Granting of licence to look for oil and gas sparks fury
Green campaigners are calling for Northern Ireland to halt its "rush for fossil fuels" as 11 new council areas are opened up to oil and gas exploration.
The authorities say the swathe of land where the new petroleum prospecting licence is being proposed – reaching from west of Lough Neagh, through Belfast and into North Down – is unlikely to be suitable for fracking but concede that it hasn't been ruled out.
The proposal to grant the prospecting licence has sparked a flurry of online anger, with thousands viewing the ad on the No Fracking Northern Ireland Facebook page since it was advertised in newspapers over Easter.
Earlier this week, green campaigners gathered outside North Down council – where the licence proposal was being debated – to opposition fracking.
Green Party European candidate Ross Brown said the prospecting licences will mean that many areas across Northern Ireland will now be covered.
He said: "Fracking is an extreme energy which is akin to scraping the bottom of the barrel to reach gas reserves.
"Concerns are often rightly raised regarding fracking and contamination of water supplies but it must also be remembered that this is a dirty process which also can contribute to significant air pollution. Fracking also puts in jeopardy two of our biggest revenue-driving sectors – tourism and agribusiness.
"The people of Northern Ireland now need to come together and make it known to the Department of Enterprise that we do not want the process of fracking destroying our health and environment so multi-national energy companies can make money off the misery of communities living in close proximity to these wells."
Dawn Bourke, who runs the No Fracking Northern Ireland Facebook page, said almost 25,000 people have now viewed the copy of the advert posted there and she has been flooded with comments from people afraid that the door is being opened to fracking.
"At my council office the staff at the front desk had no idea what I was asking for and it took quite a few calls to finally get to see the map. It didn't feel like a public engagement process," she said.
"The area of NI now covered by these types of licence is extreme and I contend that it is undemocratic to even think of issuing this without proper and thorough public consultation."
Friends Of The Earth has warned that the licence opens 11 new council areas up to both conventional and unconventional oil and gas exploration.
Director James Orr said fossil fuel resources not considered financially viable 10 years ago are now being seriously considered, due to the global demand for increasingly scarce fossil fuels.
"It's like an addict going into every last alleyway to get the last fix," he said. "People need to be very aware that this is giving carte blanche to the oil and gas industry. It's no longer a problem for Fermanagh –it's creating problems for many other areas."
He added: "Europe has a directive on Strategic Environmental Assessment (Sea) and this has not been applied to one of the most significant licence applications in Northern Ireland."
The new application will be the fourth petroleum exploration licence to go 'live'. Further licences are in operation on Rathlin, a swathe of land at the north coast and another in Fermanagh.
Mike Young, head of the Geological Survey of Northern Ireland, says people have erroneously jumped to the conclusion that the latest licence is for fracking.
"Petroleum licences have been issued for decades," he said.
Mr Young pointed out that this is an exploration licence, not a licence to drill. The firm will have three years to complete its work and then decide whether it wants to apply to drill a borehole.
"Nothing is going to be able to be done without the full assessment process," he said.
The 11 council areas affected:
Antrim, Armagh, Ballymena,
Belfast, Cookstown, Craigavon, Dungannon and South Tyrone, Lisburn, Magherafelt, Newtownabbey, North Down