Mayo needs to wake up to the reality that the controversial method of extracting natural gas from rock — known as fracking — could soon become a major issue in the county.
That is according to two local Sinn Féin representatives who this week urged the public and political representatives to call on the Government to make its position on fracking clear because a number of Mayo townlands in the Swinford and Charlestown areas have long been flagged as possible fracking sites.
Fracking is a controversial — but lucrative and effective — method of extracting gas from shale rock. It involves drilling wells deep underground and pumping in water, sand, and chemicals at high pressure to fracture the rock and release natural gas.
The major concerns around fracking centre on the possible risk of contamination of underground water systems and the harm this could cause for local residents, and particularly the farming and tourism sectors.
Cllr Gerry Murry, Charlestown, and John Sheahan, a Sinn Féin representative in the Swinford area, both spoke about the issue this week.
Cllr Murray said initial exploration licences for townlands in the Charlestown and Swinford area were issued in 2010 and work has been carried out to assess the areas’ suitability for fracking.
The licences granted permission for what he described as “desktop studies” of the townlands in the context of fracking.
“We had alot of low flying aircraft in the area in 2011,” said Cllr Murray. “Essentially what they were doing was X-raying the ground for these studies.”
However whether fracking actually becomes a reality or not very much depends on what the EPA rules in its report on fracking in Ireland, which is expected to be published in the coming months.
Significant anti-fracking campaigns have been launched ahead of the EPA report in a number of other counties identified for potential fracking.
Cllr Murray attributed the relative silence on the matter in Mayo to the fact that the areas affected here are on the periphery of the county, and many people may not be aware that they are potential fracking sites.
In the meantime, Mr Sheahan is calling on the Government to make its policy position on fracking known.
He pointed to a decision by Minister for the Environment in Northern Ireland, Mark Durkan, earlier this month which rejected a planning application from an Australian mining company to drill an exploratory borehole for shale gas at Belcoo, Co Fermanagh.
Mr Sheahan said the last Fianna Fáil-led government supported fracking and the current government need to make clear their position on the issue.
“The Government needs to make its position in relation to fracking clear, otherwise one can only conclude that the Fine Gael and Labour position is the same as that of the previous government,” said Mr Sheahan.
Cllr Murray said a Sinn Féin motion to deal with fracking in the County Development Plan was defeated in the lifetime of the last council
He said he sees fracking as an ongoing issue that could become very serious.
“If the EPA report says this practice is sustainable, then this will be happening where there is shale — in Charlestown, Swinford, possible towards Foxford and Kilkelly as well.”