Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 26 July 2014

Gas fracking is put on hold by Northern Ireland Assembly

Protestors scaled the shale gas rig at Banks, near Southport

Northern Ireland's Assembly has voted for a moratorium on “fracking”, a method of extracting natural gas from shale, pending an environmental assessment.

The debate was interrupted by a man in the public gallery during a speech opposing the motion by Stephen Moutray of the DUP.

Mr Moutray had just claimed supporters of the motion were “paranoid about any effort that is made to find solutions to our energy needs” when the interruption happened.

Francie Molloy, the deputy speaker, briefly suspended the sitting. The man was led out still shouting: “We will take you over on December 17”.

He was later identified as a Carrickfergus-based activist with the Occupy Belfast anti-capitalist protest movement.

His cry could be a reference to a planned protest. The Assembly will be closed on December 17.

The Green Party/Alliance motion stated “the process of fracking can cause serious well blowouts, which put both workers and local communities at risk; considers that the production of hard-to-reach fossil fuels is not compatible with efforts to achieve carbon reduction targets; and urges the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment to give greater support to the generation of energy from renewable sources.”

Alliance MLA Anna Lo opened the motion saying the process was “either banned or placed under moratorium in France, areas of Germany, Australia and South Africa and in several states in the USA”.

She cited pollution concerns by Northern Ireland Water and potentially catastrophic damage to fisheries.

The UUP abstained but one of its MLAs, Danny Kinahan, recalled reports of minor earthquakes in Blackpool which led to a suspension of fracking in Lancashire. He said: “There is a mass of unknowns.”

The DUP was the main party opposing the motion.

When he resumed his speech Mr Moutray said: “It is worth pointing out that some of the concerns outlined in the motion were experienced in the USA.

“However, that was largely as a result of poor regulation and should not be exaggerated.

“Lessons have been learnt from any mistakes, and I am confident that they will not be repeated.”

The motion was carried by 49 votes to 30.

Background

The practice of 'fracking' involves forcing up to ten million gallons of fluid up to 500 metres below the surface to crack open the rock formation and channel natural gas into an onshore well.

A New York Times investigation found the waste water in some such wells contained dangerously high levels of radioactivity.

It was being sent to treatment plants that were not designed to deal with it or was discharged into rivers that supply drinking water.

An award winning 2010 film Gasland exposed the health ill-effects suffered by many US residents living near gas wells, the destruction of landscape and instances of water, soil and air pollution. It features flames coming out of taps on land that was "fracked".

Much of the harmful effects associated with fracking are caused by the toxic make-up of the frack fluid, which can contaminate groundwater.

Fracking Q & A

What exactly is fracking?

Hydraulic Fracturing extracts otherwise unavailable natural gas by pumping compressed water, sand and chemicals into fissures in shale rock. About 30% of the natural gas in the US is extracted by fracking which massively speeds up a naturally occurring process.

Why is it in the news?

The North West Ireland Carboniferous Basin is composed mainly of shale and passes through Fermanagh and adjoining counties in the Republic. Licences have been granted to map the area for possible drilling. The husband of Arlene Foster, the DETI minister, owns land in the area and would profit if rights were granted and exploration took place.

Arguments against?

There are fears of groundwater contamination and of land subsidence. Fracking in Lancashire was recently suspended after two earth tremors. There are also environmental concerns about the disposal of chemicals. Fracking was banned in New York State after disputed allegations that radioactive material was released into rivers. The process is banned in France.

Arguments for?

It could offer energy security as well as an economic bonanza. Reserves in North West Ireland are estimated to be equivalent to 1.5 billion barrels of oil, worth £80.62bn at current prices, which are rising. American President Barack Obama endorses the technology, which is evolving and improving all the time. Regulation of the industry, and monitoring of seismic activity, is stricter here than the US, where production is rising steadily.

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