On 11 August, Northern Environment Minister, Mark H Durkan, MLA, of the SDLP faction within the Stormont Coalition, refused to grant planning permission for Tamboran Resources to drill an exploratory 750m borehole near Belcoo, Co Fermanagh. The proposed borehole was to use conventional technology,. The fact that the site has underlying fractured shale formation does suggest that future extraction of natural gas by fracking is being considered.
Mr Durkan justified his blocking of even this exploratory borehole by saying:
“In arriving at this decision I believe I must proceed on the basis oof a precautionary principle.
” This principle establishes that a risk exists if it cannot be excluded on the basis of objective information …….”
The “precautionary principle” is, thankfully, a fairly modern approach to assessing risk and hopefully will be a passing fad. If it had been applied since the eighteenth century man would still be limited to a maximum travelling speed of that of a galloping horse. Surgeons would still be carrying out operations without anaesthetic. We wouldn’t be producing remotely enough food to feed ourselves. As for mankind being in the early stages of expanding human activities into space, forget it.
The proper way to assess risk is to identify the potential severity of hazards associated with an activity together with the likelyhoods of suffering consequences from these hazards. The product of these two is the risk. For example, if someone was plugging a new TV set, bought from a reputable outlet, into the household mains supply, the severe hazard of death by electrocution exists but the likelihood of this occurring is negligible. Therefore the risk is tiny but under “Precautionary Principle” TV sets and household electricity supply would be prohibited.
Mr Durkan’s precaution probably stems from “green” organisations whipping up uninformed hysteria about the he “risks” of fracking. While the ordinary members of these organisations are, for the most part, sincere if misguided, it seems to be in the interests of their leadership to have a frightened cowed population.
So let’s look at the risks allegedly associated with fracking. As most people are aware, fracking involves drilling down from the surface to the fractured shale band, deep below. The drilling then proceeds roughly horizontally into the shale, lining and sealing of the borehole completed and a mixture of sand, water and chemicals pumped down into the shale. As this mixture is forced into fractures in the shale the sand particles effectively hold them open allowing natural gases trapped in the shale to rise to the surface of the borehole and be collected.
A much quoted hazard is contamination of groundwater. Since the shale layer is usually very much deeper than the water table, contamination, if it occurred, would almost inevitably be from activities on the surface. Boreholes of this type must be sealed from the surface above the water table. The pipe work runs down inside the original bore and at the appropriate point a seal of cement, bentonite or other material is set round the pipe bridging to the sides of the bore. This is not unique to fracking arrangements. Water extraction boreholes, environmental ground water monitoring boreholes and many more use this method of sealing. Contamination of water in the aquifer may occur if the seal is badly constructed or subsequently damaged. This could permit spillages of contaminants on the surface to lead to ground water pollution via the broken seal. However, the risk is small on modern installations and is not specific to fracking operations.
There is disputed evidence that fracking operations may cause earthquakes. This is possible but the tremors that may occur are usually 1.5 on the Richter Scale or less. Since the Richter Scale is logarithmic, even if an earthquake of 2.0 occurred it would be 1,000 less energetic than a 5.0 earthquake which occur almost daily somewhere in the world. The earthquake that caused the Indian Ocean Tsunami in 2004 was 10 million times more powerful than a Richter Scale 2.0 earthquake. In reality, the risk from earthquakes associated with fracking is substantially less than mining subsidence earthquakes which still occur from time to time in Great Britain. People who work in the Central Belfast, which is built on reclaimed land, often experience minor earth tremors as heavy lorries pass along the street setting up ripples in the underlying sleech.
The third risk often attributed to fracking operations is the indirect one of adverse climate change – “green” code for “global warming.” The usual argument is that when gas extracted by fracking operations is burned it produces carbon dioxide (quite true) which then absorbs emitted long wave radiation from the earth’s surface and returns part of this radiation to cause global temperatures to rise (true to a negligible extent but mainly nonsense). For this reason, inefficient wind turbines, requiring gas burning power stations as backup when the wind blows too slowly or too fast, are advocated over straight gas burning power generation which, if the gas is extracted by fracking, would have a much smaller environmental footprint. Wake up, Mr Durkan.
Carbon dioxide absorbs and re-emits long wave radiation in the 13-16 micron waveband. This accounts for approximately 3% of long wave emissions from the surface of the planet and raises the mean temperature of the troposphere by approximately 1°C above what it would have been if carbon dioxide was not present. The oft-quoted increase of 33°C is the difference between the mean surface temperature of a similarly sized planet without atmosphere or oceans and the Earth as it is. Most (32°C) of that difference is accounted for by evaporation, conduction and other processes. Since nearly all of the 13-16 micron waveband radiation is being absorbed at present by carbon dioxide even a doubling of the concentration would have a negligible effect. There is no need to try to regulate carbon dioxide concentration.
Fracking operations require very little land and operate almost invisibly once commissioned. Wind farms, whether on or off shore, blight the visual landscape and seascape and will not meet any energy needs.
Probably one of the best renewable energy sources to tap is that of biogas where readily available biological waste products, which otherwise have disposal problems, from agriculture and food products can be converted to fuel gas to generate electricity in small plants for transfer to the grid. Such biogas plants usually involve nothing more than a couple of unobtrusive buildings usually in rural areas.
The continuous blocking of economic development by the Stormont Coalition Executive must stop.