A wide-ranging review of the onshore petroleum licensing system in Northern Ireland is underway, the economy minister, Diane Dodds, said this afternoon.
Speaking in the Northern Ireland assembly, Mrs Dodds said two applications for petroleum licences would not now be decided until after the review had been completed.
She was responding to a motion which called for an immediate moratorium on petroleum licensing for all exploration, drilling and extraction of hydrocarbons, followed by legislation for a permanent ban.
Mrs Dodds said lawyers had advised her against supporting the motion. It was, she said, likely to be challenged.
But she gave a commitment that the public would be consulted on any new policy. The final decision would be made by the Northern Ireland executive, before draft laws were voted on by the assembly.
There are no current petroleum development and exploration licences in Northern Ireland. The last one was given up on 25 April 2020.
But the Department of the Economy has received applications by Tamboran Resources (UK) Limited to explore 608 sq km in south west County Fermanagh and EHA Exploration Limited for 1134km2 south and east of Lough Neagh.
A public consultation on these licences last year attracted 5,700 responses. Tamboran dropped plans for hydraulic fracturing in its proposed licence area following responses to the consultation.
Mrs Dodds said:
“The extraordinary and unprecedented number of responses to the public consultation on licensing applications is a clear sign in the change in public attitudes and demonstrates the concerns that currently exist around petroleum exploration.
“Petroleum development is a very emotive subject. As minister, I want to ensure that any decision I recommend to the executive on the future policy is based on robust evidence and presents the best way forward for Northern Ireland as a whole.
“I am asking for the time and space to allow officials to develop evidence-based policy proposals that will be subject to a rigorous policy development process.”
She said there was a lack of information about the impact of the licensing system on Northern Ireland and a need for independent research.
Officials were expected to award a contract in the “coming days” for research on the economic, societal and environmental impacts of onshore exploration and development in Northern Ireland, she said. The studies would inform future licensing policy.
All 12 of the other speakers, from across the assembly parties, supported the motion.
Philip McGuigan, of Sinn Fein (above left), responded to the minister:
“The Department of the Economy needs to stop wasting time with its review on petroleum licensing and immediately issue a moratorium on licensing until legislation can be brought forward that totally bans the practice of extraction.
“It is the licensing that opens the gates to all the harmful potential and risks.
“It is time that we moved away from fossil fuels dependency.”
Rachel Woods, of the Green Party (above right), who opened the debate, said of Northern Ireland:
“We simply do not have the space for this type of dangerous industry without threatening people’s lives and livelihoods.
“The entire petroleum licensing system is flawed”, she said, listing the absence of a need for consultation, the failure to uphold rights on environmental decision-making under the Aarhus Convention and the lack of a requirement for strategic environmental impact assessments.
The law is seriously out-of-date, she said.
“The executive must bring legislation as a matter of urgency”.
The Ulster Unionist leader, Steve Aiken (above right) , said:
“In Northern Ireland we do not wish to have hydrocarbon drilling, either for gas, gas fracking or for petroleum.”
Stewart Dickson, of the Alliance (above left), said “fossil fuels have had their day and they are the fuels of the past”.
Patsy McGlone, of the SDLP (above right), said:
“Here in the North and across the world, our young people are demanding a climate reset.
“Accepting this motion will let our young people know that we’re listening to them, that we’re committed to a greener, cleaner future for them and for all.”
The motion was approved with no opposition.