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An Australian firm has identified a huge natural gas field in the border county, but its plans have sparked controversy. Clare Weir reports
They might have struck oil off the coast of County Cork, but one global resources company is going full steam ahead in a bid to extract up to 50 years worth of natural gas from Co Fermanagh.
Earlier this year it was announced that Tamboran Resources had identified a huge shale gas field near the border with Co Leitrim last year. The Australian company is eyeing a £6bn investment which it says could create 600 full-time direct jobs and more than 2,400 indirect posts.
Tamboran claims that the projected production of up to 2.2trn cubic feet of shale gas would remove Northern Ireland's dependency on imported gas and the excess gas supply at peak production would enable Northern Ireland to become a significant net exporter of natural gas to other countries.
The company also said that a community investment fund for Co Fermanagh would lead to additional benefits in excess of £2m per year if the proposed fracking project starts production in 2015.
Dr Tony Bazley, a director of Tamboran locally, said that none of the structures used to drill or extract the gas will be above three metres off the ground and that the visual impact would be minimal. He has also pledged that no chemicals will be used in the process.
"If and when the complex is completed it should look like a large farm with a shed, hopefully a traditional Fermanagh barn and a car park, it should have no impact on farming or tourism, and indeed I would hope that both farming and tourism will benefit from shale gas extraction," he said.
"US President Barack Obama said fracking could be a 'game changer' for the US economy and we hope to see similar benefits in Northern Ireland."
A number of studies as to the pros and cons of fracking are already in circulation. Recently the University of Texas Energy Institute found many problems attributed to hydraulic fracturing are common to all oil and gas drilling systems.
A study said that many reports of contamination could be traced to above-ground spills or mishandling of wastewater rather than the fracking technique itself. The Texas team said that gas found in water wells within some shale drilling areas could be traced to natural sources, and was probably present before fracking operations began.
Surface spills of fracturing fluids posed greater risks to groundwater sources than the actual process of fracking, said the researchers.
However the report said there was a need to carry out more sampling and analysis of groundwater, to get to the bottom of where contamination was coming from.
More "baseline studies" were also required showing what conditions are like before the start of drilling operations, the study added.
But a report published in November 2011 said it was "highly probable" that shale gas test drilling had triggered earth tremors in Lancashire. Critics argue that as well as causing tremors and polluting water supplies, shale gas extraction could rob alternative clean energy sources of vital funding.
But one of the world's biggest oil companies has called for a "more measured response" to fracking. Shell's chief executive Peter Voser said it would invest $6bn (£3.8bn) to appraise, explore and develop gas and oil reserves contained in rocks globally this year, as it looked to significantly expand the volume of hydrocarbons it produces.
"I think it's a very emotional discussion in Europe, it's not very factual. We need to get back to analysis. They should not take fast and emotional decisions," Mr Voser said. Although Shell does not currently frack for oil or gas in Europe it has acquired "acreage" in Germany, the Ukraine and Turkey.
While Northern Ireland politicians are divided on the issue, Environment Minister Alex Attwood has already highlighted the need for balance between a potential major economic boost and possible environmental damage.
He has pledged to meet with Tamboran senior management to confirm in full and in detail the environment and planning requirements around fracking, so that the company knows the extensive procedures and evidence that apply.
"I have noted the potential for jobs and energy potential that the company has announced," he said.
"I want to reassure people, particularly in Fermanagh, that no decisions have been taken by my department about permitting fracking - indeed no planning applications have been received."
He added officials in the Northern Ireland Environment Agency are reviewing research from other parts of the world and liaising with counterparts in other environment agencies in Britain and Ireland.
Drilling a little deeper ... Tamboran answers our questions
How has the firm worked out the potential volume of gas able to be extracted in Northern Ireland?
The calculation is based on information from the 13 wells previously drilled in the basin over the past 50 years as well as over 770 km of seismic (a recording of sound waves released into the ground to provide a radar-like image of the formation). The seismic was collected by previous companies and evaluated with modern techniques for Tamboran by Global Geophysical team in Dallas, Texas. The data shows a total gas in place on the basin of nearly 23trn cubic feet (Tcf), of which we estimate half is in Northern Ireland. Our computer modelling indicates that 2.2 Tcf can be recovered. We believe this to be a conservative estimate.
What could the potential savings be for the consumer/businesses, generated by the production of the gas?
Natural gas is less expensive than oil for heating. It is also utilised to power most of the electricity on the island, so it is essential for modern businesses and to reduce the cost of energy for citizens.
Could Northern Ireland become a net exporter of gas?
Yes. We estimate that Northern Ireland could begin exporting natural gas as early as 2019.
Why Northern Ireland, what put it on the map for the firm and why is it seen as an important location?
Natural gas potential has long been identified in Northern Ireland and Ireland, with the first wells drilled 50 years ago. Each of the 13 wells drilled in the basin has shown gas potential. Wherever gas is present, there must be shale, which serves as the source for all natural gas and oil worldwide. Although our founders are based in Australia, their ancestry is Irish, and so they decided to study Ireland in early 2011 when the government put leases out for tendering. More importantly, Northern Ireland is a very good location, as the country imports 100% of its natural gas, which will ensure that there is an existing market for the natural gas.
How is the company addressing the concerns of local residents/environmental campaigners?
We continue to develop very high-quality standards for all of our planned operations to address each of the concerns being raised directly with us by local residents. Additionally, we have held substantial community information meetings with over 1,000 people and have held over 10 hours of direct conversations with people involved in the anti-fracking campaigns.
How many jobs could be generated by shale gas production?
In Co Fermanagh, we will hire 10 people this summer to begin training by fall. Over time, we see at least 600 direct jobs by 2025 with an estimated 2,400 indirect jobs related to the project as well.
How has the company found dealing with the Northern Ireland government, in terms of openness and assistance?
We have been fortunate to spend a lot of time with regulatory authorities and found them very helpful.
Toxic waste, earth tremors and ill health... what opponents claim technique can bring with it
Fracking has sparked controversy with environmentalists who say there are cases of water contamination near fracking sites and that the process produces toxic wastewater.
Late last year test drilling was blamed for earth tremors in Lancashire.
The technique, known as hydraulic fracturing or 'fracking', involves shattering shale rock with high-pressure injections of water and chemicals deep underground.
The gas found in the shale below the rocks is then channelled back to an onshore well.
Pollution can occur if seals break in the underground vertical pipeline, which runs through aquifers and other water supplies. Northern Ireland's Assembly recently voted for a moratorium on fracking, which has been opposed by the Green Party which claims it causes well blow-outs, endangering workers and local communities.
It has been suspended or banned in some countries, including France and parts of the US and Britain. A New York Times investigation found the wastewater in some such wells contained dangerously high levels of radioactivity.
An award-winning 2009 film, 'Gasland', exposed the ill-effects on health suffered by many US residents living near gas wells.
The film also documented the destruction of the landscape, and instances of water, soil and air pollution.
Company pledges not to use injected chemicals in Irish operations
Tamboran is an exploration company based in Australia, with a number of interests overseas. The company's primary focus is on shale gas in onshore basins.
Tamboran says that it will prevent interference with groundwater on its new projects by using steel surface and intermediate casings thoroughly lined with advanced, engineered cement from the base of the well to the surface. The company says it will employ a modern electronic tool known as a Cement Bond Log across the entire surface casing to ensure the cement is properly set.
The firm says it is committed to using "absolutely no injected chemicals in our hydraulic fracturing operations" in Ireland.
Tamboran says it will conduct fracture stimulations with only sand and water cleaned or recycled at the surface.
Additionally, all recovered water will be stored in secure tanks at surface for recycling in the fracture stimulation of subsequent wells to reduce water use.