Pipeline work could begin in 2015
Natural gas could be available in western parts of Northern Ireland by 2015, the Enterprise Minister has said.
DUP MLA Arlene Foster, whose department has completed an economic appraisal on extending the gas network to towns such as Strabane and Omagh, said the move would bring huge benefits.
Mrs Foster said: "We are discussing financing issues with DFP (Department of Finance and Personnel) and liaising with the utility regulator regarding a competition for gas licences. Subject to the outcome of this competition and the completion of the detailed network design and planning approvals process, pipeline construction works could begin in 2015."
Natural gas was introduced to Northern Ireland in 1996 and there are now about 120,000 households and 8,000 businesses with a gas supply. Extension of the gas network would help shift the dependence on coal and oil for household heating, and increase the potential for businesses to use a cleaner, more efficient fuel.
The minister said it was too soon to disclose the final costs for the scheme. She added: "Safe to say it would benefit the west of this province in a way that no other investment has for quite some time."
A feasibility study carried out last summer concluded that rolling out gas transmission pipelines to six towns in the west and north-west of Northern Ireland as a single project was likely to cost around £85 million. Gas distribution networks for the six towns would cost between £26 million and £86 million depending on the licensing model adopted.
DUP MLA for West Tyrone Thomas Buchanan said: "I look forward to gas work network into the west."
Later, responding to a question from DUP MLA Peter Weir, the Minister revealed that £52m had been generated from contracts for offshore renewable energy.
Mrs Foster said: "Two hundred and fifty Northern Ireland companies are already actively selling into the offshore renewable markets. It is estimated that Northern Ireland based companies secured sales of £52m in offshore contracts in 2011/12. These include companies such as Harland and Wolff, B9 Energy, McLauglin and Harvey, Barton Industrial Services, Doran Consultants, RPS and Farrans.
"The recent announcement of offshore wind and tidal development rights in Northern Ireland waters to three consortia were made and included the local company B9 Off Shore Energy. This really does present further opportunity for Northern Ireland firms."