Woodburn oil well project starts despite protesters
The company behind controversial plans for an oil and gas borehole in a forest near Carrickfergus has started work on an exploratory well.
InfraStrata said construction was under way at Woodburn Forest, with drilling scheduled to start in May.
Addressing safety concerns, the company added that in the past 60 years more than 20 deep wells had been drilled here using similar methods and chemicals, the latest in Islandmagee last year.
The news came after Environment Minister Mark H Durkan said he would issue a belated call for evidence over permitted development rights for onshore exploration next week.
In 2013 the Department of the Environment failed to respond to a request for its views on plans for drilling at Woodburn within a 21-day time limit, meaning permission was granted by default.
This week 10 campaigners opposed to the drill were not banned from the path into the site, even though InfraStrata had applied to the High Court to have them evicted. The application has been adjourned until next Friday. The campaigners claim chemicals used in the drill could pollute the water table close to Woodburn reservoir, which supplies hundreds of homes. Their campaign has been backed by Spotlight actor Mark Ruffalo and human rights advocate Bianca Jagger.
NI Water, which leased the site to InfraStrata, has repeatedly insisted the project is safe.
Yesterday InfraStrata told how a range of safety measures were in place and indicated that the site would be restored to its previous state at the end of the project.
"In the event of encouraging results from the well, any re-establishment of the site for further works, such as testing, would require planning approval from Mid and East Antrim Borough Council," it said.
Dr Andrew Hindle, CEO of InfraStrata, added: "We are pleased site preparations for the well are under way. If the well encounters petroleum, it would confirm the potential of the Larne Lough Neagh basin. This in turn would have a very positive impact on the economy.
"InfraStrata believes there could be energy reserves within the area to sustain Northern Ireland's needs for 25 years.
"We greatly appreciate the support of a number of local contractors who will be employed by InfraStrata. We are committed to a safe and professional operation and the protection of the environment is foremost in both our planning and our operations."
However, Friends of the Earth (FoE) said that if InfraStrata was serious about environmental commitments it would have avoided drilling in a water catchment.
FoE NI director Dr James Orr added: "They should have applied for planning permission, a tree felling licence and carried out an environmental impact assessment. Instead they have taken advantage of a broken regulatory regime. The residents who drink the water from this catchment are being made guinea pigs."