"The Government have clearly sent the message to Shell, ‘you can do whatever you want’. Fortunately due to protest, the refinery remains unconnected to the gas field. If, as Shell planned, gas had been flowing by now, we would potentially all be dealing with a gas leak and explosion.”
TAMBORAN RESOURCES hopes to drill for natural gas across the Lough Allen basin in the northwest, an area that straddles counties Cavan, Leitrim and Fermanagh, where previous operations indicate that the rock there may hold viable quantities of the resource.
The company holds licences from two jurisdictions, the Republic and Northern Ireland, but it is a long way from getting the green light to carry out drilling. Instead, its permits allow it to do exploratory drilling – mainly small, shallow boreholes– and take rock samples. It is also hiring consultants to carry out an environmental impact assessment.
The work has to be done by 2013 and will be used to supplement existing information about the area’s geological characteristics. At that point, Tamboran will know whether or not it is sitting on a commercially viable gas reservoir.
Chief executive Richard Moorman says Tamboran has a “good feeling” about its Irish licence and is 75 per cent sure that it has a commercial find. Optimism is part of the exploration industry’s stock in trade, but often it’s misplaced. More than 30 years of drilling for oil and gas off the Irish coast yielded just three commercial finds, none of which was massive by global standards.
Tamboran’s and Moorman’s hopes for the northwest are based on results from previous drilling, and hydraulic fracturing there indicating that it does indeed contain natural gas. This was more than 30 years ago, and Moorman explains that the technology available at the time was not advanced enough to ensure a commercial return from the drilling operations. The technology has since moved on, increasing the likelihood that the reservoir there can be exploited.
But it is the technology itself that is the potential flashpoint: hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, involves pumping large quantities of water at a rock face, deep underground, to create fissures or cracks through which natural gas can escape and be captured.
Fracking is used on rock types that are not porous enough to allow gas to be extracted by normal drilling techniques. The rocks are mainly shale, which is why the fuel extracted by fracking is known as “shale gas”. The approach is normally described as controversial and was recently blamed for tremors close to a drilling site in Cumbria in the north of England.
If Tamboran were to get a full licence, it would drill at distances of 500m to 1,500m below the ground and then horizontally through the rock. It would fit a large-diameter pipe into the borehole. Into this it would fit a second, narrower pipe, which it would cement in place. This would create a sealed-off cylindrical chamber, made of steel and cement, intended to prevent contamination of the area around the original borehole, and particularly of water tables and soil. The drill bit, the equipment’s business end, would be fed into this.
The drill bit would be perforated, and millions of gallons of water, containing some sand, would be pumped through this on to the rock face at high pressure. Moorman believes the Irish wells will be shallow enough to allow Tamboran to dispense with chemicals normally used as a lubricant in the fracking process, and so the firm would not use any. The technique has been around for almost as long as the oil and gas industry. Its opponents regard it as high risk, if not downright dangerous. Moorman argues that it needs to be regulated tightly and managed properly.
Based on the US experience, the probability of something going wrong is about one in 1,000. However, Moorman says that even that level of risk can be cut dramatically.
“A lot of the things that went wrong in the States were down to complacency, they should not have happened,” he says. “That is not acceptable in an Irish context.” But its opponents here argue that fracking itself is not acceptable in an Irish context.
And there are a lot of opponents. Labour Senator Susan O’Keeffe, who is based in the northwest, says that of the representations made to her about Tamboran’s plans, about 98 per cent are against the proposals.
O’Keeffe, who is involved in the Fracking Research and Information Centre, an organisation which stresses it is neutral and that aims to inform the public about the technique’s pros and cons, says the reaction locally has been extremely strong.
Local fears, she says, centre on the operation’s potential impact on what is an unspoilt region that has been spared the worst excesses of industrialisation. From the point of view of tourism, one of the region’s key industries, this is a major asset.
O’Keeffe says locals also have more precise concerns, about possible contamination of water supplies, and possibly rivers and lakes, the soil and the air. In areas such as Pennsylvania in the US, where there is a lot of fracking, it is blamed for suspected problems with water supplies and air quality.
Concerns such as these, and the fact that France and Germany, among others, have ordered a temporary halt to fracking, prompted the Government here to begin a review. The Environmental Protection Agency is carrying out an initial study and is on track to produce its report early next year. The Government will commission a full-scale review shortly afterwards. That will look at the environmental impact and regulation in other countries. It will also gather information that will give the Government a view on what “best-practice” fracking would involve.
Moorman says Tamboran supports tough regulation and full-scale monitoring. This would include the boreholes and drilling, seismic activity, and water and air quality. The firm argues that baselines for all these measurements should be set before any fracking takes place. This would allow the monitoring to warn of anything unusual as soon as it happens.
The company has held a series of public meetings on both sides of the Border and its chief executive stresses it wants to be open with everyone likely to be affected.
Nevertheless, he is surprised by the vehemence of the opposition. An Irish person hired by the firm to make introductions and organise the meetings was called a traitor by an audience member. Opponents have bussed their supporters to meetings at various locations. “It’s a public meeting, they’re entitled to come along,” says Moorman.
He believes the opposition is partly rooted in the fact that the area is not too far from north Mayo, where controversy over Shell’s plans to exploit the Corrib natural gas reservoir has raged for several years. Tamboran’s public meetings and Moorman’s willingness to talk are an effort to avoid some of the mistakes he believes were made there in the first place.
There is a potential pay-off from all of this. If Tamboran goes ahead with its plans, the project should run for about 15 years and create 700 jobs directly. These would involve a range of skills, and the company has had initial positive talks with Sligo Institute of Technology about establishing training courses for prospective workers. A similar number of posts would be created indirectly in ancillary services.
Then there is the State’s tax take and the fact that a country that is 90 per cent dependent on imported hydrocarbons for its energy needs will have its own reservoir of natural gas, which is used to generate much of its electricity needs.
There is a question mark over the economic pay-off from fracking. The New York Times recently reported that oil and gas sector analysts, geologists, executives and other industry insiders are growing sceptical about the ultimate worth of shale gas. Some reservoirs appear to be running out of gas sooner than expected. Some analysts compared the US shale gas boom to the dotcom bubble that burst 10 years ago.
At this stage, Tamboran and Leitrim are a long way from either a boom or a bust – if they ever get there in the first place.