Northern Ireland’s economy minister has proposed a moratorium on onshore oil and gas operations followed by legislation to ban it.
Gordon Lyons (Democratic Unionist Party) told the Northern Ireland Assembly he had made a recommendation to the ruling Executive 10 days ago:
“My paper recommended that the Executive agree a preferred policy option of a moratorium on all forms of exploration and extraction of oil and gas, to be followed by the introduction of a legislative ban.
“That would not only bring Northern Ireland in line with the rest of the United Kingdom on the issue of fracking but go further by legislating for all other types of petroleum exploration or extraction.”
Mr Lyons said:
“a moratorium and ban on all forms of onshore petroleum exploration and production would not disadvantage the local economy.”
He said there had been no commercial production of oil or gas in Northern Ireland in the past 50 years.
Independent research commissioned by his department had concluded that “the potential positive economic impacts of petroleum exploration and production would be relatively minor”, Mr Lyons said.
“The preferred option would therefore ensure a focus on the growth of the low-carbon renewable energy sector, which would use a secure indigenous resource and support people into secure, well-paid jobs.”
Mr Lyons also said:
“A moratorium and ban on all forms of onshore petroleum exploration and production would remove the possibility of potential adverse societal and environmental impacts on local communities and the rural environment, as no further exploration or development would be permitted.”
Northern Ireland has had no active onshore oil and gas licence since April 2020. But in 2019 two companies have applied for new licences.
Tamboran Resources (UK) Limited wants to explore for gas in County Fermanagh. It originally included the use of high-volume hydraulic fracturing but it later withdrew this operation.
EHA Exploration Limited proposes to explore for oil and gas to the south and east of Lough Neagh.
Public consultations on the licences attracted 5,700 responses.
A decision on the licences must be made by the Northern Ireland Executive.
But the Executive lost its governing powers last week when the first minister, Paul Givan, resigned (4 February 2022) over the Brexit Northern Ireland Protocol. A new election is due on 5 May 2022.
Mr Lyons said:
“Subject to a future Executive’s agreement and to public consultation, the introduction of a moratorium and the implementation of a legislative ban in the next mandate [assembly session] will address all types of petroleum exploration and production for all of Northern Ireland.”
He also said he would publish the onshore oil and gas research, commissioned from the Hatch Regeneris consultancy.
What appeared to be a summary of that report was leaked in November 2021 to the EcoLeaks Facebook page.
At the time, the Department for the Economy would not publish the findings.
But Mr Lyons said:
“That report was circulated to my Executive colleagues, but I am now prepared to publish it so that all interested parties can read it.”
“Urgent fracking ban needed”
The minister was speaking last night during a debate on a private member’s bill to ban fracking.
The bill’s sponsor, Aine Murphy (Sinn Fein) said:
“The Bill has one very clear objective, and that is to ban fracking in the North of Ireland.
“In effect, that would realise a ban on fracking throughout the island of Ireland. Ultimately, what we need is a ban on all petroleum licensing. We must ensure that there is no exploration, drilling for or extraction of petroleum here in the North.
She said the collapse of the Executive made the need to ban fracking “all the more urgent”.
Northern Ireland was the only part of “these islands” without provision to defend against fracking, she said, despite a large Assembly majority in October 2020 for an immediate moratorium on fracking.
Gerry Carroll (People Before Profit Alliance, West Belfast) urged the minister to “throw out” the application by EHA Exploration Limited. He said:
“For more than two years, activists have campaigned against the application and submitted a record number of opposition letters and petitions, but the Minister has not acted. It is time for the Minister to do the right thing and bin the application.”
Deborah Erskine (DUP Fermanagh and South Tyrone) said “No party is actively advocating petroleum licensing”.
Patsy McGlone (SDLP, Mid Ulster) said:
“There is a compelling case for a ban on the issuing of licences for onshore exploration, extraction and production of fossil fuels by means of fracking here in the North.”
The bill got cross-party support and received its second reading. It is unlikely to reach the statute book before the elections.