North wonders is it time to get fracking
Could Northern Ireland really be sitting on 1.5 billion barrels of oil worth a potential £80 billion, as some experts claim?
The figures alone are enough to inspire a mirage of would-be oil barons and seven-star hotels suddenly appearing across the North.
But is there any real prospect of Northern Ireland becoming an oil-rich region with an abundance of economic reserves?
According to geologists, there is evidence of significant shale gas reserves in the North, specifically in the northwest and Fermanagh.
Latest research from business analysts PwC suggests the development of shale oil could be a game-changer for the UK and its economy.
PwC predicts that shale oil could “contribute directly to investment, employment, economic growth and greater energy independence” for the UK.
In its report Shale Oil – the Next Energy Revolution, PwC suggests that exploiting new shale oil reserves could transform global energy markets.
John Hawksworth, chief economist at PwC and co-author of the report, says that without developing shale oil it is likely that global oil prices will continue to rise.
But if shale oil prospects were exploited, Hawksworth argues this would help put a cap on global oil prices and give future UK governments more scope to raise fuel duties over time. He argues this might make additional money available to finance cuts in other taxes and free up investment for schools and hospitals.
When it comes to what Northern Ireland might specifically get from exploiting its own shale gas reserves, the picture is less clear.
Companies such as the Australian exploration group Tamboran are keen to highlight that exploiting gas and oil reserves will create jobs and a new source of energy.
Tamboran holds an exploration licence from the Department of Enterprise in Northern Ireland and a licensing option in the Republic of Ireland.
But the North’s Executive would still have to approve formally the controversial extraction process known as hydraulic fracturing or fracking, if it were to go ahead.
It is controversial because it involves a process whereby a high-pressure mixture of water, sand and chemicals are pumped into shale rock to release the gas inside.
The process also raises environmental concerns from a pollution perspective and because of the impact it may have on areas where fracking operations are located and the potential it creates for earth tremors.
As a result of this debate about the impact this process might have in Northern Ireland, the North’s Environment Minister is backing an all-Ireland hydraulic fracturing (fracking) consultation exercise.
Alex Attwood launched the public consultation in the North last week.
He said it is “essential to get the science right before any decisions are taken on permitting hydraulic fracturing”.
Following this, the next step is to determine if Northern Ireland would actually enjoy a pay day from exploiting this particular natural resource.
According to the leader of the Green Party in the North, there is no guarantee that Northern Ireland would enjoy any economic benefits from its shale gas reserves.
Steven Agnew, MLA for North Down, claims that once licences are granted for the process he believes the only two beneficiaries might be the UK treasury, which would receive royalties, and the companies involved.
“The facts are that once licences are granted then the ownership of the drilling area in places like Co Fermanagh – where agriculture and tourism are so important to their local economy – passes to a company. What we need to establish is if there are any real net economic benefits from exploiting shale and gas reserves in Northern Ireland or just negative consequences,” Agnew has warned.