Fracking: Environment Minister Mark H Durkan rejects Tamboran proposals for exploratory drilling in Co Fermanagh
Community fears drilling could lead to full fracking operation
The Environment Minister Mark H Durkan has rejected proposals for exploratory drilling in Co Fermanagh to test for shale gas.
Australian firm Tamboran had applied for permission to drill a 750m hole at a quarry in Belcoo.
Its aim is to discover whether there is enough gas to warrant applying for a licence to set up a fracking operation in the area.
The site has now become the focus of round-the-clock protests from those opposed to the controversial of drilling for shale gas.
Today, Mark H Durkan said after considering Tamboran's proposal to drill a core of rock from Cleggan Quarry, he concluded any drilling would require a full Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) and planning permission.
"In making this assessment I have been mindful of my department’s responsibility to ensure that the environment is protected at all times and that full consideration is give to any likely significant environmental impacts of such a proposal," 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."
Tamboran had hoped to carry out the work under 'permitted development rights' without the need for full planning permission.
In response to today's decision, a spokesman for Tamboran Resources said it was "deeply concerned with the announcement" made by the Environment Minister.
"The company is currently reviewing its position and will release a further statement in due course," it said.
Locals had feared the proposed drilling would be the first step towards fracking, which involves blasting water, chemicals and sand at high pressure into shale rock formations to release the gas and oil held inside.
Activists have established a protest camp outside the entrance to the excavation.
They have vowed to resist any attempts to introduce the process in Fermanagh.
Meanwhile, a report by PwC estimates shale gas deposits in Northern Ireland could be worth about £8bn – equivalent to about 1.5 billion barrels of oil.
Environmentalists believe the fracking process can cause contamination of the water supply. There have also been reports of earth tremors being linked to fracking.
However, the industry rejects these criticisms.
Tamboran has said the plans it put forward was for "a straightforward drilling operation" which was not fracking.
Welcoming today's decision, Sinn Fein MP Michelle Gildernew said the Environment Minister had made the correct decision.
"The decision to deny Tamboran to begin deep bore test drilling in Belcoo Fermanagh is the correct decision giving the clear opposition to ‘fracking’ in the area," she said.
"There has been universal support in opposition to fracking in County Fermanagh since Tamboran applied to begin test drilling."
Questions and answers
Q. What exactly is fracking and what does it involve?
A. Fracking is the process of drilling for shale gas.
Boreholes are drilled and a high-pressure water mixture is directed at the rock to release the gas inside.
Water, sand and chemicals are injected into the rock at high pressure which allows the gas to flow out to the head of the well.
The process is carried out vertically or, more commonly, by drilling horizontally to the rock layer.
Q. So why is it proving so controversial?
A. Environmentalists argue that the process can cause contamination of the water supply and earth tremors.
Campaigners say the costs of sustainable energy are coming down every year anyway, and their technology is becoming more efficient.
They point to countries like Germany, which is banning fracking in favour of clean power sources.
Q. And what do supporters say?
A. Fracking allows drilling firms to access difficult-to-reach resources of oil and gas.
In the US it has significantly boosted domestic oil production and driven down gas prices.
It is estimated to have offered gas security to the US and Canada for about 100 years, and has presented an opportunity to generate electricity at half the CO2 emissions of coal.
The industry suggests fracking of shale gas could contribute significantly to the UK's future energy needs.
Q. What is happening in Fermanagh?
A. So far, fracking has not taken place in Fermanagh.
Tamboran Resources, the company drilling at a quarry near Belcoo, said it is drilling a scientific borehole to collect rock samples.
"This is a straightforward drilling operation, it is not fracking," Tamboran said.
However, protesters fear it is merely the first step towards fracking in Fermanagh, an area rich in shale gas deposits.
Q. What happens now?
A. Currently protesters are staging a round-the-clock vigil at the entrance to the quarry. They have pledged their protests will be peaceful.
Tamboran had planned to start drilling next month. The company has obtained a High Court injunction to stop protesters getting close to where it plans to drill.