Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 20 December 2014

Too much hot air and too few hard facts has us all fracking up

Protests at the Balcombe fracking site in West Sussex
Protests at the Balcombe fracking site in West Sussex

Like hacking (News of the World or Assange) and snacking (obesity epidemic) it has become one of the big talking points of the age ... So should we give our backing to fracking?

Don't look at me – I can't decide. I change my mind with every other 'expert analysis' I read.

But we need to get to grips with this thing ASAP. For fracking could be coming soon to a scenic spot near all of us. Fracking is the slang term for hydraulic fracturing, a process used to liberate gas and/or oil from shale rock.

Roughly (very, very roughly) this is what it entails ...

A slim pipe is inserted into a drill hole which first goes down then turns horizontally through the rock. Water and chemicals are blasted out to fracture the shale and loosen the fuel.

The arguments against the process include serious concerns about the destabilisation of Mother Earth herself. Hoking around underground can never be a great thing, you'd think. Although we never worked ourselves into this sort of tizzy over mainstream mining of the gold, diamond, coal variety.

Aside from the minor earthquake worry there are also warnings that water sources could be contaminated.

Pro-fracking experts absolutely refute these and other claims of the anti-fracking experts.

Usually I would be on the side of the scientists but in this case the science seems to be on both sides.

Which calls into play the less logical issue of gut reaction.

As I've mentioned before in this column, fracking has a major image problem on account of the very term itself. It just doesn't sound like something we should be getting up to. Frack. It's almost a four letter word.

The anti protesters would certainly see it that way. Protesters can often be a guide in themselves as to what side you want to be on.

In this instance they're a rum mix of the impassioned, the earnest and the frankly exhibitionist.

They include the usual eco types who look like to knit their own woolly cardigans – and their own hair. Then there are the show-offs who see protest as an excuse to strip off and, that now-standard fixture at almost every high profile protest gathering, the angry offspring of somebody famous. Among those prominent in the fracking fracas has been the cross-faced daughter of Chrissie Hynde. What is it about privilege and a public school education that makes these people so very crabbit with the rest of the world?

Elsewhere there are NIMBYs to the right of us, lefties to the left. This latter group, funnily enough, include many who could barely spit out the name Thatcher because old Maggie committed what was in their eyes the ultimate sin of shutting down the, er, coal mines. What all these people share is a sense of certainty. But can the rest of us be so certain they've got it right?

We need to make the right decision because this is something that touches on all our lives – even here in Northern Ireland where potential fracking sites have also been identified.

On the one hand we stand to lose the opportunity to tap into a cheap energy source with financial benefits for the immediate and wider community.

On the other we could critically damage the environment.

The problem is the debate has thus far generated more gas than actual hard evidence.

Like the methane itself, you'd think the facts about fracking could be identified and extracted from the verbal hydraulics.

Thus far, though, not much sign ...

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