Politics is supposed to be at an impasse in the North. But as Michael Collins shows, this has not stopped a number of environmentally destructive measures creeping into society here.
Despite the growing consensus of the need to tackle global warming, a number of sinister proposals have surfaced in the North over recent years and months—including plans for mining, the extraction of petroleum and possible fracking—which could have devastating consequences for our environment.
Not that this should come as much of a surprise, given Stormont’s record when it comes to our climate. RHI, after all, was supposedly intended to increase the usage of renewables; something it certainly did, as thousands of boilers needlessly burnt energy in a mad dash for profit, as at least £500 million of public monies went up in smoke.
Which says nothing of the more recent scandal, dubbed “RHI on steroids”; a network of anaerobic digesters—often built without serious environmental checks and regulations—that accrue lucrative subsidies that could collectively net investors up to a billion pounds, in a dubious system of turning farm waste into energy, running the risk of serious environmental damage through high levels of ammonia and other harmful pollutants in farm waste. As the Friends of the Earth director James Orr bluntly put it; “I believe this scandal will dwarf RHI in terms of the sums squandered and the environmental damage that ensues,”
Mining & Petroleum
One would think, then, that the collapse of Stormont might give our local climate some room to breathe. This is not the case, unfortunately, as environmental degradation continues apace. Consider the Sperrin Mountains, for example, where Canadian goldmining giant Dalradian has been met with fierce opposition from rural communities, passionate about protecting their local habitat. Officially designated as An Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, the Sperrins face not just the threat of millions of tonnes of rock being bored out of its landscape, but campaigners fear cyanide used in the excavation process could have devastating and long lasting implications for the environment.
This was the case in in 2000 in Baia Mare, Romania, when 100 tonnes of cyanide was spilled into the Somes River in the North of the country during a mining operation. The event has been described as Europe’s worst environmental disaster since Chernobyl and campaigners in the Sperrins fear with good reason that using the same process of cyanide extraction could lead to a similar ecological disaster here.
Activists have fought a valiant campaign to oppose the mining operation in the Sperrins, submitting over 10,000 submissions of objection to the consultation, and staging various protests. Despite this, the Department continues to grant the company permission to mine. The campaign continues and local residents groups are also pursuing a legal challenge to the project.
On top of the abomination in the Sperrins, two extremely alarming consultations for companies to drill for fossil fuels have been extended in recent weeks, causing concern for environmentalists in the North. These applications involve extracting petroleum and natural gas: a prospect which flies in the face of sustainable development.
One application covers 600 square km in Fermanagh, where Tamboran LTD seek to extract an estimated £20 billion worth of shale gas by using the environmentally hazardous method of hydraulic fracturing (fracking). This involves pumping potentially harmful chemicals into the rock sediment to force the extraction of gas.
Not only is gas a fossil fuel and an obvious contributor to global warming, but the process of fracking itself is highly controversial. There are countless examples around the world which show fracking can lead to earthquakes, most recently in Gaoshan, China, where 2 people were killed, and around 1600 were displaced in February of this year, when a series of earthquakes struck a zone where a large number of hydraulic fracturing drills were being conducted. The Chinese government was forced to temporarily close 15 different fracking sites.
Studies also suggest that living in close proximity to fracking wells can carry health risks, including a higher incidence of low birth weight among infants.
Despite the obvious dangers, this is not the first time Tamboran has applied for an onshore fracking license in Fermanagh. Tamboran was granted a license to drill in 2011, but saw widespread community opposition to its plans. A brilliant campaign of protests, direct action and community opposition brought the project under intense public scrutiny. Tamboran’s contract expired in 2014, in the face of mounting opposition, and before it could complete the first phase of its work programme.
The company is going for a second attempt at forcing this project through in Fermanagh, and campaigners are adamant that the gas company can be pushed back again. Concerted grassroots campaigns like this have been crucial for offering people a beacon of hope against the destructive environmental onslaught of these fossil fuel giants.
It is not just in Fermanagh, however, that major oil and gas companies have set their sights. Another shocking license being considered by the Department for Economy is from EHA exploration, which seeks to extract petroleum from a 1000 square km zone stretching from the shores of Lough Neagh, to the housing estates of Belfast.
Like the Tamboran application, the consultation closes on July 31st. People Before Profit and environmental activists have busied themselves organising protests and rallying objection to this, with Belfast City Council also formally objecting to plans.
The exploratory license could potentially pave the way for a 30 year period of extraction of petroleum from an area including Belfast, Lough Neagh and the Belfast Hills. It could have disastrous implications for the North’s long term environmental sustainability.
And the risks associated with petroleum extraction are great, including the potential for oil spillages, water contamination and the destruction of natural habitat. The long term environmental consequences could be catastrophic if the license gets the go ahead.
The notion that this is even being considered by the Department for Economy is an outrage in itself, but not unsurprising. The drive by government departments in the North to encourage fossil fuel companies to operate here is alarming. According to the Irish News, the Department for Economy has even been actively lobbying companies such as Australian owned Walkabout Resources to set up here. Walkabout Resources is in a joint venture agreement with Koza UK who were granted a licence to prospect for gold, silver, cobalt and copper some 14 miles away from the Dalradian site.
While the actions of our senior civil servants leaves much to be desired, it can hardly be said that Stormont’s record of tackling carbon emissions, or safeguarding our environment, was ever any better. The Dalradian gold mine, the 2011 Fermanagh fracking application, and the fiasco of Mubouy dump all happened under the watch of previous DUP/Sinn Féin Executives. If we want to see real climate justice then we have to look beyond the confines of the established political parties, who have shown all too often they are willing to acquiesce to the demands of fossil fuel companies.
Time Running Out
And time for our planet is running out. Scientists now warn us we are at a tipping point, and unless we stave emissions by 2020 we will reap devastating consequences for our planet. Yet, with the current proposals out for consultation in the North, it seems the Department for Economy is intent on completely ignoring these mounting scientific warnings.
Doing so could have cataclysmic consequences for our environment and for future generations. There is, therefore, an onus on us to rediscover the slogan of “think global, act local” and to get organised to voice our collective opposition to these environmentally damaging proposals.
Governments across the world are beginning to acknowledge the need for action around climate change. But this newfound urgency has been forced on them from the pressure of the growing movements from below. An awareness has emerged worldwide that global warming is the single biggest issue facing our planet. And the politicians have had to sit up and listen
But for the most part, government commitments to reduce CO2 emissions remain aspirational. The UK, for example, recently committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, while Scotland aim to reach “zero-net” emissions by 2045. Unsurprisingly, the North is left lagging, as the only of the devolved regions not to have its own set of regional targets for the reduction of CO2 emissions. Yet another embarrassment on Stormont’s watch.
Moveover, two People Before Profit councillors, Shaun Harkin and Matt Collins have seen motions passed in Derry and Strabane, and Belfast City Councils respectively, yet there is little evidence of tangible action from the government.
There is an urgent need for action in the here and now: not simply aspirations, especially those which will prove futile given scientific advice that says we need to cut carbon emissions much sooner than previously throught.
We need serious divestment from fossil fuels, an urgent redirection way from factory farming, a publicly owned environmental protection agency, and legislation like the bill proposed by People Before Profit TD Bríd Smith in the South of Ireland— which would put a ban on any further extraction of oil or gas in Ireland—despite the undemocratic efforts by Leo Varadkar to scupper it.
But even this progressive step would be critically undermined if we continue to allow fossil fuel companies to operate north of the border. We need a 32 county approach which begins to wrestle control away from the toxic fossil fuel companies, and seeks in earnest to deliver more sustainable and environmentally friendly means of energy production. This means a challenge to the profit-driven system itself, which puts the interests of a small minority of oil and gas companies ahead of the needs of the vast majority of ordinary people the world over. Time is against us. As the great socialist James Connolly once said: Our Demands most moderate are, we only want the Earth.