Fermanagh
Fracking company Tamboran is to start exploratory drilling in rural County Fermanagh, Northern Ireland, this month.Creative Commons

The winding drive from Enniskillen, the most westerly town in the United Kingdom, to the sleepy border village of Belcoo 12 miles away serves up some spectacular scenery.

In recent years, however, the lush green landscape has arguably taken a backseat. Your attention is more likely to be captured by the plethora of posters and banners jutting inconspicuously out of hedgerows and pinned to telegraph polls.

"No fracking!" is the message emblazoned on one, below an arresting image of a skull and crossbones. "Farming not fracking!" reads another.

Belcoo, which is separated from Blacklion in the Irish Republic by a small bridge over the river with which it shares a name, has become the latest flashpoint for the fracking debate which has engaged all corners of the British Isles.

For more than a week now protesters have held a 24-hour vigil near a quarry in which a fracking company is due to drill an "exploratory borehole" in August. The exercise does not, stresses Tamboran Resources, involve fracking. But should the results determine that the levels of gas contained on the site is commercially viable, then that's surely the most likely eventuality.

The peaceful protest was shattered this weekend, with local newspaper the Impartial Reporter reporting that the nearby home of the security guard for Tamboran was hit by a petrol bomb.

On mainland Britain, anti-fracking protests have been big news for some time. The Green Party MP Caroline Lucas was arrested in Balcombe, West Sussex last August, after taking part in a road blockade against the test drilling conducted in the area by energy firm Cuadrilla.

Between November and April, 120 people were detained by Greater Manchester Police for taking place in an anti-fracking protest on the Barton Moss Road in Eccles, Salford.

The escalation in events in Fermanagh shows that in Northern Ireland, the opposition to the controversial but much-hyped source of energy arguably run deeper still.

Economy vs Environment

In 2012, Tamboran Resources announced that it had identified a shale gas field straddling the border, suggesting that a £6bn investment would create 600 direct jobs and 2,400 indirect jobs. Since then, a debate has raged over the potential economic benefits versus the environmental impact.

Rural Fermanagh's main industries are agriculture and tourism. Opponents of fracking argue that the nascent technique would interrupt both, with noise and air pollution, along with the eyesores created by large drilling pads, detracting from the landscape of a county which prides itself on its beauty.

"We're rightly suspicious of big business coming in and sweeping all before them," says one resident of Fermanagh, saying that people are concerned over the environmental and social impacts.

There are strong views on both sides.

Some have suggested that the decision to allow even exploration in the county shows that Stormont, the home of the Northern Ireland Assembly, isn't working for those in the west of the province.

"People feel very affronted that it's the rural west Fermanagh that's been chosen for investigation. This wouldn't happen in the Greater Belfast area or the Derry area, which Stormont looks after better than the people in the west," says Bernice Swift, an independent Nationalist who sits on the Fermanagh District Council, who says that with little or no gas infrastructure in Fermanagh, the benefit there will be minimal.

Others claim that the debate has been "hijacked" by those with ulterior motives.

"I'm really fed up of tree huggers trying to monopolise the environment of Northern Ireland to the detriment of the economy, we just can't afford it," says David McNarry, Northern Ireland's first Ukip MLA, who while representing the Strangford constituency in County Down, has arguably been the most forceful proponent of fracking in the political spectrum.

He argues that Republicans have "imported" protesters to Belcoo from around the country, despite the fact that opposition to fracking in Fermanagh is longstanding.

Most views are more nuanced than this.

Assessing the Economic Impact

Speaking to IBTimes UK, Tom Pugh, a commodities analyst at London research firm Capital Economics, attempted to shed some light on the likely local economic impact of fracking in the UK.

Drawing on experiences in the US, he said that while jobs may be created, the volume may not be substantial.

"What's more, shale exploration and production requires specific skills, expertise and experience which may well be lacking in the UK and Ireland, meaning that labour would either have to be trained or brought in from elsewhere. Indeed, a lack of suitably experience engineers has been a drag on output growth in the US and led to large increases in wages. There will of course be other jobs, in transport logistics etc. which would be easier to fill," he said.

The main boon to the local economy may be the £100,000 payment local councils will receive for each test well that is dug which, along with the business rates gas companies will have to pay, could be a "significant amount". The majority of the tax revenue, however, will head to the central government.

"It's also unlikely that there will be a large impact on fuel prices," Pugh said. "The reason prices in the US have fallen so much is because the gas is essentially trapped in North America, there is an extensive pipeline network all over Europe and prices are similar across the continent, so rather than pushing down fuel prices in the UK, any excess gas is likely to be exported."

The situation in Fermanagh presents the UK-wide fracking debate in microcosm. The majority of residents seem to be opposed to it, but its advance continues still.

There are also lots of people throughout the country who are caught in two minds when it comes to fracking. The debate has descended into a maelstrom of facts, opinions and whatabouteries, which seem to be disproven in the very next breath, meaning many people simply don't know what to believe.

On one hand, it will be the panacea to all of our economic woes, particularly with Europe's supply of natural gas coming from Russia via Ukraine seemingly indefinitely interrupted. On the other, it will contaminate water tables, destroy the landscape and cause earthquakes to rip the country in two.

There may be some level of truth in each of those scenarios, but surely the authorities must be clear in determining what the impact will be on all fronts, positive and negative, rather than contributing to the confusion?

The proposed economic benefits seem to have been exaggerated, the long-term environmental impact as yet unknown.

Still, though, the opinion keeps raining in from both sides. As David Cameron continues to "go all out for shale", former Irish President Mary Robinson, now the UN special envoy for climate change, said that "fracking is not the solution".

Late last month, the new business and energy minister Matthew Hancock opened a bidding process for companies seeking to obtain exploration licenses for onshore oil and gas for the first time in years. The protests are falling on deaf ears, while the undecided must surely feel like they're being pulled apart by horses.

One thing that is for sure is that as fracking threatens to edge closer to reality, the protests will escalate. We can only hope that they're of a more peaceful kind than what happened on Sunday morning.