Northern Ireland risks losing out on billions of pounds in energy savings unless a controversial gas exploration process is given the go-ahead, it has been claimed.
The stark warning comes as anger grows over plans to drill an exploratory borehole to test for shale gas in rural Fermanagh.
Protesters have been staging a round-the-clock vigil at the quarry near Belcoo, where Tamboran Resources intends to start drilling next month.
Locals fear it is the first step towards fracking, which involves blasting water, chemicals and sand at high pressure into shale rock formations to release the gas and oil held inside.
Activists have established what they called the Belcoo Community Protection Camp outside the entrance to the excavation, and are vowing to resist any attempts to introduce fracking in Fermanagh.
A report by PwC estimates shale gas deposits in Northern Ireland could be worth about £8bn – equivalent to about 1.5 billion barrels of oil.
Most of the energy is said to be contained in rocks in the Fermanagh area and the north west of Northern Ireland.
Environment Minister Mark H Durkan said any attempts to start fracking require planning permission – and this will not be forthcoming unless he receives assurances about its impact on health and the environment.
However, those in favour of fracking said it was not an option for Northern Ireland to turn its back on a "potential goldmine".
Yesterday the Government launched a new bidding round for licences which covers about half the UK, and Ukip MLA David McNarry warned Northern Ireland cannot afford to miss out.
"We risk being left behind, and we can't afford that," he told the Belfast Telegraph.
"Tamboran are pursuing the drilling and explorations with a view to getting a licence, but if people steal a march on us then we will be left out.
"We want in there at the beginning, right in the heart of the marketplace."
Mr McNarry said the benefits were a "goldmine" which could run to hundreds of millions of pounds.
"We could have supplies of energy that could save our economy hundreds of millions of pounds – and right here, on our doorstep," he added.
"There is no argument. We have to go ahead with fracking."
The extensive use of fracking in the US, where it has revolutionised the energy industry, has prompted concerns.
Environmentalists say the process can cause contamination of the water supply and earth tremors. However, the industry rejects these criticisms.
The issue has caused widespread concern in Fermanagh and was the focus of protests during last year's G8 Summit.
Tamboran pointed out that it is "a straightforward drilling operation", and is not fracking.
Speaking to the Belfast Telegraph, the Environment Minister said fracking could not take place without planning permission.
"In the absence of evidence that fracking is safe and sustainable, I can't possibly give it permission," Mr Durkan said. "That evidence hasn't been produced, and therefore any application coming forward to frack, in the absence of this evidence, will fail."
The Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment – headed by Arlene Foster, a DUP MLA for Fermanagh/South Tyrone – is in charge of granting licences to frack.
Mrs Foster has previously said it is a "novel and controversial issue", and called for any decision to be taken by the Executive as a whole.
However, Mr Durkan said any licences would be worthless without planning permission – and as things stand, this will not be forthcoming. He confirmed no applications to frack had been received.
"Any application that does come in will be subject to full scrutiny and environmental screening, and in the absence of sound, scientific evidence that it is safe and sustainable, it will be refused," he added.
In a statement, Tamboran said: "The company is undertaking work it is required to do under the terms of the licence from Government and intends to meet its obligations in full. The company also believes the people of Fermanagh and NI have a right to know if the gas is present.
"We suggest that given the potential benefit this can bring to everyone in terms of investment, jobs and, critically, energy security, that this deserves serious consideration and debate."
National parks in England will be protected from fracking unless there are “exceptional circumstances”, it has been decided as the latest bidding process for shale companies seeking licences in England was opened. New guidance also states that applications for developments in Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty and World Heritage Sites be refused.
An energy industry that divides opinion
Q. What exactly is fracking and what does it involve?
A. Fracking is the process of drilling for shale gas.
Boreholes are drilled and a high-pressure water mixture is directed at the rock to release the gas inside.
Water, sand and chemicals are injected into the rock at high pressure which allows the gas to flow out to the head of the well.
The process is carried out vertically or, more commonly, by drilling horizontally to the rock layer.
Q. So why is it proving so controversial?
A. Environmentalists argue that the process can cause contamination of the water supply and earth tremors.
Campaigners say the costs of sustainable energy are coming down every year anyway, and their technology is becoming more efficient.
They point to countries like Germany, which is banning fracking in favour of clean power sources.
Q. And what do supporters say?
A. Fracking allows drilling firms to access difficult-to-reach resources of oil and gas.
In the US it has significantly boosted domestic oil production and driven down gas prices.
It is estimated to have offered gas security to the US and Canada for about 100 years, and has presented an opportunity to generate electricity at half the CO2 emissions of coal.
The industry suggests fracking of shale gas could contribute significantly to the UK's future energy needs.
Q. What is happening in Fermanagh?
A. So far, fracking has not taken place in Fermanagh.
Tamboran Resources, the company drilling at a quarry near Belcoo, said it is drilling a scientific borehole to collect rock samples.
"This is a straightforward drilling operation, it is not fracking," Tamboran said.
However, protesters fear it is merely the first step towards fracking in Fermanagh, an area rich in shale gas deposits.
Q. What happens now?
A. Currently protesters are staging a round-the-clock vigil at the entrance to the quarry. They have pledged their protests will be peaceful.
Tamboran plans to start drilling next month. The company has obtained a High Court injunction to stop protesters getting close to where it plans to drill.