Belfast Telegraph

Drilling snub 'foolish and regrettable'

Top economist hits out after minister rejects proposal

By Claire Williamson

The decision by the Environment minister to reject a fracking company's proposal for exploratory drilling in Fermanagh under permitted development rights, has been labelled "foolish" by a leading economist.

Tamboran Resources applied for permission to drill a 750 metre-deep borehole in Belcoo, which it had stated was not fracking. The proposed quarry site has been the focus of a round-the-clock protest in opposition to its work.

Minister Mark H Durkan yesterday rejected the company's proposals. Reports estimates shale gas deposits in Northern Ireland could be worth about £8bn – equivalent to about 1.5 billion barrels of oil. The department received notification of the company's intention on July 21 2014.

The Australian company sought confirmation that this work could be carried out under current permitted development rights without the need for full planning permission as part of its ongoing exploration into the viability of extracting shale gas by means of hydraulic fracturing – fracking – in Co Fermanagh.

Mr Durkan said: "I have concluded that this is an Environmental Impact Assessment development requiring full planning permission and that permitted development rights do not apply."

The minister said it was his role to ensure the environment is "protected at all times".

He said: "I have concerns that this is an existing quarry where unauthorised extraction has taken place. I believe there is insufficient information to establish what environmental impacts may have already arisen as a result of these unauthorised activities.

"Therefore, it is not possible to assess the environmental impact of the drilling cumulatively with other unknown environmental impacts of unregulated activity. In arriving at this decision I believe I must proceed on the basis of a precautionary principle.

"This principle establishes that a risk exists if it cannot be excluded on the basis of objective information and in the case of doubt as to the absence of significant effects then a full Environmental Assessment should be carried out."

A spokesman for Tamboran Resources said it was "deeply concerned with the announcement" made by the minister.

It said: "The company is currently reviewing its position."

Chief PWC economist Esmond Birnie criticised the decision as "regrettable".

He said: "There are certain environmental concerns but I think it is, on balance, a pity to stop exploratory drilling because after all, surely you should try and ascertain how much shale oil and gas is under that part of Northern Ireland.

"I think it is a regrettable decision in terms of issues like improving our diversity of fuel supply and fuel security which are two key issues with Northern Ireland."

He added: "The prospect in the long run, of lowering energy prices, and then in turn that should promote further employment – that's one of the long term issues we have got to bear in mind and I think it's perhaps foolish just to rule out certain energy supplies at an early stage."

However, the decision was greeted with relief by protesters.

Donal O Cofaigh of Belcoo Frack Free lobby group said: "This affords us an opportunity to be consulted and have a say in the planning process."

The Fermanagh/ South Tyrone Sinn Fein MP Michelle Gildernew said the minister made the correct decision.

Factfile

Protests have been held at the quarry against the controversial extracting method. Last week, a petrol bomb attack on the home of a Tamboran employee in Fermanagh was condemned by protesters. Tamboran was granted a court order to stop people obstructing access to the site, which it said was due to "unlawful incidents". The project has now been halted by the DOE.

How fracking works

Fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, is the process of extracting natural gas from shale rock layers deep within the earth. Horizontal drilling, along with traditional vertical drilling, allows for the injection of highly pressurized fracking fluids into the shale area. This creates new channels within the rock from which natural gas is extracted at higher than traditional rates. The drilling process can take up to a month as in most cases teams delve more than a mile beneath the Earth’s surface. After the drilling, the well is cased with cement to protect groundwater, and the shale is hydraulically fractured with water and other fracking fluids.

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