging spillages of fracking fluids, diesel and other chemicals from gas wells have been recorded, affecting river systems and drinking water wells. US EPA tests have found suspected fracking fluid chemicals in drinking water wells, and a study by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation identified 260 different chemicals used in the process. Companies zealously guard the secret of what exactly makes up their individual fracking fluid in the same way Coca Cola keeps its recipe secret. Companies also dump used fracking fluid back beneath the surface, usually injecting it into other formations beneath the shale. The long term effects of this form of deep dumping are unknown (source Scientific American March 2010).

While no convictions have occurred in the USA for fracking related pollution, there have been many cases settled out of court with a payment and accompanying gagging order.  Anyone who has watched the Oscar nominated documentary film “Gaslands” would have to agree there are massive problems. The footage of gas exploding out of a kitchen sink tap when the home owner puts a cigarette lighter to it is shocking. What has happened in this case is the gas has leached out of fractures in the bed-rock, into the ground water that supplies local water supply wells. The contaminants from the fracking fluid have also contaminated their drinking water causing alarming health problems. The sight of once pristine rural landscapes covered in well heads, septic tanks and polluted chemical pits is disconcerting. Worst of all are the interviews with local people who explain how their health has deteriorated. This documentary is available online at youtube.com for free. I suggest you see it for yourself.

When asked in an Irish Times interview about the obvious environmental problems being caused around the world and particularly in the USA the CEO of Tamboran Resources (the main company involved) Richard Moorman explains that our environmental regulations are much stricter here in the EU than in the USA and that his company will be complying with them all. We can rest easy that these regulations will protect us here in Ireland from these disastrous effects seen elsewhere. There are many reasons why I find this kind of talk hard to take. We are being asked to trust an industry that is effectively saying “we only polluted over there, because we were allowed to, of course we won’t do that here because it’s against the law.” We are being told that we should rely on our stiff anti-pollution regulations to protect us from this wanton destruction. This comes at a time when all public services including environmental regulation are being cut back. With the best will in the world our state services definitely don’t have the man-power to do this job properly. Even if they did, we have an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) which is immune to prosecution and run by a former IBEC adviser who is famous for remarks about facilitating industry with light touch regulation.

The big question is what happens when all the money from these energy companies starts sloshing around, what will happen to our regulators then? History shows us that greedy politics takes over. Where were the regulators of the banks when we needed them most? What about the planning tribunals? Have we really learnt enough lessons from these debacles to trust that our own principles will be enough to shield us from the damage already seen in the USA? The goal of any of these private gas companies is to make money and if there is any short cut that will improve the bottom line then it will be taken. It is us who will have to pay the ultimate price long after these companies have gone. We will be left with a scarred landscape unfit for tourism, contaminated water supplies and thousands of wells that will demand continuous care to prevent even more pollution for the generations to come.

That we are considering introducing such a potentially damaging industry to an area that provides so many of us with our drinking water (including Dublin in the future) is a massive gamble for everyone. It is not just the ground water. We are talking about industrialising one of the most pristine parts of the country with sustainable jobs in tourism/outdoor recreation and an untainted water supply for half the country, for what? For a few speculators to make millions in profit from a resource that belongs to us all and for a handful of unsustainable jobs that will only last as long as the gas does. Remember that Ireland has the smallest tax take on the exploitation of any of its natural resources so we won’t even see any meaningful additions to the public purse. It’s just not worth the risk. Don’t take my word for it; inform yourself of the risks that are being taken or your behalf.

The current situation in Ireland
Right now there are currently two applications to explore inland for unconventional gas reserves from the companies Enigi and Tamboran. The EPA is currently considering over 1000 contributions to its public consultation on the terms of reference for its research into the process of fracking on this island. This research should be completed in 2015. Following intense public pressure and letter writing from those opposed to the introduction of fracking, Minister O’Dowd in a statement issued from his department said in relation to the two applications that “further consideration of the applications will be put on hold until after the findings of the new EPA research have been published.” This is a victory for the campaign but is no way the end of it. This does not prevent the EPA from carrying out fracking or allowing these companies to frack in the name of research.

What you can do.
Please send e-mails and letters to Minister O’Dowd asking him not to issue any licenses that would result in Hydraulic Fracturing in Ireland. Also ask him to remove the EPA’s immunity from prosecution.
Minister O Dowd:
Fergus O'Dowd TD
Contact Details

Address: Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, 29-31 Adelaide Road, Dublin 2
Telephone: 01-6782024
Fax: 01-6184628
Web: http://www.dcenr.gov.ie/

We don’t have to be experts; we do have to be very concerned citizens....

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For more information on Fracking and the national campaign please check

This guest article is the full version of the extract published in
Workers Solidarity 129, April May 2013