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Community caught between possible gas boom or risk of environmental disaster

By: 
Ronan McGreevy - Irish Times

TRADITIONALLY LEITRIM has been one of the poorest counties in Ireland. A recent Famine map by NUI Maynooth indicated the population is just 17 per cent of what it was at the time of the famine, the lowest in Ireland.

The possibility there could be billions of euro worth of extractable gas in Leitrim has left local people on the horns of a dilemma.

They are wondering whether to embrace the potential economic benefits claimed with the possibilities of a 50-year gas boom or risk the possibility of environmental degradation and industrial overdevelopment which would change the character of the county forever.

Most local people had never heard of the term hydraulic fracturing (fracking) last February when the then junior science, technology and innovation minister Conor Lenihan granted two companies, Tamboran and the Lough Allen Natural Gas Company (Langco), onshore petroleum licences to explore the Lough Allen basin for natural gas.

Now, as Minister for Natural Resources Pat Rabbitte wryly admitted in the Dáil recently, everybody is an expert on the issue.

Even before the companies involved have literally or figuratively scratched the surface, the fracking debate breaks down into roughly three camps.

There are those who are opposed outright to the concept of fracking, citing problems in the US and there are those who support it outright, though they are largely silent. In between are local people who are adapting a “wait and see” approach and are mulling over two wildly different views of the same process and waiting for the Environmental Protection Agency to carry out an environmental impact assessment.

As in most disputes where there are environmental concerns, those opposed are the most motivated and well-organised. Their attempts to galvanise local people have succeeded in getting a unanimous decision by both Leitrim and Roscommon county councils calling for a five-year moratorium on fracking in Ireland.

The councils’ stance is not binding on the Government but indicates those opposed to the process of fracking as currently constituted have mainstream support.

There has already been a myriad of anti-fracking groups set up and a series of public meetings has left Tamboran in no doubt as to how those opposed to the process feel about it.

The arguments against are summarised in a presentation made to Rabbitte last month.

Those opposed say the sheer scale of what is proposed is excessive. It would include 100 well pads with 1,000 wells, concentrated in a triangle of land in north Leitrim.

This would be incompatible with north Leitrim’s future in agriculture and ecotourism, the document claims.

They also maintain the process of fracking, which involves millions of gallons of water being pumped at high pressure into wells contaminates water supplies and pollutes the air.

One of those who met the Minister was Eddie Mitchell, the local chairman of the Fine Gael party.

Mitchell says he is “pro-development, but anti hydraulic fracturing” and those opposed to it go way beyond “hippy-types” or as a blogger called them “professional tree huggers” to include ordinary people who are not by nature serial agitators.

“We’re delighted that the gas is there and maybe we can come back to it in eight to 10 years time with a different process, but we don’t want to be casualties of energy security.”

Leitrim’s only TD, Michael Colreavy (Sinn Féin), says he has heard enough about fracking to believe there is “no earthly way” the process should be allowed in the county.

He also fears the current economic climate will be used to pressurise local communities into accepting something that might not be in their long-term interests.

Drumshanbo-based Fine Gael councillor Enda McGloin conceded the “jury is out” on fracking and if there was a poll in the morning local people would probably vote against it, but that could change.

McGloin said he and others were putting their faith in the EPA to adjudicate on the competing arguments. “We have to trust that they will do it the fairest possible way,” he said.

Labour Senator Susan O’Keeffe said she too welcomed the intervention of the EPA, but its findings must be complemented by the experiences of other countries where fracking has taken place.

To that end she has organised a number of meetings for politicians in Leinster House. Recently she brought in the Dutch scientist CJ de Pater, who concluded that fracking caused minor earthquakes in Lancashire.

She added: “We need a lot more information and explanation. Clearly there have been problems in other countries, but equally Dr de Pater has been saying that fracking has gone on for years and years in the Netherlands and there has never been an issue.”

Given the depth of feeling involved and the strident nature of the arguments for and against, finding people who are prepared to say publicly they are in favour of the process is difficult.

However, one supporter familiar with the process of fracking who did not want to be named, said that done correctly it is 100 per cent safe.

“I think when the facts are explained to people and they know chemicals will not be used and it will bring money into the economy there will be no problem with it,” he said.

Posted Date: 
13 December 2011