The ‘F’ word is not a dirty one in North West = A pro regulator

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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 Ruari Hanley

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).

Low risk
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.

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  • Dr Carroll O’Dolan

    There are several issues raised in Dr Hanley’s synopsis of this industry that must be corrected.

    Modern fracking is very different to the traditional fracking that has been used, relatively safely, since the 1950s. Modern fracking [for methane gas], also known as HVHF [High Volume Hydraulic Fracking], results in millions of litres of contaminated water from every well at every frack pad. An average of 16 wells per pad, one pad every 2km in all directions, means thousands of millions of litres of highly contaminated water sitting on the surface “in a country that always seems to rain”, as Dr Hanley states. The Irish EPA report from last year admitted that there was no working plan as to how to deal with this ‘frack water’. Maybe we could donate it to our colleagues in South County Dublin for their Friday evening G& T.

    I grew up in Belcoo, Co Fermanagh and still live in that county. I work in Blacklion as a single-handed GP in this beautiful rural area, and thus know its people and places from both a medical and local’s perspective. My patients would have been living in the epicentre of this fracking industry if it had commenced back in 2014. I am no eco-warrior, and neither are my patients and neighbours on both sides of the border; we were not taken over by the ‘anti-fluoridation’ gang. Properly informed people know a con when they see one, and that is why the folks here stood up to the HVHF industry. I have been involved in the campaign to protect our health and communities from fracking since 2011. My patients are no luddites, they are not anti-industry or anti-development. They wish for new jobs that will not destroy existing jobs or health. They researched the information, invited people over from fracked areas in the USA and Canada and quickly realised this was not a panacea to the problems of rural unemployment and under-investment. Regulation of this industry has been shown, time and again, not to work at stopping air and water pollution.

    Health is the key to all our futures. Dr Hanley quotes the 2014 Public Health England [PHE] report. That report has been widely criticised for its poor methodology, including a very scathing leading editorial in The BMJ. That PHE report has since been superseded by further evidence, which Dr Hanley appears not to be aware of. Indeed, the State of New York has now changed their fracking moratorium into a full ban based of their own Department of Health’s seven-year review of the evidence. At the launch of the medical report [in 2015], Dr Zucker, Commissioner of Health, said: “I asked myself the question ‘Would I let my family live in a community with fracking?’ The answer is No. I therefore cannot recommend anyone else’s family to live in such a community either.” A very telling insight into the dangers of the HVHF put very plainly for all to understand. Even us disadvantaged folks up here in the land that “grows slowly darker” [another Hanley saying] can see the light.

    I could quote hundreds of peer-reviewed articles from our colleagues in the US called Concerned Health Professionals of New York State [CHPNY], who produce a compendium of up-to-date information on HVHF approximately every 12 months. Their compendium is ‘open access’ to everyone, both researchers and the public. Visit However, I will mention just one CHPNY report, relating to climate change and methane, as Dr Hanley seems to think that the future energy security of Ireland should be based on Irish methane, rather than Russian methane.

    Methane is 86 times more potent at trapping heat [greenhouse gas] than carbon dioxide over a 20-year period. Methane leakage seriously worsens climate change. The medical community now has very strong evidence that climate change has a serious negative impact on public health, and this impact will only worsen in the future if we do not act. Methane leakage rate is averaging at least 8 per cent from HVHF wells, up from 6 per cent five years ago. Even at a very low 2 or 3 per cent leakage rate, methane is still much more damaging for climate change over the medium- [20-year] or long-term [100 year] time span than carbon dioxide produced by coal-fired power stations.

    Dr Hanley mentions NIMBYism. This little part of the North West would love to have one big zinc mine that employs hundreds of people and put millions of euro into the local economy. Or indeed any sustainable industry with jobs that pay a household wage. But we know from our colleagues in America that the HVHF industry moves on quickly from one county to the next, bringing in its own specialist workers and employing almost no locals for any length of time. An economist who previously worked for Deutsche Bank in London carried out an analysis of the likely long-term [15+ years] jobs created here in the North West, with reference to similar shale gas deposits in the USA. The total figure was a maximum of 10 jobs. Those 10 jobs are miniscule in comparison to the lost jobs and revenue that would occur from the damage to our agricultural and tourism sector here.

    We GPs have a duty to advocate for our patients and society’s health. Please visit the website of CHPI [Concerned Health Professionals of Ireland]. CHPI is a single-issue group; see If you agree with the research you read then please sign the petition requesting that both Governments on the island of Ireland ban HVHF.

    Dr Carroll O’Dolan. MRCGP. Blacklion Health Centre, Co Cavan.

  • County Leitrim already has a vibrant energy sector. The county is home to 10 wind farms with 45,000 powered homes equivalent, making the county carbon-neutral. This rapid development has been achieved with compromise and community buy-in despite the necessary environmental compromises, including accidents and visual impact on the landscape. With an active Sustainable Energy Community (SEC) the County is in the forefront of what even the major centralised utilities accept is the future model for energy generation: de-centralised production and storage with the potential for increased local ownership. Doctor Hanley’s views reveal a detachment from his former home-place and a degree of resentment towards those who have succeeded in making a home there despite the adverse conditions he identifies from his recent drive-through.

  • Hard to believe a doctor wrote this, surely he could have taken the time to google health impacts of fracking before he wrote this. He may have found more than 500 peer-reviewed reports detailing the horrific impacts on all ages – worst of all on unborn babies, who suffer birth abnormalities. Hard to believe a doctor could not consider the medical evidence and respect peer-reviewed facts. Hard to hear also that a doctor could somehow justify that as, like every other rural area in Ireland, young people emigrate, that that should somehow justify sacrificing the health, heritage, sustainable agriculture and tourism and value of the homes and land of the region. Hard to believe too that a doctor would not consider the evidence of climate change, the impacts that cause vulnerable communities crop failure – that which caused the crisis in Syria, the human suffering from climate change is beyond measure. Yet many countries have rejected fracking, such as France, who insist on many measures to encourage responsible renewable energy. What iss the price for sacrificing a rural region, for fossil fuels? Much greater than this doctor has considered.

  • Leaving aside (where you can) the aspiring-D4 tone of the article, the picture painted of Leitrim and surrounds is typical of the patronising and ignorant attitudes we endure frequently. I am, however, genuinely surprised that the IMT has reviewed and published a piece based on such shoddy research and weak evidence.

    The assertions here are all without basis and read as if they were lifted directly from the industry’s first dispatches here in 2011. Perhaps they are. The “billions of euro”, the “hundreds of jobs” and the promise of “energy security” have all proved to be myths – with the companies themselves revising down their figures faster than you can say ‘peer reviewed evidence’.

    The transparent tactics in this opinion piece tell their own story about whether or not this writer is really interested in the energy debate. The suggestion that ‘the locals’ are stupid (crudely drawn road signs) and gullible; that there is a left-wing conspiracy to… (well, I’m not sure what, frankly); gaslighting about fluoridation, which is intended to muddy the waters, and a truly astonishing hegemonic stance “Alas, at this point the environmentalists enter the story” which the writer does not see the need to temper, all indicate a wish to impress a very particular audience.

    The fact that writer would cite the PHE (2014) report as his evidence for the low-risk nature of this industrial practice is alarming. The PHE report was roundly refuted by The BMJ (BMJ 2014; 348 doi: (Published 17 April 2014)) who asserted that the “…correct conclusion that Public Health England should have drawn is that the public health impacts remain undetermined..” [.]

    Can I please draw the doctor’s attention to the Concerned Health Professionals of New York & Physicians for Social Responsibility (2016, November 17) Compendium of scientific, medical, and media findings demonstrating risks and harms of fracking (unconventional gas and oil extraction) (4th ed.), which states that “Growing evidence shows that regulations are simply not capable of preventing harm”.

    Fortunately, Dr Hanley’s refusal to accept scientific fact is neither here nor there, for those of us who live in what would be the receiving communities for this industry. We are getting our act together on fracking – it should never be allowed in Ireland.

  • The recently published Irish EPA report on fracking concluded that they could not quantify the risk to groundwater, or to air quality due to migration during and after production. This was a report with heavy involvement from CDM Smith, a major service-provider to the fracking industry. Even they did not say it is low-risk. They said they couldn’t define these key risk. At the same time, the public health impacts on people in fracking areas (due to air, water, and noise pollutions) have been compiled by the Concerned Health Professionals of New York – who have found, in peer-reviewed studies whose numbers have increased exponentially since 2012, that well over 80 per cent have found actual or potential for damage to human health in all these areas. Never mind the boom-bust model that fracking is based on (in 2016 Debora Lawrence wrote that 64% of all fracking debt was considered junk) leads to social dislocation and damage to the very society for which Dr Hanley has such admiration. Finally, the BBC recently reported that up to 16 per cent of hydraulically fractured oil and gas wells spill liquids every year, according to new research from US scientists. They found that there had been 6,600 releases from these fracked wells over a 10-year period in four states.

    Low risk? Dr Hanley may know about medical practice, but he is less than persuasive on the public health impact of fracking, on its economic benefits, or on energy policy generally.

    As a postscript – Dr Hanley cheapens the debate by casually implying that we locals have “succumbed to ecowarriors”. We did not. The opposition is locally based, founded by our own energies, research and organising. No outside interests fund our activities or are using us to further vested interests. People who claim to know the area well would already know that if they had been there in the past five years with their eyes open.