Fracking in Fermanagh: As for shale gas companies, tell them to frack off

From Steven Agnew’s Debate NI column, 12 February 2014.

The process of hydraulic fracturing used to extract shale gas is a contentious issue across the world. The proposal to frack Fermanagh has met with considerable opposition in the local area and across Northern Ireland.

The USA has been voracious in its desire to exploit its shale reserves while countries such as France have actually banned fracking.

The environmental risks of fracking are well established; potential contamination of drinking water and air pollution with the increase of greenhouse gas emissions a certainty if shale gas reserves are exploited.

Those in favour of fracking claim that these are risks worth taking. One of the key claims is that fracking will bring economic benefits such as lower energy prices, but this is an empty promise.

Gas supply in Northern Ireland is connected to the rest of Europe by pipelines. Gas is freely traded in this European market, meaning that the whole continent pays very similar prices. The addition of shale gas extracted from Northern Ireland would be the equivalent of a drop in the ocean in terms of its impact on price.

While political proponents of fracking continue to peddle the myth that it will lead to cheap energy prices, economists such as Lord Stern, former Senior Vice-President of the World Bank, have openly rubbished this claim. Indeed, the claim is so outrageous that fracking companies such as Cuadrilla and Tamboran are not even repeating it.

Fracking is an enormously energy and capital-intensive industrial process requiring strict oversight. It is not cheap. The technological knowledge required to frack has been around for decades, however it is only the fact that gas prices have risen to such a degree that fracking has become economically viable.

Alarmingly, some analysts even suggest that the viability of the fracking industry in the UK may actually require gas prices to rise further.

The consultants Wood Mackenzie estimate that in order to develop UK shale reserves, potential operators would need a gas price of $9.68 per million British thermal units (mbtu) for the project to make economic sense. The current price is around $8.69.

The reality is that cheap energy is a thing of the past and anyone promising cheap energy should be treated with great suspicion.

It is time for the development of an alternative energy strategy focused on energy efficiency and clean renewable energy, produced for the common good.

An energy efficiency programme spearheaded by the Green Party on Kirklees Metropolitan Council in England brought free insulation to over 50,000 homes. Meanwhile in Northern Ireland, the Government scrapped the Green New Deal home insulation scheme which over 3 years would have brought in £180m into our local economy and insulated 100,000 homes.

There is no quick fix. Only a programme to lower energy consumption through energy efficiency schemes and investment in renewable energy technology can meet our long term energy needs.

As for shale gas companies, tell them to frack off.

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