Fracking: who calls the shots?

Community pressure

“If I lived within half a mile of a well that is being fracked, I would move. I’d sooner live in a tent”
Michael Hill, Oil and gas engineer and advisor to EU Commission, speaking at a public meeting in Bushmills, Co. Antrim on 28 May 2014.

Is there much more to be said about fracking?

Well it would seem so. Arlene Foster Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Investment in Stormont and MLA for Fermanagh and South Tyrone has described fracking as a potential “game changer” and opposition to fracking as “scaremongering” and causing “fear in the community”. Ms Foster has also stated that people must make up their own minds “with the full evidence in front of them” (Fermanagh Herald 23 January 2014).

Yet if opposing fracking is scaremongering why did the NI Assembly vote for a moratorium on fracking in December 2011 and why has Fermanagh Council voted in favour of banning fracking on 4 August this year? Are they all scaremongers?

Given Ms Foster’s strong feelings on the subject you would assume that her department’s web site would have “the full evidence” on fracking on display so that members of the public could indeed “make up their own minds” Well you would be wrong. A search of her department’s web site reveals no information explaining the pros and cons of fracking. In fact there are very few references of any kind to fracking.

The manner in which this whole debate around fracking has been handled by the Northern Ireland Executive and its cheerleader for fracking, Arlene Foster, throws into sharp focus both the dysfunctional nature of government here in its relationship with its electorate and the lack of a well thought out strategy on Northern Ireland’s future energy resources.

The debate has been characterised by an incoherent Executive unable or unwilling to engage with the public in an open and honest debate on energy issues in order to develop an agreed energy strategy. It has denied the public a much needed enquiry and presented no coherent view of fracking to the public. It has shown that departments do not talk to each other in order to coordinate plans and they do not consider the knock on effects of decisions such as the impact of fracking on our tourism and film industries and on something as basic as our water supply. Given this there is little wonder that there has been the widespread frustration and anger in Fermanagh at the high handed behaviour of Tamboran and the incompetence of the NI Executive. This should never have happened.

It is true that we must look at alternatives to fossil fuels to supply our energy for the future. Why? Two reasons: first the use of fossil fuels is burning up the atmosphere and causing life threatening levels of climate change and second we are running out of easy to reach fossil fuels such as coal, oil and gas. Current data for the decline in oil fields’ production indicates that around 3 million barrels per day of new production must be achieved year on year, simply to sustain supply levels. This is equivalent to finding another Saudi Arabia every 3–4 years (Chemistry World). In fact world oil production plateaued in 2005 (Berlin Energy Watch) and has been declining since.

Fracking has been touted as a means of plugging the gap in our energy supplies. But its potential has been vastly over-hyped by a greedy fossil fuel industry interested only in quick profits. Shale gas is a fossil fuel which is depleting much faster than conventional fossil fuels. In addition the process of fracking does immense harm to the environment.

The US Energy Information Administration (EIA) in a report in 2013 said that shale will increase the world’s oil supply by 11%. Even if this were true (shale gas production in America has been in decline since 2011 – Post Carbon Institute), it is not enough to halt serious energy shortfalls. Shale gas expert, Robert Gatliff, director of energy and marine geoscience at the British Geological Survey speaking on BBC radio said:

“You can also look at how much gas you get out per well in [the United States] per well – at the moment they are getting around 2 billion cubic feet per well, so if we managed to do that, to do our gas production that we use at the moment per day in the UK, we would probably need a thousand successful wells a year – and I think that’s years away and will probably never happen, that’s a big target.”

Meanwhile, recoverable reserves estimates for the Monterey shale – supposedly the biggest shale liquids play in the US – have been revised downwards by 96pc. In Poland, drilling 30-40 wells has so far produced virtually no worthwhile production (Daily Telegraph 4/8/14)

Then there is the environmental impact of such an investment in fracking. The sixty fracking pads, each covering nine acres and one to three miles apart proposed for Fermanagh will require up to 600 million gallons of fresh water – more if each pad requires more than one well. Where will all this water come from? And this is just in Fermanagh! What about the north coast and east Antrim areas zoned for exploration?

No discussions have taken place between DETI and DRD regarding how such a huge demand on Northern Ireland’s water supplies would be met. Yet further proof of this Executive’s dysfunction.
Before fracking After fracking

Then there is the secret chemicals injected into the earth during the fracking process. In Fermanagh this will amount to around 30 million gallons of suspected toxic chemicals and carcinogens.

The fracking industry will not reveal what chemicals it uses. But the State of Texas, not known for its antagonism towards the fossil fuel industry, has demanded to know the content of the top secret chemical concoction the fracking industry pumps into the earth and the state’s capital Dallas city has banned fracking.

How will all this water and toxic waste be transported?

  • 400 to 600 tanker truckloads of fluid
  • per well
  • 200 to 300 tanker truckloads of frack
  • waste per well
  • 1,800 to 2,600 truck drive-bys per
  • Well
  • Wells are drilled 24/7 nonstop

How will our rural roads cope? That is to say nothing of the impact the human health of such heavy traffic.
“And world renowned medical Journal, The Lancet who stated that despite scientific study of the health effects of fracking being in its infancy, “findings suggest that this form of extraction might increase health risks compared with conventional oil and gas extraction [due to] larger surface footprints of fracking sites; their close proximity to locations where people live, work and play; and the need to transport and store large volumes of materials.”

The Lancet went further to state that the, “risks of environmental contamination occur at all stages in the development of shale gas extraction.”’ Fermanagh Fracking Awareness Network

So who benefits from fracking because it’s certainly not the people in the communities being fracked?

“This is an industry that is caught in the grip of magical thinking,” says Arthur Berman, a respected energy consultant in Texas who has spent years studying the industry, “In fact, when you look at the level of debt some of these companies are carrying, and the questionable value of their gas reserves, there is a lot in common with the subprime mortgage market just before it melted down.”

After Chesapeake Energy, America’s second-largest producer of natural gas, drills a few wells in a region and “proves up” the reserves, it hawks the leases to big oil and gas companies looking to get into the shale-gas game. In 2010, it pocketed $2.2 billion by selling land it bought in Texas for $2,000 an acre to one of China’s largest oil companies for $11,000 an acre. “That’s a five-to-one return on investment,” says Jeff Mobley, Chesapeake’s senior vice president for investor relations. (Rolling Stone 1/1/12)

So what should be our energy strategy?

First of all it is to reject any kind of fracking outright.

Second it is to focus on what the NI Executive originally set its sights on when it committed to sourcing 40% of our energy from renewable sources by 2020 before it allowed itself to be side-tracked with the fracking issue.

Arlene Foster says “we are well on our way to meeting this target”. Let’s hope she is right. Northern Ireland has increased its use of renewables from just 3% ten years ago to generating up to 19% of its electricity needs from renewable sources n 2013/14 (DETNI Aug 2014) compared to 18 % in Ireland, and over 40% in Scotland (DECC). So while NI could be doing much more, significant progress has been made with renewables.

There are those who say the renewables can’t keep the lights on, that they are impractical. This is wrong.

Germany is now able to generate up to 75% of its energy needs from renewables. With wind and solar in particular filling such a huge portion of the country’s power demand, electricity prices have actually dipped into the negative i.e. more electricity was being generated and sold back into the grid than was needed for supply, according to Renewables International (11 May 14). It should be noted that Germany has also said no to fracking – along with France, Bulgaria and Romania.

As has already been stated our near neighbours, Scotland generate over 40% of their energy from renewables and are confident of achieving a target of sourcing 100% of their electricity needs from renewables by 2020 (BBC News December 13)

Denmark produces over 40% of its energy from renewables and aims to switch its entire energy production to renewables by 2050 (April 2012 BBC News).

Both Scotland and Denmark are for the most part further north than Northern Ireland and Germany is only one to two degrees further south.

Much like Denmark and Scotland, Northern Ireland has an extensive coastline suitable to wind, wave and tidal energy. Up to 300,000 (40%) homes in Northern Ireland could have electricity supplied by offshore wind and tidal energy as part of a new deal with renewables companies. The off-shore projects — proposed for sites off the coast of counties Antrim and Down — could together deliver 800 megawatts (MW) of electricity and power more than a fifth of homes. A 600MW wind farm off the coast of Ardglass in Co Down could provide the lion’s share of the power boost while two tidal stream projects near Torr Head and Fair Head on the north coast will make up the balance.(Belfast Telegraph 12 Oct 2012).
Local firm McLaughlin & Harvey has already worked on the Orkney Tidal Energy Device for OpenHydro. Harland & Wolff in Belfast is becoming a hub for the offshore renewable energy sector with companies like Siemens and DONG Energy installing operations (Belfast Telegraph 27 Feb 14). This will mean benefits to longstanding businesses located in Northern Ireland with opportunities for local employment and skills development in a growing market. Fracking does not offer these employment prospects.

What can be done now?

If fracking goes ahead it will impact adversely on everyone in Northern Ireland in one way or another. So it’s everyone’s issue and not just those living in the many areas where exploration has been licenced and adjacent to fracking pads.

Without a proper engagement with the public by the Northern Ireland Executive, we are destined to see many more protests and public opposition to this irresponsible approach to energy generation.

How will Northern Ireland reach its energy goals if we are mired in protests?

It’s time for the Executive to engage with its electorate!

It’s time we all took ownership of our energy!

 Written by William Methven




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