For the last few years, parts of rural Ireland have been convulsed by arguments over fracking, a process of extracting shale gas from bedrock after fracturing that rock by pumping water and chemicals underground, allowing the gas to escape back up the borehole.
The technique has created the appearance of a financial boom in the US, as it taps hard-to-reach gas deposits, but the damage the technique appears to cause is hard to dismiss (although politicians are too quick to do so). I say the “appearance” of a financial boom, because the companies are not responsible for cleanup or pollution as a consequence of fracking, expenses which local communities may have to deal with for decades after the fracking companies have left town. The frequency of earthquakes around fracking sites rises alarmingly, methane and other chemicals can pollute drinking water sources, such as rivers and wells, and there are simply no long-term studies of the environmental effects of the chemicals they use. For a country dependent on agriculture and tourism, fracking represents a major threat to Ireland’s long-term economic future in return for a short-term — and likely largely off-shore — gain, to say nothing of the threat to rural communities which could be left with poisoned streams, decimated bird and fish populations, and contaminated drinking water.
Unsurprisingly, community groups in rural Ireland have rallied around campaigns to ban fracking. It’s thought that the largest potential gas deposits are in the Cavan/Leitrim/Fermanagh area which straddles the border, so the policies of two governments come into play. The focus of protest has lately been a quarry in County Fermanagh where an Australian energy company proposed to do some exploratory drilling. Thankfully, according to the Belfast Telegraph, the British Environment Minister has just rejected the company’s application for a drilling license, citing the lack of an environmental impact study, and the fact that “unauthorized extraction” has already taken place at the site.
Campaigners welcomed the move, but remain wary, as the Republic of Ireland’s culture of “light touch” regulation remains very much alive, despite a change of regime at the last election. Also, given British Prime Minister David Cameron’s past support for fracking, there’s no guarantee that future applications for a drilling license will also be denied.
I’ve written about some of the forces threatening Ireland’s heritage and archaeological sites in the past, but fracking threatens more than just individual places, it threatens the fresh water, the biodiversity, and the health of the island and its population. It endangers the agricultural wealth of Ireland, and the unspoiled landscape that brings visitors from near and far. The attitude towards fracking in America seems to be that the country is huge, so it can afford a few areas that are spoiled and polluted. Ireland is much, much smaller, and thus everything and everyone is much more inter-connected; we need to keep our entire ecosystem healthy.
Ireland’s Environmental Protection Agency are currently undertaking a study of fracking operations with a view to determining whether it can be safely carried out in the Republic. It’s expected that in late 2015 or 2016 the Irish government will then have to make a decision on whether to allow fracking or not. In the meantime, many Irish citizens are highlighting the risks of this extraction method, and contacting their government representatives to voice their concerns and opposition. I urge the Irish abroad and frequent visitors to Ireland to do the same, as fracking presents a major threat to Ireland’s tourism, fisheries, agriculture, and public health.
Stephen Rennicks’s research into gas exploration and possible fracking in the Lough Allen Basin between 1963 and 2001 sheds light on the aftermath of previous gas drilling and the truth about energy companies’ promises to clean up after themselves.
Sign Action From Ireland’s petition to ban fracking in the Republic.
Petition to ban fracking in Northern Ireland.
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