Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 20 April 2014

It's time to shed the shackles of caution and reap benefits

The process of fracking has raised issues for many people

A major source of natural gas under Fermanagh and Leitrim is a potentially valuable discovery which could benefit local areas and reduce the scale of fuel imports into this island.

The discovery deserves to be assessed on its overall merits, economic and environmental.

The discovery, without full analysis of its scale and accessibility, does not justify a conclusion that it is either an unacceptable proposition or an opportunity to be exploited.

Some words can quickly become emotive and build emotional responses before valid objective evidence is considered. In Northern Ireland, the 'naysayers' are often quick to react, ready to assume that when something has a risk it is never acceptable, and resist developments that can be generally beneficial for living standards if risks are minimised.

Fracking has now joined the list of emotive terms. Terms such as fracking, incineration, and potential pollutant are used to oppose rather than explore.

A large natural gas reservoir below Fermanagh and Leitrim could be a useful resource to reduce energy prices. The costs and risks of extracting the gas must be assessed in a cost-benefit equation which encompasses environmental, social and economic factors.

Fracking, as a technique, is not necessarily unacceptable. What would be unacceptable would be the use of the technique in ways which knowingly involved a high degree of risk of geological complications. For the scientists, this points to a balance between the stresses of the engineering methods, the chemistry and pressure proposed and the estimated output.

Of course, the extraction techniques might be unacceptable but until that is demonstrated there should not be a presumption that the process is unacceptable. If the gas reserves can be extracted with relatively little risk, then Fermanagh may be a desirable location for the new industry.

Would a preconceived (but unsubstantiated) degree of risk be a good enough reason to allow the potential investment to locate in Leitrim?

There is little dispute that the extraction of natural gas from the nearby Corrib field, from a sea-based platform, can operate with well-tried gas development techniques. If the Corrib reserves are anyway linked to the 'on land' exploration in Fermanagh then assumptions about risks using fracking may be invalid.

Northern Ireland should avoid impulsive opposition to the new and evolving techniques. Official planning processes should assess risks, balance the economic and environmental arguments, and give a lead if modern technology can demonstrate potential net benefits.

Unfortunately our official planning processes are biased in favour of caution and non-approval, rather than being asked to take a balanced view of risks and benefits. The Executive has made ambitious statements about improved planning procedures but, to date, have not offered to change the imbalance that flows from the current PPS (policy planning statements).

Planning decisions should be a balancing act. If the environmental factors are formidable, then less forceful economic benefits should be over-ridden. The opposite also follows, although that would not be the usually accepted rubric.

If a project contains very significant economic benefits, then approval should take place even if there are minor environmental questions which can be satisfactorily ameliorated. This balance of competing pressures should be accepted by Minister Attwood and translated into planning law. Then the possible referral to judicial review might be avoided.

The response, to resist all fracking, is unreasonable. Not all fracking is wrong. Excessive risks in fracking can be modulated. If that is not possible, only then planning rejection may be necessary.

Alongside the fracking debate there are the similar debates about incineration and some aspects of planning. Northern Ireland has a poor reputation for clear, logical and defensible planning decisions made in good time. The Executive plans for economic development are not helped by long-running disputes on Sprucefield, Rose Energy, Runkerry and the George Best Belfast City Airport. Careful and balanced judgements are overdue. Is Fermanagh to join the queue?

Northern Ireland should avoid impulsive opposition to the new and evolving techniques