Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 17 September 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

Sinking feeling that fracking debate will be stuck in the mud

Engineers at work on the drilling platform of the Cuadrilla shale fracking facility, Preston, Lancashire
Protestor JP Fay at the Belcoo anti-fracking demonstration in Co Fermanagh
Chaim Herzog

The recent fuss about the Belcoo borehole needs to be put in proportion. It isn't a proposal to frack; it is a proposal to make tests to see if fracking is commercially and environmentally viable.

That is something that everyone should welcome, provided the tests are fully transparent and open to scrutiny.

The focus should be on regulating any development which is proposed to ensure that it can be carried out with minimum risk. We must also be realistic and bear in mind that any economic activity carries risk.

Farming, for instance, is the most dangerous job in Northern Ireland, with frequent accidents, many fatal, among those involved. Agriculture is also responsible for pollution, the death of fish stocks and a high level of carbon emissions – particularly in the beef and dairy sector.

Gas, ahem, emitted by farm animals is responsible for 18% of the world's greenhouse gases, far more than the 13.5% contributed by all the world's transport systems put together.

The low-mileage diesel harvesters and tractors used in farming also contribute their share of air pollution.

There are also well-established links between consuming red meat and cancer. The World Cancer Fund says problems start at consumption levels as low as 100 grams a day.

This doesn't lead us to ban agriculture, or animal husbandry, and nobody could seriously suggest that it should. Instead, we handle the problems by regulation and public education to try and reduce the harmful side-effects of what is a very valuable economic activity.

Is it too much to expect the same balanced attitude to be taken to energy extraction?

There have always been dangers with forestry and mining for coal, or oil, and there are even dangers in the erection and operation of wind farms.

Hydro-electric power has produced far bigger disasters than any other form of power generation, with 171,000 dying when a dam burst in China and 2,000 in a similar accident in Italy.

That is the light in which our politicians need to look at fracking. It is not enough to say – as the Environment Minister, Mark H Durkan, has said – that no risk is acceptable.

If significant deposits exist here, we would be foolish to turn our backs on them without carefully assessing the risks and attempting to reduce them through regulation.

The fear of long-term damage to the landscape, for instance, could be addressed by getting extraction companies to post bonds to cover the cost of restoration after extraction has finished.

Dr Stefan Andreasson, a QUB academic specialising in the politics of the oil and gas industry, points out that hi-tech jobs are created directly in the areas where extraction takes place.

In the US, energy prices have tumbled by up to 50% and, while that may not happen here, some reductions are likely alongside the benefits of a secure local energy supply in an increasingly unstable world.

Liquefying gas and transporting it overseas leads to an overall loss of around 20%, so local energy would be used here first. The energy prices paid by industry here are among the highest in the world.

Our methods of energy production, much of it from oil and coal, are also dirty as well as expensive; so dirty, in fact, that we have had to seek special exemption from a UK-wide levy of £16 a ton on carbon emissions.

In America, the use of methane from fracking has cut carbon emissions by 50%. Similar improvement may, or may not, be possible here; we need to sink that borehole to find out.

Herzog is proof that our labels just don't fit

The traditional view in Northern Ireland is that Israelis kick with the right foot, while Palestinians are committed left-footers. Israeli flags are displayed in loyalist areas around the Twelfth, while Palestinian flags are burned on Eleventh night bonfires and given pride of place in some republican areas, even featuring on murals.

Perhaps it should be no surprise that, when a blue plaque honouring Chaim Herzog, the former president of Israel, was prised off the wall at his Cliftonpark Avenue birthplace, it was unionists who rushed to condemn it and republicans who were assumed to be to blamed.

The Herzogs show that the traditional simplifications just don't fit. Chaim's father, Rabbi Yitzhak HaLevi Herzog, a native of Poland, moved to Dublin. There he became the first Chief Rabbi of Ireland, as well as a fluent Irish speaker, who was known as "the Sinn Fein rabbi".

When the family emigrated to the British-controlled Palestine, Yitzhak became Chief Rabbi there, too. His son Chaim joined the Haganah pro-independence Zionist paramilitary group at the point when it briefly co-operated with the British forces to oppose an Arab uprising. He later qualified as a barrister in England before joining the British Army, was drafted into the Intelligence Corps and participated in the liberation of several Nazi death-camps, including Belsen.

He took the experience to Israel, where he was a major-general in the Israeli Defence Forces, headed the country's largest law firm and was elected president for the Alignment, a centre-Left group, which was the predecessor of the Israeli Labour Party. It is always tempting to reduce foreign conflicts to simple black and white, or even orange and green, terms, but things are not that simple.

The intention of attacks on Israelis and Jews, or on monuments like the Herzog plaque, is probably to express opposition to the shelling of Gaza, which is deplorable.

The effect is more likely to be to stiffen hardline Zionist sentiment in Israel and elsewhere.

It will convince a people who survived genocide that, however they may try to fit in, Jews will never be safe without the fallback of a strong Israeli state, which is capable of meeting all threats to its people with overwhelming force.

For the sake of the population of the Middle East, as well as our own society, we should refrain from attacks that can only feed hatred and fear.

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