Minister 'cautious' over fracking
A rush to introduce the controversial fracking method of natural gas extraction in Northern Ireland would be ill-judged, Stormont's Environment Minister has said.
Alex Attwood urged caution despite the technique being given the green light by an independent investigation carried out in England. Sites in Fermanagh have been identified as potentially rich sources of gas, but no permission has yet been granted for fracking to take place.
The method sees water, sand and chemicals injected into shale rock hundreds of metres underground at high pressure, forcing gas up and out through a drilled well. The probe in England was triggered after fracking was halted last year in the Blackpool area in the wake of two earth tremors.
The report commissioned by the UK's Department of Energy and Climate Change said the practice could resume as long as appropriate safety measures were taken. But objectors to the process have raised other concerns, including the impact on the environment and the potential contamination of water supplies.
Environment Minister Alex Attwood said he would study the report's findings. But he stressed: "To simply adopt an approach that if gas exists in this form underground, for example in Fermanagh, it should be extracted, is a risk. This is a narrow approach. The right approach is to ask do we want to or need to extract the gas and can it be done safely?
"I will consider this latest report, noting that its content is limited to the issue of earth tremors and does not address other issues and concerns around fracking. I have always said that all appropriate planning and environmental standards will strictly apply on the issue of fracking. As planning and environment minister this approach will not be compromised."
Fermanagh and South Tyrone MLA Phil Flanagan, a vocal campaigner against fracking, said claims it was safe were bizarre. "I for one do not accept that finding," said the Sinn Fein representative.
"This review solely looked at the issue of earthquakes during the fracking process. It did not take into consideration any of the other potential dangers that are associated with fracking such as water contamination, the use of toxic chemicals and what is done with the waste water afterwards."
The Assembly's sole Green Party MLA Steven Agnew also criticised the report, saying: "This report only investigated the potential for fracking to cause earthquakes without looking at the bigger picture and the even more detrimental effects of the process. This report has been unfortunately misinterpreted to suggest that fracking is a safe process - it is not."
He said fracking would only bring very minimal benefits to Northern Ireland, adding: "Such a high-tech industry actually requires minimal manpower and the expertise required will be imported in by the companies involves as we simply don't have people trained and skilled to take on these roles so it's clearly an empty promise."