Gas testing sparks fracking row
An exploratory borehole to test for natural gas is due to be dug in Co Fermanagh next month.
It is part of Australian company Tamboran Resources' testing of the potential of fracking to extract fuel from shale rock in the west of the county.
The hole near Belcoo will be used to collect rock samples and will not involve fracking.
Tony Bazley, director of Tamboran Resources (UK) Ltd, said: "This is fact-finding, not fracking."
The move sparked opposition from local residents who organised a protest.
Spokesman Donal O'Cofaigh said: "This is fracking getting a foothold in there."
Tamboran said its intention is to verify that the elements necessary for natural gas and its recovery are contained in the shale in Co Fermanagh.
Dr Bazley said: "If Co Fermanagh is home to a significant natural gas resource that could provide Northern Ireland with decades of a local secure energy supply, then we believe the people have a right to know."
If the samples show commercially viable levels of gas, Tamboran will begin a process that could lead to fracking.
The test hole will be about 15cm wide and 750m deep. The operation will be completed in 30 days and samples will be sent for laboratory analysis.
Dr Bazley said: "We believe that the presence of natural gas in Northern Ireland could bring considerable benefits to the local and regional economy with the potential for billions of pounds of investment; hundreds and potentially thousands of jobs created locally, and importantly for Northern Ireland, a secure supply of energy that could last for decades and potentially help reduce local energy costs.
"However, we first need to make sure enough gas is there to be commercially viable and that we will not know for certain until the end of the licence period. This is just the first stage in that process."
Mr O'Cofaigh said the surrounding community was upset and claimed fracking had not been subjected to sufficiently rigorous testing.
"There are very real concerns and they have not addressed any of those."
Environment Minister Mark Durkan said there was no planning application for fracking.
He added: "I have been consistently clear on this issue: granting permissions relating to fracking operations will only take place when it has been supported by very strong evidence which indicates that fracking is safe for public health and the environment.
"No decisions have been taken in relation to permitting fracking. No planning application or applications for environmental permissions have yet been received by my department and any future applications will be considered in a very robust manner."