Fears have been raised over mining companies exploiting lignite seams in East Tyrone using a controversial extraction process which involves setting fire to underground coal reserves.
Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment Arlene Foster has revealed that deposits in East Tyrone contain thick lignite seams at depths suitable for Underground Coal Gasification, a process which environmentalists have dubbed ‘the new fracking’.
North Down Green Party MLA Steven Agnew has kicked off a public debate by questioning the minister about the prospect of licenses being granted to petroleum companies to extract gas from the seams, after similar licenses were granted in other parts of the UK.
The Green Party has expressed grave concerns about the process which it fears will pollute mine water and cause environmental damage to the surrounding areas.
The UCG process is decades old, but recent rises in the price of gas mean it is now more economically viable. The US has dabbled in the technique, while China is going all out in a bid to satisfy its soaring demand for power and reduce its dependency on imported liquefied natural gas.
However, Minister Foster said that UCG was not yet a well-proven technology.
“Without Carbon Capture and Storage the UCG process produces high greenhouse gas emissions and has associated environmental issues”, she said.
“As such it is highly unlikely that UCG could be used to produce gas in Northern Ireland in the foreseeable future.”