There’s been mention recently in the Irish and International media of the controversial process of gas extraction using hydraulic fracturing or ‘fracking’ as it’s come to be known. Two companies have been issued onshore petroleum licences in the area of Lough Allen (Tamboran Resources and Langco). Put simply the fracking process involves pumping a mixture of water, sand and chemicals at high pressure deep underground to literally crack the rock and release gas. Although there’s been no documented case of severe groundwater contamination from fracking to date, the process and potential impacts are still poorly understood and there are reports of some levels of contamination in the US. In a recent Irish Times piece by Ronan McGreevy there is reference to ‘more than 1,000 infractions of groundwater regulations in six states’ and Ronan points to ‘the decision by the New York state assembly to ban fracking despite considerable pressure from the gas industry’. There have been varied reactions from Governments in the EU, with the French Government banning the process and the British endorsing it. Here’s the trailer from the film which appears to have instigated the controversy.
Needless to say the Shannon catchment is the largest in Ireland and large sections of it are designated under the EU Habitats Directive and the EU Birds Directive as part of the Natura 2000 Network. The principal river of Ireland, its freshwater reach extends southwards from the Cavan-Fermanagh border to Limerick, a distance of approximately 250km. The total catchment area is over 14,000km² and drains 12 counties completely or in part.
The western boundaries of the catchment are defined by the Rivers Lung, Suck and Graney in counties Sligo, Roscommon and Clare respectively; while its eastern limits are the headwaters of the Inny, Brosna, Little Brosna, Nenagh and Mulkear Rivers (Bowman, 1998). Approximately 20% of the catchment is covered by peat bogs with agriculture as the principle land use in the region.
The majority of the catchment is underlain by Carboniferous limestone of varying age. Lesser amounts of shales and sandstones occur near the glacially formed Lough Allen; which makes this area attractive to the proponents of fracking.
The following examples are provided as an indication of the main designated conservation areas in the Shannon catchment. There are many others with each Unit of Management that will have direct or indirect hydrological links with the Shannon catchment either as tributaries, via drainage links (peatlands) or through groundwater (springs, turloughs).
Some of the largest hydrologically connected Natura 2000 Sites include inter alia:
Lough Ree SAC, Lough Ree SPA, River Shannon Callows SAC , Middle Shannon Callows SPA , River Suck Callows SPA , River Little Brosna SPA , Lough Derg North East Shore SAC , Lough Derg (Shannon) SPA , Lower River Shannon SAC , River Shannon and River Fergus SPA .
According to the IT:
Richard Moorman of Tamboran says his company will start consulting local authorities next month. He promises to make himself available “24/7” to address concerns about fracking. “The good news is that everybody will know what we are doing. We will have a completely open process. There is no reason for any kind of secrecy around this.”
Moorman says that many of the problems caused by fracking in the US were a result of sloppy practice and loose regulation. Irish people can be reassured by the more stringent environmental standards that exist in Europe, he claims. “I would have every faith in Irish regulators. I say environmentalists are needed – they keep the companies doing the right thing.”
What Moorman will need to bear in mind is that, although Lough Allen is not a designated site (there are small areas of proposed Natural Heritage Area’s), it would still be subject to the Appropriate Assessment process as the River Shannon drains Lough Allen. If the significance of impacts cannot be determined through the appropriate assessment screening process then the precautionary principle must be employed, whereby it may be assumed that there would be a significant downstream impact on the integrity of the biologically connected Natura 2000 sites. This has implications for later appropriate assessment stages such as IROPI (Imperative Reasons of Overriding Public Interest – reasons relating to human health, public safety or beneficial consequences of primary importance to the environment) and compensation for loss of habitat.
However, the Department cautions in its guidance document for planning authorities on Appropriate Assessment that ‘Every effort should be made to avoid recourse to IROPI, as this is a legally difficult, expensive, lengthy and complex process, with no guarantee of a successful outcome and with a serious risk of legal challenges.’