An Australian firm preparing to drill an exploratory borehole in Co Fermanagh is not permitted to frack and may even be blocked from drilling, said the Environment minister.
Residents near Belcoo have expressed alarm after Tamboran moved equipment onto a quarry owned by concrete firm Acheson & Glover early yesterday. A protest was to be held close to the site last night.
Tamboran said it had told the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (Deti) of its plans to drill a borehole to collect rock samples to help glean how much natural gas there may be in Fermanagh.
It hopes to drill between late August and the end of September. If the results are positive, it could lead to Tamboran fracking, which involves blasting water, sand and chemicals into rock to extract gas. Tamboran Resources said it does not intend to use chemicals here.
Environmental campaigners claim fracking can lead to water pollution and increased risk of earth tremors.
Residents said that a letter and leaflet from Tamboran and a letter from Acheson & Glover were delivered to residents' homes on Monday morning and have hit out at a lack of consultation.
The DoE said Tamboran had told it of the intention to drill an exploratory borehole on Monday, which under 'permitted development rights' does not require planning permission. But Minister Mark H Durkan vowed to block work which might have a "significant environmental impact".
He said: "No planning application or applications for environmental permissions have yet been received by my department. Any future applications will be considered in a very robust manner."
Under rules, exploratory drilling may fall under 'permitted development'.
"Before the company is given permission to proceed, a full 'screening' process under environmental impact assessment regulations will be required," he said.
"If any aspect of this development is likely to have a significant environmental impact, permitted development rights will not apply."
Tamboran, which has a licence from Deti to look for natural gas in Fermanagh, said drilling will last about 30 days, with the borehole 15cm across and 750m deep.
Director Tony Bazley said that the aim is to collect rock samples, a requirement of the licence, which lasts until 2016.
He added that the test drilling would show if there is enough gas to make extraction commercially viable.
Belcoo resident Donal O Cofaigh said: "The company began work at 4.40am and spent two hours moving equipment onto the site, blocking narrow lanes and erecting security barriers around the area," he said.
"There is a bit of anger towards Acheson & Glover but the main issue is with Tamboran. Three carloads of people delivered letters about something that was already in full swing.
"Residents in the area are very unhappy about the lack of consultation."