An application for a licence to explore for shale gas in south west County Fermanagh has prompted questions and opposition among anti-fracking campaigners and local people.
Tamboran Resources is seeking the petroleum licence to drill and frack in a 600km2 area near the border with the Irish Republic.
The application was first submitted in September 2016 but an eight-week consultation was announced last week (7 May), more than two-and-a half years later.
The announcement, by the Northern Ireland Department for the Economy (DfE), took campaigners by surprise.
But opponents of the licence responded swiftly with a protest near Belcoo at the weekend.
This is Tamboran’s second attempt to frack for shale gas in the area.
It was last granted a petroleum licence in 2011 but saw community and political opposition to its plans to drill a borehole at a quarry near Belcoo. In September 2014, the licence expired before the company completed the first part of its work programme.
In statements last week, Tamboran said it wanted to drill a single conventional borehole, to a depth of 1,500m, to collect rock samples from the Bundoran Formation gas reservoir. A second phase of the project could include drilling and fracking a shale gas well.
Tamboran estimated the gas could be worth more than £20bn and could supply Northern Ireland for more than 50 years. The company said the project could create 3,000 long-term jobs and would result in a “substantial and generous community investment fund”.
The chief executive, Karl Prenderville, described the project as potentially “one of the most significant” for economic development in Northern Ireland’s history.
The campaign group, Belcoo Frack Free, responded:
“Local people are outraged that a company which knows the strength of feeling about shale gas exploration has reapplied for a licence for this toxic industry.
“This industry will never have the social goodwill to operate in Fermanagh, no matter how many bribes and lures they offer to attempt to do so.
“The people of Belcoo and Fermanagh will do all we can to stop this endangerment to our health, wellbeing and environment.”
Tamboran told DrillOrDrop there had not been any substantial changes to the application since it was first made in 2016.
The company launched a website on the Fermanagh project last week. This suggests, campaigners argue, that the company was aware that the consultation announcement was due.
Belcoo Frack Free suggested that the consultation was timed deliberately after the Northern Ireland local elections on 2 May 2019 to avoid the licence becoming an issue in the polls.
The group also believes that the announcement may be related to forthcoming local elections on 24 May in the Irish Republic.
Councils in the Republic bordering the licence area are now, in effect, in purdah because of the elections. They were unable to campaign for or against fracking, Belcoo Frack Free suggested. Campaigners would not be able to seek effective support from these authorities until they reconstituted, after the elections, the group added.
DrillOrDrop asked Tamboran Resources and the Northern Ireland Department for the Economy about the reason for the delay between submission of the application and the announcement of the consultation.
A spokesperson for Tamboran Resources said:
“The Department for the Economy is responsible for the consultation process and timing.”
There is currently no assembly or executive in Northern Ireland. But new talks on restoring the institutions began last week and the UK prime minister met Northern Ireland political leaders today.
The consultation web page suggests that the ground is being prepared for an incoming minister to make a decision on the licence. It said:
“The objective of this consultation is to ensure that DfE has taken account of the range of opinions in preparation for making a recommendation to a future Minister as to whether or not a Petroleum Licence should be granted to the applicant.”
A spokesperson for DfE said the Northern Ireland Assembly was dissolved in January 2017, before the application could be fully processed. In the light of UK government guidance, the department concluded:
“any decision to award a Petroleum Licence would be for a Minister but that it should continue all necessary preparatory work to ensure that a decision could be taken as soon as possible after a Minister was appointed. The outcome of the public consultation will be used in preparing a recommendation to a future Minister on whether or not the licence should be awarded.”
Belcoo Frack Free said:
“It’s one thing to have accountable politicians making decisions, but when the civil service are taking those same decisions, without accountability, then we really are in a democratic deficit here.”
Who will be consulted?
Licensing for oil and gas in Northern Ireland is different from England, Scotland and Wales.
There are no licence rounds, where companies are invited to bid. Instead, licences can be sought at any time on a “first come, first served” basis.
There is also no statutory obligation on the DfE to consult on a licence application. But the consultation web page lists councils which have been invited to make representations.
The councils are all in Northern Ireland: Antirim and Newtownabbey Borough; Armagh Banbridge and Craigavon Borough; Belfast City, Lisburn and Castlereach City, and Mid Ulster District.
The Good Friday Agreement made environment and health two of the 12 areas of cooperation between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.
Despite this, councils in the Republic near the licence area (Donegal, Leitrim, Cavan and Monaghan) are not listed as consultees.
The DfE said the department had not been consulted on Tamboran Resources’ application for a petroleum licence in County Leitrim, or the ban on fracking in the Republic of Ireland (see below).
Ban on fracking
In July 2017, the Republic of Ireland banned fracking onshore for hydrocarbon exploration and extraction.
Tom White, chair of Belcoo Frack Free, said:
“There are some people relying on the fact that the ban on fracking in the Republic of Ireland will protect them from this licence being granted or if granted will somehow stop fracking.
“I would caution against this. The only sure way to stop fracking is to stop the licence being granted, and ultimately a ban being put in place similar to Ireland.
“This will have to come from the local people, through information, awareness raising and through campaigning, bringing the political parties and political will with us.
“While the application has taken people by surprise somewhat, I am sure we will rise to the challenge and see off Tamboran for a second time.”
Presumption against fracking
In Northern Ireland, the 2015 Strategic Planning Policy Statement (SPPS) included a presumption against unconventional hydrocarbon extraction.
Tamboran’s licence application interpreted this to mean it did not prevent fracking during exploration.
The company’s spokesperson told DrillOrDrop:
“It is important to note that the former Minister, Mark H Durkan MLA, confirmed that ‘the SPPS does not refer to the exploration of unconventional hydrocarbon extraction.’
“The company will nevertheless seek to demonstrate that there will be no adverse impact on the environment at any stage of the process.”
The DfE spokesperson said:
“The SPPS will form part of DfE’s consideration before a recommendation is made to a future Minister.”
Northern Ireland’s planning law allows operators to drill boreholes for core samples using permitted development rights, without the need for a full planning application.
There was an attempt to change the law following drilling of an exploration well at Woodburn, on publicly-owned land close to a drinking water reservoir supplying Belfast. The Northern Ireland Assembly collapsed before the change was approved and the permitted development rights remain.
Belcoo Frack Free described the Woodburn borehole as a “worrying precedent” and said it was “deeply alarmed” by the Fermanagh proposal.
The Tamboran spokesperson said:
“If the licence is awarded and the Company is able to proceed, the Company will seek all necessary approvals from the relevant authorities prior to any work commencing, including full planning permission and an environmental impact assessment, if necessary.”
The DfE said the planning authority would decide if any drilling could be carried out under Permitted Development Rights or if a full planning application was required. The statement said:
“In Northern Ireland a Petroleum Licence grants a Licensee the exclusive rights to explore for, drill for or extract oil or gas. However, many activities, including drilling, are subject to further individual consents from DfE and further controls by other statutory bodies such as the HSENI [Health and Safety Executive Northern Ireland], NIEA [Northern Ireland Environment Agency] and the Planning Service.
“These consents and controls address, amongst other things, the risks to public health and the environment that the exploration activities may pose and therefore may place restrictions on these activities as a result.”
The consultation runs until 11.59pm on 5 July 2019.
People can email their response to email@example.com or write to Department for the Economy, Minerals and Petroleum Branch, Room 9, Dundonald House, Upper Newtownards Road, Belfast, BT4 3SB.
Updated 15 May 2019 with response and comments from the Department for the Economy