The possibility of hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking”, in Northern Ireland could be decided within the next 12 months.
The Northern Ireland Assembly passed a moratorium in December 2011 by 49 votes to 30 to allow more time to assess the safety of the procedure, which Enterprise Minister Arlene Foster is yet to introduce. However, Australian company Tamboran are hopeful of starting to extract gas in Fermanagh in 2014.
The fracking procedure involves pumping up to 10 million gallons of water, sand and chemicals into gaps in shale rock hundreds of metres below the ground. This process is intended to fracture the rock, releasing methane gas in doing so. The released gas is then collected in a well located onshore. However, opponents say that too little is known about the process and that an environmental assessment is necessary before continuing.
Phil Flanagan, Sinn Féin MLA for Fermanagh and South Tyrone, said that his party are against fracking and that his constituents were “overwhelmingly opposed” to the idea.
He said, “Sinn Féin are opposed to fracking for a number of reasons; the damage that will be done to the landscape, the industrialisation of rural Ireland will devastate tourism, the potential for water contamination is much too great and the additional noise and air pollution that will come with this would be very unwelcome.”
He also claimed, “Fracking will not cause a reduction in energy prices as each pad costs million of pounds to frack. These pads have only become economically viable as a result of recent energy price rises and its success is reliant on continuing price rises.”
Fermanagh resident Elaine Fullerton echoed these views, and told of her worry if fracking is given the go-ahead.
She said, “I wasn’t entirely sure what fracking was until last year, but after a bit of research I can say that I don’t want to see it in Northern Ireland let alone Fermanagh. The evidence points to how unsafe it is, I can’t possibly see how it can be made safe.”
“All we can do is hope the government think of something other than the money it can raise. It isn’t worth the risk, especially if someone could be injured or killed.”
Fracking has already been introduced by other countries. President Barack Obama is a supporter of fracking, although it has been banned in several states including New York and Vermont. There have been numerous reports of incidents involving fracking in the US, including water contamination and small explosions. France, Bulgaria and South Africa are amongst other countries to ban the process.
Despite these incidents, there are arguments for the introduction of fracking in Northern Ireland. Gas reserves in North West Ireland are estimated to be worth over £80bn, with prices rising. Gas collected by fracking companies can be used as a source of energy for Ireland as well as sold abroad to other countries.
DUP MP Gregory Campbell said that fracking was not a black and white issue.
He said, “There are concerns of environmental damage, which were less of a concern three years ago, but there is a potentially cheaper form of energy to be gained. If there is potentially some damage then the more concerned I would be.”
He continued, “I would be prepared to contemplate further survey work but I wouldn’t be prepared to rule fracking out completely.”
Ballinamallard local Niall Burke is in favour of fracking, but stressed only if it could be done in a safe and environmentally friendly way.
He said, “I know fracking involves the use of certain chemicals. I’d be against this as I try to be as economically friendly as I can and this would do a great deal of damage. If it can be done somehow without the use of these chemicals then I don’t see why not.
“It would bring a lot of money into Northern Ireland at a difficult time, especially when flag protestors have damaged the country’s reputation to an extent.”
In an interview last year with Natural Gas Europe, CEO of Tamboran Richard Moorman said that the company “will abide by strict environmental policies to ensure that shale gas excavation will not damage the environment in Northern Ireland and will continue to follow the directives of the government in these matters.”
He continued, “Despite the misinformation spread by anti-development groups, we know our operations are safe. With over 4 million wells drilled worldwide, and over 1 million of those hydraulically fractured, there is no question that natural gas can be safely produced in Northern Ireland for the benefit of its citizens and local communities.”
For now, fracking in Northern Ireland has been put on the backburner. The future for this controversial process lies with further tests and environmental assessments to be carried out over the coming year.