Exploration Licences

Oral Answers to Questions — Enterprise, Trade and Investment – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 2:15 pm on 14th March 2016.

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Photo of David McNarry David McNarry UKIP 2:15 pm, 14th March 2016

4. Mr McNarry asked the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment how many petroleum and natural gas exploration licences are operational in Northern Ireland. (AQO 9842/11-16)

Photo of Phil Flanagan Phil Flanagan Sinn Féin

7. Mr Flanagan asked the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment, given that the company failed to meet its original work programme targets, why his Department extended the petroleum licence awarded to InfraStrata. (AQO 9845/11-16)

Photo of Jonathan Bell Jonathan Bell DUP

With your permission, Mr Speaker, I will answer questions 4 and 7 together. One petroleum licence is currently operational in Northern Ireland — petroleum licence PL 1/10 — for which InfraStrata plc is the licence holder. Petroleum licence PL 1/10 was not extended.

Photo of David McNarry David McNarry UKIP

I trust that the Minister will agree that it is a no-brainer, with energy gold under our own feet, not to use it. Will he say, in the light of his previous answers, what new funding his Department could bid for after 23 June for the development of energy?

Photo of Jonathan Bell Jonathan Bell DUP

We are working very closely with the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC). In everything that I have done in energy, I have sought to ensure that Northern Ireland and its people get the best return for their investment, both in security of supply and cost. As DECC has changed its position on a number of occasions, I have also changed mine. I think that it is a very foolish person who does not change their mind when the facts change. We hit all our renewables targets, and energy prices in Northern Ireland were quite significantly lower compared with other years. In recent times, you will have seen the list of companies that are reducing their energy prices. It is key for my Department to maximise every opportunity that we have in order to be good stewards of the earth and to look towards where we can not only attract support for renewables but make sure that our manufacturing industry gets the most competitive rate that allows it to stay competitive and export more.

Photo of Phil Flanagan Phil Flanagan Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as ucht a fhreagra. I thank the Minister for his answer. The licence has not been extended, but does the Minister accept that the decision to extend InfraStrata's time frame for a work programme sets a dangerous precedent on fracking, particularly given that InfraStrata failed to meet its original work programme? Will he outline why he feels that it was appropriate to extend that time frame and give such a company such latitude to drill boreholes, using a novel form of drilling, so close to public water reservoirs?

Photo of Jonathan Bell Jonathan Bell DUP

The Member should reflect carefully on what he is saying. It is not true, in whatever way it is expressed, that InfraStrata has been given more time by DETI to drill at Woodburn, when the company had clearly failed to meet its original work programme targets. That is the allegation. I was content to agree to a variation of the work programme of petroleum licence PL 1/10, and that was based on work that was carried out by the licensee to date to a highly professional standard, including but not limited to the acquisition, processing, reprocessing and interpretation of existing and new 2D seismic reflection data and the carrying out of studies, mapping and remodelling. The extent to which the factors that were impacting on the licensee's capacity to drill were outside the licensee's control.

The Member raised the issue of fracking, and it is important to state that my Department has issued no licences or permits for high-volume hydraulic fracturing. No company in Northern Ireland has been given permission to frack. InfraStrata has made it clear that the drilling in Woodburn forest does not involve fracking, and a no-fracking clause has been included in InfraStrata plc's lease with Northern Ireland Water.

Photo of Gordon Lyons Gordon Lyons DUP

I thank the Minister for what he has said. There is a lot of concern in Woodburn about the issue, much of it coming from misinformation being spread so that an awful lot of people are under the illusion that fracking is taking place. I am very pleased that the Minister has confirmed that no fracking is taking place in this area. Does he believe that this sort of misinformation is useful?

Photo of Jonathan Bell Jonathan Bell DUP

Misinformation, as we all know, can be very dangerous. I thank Mr Lyons. He has been on to me on a number of occasions with concerns that have been raised. Let me tell you specifically, from the Dispatch Box, that my Department has not issued any licence or permit for high-volume hydraulic fracturing.

We have not done it, and no company has been given permission in Northern Ireland to frack. As both the previous DETI Minister and I have indicated on many occasions, high-volume hydraulic fracturing is a novel and controversial issue and, as such, is a matter for the Executive as a whole to decide on, should the time come.

Photo of Daniel McCrossan Daniel McCrossan Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Minister for his answers so far. How many of the sites being explored under licence are anticipated to require unconventional extraction techniques, such as hydraulic fracturing?

Photo of Jonathan Bell Jonathan Bell DUP

There is always a danger of writing your question before you have heard the answers. However, let me be clear that what we are saying about high-volume hydraulic fracturing is that it is a novel and controversial issue and, as such, should the time come, it will be for the Executive as a whole to decide.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

The Minister has said that he has varied the licence, but that will have the effect of extending the operation and will enable drilling and the associated chemicals to be located in the water catchment area of the Woodburn dams. Given that a high-quality water supply is important not only to people but to local manufacturing companies, what discussions has the Minister had with other Departments to satisfy himself that there is no danger to the public water supply should something go amiss during the drilling process, in which a considerable number of chemicals will be injected into the ground?

Photo of Jonathan Bell Jonathan Bell DUP

That issue has been raised. The Department and the other Departments — they have answered for themselves on these matters from the Dispatch Box — have indicated that obviously, if there was any risk to the water supply, action would be taken. We are satisfied, from the information that we have, that those levels of risk are not there. The Member should reflect that there is a potential benefit to Northern Ireland of having the prospectivity of the licence area established through drilling because the development of Northern Ireland's indigenous oil and gas resources could help to maintain security of supply and could bring direct and indirect economic benefit to Northern Ireland.

Photo of Stewart Dickson Stewart Dickson Alliance

In respect of the drilling at Woodburn, it is a bit of a smokescreen to suggest that people believe that hydraulic fracking is going on. We know that it is conventional drilling, and the protesters know that too.

You talk about security of supply for fuel, but can we be guaranteed security of supply when it comes to clean, fresh drinking water?

Photo of Jonathan Bell Jonathan Bell DUP

I refer to the answer that I gave some moments ago.