The issue of hydraulic fracturing – fracking – has been catapulted into mainstream attention in Northern Ireland over the last few weeks.
For those not yet in the know, fracking involves pumping high-pressure chemicals (many of them extremely dangerous) into the ground in order to extract natural gas. The 2010 film ‘Gasland’ documents the devastation across parts of the USA where fracking has taken place. Livestock death and illness, groundwater pollution, gas explosions, small earth tremors and severe illness in animals and humans alike are among the side effects of this form of natural gas extraction. Residents are depicted as suffering from chronic health problems from brain lesions to respiratory illness. Some can even ignite their tap water with a lighter.
Closer to home, the Northern Ireland Department for Enterprise, Trade & Investment (DETI) has already started issuing ‘exploration licences’ for multinationals to start drilling for oil and gas here, with a view to eventually exploiting a huge reservoir of natural gas found underneath NI and the Republic of Ireland. A thousand individual gas wells could be drilled across the province, with liscences granted for South Antrim, the North Coast and Fermanagh.
Like tar sands, fracking has the potential to become one of the front-line battles against the climate and energy crises; the demand for an alternative to rapidly dwindling fossil fuels will mean that we are faced with the stark choice of investing seriously in renewable energy or devastating our communities with techniques like hydraulic fracturing.
When Green MLA Steven Agnew raised the issue of DETI granting exploration licences in the Assembly in early November, he was mocked by current DETI Minister, the DUP’s Arlene Foster, as wanting to ‘sit in a dark room with a blanket over our heads and not worry (about energy supplies).
But fast forward a few weeks and it could be Arlene who’d now like to go and sit in a dark room and forget about the situation. It has now emerged that Foster’s husband owns 56 acres of land in Fermanagh where fracking could take place. Foster did not declare this despite being previously asked in the Assembly if she had any personal interests in fracking.
The Greens have now called for Foster to resign over the appearance of a possible conflict of interest, finally catapulting the issue onto the mainstream media’s agenda. Despite trying to act like the Greens and the media are barking up the wrong tree, the DUP big guns are being rolled out to defend the embattled Minister. Peter Robinson appeared on the BBC’s Hearts & Minds, clearly not entirely au fait with the situation by referring to ‘frackling.’ Foster even used her speech at the DUP conference last weekend to declare her interest in gas extraction by noting that she owns land in Brookborough, ANOTHER area of Fermanagh.
This isn’t the first time Foster has appeared to have these conflicts of interest either. In 2007, as Minister for the Environment, she was caught up in another row over scrapping a proposal for a visitor’s centre at the Giant’s Causeway and approving another proposal from Seymour Sweeney, a property developer and member of the DUP.
Yet again, many people are left saying ‘if this was the rest of the UK, then the Minister would have had to resign by now.’
Some excellent community organising across Co. Fermanagh is now spreading across Northern Ireland as a loose coalition of activists opposed to fracking starts to come together. Film screenings of ‘Gasland’ leave audiences stunned. A protest was held outside a DETI office in Belfast last week. A debate on fracking, called by the Greens, will hit the floor of the Assembly on December 6th.
The campaign must now seek to engage with some of the environmental movement’s less likely allies, the farming community, to alert them to how dangerous this will be for livestock and livelihoods.
The aim is a total and permanent moratorium on fracking in Northern Ireland, following in the footsteps of France, South Africa and a number of US states. The alternative is a future of igniting tap water and health problems in the name of making energy company shareholders richer.