Still plenty of questions to be answered

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In their comment piece, headlined ‘Committed to transparency’, Five Quarter, who plan to drill for gas off Northumberland’s coast, take issue with our report.

They accuse us of inaccuracies and alarmism.

They make three main arguments.

First, that there will be an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA).

This is true for individual sites, but there are currently no plans for a Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) of the technology as a whole, something which has been achieved for fracking.

Not that an EIA should offer much assurance. In the case of fracking, no site of less than one hectare requires an EIA.

By pure chance, a lot of permitted fracking sites in the UK come in at 0.99 hectares, which conveniently sidesteps the need for an environmental assessment. Who knows whether the backers for Five Quarter will be tempted by giant loopholes like these?

Second, they allege that it is irrelevant that methane is a more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide because it will not be released into the atmosphere.

Not true. Prof Paul Younger of Five Quarter has acknowledged that there would be some so-called ‘fugitive emissions’ of gases like methane, although there are great uncertainties about how much.

This is particularly the case if the promised technology of carbon capture and storage (CCS) does not perform as well as Five Quarters hope; this technology is still in the developmental stage.

They also don’t address the fact that process industries which they say are their main customer already have suppliers of methane. With gas coming in from Northumberland’s coast, what will those suppliers choose to do with the unsold gas?

Quite possibly they will just burn it as fuel. Methane is disastrous as a climate-change gas, causing many times more damage than carbon dioxide. If it is burnt, the carbon dioxide produced will contribute to climate change anyway. This is a lose-lose situation.

It’s worth looking at some of the other points in our piece that Five Quarter don’t respond to: The possible locations of drilling platforms and how they can be so confident that people living nearby will not be affected when they won’t even tell us what those sites are.

The visible lack of progress in carbon capture and storage which Five Quarter say will be in place before offshore drilling goes ahead.

The small shares in the company held by the founders which mean that many of their good intentions may count for little if their backers decide they’d like to do a lot of this work on the cheap.

Finally, they claim that they have been specific in their expectations that they will create 200-300 jobs in design and construction and 400 permanent jobs. Specific numbers for sure, although we don’t have any idea what those jobs will involve, or where they will be based.

Perhaps they will be jobs in public relations, coming up with more hollow offerings like ‘prioritising jobs for local people’, which sounds nice and fuzzy until you realise that it doesn’t commit Five Quarter to anything, like how many of those jobs will actually be based in the North East and how many they expect to be able to recruit locally, rather than bring in specialist labour from elsewhere.

Also, we’d be interested to find out if it is legal to prioritise people of particular nationalities or from particular regions when you offer jobs.

Perhaps Five Quarter could demonstrate a commitment to training in the region for the specialist skills that will be required.

Paul Mills,

Alnwick Friends of the Earth