Belfast Telegraph

Monday 22 December 2014

Bring science to Fermanagh fracking debate

Environment Minister Mark H. Durkan
Environment Minister Mark H. Durkan

The decision by Environment Minister Mark H Durkan to refuse permission for a gas exploration borehole in Fermanagh is likely to keep the issue of fracking in the public limelight for several years.

It is likely that the company involved, Tamboran Resources, will challenge the minister's decision in the courts, probably by judicial review.

Already it has been suggested that Mr Durkan had in recent times signposted his concerns about fracking so clearly that he was always minded to refuse any application for drilling. That is one legal argument which is likely to be presented.

Tamboran is also likely to argue that existing planning legislation allows it to undertake test boring without resorting to ministerial approval and that Mr Durkan's demand for a full environmental impact statement from the company is unfair.

But the courts are not the proper forum for decisions on fracking. There is no doubt that it is a controversial gas extraction method and that a full examination of the evidence about its safety and impact on the environment is required.

Last year the Environmental Protection Agency tendered for a two-year cross-border research programme into fracking.

However, any research should go further. It should not simply concentrate on fracking, but on the entire energy market here including the use of fossil fuels and renewable sources. This holistic approach must frankly and fairly examine the pros and cons of fracking and the capacity of existing conventional energy sources.

At the moment this issue is shaping up to be another party political football and what is desperately needed is solid scientific evidence on which future ministerial decisions on gas exploration can be based. Indeed given the controversy over fracking elsewhere, it is surprising that a large body of that evidence has not yet been gathered.

That could have short-circuited the continuation of the public debate and presented a more professional image of the administration here.

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