The ‘F’ word is not a dirty one in North West
Dr Ruairi Hanley refuses to accept that Ireland cannot get its act together on fracking
Dr Ruairi Hanley believes that with proper safeguards and regulation, fracking could hold massive potential for the hard-hit regions of Leitrim, West Cavan and Fermanagh
I will begin this week by telling readers of a small part of Ireland that I know quite well. For the benefit of some of my South County Dublin colleagues (who apparently struggle to understand a map extending anywhere beyond Lucan) we shall begin with a very quick geography lesson.
In the North West of this island there is a medium-sized town called Sligo, where this columnist grew up. A road known as the N16 leads north from there before sharply veering east in the direction of the border and Enniskillen.
Travelling on this route brings you through remote North Leitrim and a small part of Cavan. Here you will find a scattering of small towns and villages, most notably Manorhamilton, Glenfarne and Blacklion-Belcoo, which straddles the future frontier of the European Union.
This is a sad, rugged and strangely beautiful part of our country where it always seems to rain. I also believe it to be the most neglected region of the State.
The truth is that Leitrim has the lowest population of any Irish county and has thus been largely abandoned by successive governments. The land is poor and there are few large farmers sending their sons to Clongowes. Public services are minimal, with no acute hospital facilities and limited transport. Employment prospects are equally dismal as US multinationals rarely venture this far from our capital.
Despite all these disadvantages, the people living in this area are among the most decent human beings one could hope to meet.
Although income levels are very low, crime rates are even lower, a fact that some left-wing social commentators apparently choose to ignore, presumably because it would make it harder to excuse the appalling conduct frequently witnessed in relatively less deprived urban areas.
Young people growing up in this part of the world know they will almost invariably be forced to either migrate or emigrate to earn a living. Generation after generation thus leaves and the land grows slowly darker.
However, a few years ago something truly incredible happened with the potential to change everything. It emerged that North Leitrim, West Cavan and Fermanagh were sitting on a massive deposit of shale gas, potentially worth billions of euro. If this were successfully extracted via an internationally widely used mining technique known as hydraulic fracturing, it would lead to the creation of hundreds of jobs and could turn the entire area into one big boom town.
Furthermore, this discovery provides potential energy security for our State, which is currently dependent on gas from Vladimir Putin’s Russia to keep the lights on.
Alas, at this point the environmentalists enter the story. A global anti-fracking movement has expanded here to Ireland and is determined to ensure nothing is ever extracted from Leitrim. Indeed, driving on the N16 you will encounter many crudely drawn road signs condemning any possible attempt to drill in the region.
Now, as I have a limited social life, I did spend some time researching this subject. Typically, those opposed to fracking seem to be the same broad gang who believe that flouridation of water causes serious diseases (it doesn’t) and that electrical power lines emit mysterious rays that cause cancer (they don’t).
To be fair, the anti-fracking brigade do raise some legitimate concerns, specifically the risk of water contamination as a result of the mining process. However, Public Health England thoroughly researched this matter in a report published in 2014. Its conclusion was clear: “An assessment of the currently available evidence indicates that the potential risks to public health from exposure to the emissions associated with shale gas extraction will be low if the operations are properly run and regulated.”
Meanwhile, Friends of the Earth, a prominent UK-based group of environmental campaigners, recently was warned by the Advertising Standards Agency in Britain to “stop making claims about the likely effects of fracking on the health of local populations, drinking water, or property prices in the absence of adequate evidence”.
Alas, it seems here in Ireland both the public (including many locals) and our political representatives have simply surrendered to the eco-warriors. The people who shout loudest tend to win the argument these days, even if the evidence does not support their rage.
My own view is simple. I recognise there may be some risks with hydraulic fracturing, but I believe that with proper safeguards and regulation these can be rendered negligible.
I refuse to accept that this massive gas deposit cannot be extracted safely. I refuse to accept that the people of Leitrim and Cavan should be denied the chance to enjoy prosperity. And I refuse to accept that many other nations can get their act together on fracking, but we somehow cannot.
At this point, I can hear accusations of NIMBYism wafting in my direction. Let me answer these people as follows. In Co Meath, we have the largest zinc mine in Western Europe. This is a spectacular success, which has contributed enormously to the local economy and has created massive employment opportunities, both directly and indirectly. That is probably why you don’t hear environmentalists or certain sections of the media talking about it much. For the record, that mine is located roughly five miles from my house, having first opened in 1977.
I have no doubt that were a similar mining projected to be attempted today, the same eco-warriors now campaigning in Leitrim would be fighting against it tooth and nail. Thankfully for Meath, back in the 1970s such people did not dictate the agenda. Regrettably, today it seems they do. And I cannot escape the feeling that our nation will suffer as a result. Common sense must prevail. We need to give fracking a chance.