Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 20 August 2014

Why fracking is still a hot topic

All this week our top writers tackle the subjects that matter to you. Our Environment Correspondent Linda Stewart asks: If our energy bills are rocketing, why are we so scared of fracking?

Chances are that at some time in the past couple of months, you've switched the heating timer off, vowing only to use it when jumpers aren't enough to keep out the chill.

Last year the Consumer Council estimated that our average household energy bill had rocketed to a scary £2,100 a year.

But surely we have to simply grit our teeth and take it?

Northern Ireland is 99% dependent on imported energy - and much of that energy is streaming from unstable regions such as Russia and the Middle East where anything could interrupt it.

So surely it was good news when Canadian-based Tamboran Resources announced that it had its sights on a gas field beneath the mountains of west Fermanagh - a homegrown supply that we could really rely on?

The company forecasts it can produce up to 50 years worth of daily gas consumption from the field by hydraulic fracturing - or fracking - providing natural gas security for supply in Northern Ireland for at least 20 years.

Fracking allows companies to exploit previously inaccessible gas trapped in tiny voids in shales.

It involves drilling thousands of feet below the earth's surface and pumping millions of gallons of water and chemical additives at high pressure into the well.

But Tamboran Resources has promised not to use chemicals, the first time such a technique has been attempted.

Opponents have listed a litany of risks with which fracking has been linked - earth tremors, blow-outs, air and groundwater pollution, problems with human health and the production of gas that produces climate change.

The film Gasland revealed staggering footage of a recently drilled Pennsylvania town where residents are able to set their drinking water on fire.

And as last week's government report revealed, fracking caused earthquakes in Blackpool, the only place in the UK where the technique has been attempted.

According to Dr Philip Griffiths of the School of the Built Environment at the University of Ulster, fracking could be getting an unnecessarily bad Press.

In Blackpool, they now know what to watch out for to avoid causing tremors in future.

In Pennsylvania, the gas coming from taps had a different signature from the gas being exploited by fracking and resulted from people putting poorly lined water bores through gas shales.

Dr Griffiths says fracking will be no different from any other economic activity as long as the correct regulations are put in place and companies remember that every gas field exploration will be a step into the unknown.

"No two gas fields are the same - you can't say that because it happened there, it will happen here," he says.

It's exactly that need for caution that makes environmentalists so worried.

Friends of the Earth say Northern Ireland already has a poor record on regulation.

"If we can't regulate what's on top of the ground, how can we regulate fracking for gas half a mile below the surface of the ground?" NI director James Orr asks.

The Green Party don't even believe fracking will solve our soaring energy bills.

They point out that this gas will be sold on the international market to the highest bidder and the extra supply Northern Ireland can offer to Europe will be a drop in the ocean when it comes to gas prices.

Most importantly, do we need fracking?

Dr Griffiths says we are going to need to add fracking to our energy mix if we are to continue with our current policy of taking the most convenient fossil fuels and burning them at very low efficiencies.

"Fifty per cent of the energy in the gas used by Ballylumford power station is wasted - it goes into Larne Lough," he says.

And it may come as a surprise but current gas prices are considered low.

Energy prices in general are just going to go up.

The easy oil has gone, the easy gas has gone and the options are now running out.

Meanwhile, we can throw as much money as we like at wind, tidal, wave and biomass energy but for some years to come, they won't be able to meet our needs.

However, we don't need fracking if we take our lead from the Japanese.

Since the Fukushima disaster, Japanese residents have embraced 'setsuden' or saving electricity - switching off air conditioning, escalators and lighting throughout their cities in order to meet the 15% electricity use reduction that their government warns is needed to avoid blackouts.

And that's the kind of shift in attitude we're going to need to adopt in order to bridge the energy gap until renewables catch up.

So it's up to the consumer in the end - unless we can slash our energy demands, we are going to need the likes of fracking to fill that gap.

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