Warren Little: Fracking is dead in the water – and always was

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Published: 14 Aug 2014 16:02

IN the year of our Lord 2014, the first wave of prospectors arrived in the Wild West. They swept through the valley of the Erne and up into the grasslands of Belcoo. At dawn the wagon trains rolled in, came to a halt on the townlands at Keelagho and set up camp in the rocky basin.

 But the gods were displeased. The native tribes of every blood left their herds and gathered themselves upon the ancient call of resistance. They came from all around – from beneath the Hanging Rock, down off the Burren plateau and out of the forests of Big Dog. As they chanted and stamped the war dance, and as the Shaman foretold of great illness and suffering, the tribal elder pronounced judgment upon the prospectors. Big Chief Durkan, he say no.

It’s now clearer than ever that there won’t be fracking in Fermanagh. At least not for a very long time. All Tamboran wanted to do at this stage was drill a hole 15cms wide and see what shape Fermanagh’s bowels were in. It is the geological equivalent of an endoscopy, with no actual surgery yet to be performed, but the Minister decided this patient was too unstable even for that. Apparently there are existing wounds – in the form of unauthorised extraction at the Cleggan quarry – that are yet to be properly diagnosed. And he could not assess, he said, what the ‘cumulative environmental impact’ of these two separate factors would be.

This decision seems, overtly, to have been made on the basis of the fairly unique legal problems of that particular site. Thus Tamboran is left with a number of options: it could choose a more straightforward site elsewhere; it could look afresh at the Cleggan site if the unauthorised extractions are approved (retrospective planning applications have already been made); or it could simply prepare the environmental impact statement required as a result of this decision and see it as a temporary delay.

While technically speaking this is merely a passing rain shower for Tamboran, as a barometer of the prevailing mood at Stormont it indicates they will never get home and dry. Minister Durkan’s statement was full of the usual ministerial speak – ‘very careful consideration’, ‘mindful of my Department’s responsibility’ – but the real message lay between the lines. “Tamboran must prove beyond ANY doubt that what they are proposing will have no negative impact on the environment,” he told the BBC, emphasising ‘any’.

Eliminating any doubt is of course an impossibility, and it is such an intolerant threshold that every industrial activity currently being performed in Northern Ireland would fall foul of it. We lock up people for the rest of their lives on a threshold of beyond ‘reasonable’ doubt, but apparently a borehole in Belcoo warrants more certainty.

But Mark H Durkan could be the world’s most rampant pro-fracker for all the difference it would make. It wouldn’t matter a jot. Because this story is not so much a classic western as a classic farce. It’s a spoof, a masterful example of misdirection, caper and charade. At the end of Mel Brooks’ film Blazing Saddles the buildings forming the town of Rock Ridge are openly exposed as a theatrical set, and we are now at that stage in the politics of fracking (and everything else) in Northern Ireland.

You see, while local people have been told that fracking will pollute the water in their taps and the air all around them with hazardous concentrations of chemicals, causing cancer and a range of other frightening conditions; while community groups tell us people are worried, not sleeping, not eating and seeking spiritual comfort; while people are maintaining round-the-clock vigils, protesting with 140 tractors through Enniskillen, assembling singing children at the ‘gates of hell’ and all manner of disruption and distress, Sinn Fein has all along held the keys to veto the whole thing. And on Monday this week, after Minister Durkan’s decision and nearly three years after all this angry debate started, Sinn Fein’s Phil Flanagan confirmed to me that fracking simply cannot and will not happen because they will veto it. “Panic over”, he said.

So what, can anybody tell me, was the point of it all? Why haven’t Sinn Fein made abundantly clear their intentions and put the whole issue to bed long before now? And from here, what is the point of exploratory boreholes and environmental impact statements and health assessments and indeed Big Chief Durkan the Doubtful, if the scripted finale is a Sinn Fein thumbs down regardless? Tamboran could find the safest and most lucrative shale conditions in the world and they would still be wasting their time and money.

Ask yourself who are the real gods behind the scenes in this farcical western. Ask yourself who benefits most from letting all this drama play out, from all this newly radicalised opposition to UK policy. Certainly it is not the UK Government. Certainly it is not Tamboran. Certainly, and most importantly, it is not the people of West Fermanagh.