NI Minister urges an open mind on fracking

Loud voices of protest drowning out some of the local voices, says Arlene Foster

Minister with responsibility for energy Arlene Foster: “dark forces”  trying to attach themselves to anti-fracking movement

Minister with responsibility for energy Arlene Foster: “dark forces” trying to attach themselves to anti-fracking movement

Sat, Aug 9, 2014, 06:31

The North’s Minister with responsibility for energy Arlene Foster has called for an “objective assessment” of whether shale gas exploration can or should take place in Fermanagh, along the Border with Leitrim and Cavan.

“I hope that people will allow an objective assessment to be made,” she said. “People should have an open mind. At the moment there are a lot of very loud voices and frankly they are drowning out some of the local voices.

“I think about 90 per cent of people in Northern Ireland – and why would they? – know very little about shale gas, geology, hydraulic fracturing, all off the things that have now become common parlance at the moment. There is a lot of misinformation flying about. Frankly, it scares a lot of people to death and I understand that.”

How shale gas fracking works

Energy policy

As Minister responsible for energy policy, it will be Ms Foster’s responsibility to decide whether the Tamboran exploration company should be granted a licence to drill for shale gas in west Fermanagh. But, she said, that decision will be made only in consultation with the rest of the five-party Executive.

It would seem – at this stage – that all the parties are unlikely to agree. The DUP, with qualifications, seems disposed to the idea, while Sinn Féin, which has a veto in the Executive, and the SDLP, are opposed. The Ulster Unionists are sceptical and Alliance wants a moratorium on the issue “until proper scientific research has been carried out”.

Ms Foster said an answer on whether Stormont might permit shale gas extraction can’t be provided at the moment. “This has to be taken in stages.”

First a bore hole must be drilled 750 metres into the ground at the Tamboran quarry near Belcoo, Co Fermanagh, to determine if there are viable quantities of the gas in the field, which stretches into Leitrim and Cavan. Responsibility for drilling the bore hole rests with SDLP Minister for the Environment Mark H Durkan. His decision is expected very soon.

Multibillion euro

If Tamboran finds multibillion euro worth of gas, as is being predicted, then the hard decisions must be made.

The Minister is adamant that if the go-ahead is given, there will be proper regulations to ensure health and environmental safety, notwithstanding the protesters’ insistence that such guarantees are impossible.

Ms Foster expressed abhorrence at last Sunday’s petrol bomb attack on a Tamboran worker. She acknowledged the vast majority of protesters were genuine, but said there were some “dark forces” trying to attach themselves to the anti- fracking movement.

“I have said that if the local objectors want themselves to be taken seriously, they should not allow themselves to get caught up with others who have a different agenda.”

Ms Foster said she suspects some of those intent on causing trouble are part of a “range of people, everything from anarchists to anti-capitalists, and, I am afraid to say, to some dissident republicans as well”.