Fracking firm Tamboran to sue Stormont departments over thwarted Fermanagh drilling plans
Two Stormont departments could be facing a billion pound lawsuit over thwarted plans to drill for shale gas in Co Fermanagh, it emerged today.
Lawyers for exploration company Tamboran revealed at the High Court in Belfast that it will be seeking damages as part of a wider legal challenge.
In what may turn out to be one of the biggest cases of its kind in Northern Ireland, claims for loss of vast estimated profits are being prepared against both the Department of Enterprise Trade and Investment (DETI) and the Department of Environment (DoE).
The Australian-based firm has issued proceedings over two decisions earlier this year which effectively stopped it from carrying out investigatory work at a former quarry site in Belcoo.
Protests had been staged at the site amid fears the controversial 'fracking' technique would be used if large reserves of gas were found.
Tamboran wants to judicially review Enterprise Minister Arlene Foster for not granting an extension to its licence to conduct test drilling.
Legal action is also being taken against Environment Minister Mark H Durkan's determination that it must apply for full planning permission to carry out the exploratory work.
As the case was mentioned today, senior counsel for Tamboran confirmed it wants to amend the challenge to include claims for damages against both departments.
He told Mr Justice Horner: "The situation is that the applicant has expended several millions (of pounds) already on the site in question which are imperilled, probably lost, depending on the outcome of proceedings.
"It's obviously an issue as to loss of profitability running into potentially billions of pounds."
Responding to the development, Tony McGleenan QC, for DETI, said he would want to see "some substance" to the figures advanced.
He also suggested any damages claim should be brought by a separate writ rather than through judicial review.
Paul McLaughlin, representing the DoE, described the potential damages being sought as "extreme".
He argued that Tamboran could have explored at least two alternative remedies following Mr Durkan's decision - one involving the submission of more information.
Meanwhile, the court was told the challenge no longer requires an urgent hearing.
On that basis Mr Justice Horner listed the hearing of the application for leave to seek a judicial review for next February.
Environmental organisation Friends of the Earth is also to take part in proceedings as a notice party.
Among those in court for today's update was Tom White, the chair of a local interest group who requested copies of legal papers in the case.
Agreeing to let Mr White have the material, the judge told him he can either apply to take an active part in the case or "stand on the sidelines".
Hydraulic fracturing is the process of extracting natural gas from shale rock layers deep within the earth.
Tamboran had planned to drill a 750m deep borehole to establish whether any such process would be commercially viable.
Anti-fracking campaigners have expressed fears that this could be the first step towards establishing an industry which may damage the environment and the health of nearby residents.
Under the terms of a petroleum licence granted in 2011 Tamboran had three years to either inform the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (DETI) on its decision to drill or drop its plans.
Earlier this year the firm was given another six months to complete the first stage of work.
But no further extension was granted when that deadline passed at the end of September.
Tamboran stated at the time that it had requested an extension of the deadline after informing DETI of its intention to take legal action Mr Durkan's rejection of a request to drill a borehole at the site.
The company claimed the decision not to grant more time may close the door on a project that could deliver up to 50 years of secure energy supply, in excess of 2,000 jobs and billions of much-needed investment in the local economy.
But Minister Foster's legal representatives have already questioned the merits of the challenge, contending that the licence has expired and cannot be restored, even by the court.
Detailed arguments will be made when the case reaches a full hearing next year.