The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to one hour and 30 minutes for the debate. The proposer of the motion will have 10 minutes to propose and 10 to make a winding-up speech. All other Members who wish to speak will have five minutes.
I beg to move
That this Assembly notes with concern the application by InfraStrata to drill at Woodburn forest, County Antrim; recognises the concerns of residents in County Antrim over drilling proposals at the forest; and calls on the Executive to ensure that such applications are not approved until assurances are secured against any negative potential impacts on water supply, the environment, tourism and local communities.
Go raibh maith agat. The motion before us can go a long way in protecting our environment, water supply, tourism and communities. It is also a motion that will give the community the right to be consulted at all stages of an application and the right to express a view to all agencies involved. The granting of a drilling licence without a mandatory environmental impact assessment not only is a major flaw in our planning system but fails to protect the communities and the wider public. Members, let us not fool ourselves: activities such as gas and oil exploration are not without real and serious environmental risks and problems, such as water and soil pollution.
I ask Members to think how close to Woodburn reservoir this drilling operation is situated. It makes you wonder what people were thinking.
In the drilling process, highly toxic chemicals are combined with water to create a mixture that is pumped into the ground. This mixture comes back to the surface as a toxic mud, which carries contaminants such as radioactive materials. We also have air pollution from drilling, from gases such as benzene and methane. We will also have oil spills, waste management problems, noise, road damage and landscape impacts. Already they have cut away acres of trees and, according to the permitted development schedule, the council must give written consent for this to be done. I wonder whether that happened, because we have not seen anything from the councils at all.
Given all the risks, it is hard to believe that a drilling licence was granted at all without the need for an environmental impact assessment report. At present, a licence application needs only to be accompanied by an environmental awareness statement, which is no more than a brief statement demonstrating the applicant's awareness of environmental issues, regulatory requirements and sensitivities related to drilling, exploration, development and production. In other words, Members, nothing even resembling a full, independent assessment is required. Basically, it is only a nod of the head or a wink of the eye and you are through.
Under the EU directive 2001/42, a strategic environmental assessment is meant to be carried out before petroleum licences are granted. Unfortunately, our licensing policy here does not apply that much-needed directive. This assessment, if applicable here, would allow the full examination of effects on things such as biodiversity, pollution, human health, flora and fauna, soil, water and air, to name but a few. As our planning policy stands at present, to hold a petroleum licence one has only to apply for permitted development rights (PDR) to carry out exploratory works. A full planning application is only necessary if the applicant is refused permitted development rights. One of the reasons for being refused is if your application needs a full environmental impact assessment. On this occasion at Woodburn, when InfraStrata submitted its drilling plans in 2013, the opportunity to put this application into the full planning process along with a full environmental impact assessment was gravely missed. I wonder how it was missed. Was it intentional that it was missed, or was it just missed?
When you look at the DOE's own stipulation for drilling in an area with an area of special scientific interest (ASSI) designation, you will see that, before any proposed exploration the company must consult with the Northern Ireland Environment Agency and other relevant bodies.
The application clearly states that the licensee shall not carry out any work within or in close proximity to an ASSI without the prior written consent of the DOE. I wonder whether this happened, because if we really know this area, we will know that two of the reservoirs served by Woodburn's catchment area are in an ASSI. What were these people thinking of and what were those responsible for the paperwork for this programme thinking of? Why, you may ask, did DOE not insist on a full equality impact assessment? Basically, it is my belief that the then Minister, Minister Durkan, must have fallen asleep at the wheel. He wrote to Mid and East Antrim Borough Council telling it that it was responsible for removing the PDR, but why did his Department not take the lead? He also failed to respond to the 21-day deadline to be notified of the plans. That meant that the permitted development rights were granted by default. Where else would you hear of that? When the public quite rightly asked questions, the council went into committee and there was nothing coming out. Nobody was telling the public anything at all. That is something I was shocked to learn.
Failure to respond to the deadline to be notified of the plans meant that the permitted development rights were granted by default. When the Department was asked why that happened, it stated that it, DOE, had already received sufficient information from the company and the relevant agencies back in December 2013. That I am shocked to learn — that DOE took advice from the drilling company and not from its own report. As was seen in the papers, one of the heads of the Planning Service was quoted as asking the drilling company for advice on how to answer some of the questions that were laid down to the service. We have DOE taking the advice of the drilling company, so did the rest of the relevant agencies do the same? Is this where we have come to — the advice and word of the person who is applying for the licence was taken without the relevant agencies doing their own reports? I think those questions need to be asked.
Today we have the chance to ensure that this debacle can never happen again. What can we do? The motion states that we call on:
"the Executive to ensure that such applications are not approved until assurances are secured against any negative potential impacts on water supply, the environment, tourism and local communities."
How can we do that? Today I am calling on our new Minister, Minister Hazzard — I thank him for being here — to repeal the part of section 16 of the permitted development for minimum exploration that deals with oil and gas and to say that any future applications by anybody to do an exploratory drill or to have anything to do with exploration for oil or gas should go through the full planning legislation and that a full environmental impact assessment should go with it. That is the only way we can ensure that we have control of our own planning service and that the multinationals do not dictate terms or anything that goes on. We must take back control of our Planning Service. I hope we get support for the motion.
Thank you very much, Mr Deputy Speaker, and I welcome you to your role and wish you well.
I listened carefully to Mr McMullan, a Member for East Antrim, and I also read with interest the motion before the House. It is one that I will not be able to support, for reasons that I will outline now. I certainly understand the concerns of some local residents — the genuinely held concerns that some people in that area have. However, I believe that those fears are unfounded. I hope that, in my remarks, I will be able to assuage the fears that some people have, but I am under no illusion that there are people who have their mind made up about this. I understand that and that no amount of fact, evidence or reason will convince them otherwise, but I hope I will be able to shed some light on what is taking place.
No. I have a lot to get through and have only five minutes. Other Members will have a lot more collectively.
I also want to raise the last part of the motion that Mr McMullan has brought to the House. It calls on the Executive to:
"ensure that such applications are not approved until assurances are secured against any negative potential impacts on water supply, the environment, tourism and local communities."
If those assurances had not already been provided, we would have cause for concern and worry, but that is not the case. Let me address that. One of the issues that has been raised is permitted development rights. Some people think that InfraStrata has been given a free run and the power to do whatever it wants without any consequences, but that is not the case. It is not a free-for-all. Let us go through what has taken place so far. It was required to get the consent to drill by DETI. That is what it is regulated under. That consent, given by DETI, states that DETI is satisfied with the technical, environmental and health and safety aspects of the proposed plans, so the former Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment was pleased. The Northern Ireland Environment Agency has taken steps and has implemented a water quality monitoring report that includes surface waters and groundwaters. The NIEA also regulates the movement of waste from the site. In addition, the NIEA is responsible for ensuring that Northern Ireland's water quality monitoring and risk assessments for drinking water meet the regulatory requirements. So what do we have, when we consider the exploratory conventional drilling that has been taking place at Woodburn? We know that the NIEA is content. We know that Northern Ireland Water is content. We know that —
No. I already indicated that I will not give way.
We have heard that DOE, DRD and DETI are content. When we look at those in the round, we see that we have a number of Departments and public bodies that are tasked with ensuring that the environment and public water are protected.
I move now to the water supply. A number of concerns were raised. I am sorry that I have to say this again, but it is not fracking. That point has been raised again and again, and I have received correspondence saying that what is taking place is fracking and I should be opposed to it. This is conventional exploratory drilling. We know that no oil will be extracted; indeed, we know that the chemicals that are used in drilling — everyone knows that certain chemicals will need to be used — are used in this process all over the world. In fact, they have already been used at Larne lough. They are used for geothermal energy, and, in fact, they are also used for water extraction. We are asked in the motion —
The Member is certain that there are no risks, but does he appreciate that things sometimes go wrong and that, when things go wrong, there are risks? The question is this: why take on board additional risk in a water catchment area?
Thank you very much, Mr Deputy Speaker. I am glad that the Member has raised that issue. That is why the company has said that multiple layers of steel casing and concrete will be used to help to protect the water supply in that way and why Northern Ireland Water, DETI and others are pleased with what is happening. I have a personal interest in this, by the way, as does the Member: we drink water that comes from the rivers that feed into those reservoirs.
We have a number of public bodies and government agencies — experts in the area — that have informed us that what is happening is in line with policy, is safe and poses no risk to the environment. Today, we are being asked to express concern and to ensure that applications such as this are not approved unless certain assurances are provided. I say it again: we would be right to express concern if those assurances were not there, but that is not where we find ourselves.
Finally, those who invest in Northern Ireland must be allowed to operate within the framework that has been established already. I want companies to come here and be able to operate within the law. That is what has happened in this case.
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. I, too, congratulate you on your appointment.
I support the motion. I have to say that I it was with incredulity that I learned of the proposal to drill a borehole at Woodburn inside the water catchment area. I could not believe that it would be a location where Northern Ireland Water, the company whose job it is to guarantee water quality for the people of Northern Ireland, would take on additional risks. As I said earlier, there are risks involved in drilling. Some are using the language that this is a "zero-waste site" and that nothing will ever escape, but there are "Events, dear boy, events". Sometimes, events can overtake the best of plans. Again, I ask the question: why take on additional risks?
I want to highlight the fact that I drive a car. I have a wood-burning stove, but I have an oil-fired central heating system at home as well. I use oil, so I am not anti-oil and do not come at this from an anti-oil point of view. We have to try to conserve our limited energy supplies, but why on earth would you take on additional risk by locating such a site in a water catchment area?
I note that the record of the Northern Ireland Water board meeting of 24 July 2013 indicates that the board was assured that the contamination risk had been dealt with in the preconditions for Northern Ireland Water's land being accessed for the project. Therefore, you write that into the conditions and nothing will ever go wrong. What surprised me about that minute was that there was no challenge from any of the Northern Ireland Water board members to ask, "What if something goes wrong?". I have to say that I found myself in a similar situation when involved in discussions with some departmental officials. They just assumed that it was a zero-waste site and that everybody had been assured by somebody else — but what if something goes wrong? Why take on the additional risks?
The next thing highlighted to me was concern in the community that there could be fracking. This was moving to a different plane. I could not believe that anywhere in Northern Ireland could be less appropriate for fracking than a water catchment area. You have the pumping of chemicals underground. You have the risk of heavy metals or other substances coming back to the surface. It was just ridiculous that that could be possible. I felt that it was important, so, in 2014, I engaged with the Department and Northern Ireland Water to seek at least an assurance that there would be no fracking and that it would ensure the highest level of mitigation if it leased the site. That was agreed. I am glad that no fracking has been written into the lease so that, if the company finds suitable fracking below, it will not come back. At least, I hope that it will not, and that is my understanding. It is already built into the lease, so it cannot decide to say, "We have developed this in good faith. You cannot stop us now unless you pay us x amount of money". I hope that we have, at least, prevented that issue arising.
Many have referred to the catchment area. I have been to the area several times and met some of the neighbours. The issue that strikes me, which people are mixed up about, is that this is adjacent to Woodburn north but is actually in the catchment area of Woodburn south. There is confusion. There is a sluice that can direct water to and from the area, and I understand that mitigation can be built in there. I suggest that they should build in whatever mitigation they can come up with. We have been assured that there is a bund and that nothing can escape. What if we get exceptional rainfall and the bund fills? Northern Ireland has been fortunate to be dry recently.
I am grateful to the Member for giving way. I confess that my view is to be very cautious about undertaking a project like this. That said, given that the Government pay people from Northern Ireland Water, the Northern Ireland Environment Agency and other statutory organisations such as DETI to provide advice to people like him who are charged to make the decision, why does he think that he is better qualified than those whom we pay to advise us?
Sometimes, you need a bit of common sense. Why take on additional risks? Why did you come here if you accept what the officials say every time? Sometimes, you have to challenge them. Why take on additional risks?
There was a site in the Glenoe area, in my constituency. It had an aquifer, and neighbouring well water was diverted. There was lots of mud, and, I am told, the Glynn river ran red. Who knows what could have happened if something similar had happened at Woodburn? You should not just assume that officials get it right all the time. Another thing, when I read on about this and gained knowledge, is the number of chemicals involved, and, again, this is in a water catchment area. There was 100 kg of biocide. I think that it was 24 tons of barium sulphate, and there were 2,500 gallons of Halad-300L NS. Biocide T and Halad-300L NS are defined as hazardous biocides under the Groundwater Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2009.
Why bring such issues into a water catchment area? Why bring risks upon yourself? So, because of that I want to avoid risks, and we ought to be very careful in the future and not do this ever again.
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. This is my first opportunity to congratulate you on your role which we know you will bring integrity and balance to.
The SDLP supports the motion. First and foremost, it is clear that there are substantial concerns about the proposals for exploratory drilling in Woodburn and that not enough is known about this kind of drilling and the potential impacts and effects on local communities. We certainly do not have enough information to declare it safe. We had been told that the well site would be fully watertight — a zero discharge zone — and lined with layers of cement and steel to prevent liquids escaping into the surrounding soil and the ground water.
Is the Member aware that already there has been flooding in the entrance lane? Mud was flowing onto the road and, ultimately, down the stream that, potentially, could have gone into the water supply. So, already, they have not been able to do things properly.
I thank the Member for his intervention. Yes, I am aware of that, and I believe that InfraStrata has acknowledged some of those breaches, even if others have not accepted that they have had breaches. I believe that this has been compounded by the fact that there have not been baseline studies and surveys to allow us to effectively quantify any environmental damage. I understand that there are concerns as the company doing this exploratory work is not financially secure and would not necessarily be in a position to fund any clean-up, if such clean-up was possible, in the event of a substantial breach.
As a background to how we got to this point, we know that the DOE got an application from InfraStrata in August 2013 detailing its intentions at Woodburn to probe the subsurface geology and identify areas for potential oil and gas deposit. I understand that officials in the Environment Agency made a determination, based on the information available at that time, concluding that the development did not need an environmental statement and that, according to the information submitted, the proposed borehole was essentially a legally permitted development (PD) and that planning permission was not required.
Since that decision, further information has emerged about the detail and the potential risks of what was proposed. The work was initially described as minor and non-contentious exploration — I think that we can clearly say that it is not. InfraStrata was lately granted a licence to reinject petroleum and other fluids, and I thank the Member for outlining what some of those were, into the site, and therefore it no longer could fall into the category of permitted development.
(Mr Speaker in the Chair)
After local government reform, the DOE had no jurisdiction over the permitted development notification, which had become, at that point, a matter for Mid and East Antrim Borough Council. In September 2015, the then Environment Minister, Mark H Durkan, wrote to the council clarifying this. He advised that the means of removing the PD rights was for the council to carry out a further environmental impact assessment (EIA) screening exercise and consultation based on the new information available. Unfortunately, we think that there was a missed opportunity that it did not take place. If the reforms to planning were to do anything, and even though they were not as comprehensive as we had initially designed them to be, they were designed to bring in community consultation and give the people closest to the impact of a decision a say through their local councillors.
A previous Member to speak has, I believe, continued with the campaign to try to pin the blame on the former DOE Minister and Department and, potentially, throw some anti-politics sentiment about why a decision might have been made. I do not think that that is the case. Once the details of what was being proposed emerged, I think that it is fair to say that there have been a number of missed opportunities to bring the development in. I have outlined the role that Mid and East Antrim Borough Council could have played in it; I understand that DETI granted the licence; DRD has influence over Northern Ireland Water, which has a demonstrable interest in protecting our water supply; and, indeed, the outgoing Agriculture Minister has responsibility for the Forest Service and could have potentially rejected permission to take the —
As I have just outlined, at the time, the information available did not say that it was exploring the sub-geometry or whatever it is. And I think after the fact, when the follow-up proposal —
The follow-up proposal detailed some of the chemicals being used. As I have outlined, a number of Departments, including DARD, had the opportunity to pull the development back in. You can take the plank out of your own eye before you start to apportion blame here.
The discussion of this matter is frequently raised alongside fracking, and I accept Mr Lyons's point that it is not the same as fracking, but there are some parallels. On the latter issue, I commend Mark H Durkan for taking appropriate deployment of the precautionary principle during his term and refusing permission for that to take place in Northern Ireland until such time as it is proven safe, which is not the case at the moment. Although we are far off any confidence that this is safe, we are not blind or absolutist in our position on many things, including this. If we were given evidence that said that it was safe, we would reconsider the position. I wish that the same effort, determination and resource that are put into increasingly complicated and contrived extraction methods like this would be put into developing the renewable base here that has so much potential —
Mr Speaker, I will take this opportunity to congratulate you on your appointment. I welcome the opportunity to speak on this very important matter for many of my constituents and those who live in a much larger drinking water consumption area served by the Woodburn dams. Earlier this evening, I and some party colleagues met some people from Stop the Drill, particularly residents who live in the most immediate area around the drill site. They impressed us and persuaded us, if we needed any further persuasion, about the folly of this particular enterprise.
Equally, I find it very strange that Mr McMullan and Mr Kelly are co-signatories to a motion here tonight when they are effectively a party of Government, and they could, at the stroke of a pen, stop all this. It seems rather false that they do not take that course of action. In fact, the motion that is in front of us, which I intend to support, is —
Thank you, Mr Speaker. The reality is that, despite the words that Ms Hanna used to congratulate her Minister on his actions, he could have perhaps taken that decision as well, but things are much simpler now because there are just two parties in Government, and it is very easy. You do not have all the breadth of consultation that you needed to do in the past.
The reality is simply this: Mr Hazzard has the powers to introduce departmental legislation with regard to planning. That is what the motion calls for, so I look forward to hearing a major announcement from him tonight in respect of planning matters. Furthermore, through you, Mr Speaker, will the Minister instruct Northern Ireland Water to release documents to protesters who believe that documents are being hidden from them and from public view and from open and transparent government? He is a party of open and transparent government, so I am absolutely sure that he will do his level best to ensure that every document that is being requested is discovered and placed in the public domain.
The motion states that all the environmental factors must be considered before such a serious project is permitted again. Why should they not be considered while this project is continuing? Of course we want to protect future drilling opportunities, but we have a genuine opportunity tonight to stop this now. I have serious concerns, as others have, about the way in which the Agriculture Department has an environment portfolio and, indeed, that the leadership of that Department is in the hands of the DUP. Essentially, we have a government lock on the decision that faces the Assembly today, and I encourage the Members who have the power in the Chamber to stand up and do what is right and stop now the process and the potential pollution of water that supplies hundreds of thousands of houses in the greater Belfast area.
The motion should be calling for a strong and independent environmental protection agency rather than the mouse of an organisation that we have at the moment, which cannot even decide what day of the week it is. I wonder whether the two parties of government will tell us tonight whether they will introduce an independent environmental protection agency to Northern Ireland.
We need to remember that it is an exploratory drilling process that is going on in Woodburn and that there is no guarantee that oil will be found, but should it be found, will the Minister give us a commitment tonight that that oil will stay in the ground? That is where the oil, if it is discovered, should remain. In the 21st century, we do not need 20th-century technology. We do not need additional oil in Northern Ireland. We do not need that type of exploration in Northern Ireland. We need to get smart and look for the appropriate alternatives that will deliver 21st-century energy needs for the whole of Northern Ireland. I have no desire to see east Antrim turned into the DUP's idea of a Northern Ireland Dallas, no matter how much it would suit the MP for East Antrim.
The next Member who I will call is Ms Caoimhe Archibald. This is the first opportunity that she has had to speak in the Chamber. Therefore, I remind the House that it is the convention that there is no interruption during the speech; that is, unless she becomes controversial in her remarks.
Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. In supporting today's motion, I would like to touch upon three areas: first, addressing the flaws in the system; secondly, so-called economic benefits; and, finally, some wider environmental considerations.
My party colleague detailed how flaws in the planning and licensing systems have led to the undesirable consequences that we now face. It is necessary that we correct those flaws to prevent a repeat situation arising. Therefore, I reiterate the call for a change to planning policy to require minimal exploration, including exploration for hydrocarbons, to undergo full planning permission. It should no longer be granted under permitted development rights.
I also call for the following changes to licensing policies. First, the application process for petroleum licences should include the need to carry out mandatory independent environmental assessment. Ideally, this would take the form of a strategic environmental assessment, the like of which is used in Britain for petroleum licensing. This would overcome any gaps allowing exploration to happen in ASSIs or other special areas. Secondly, the petroleum licensing system in the North places emphasis on maximising the successful and expeditious exploration and exploitation of the North's oil and gas resources. All decisions are made in pursuit of that policy. This must change to become a policy that is more precautionary and recognises the problems of global warming, carbon emissions and fossil fuel depletion and therefore places primacy on environmental and economic sustainability.
I will move on to so-called economic benefits. Infrastrata makes certain claims about the economic benefits of its activities. It said that the Larne/Lough Neagh basin has reserves that could provide the North's energy for 25 years, offsetting the need for international oil or gas imports; that any oil or gas discovered will provide income through tax revenues and royalties; and that there would be potential for job creation and other economic benefits. At best, the claims are vague and non-committal. In general, it is common for the oil and gas industry to quote such economic benefits. However, in the case of Woodburn, and in any other case for that matter, it is unlikely these benefits would be realised. Rather, given that the industry is labour-intensive during the development phase and capital-intensive during the production phase, there is financial pressure to front-load drilling activity, resulting in boom/bust labour economics that none of us wants to see.
About 98% of potential jobs are associated with well development. They are short-term, low-skilled jobs, predominantly filled by a transient workforce experienced in the industry. Only 2% to 5% of jobs are associated with the production phase and would remain local and predictable. The transient workforce leads to low tax recovery. Also, the destruction and contamination of the natural landscape by heavy industry is irreversible, and any real or perceived environmental degradation will impact on tourism and reduce the demand for agricultural products and agrifoods from the island of Ireland. Any tax or revenue generated will go straight to Westminster and not stay in the North. I therefore contend that we should not be taken in by vague promises of cheaper home-produced fuel and lots of jobs and prosperity.
I would like to discuss some wider environmental considerations. Oil and gas exploration and extraction are taking us in the wrong strategic direction. Few people now dispute that global warming is a reality and is primarily caused by emission of greenhouse gases, including carbon dioxide. If we continue our current emission levels, the global temperature will increase with dire consequences, including rising sea levels and more-extreme weather.
The world community accepts that we must reduce our use of carbon, with the G7 committed to ending the use of fossil fuels, and the UN climate change summit announcing a landmark goal of net zero human emissions. The North also recently signed the Under 2 memorandum of understanding to limit global warming to an agreed threshold of below 2°Celsius relative to pre-industrial levels.
Our strategic planning policy statement states that we must continue to work towards a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by at least 35% on 1990 levels by 2025. Given all of this, I do not see any other way but to move towards a low-carbon society, where we reduce our greenhouse gas emissions and use of fossil fuels. That is the path that I and Sinn Féin want us to take. That path is not compatible with issuing licences for and encouraging investment in the oil and gas industry.
Instead, we should promote renewable energy technologies and create the legislative and political environment that encourages not only the proliferation of these technologies but community and public ownership of renewable energy generation.
I also rise in support of the motion. I cannot understand why any party or person would have a problem in ensuring that any application is not approved without assurances being secured against any potential negative impacts on our environment, let alone on human health.
I thank the Member for giving way. I completely agree with what he has said: of course we want those assurances. The point that we have made, however, is that those assurances have already been provided to us. You might disagree on the issue of whether we should be there, but you cannot deny that assurances have already been provided in those terms.
I would not deny that assurances have been given. I would maybe question the adequacy of some of the assurances that have been given, in the light of recent revelations.
This precautionary approach is essential to ensure confidence in our planning system, and, indeed, confidence in our Government here. I very much welcome the fact that the motion calls on the Executive rather than on any individual Minister or Department. These projects do tend to be cross-cutting in nature. Indeed, the situation at Woodburn pervades four of the legacy Departments, as outlined by my colleague Claire Hanna, DETI, naturally enough, has responsibility for licensing; DRD has clear responsibility for water supply and ensuring the safety of it; DARD did have control of or responsibility for the forest; and, of course, DOE. As a former Environment Minister, I will attempt to clarify some of the misinformation that is out there and some of the misinformation that is in here.
What we are seeing at Woodburn forest was never subject to a planning application. It is what constitutes permitted development. People are shocked, and rightly so, that something of this scale and nature was not subject to the scrutiny of a full application, and I do have a great deal of sympathy with them.
Indeed, before leaving office, I commenced a review of permitted development with a call for evidence in relation to exploratory drilling, with the intention that something like this cannot happen again without the wider consultation and deeper scrutiny of a full application. I look forward to the new Minister concluding this piece of work and working with him on it.
He clearly is green, all right.
Sadly, most of this has come too late, after responsibility for planning and jurisdiction for this matter had transferred to Mid and East Antrim Borough Council, and I was unable to stop it with the stroke of a pen or a push of a button. Much has been made of the fact that DOE did not complete an EIA on time and that had this been done the situation would and could have been avoided. While missed deadlines make good headlines, this is not the case. Permitted development rights can be withdrawn at any stage, but, as I have outlined again and again, that power and responsibility now lies with Mid and East Antrim Borough Council. Following a meeting with Friends of the Earth and some concerned residents, during which I learnt more about this application, I wrote to the council relaying and sharing these concerns.
Before the Member moves on from the initial decision not to object to permitted development rights, can he explain the comments of his colleague Claire Hanna that somehow the Department did not know that this was going to be an exploratory drill? Under what basis was it permitted? What did the Department know?
I thank the Member for his intervention. I have to say that he is one of very few Members who have had an interest in this issue for some time. At the meeting that I had with Friends of the Earth and concerned residents, I learnt new information about the nature of what was being proposed and about the chemicals that may be used to assist in the carrying out of this exploratory drilling. I became more concerned and followed up with a letter to the council expressing those concerns.
Mr Lyons tried to establish that we are not talking about fracking here, but there is always the fear that fracking will follow. As Claire Hanna outlined, I, as Minister, did demonstrate a clear and a very strong approach to fracking and a precautionary approach to exploration, which saw legal proceedings taken against me. The SDLP is completely opposed to fracking. We now have enshrined in planning policy a presumption against fracking in the absence of evidence that it is not harmful to the environment or human health.
We are here because one of the most invasive, destructive and dangerous processes has been allowed to take place without public consultation, without public scrutiny and, importantly, without public consent. There have been a lot of attempts to play the blame game here this evening. I think that we have to be honest. Every party that sat in the last Executive has to hold its hands up. I will maybe make an exception for the Alliance party, and I will say why in a minute.
There was an opportunity to scrutinise this decision. The failures of DOE have been pointed out, and it has been pointed out that DARD had responsibility and that DRD had responsibility. The whole Executive have responsibility, and that is what I was talking about today. It is the collective responsibility of being in government.
As Alex Attwood is often keen to say, it is not just being in government but being in power. Those parties in power had the power to act. Indeed, I sought to initiate a petition to have the decision recalled and reviewed by the Executive. That is why I make an exception for the Alliance Party, because it was the only other party prepared to sign.
I will give way to Mr Swann.
Sorry, Robin Swann also signed, but his party collectively did not come on board. Mr Beggs also signed. Two Ulster Unionists signed. The Ulster Unionist Party did not approach me to sign the petition.
Ultimately, that is what the Government is for: to make, challenge and review decisions and to make sure that they act in the best interests of the people. I appreciate that Mr Durkan has been honest in the process. The DOE was asleep at the wheel when permitted development rights were granted. It should not take Friends of the Earth to tell the DOE how to do its job or what it has missed, or the Minister for that matter. This should have been examined closely at the time. It should have been stopped at that point, but, as was pointed out, there were many opportunities to stop this.
When I sat on the Enterprise, Trade and Investment Committee, we were told quite openly by the Department of its open-door policy on petroleum licensing. The only condition to be met when seeking a licence — Mr Lyons used DETI scrutiny as an example of proper scrutiny — was evidence that the applicant could carry out what was required by the licence. DETI holds no regulation beyond that and certainly did not scrutinise the work that passed to the DOE.
Two things need to change —
I will not give way; the Member did not give way to me.
It is clear that permitted development rights are not appropriate for this type of development. We had to fight to get permitted development rights for solar panels on people's homes. We should not be drilling, particularly in a public forest in a water catchment area adjacent to a reservoir, without full environmental scrutiny and proper independent assurance that it is safe to do so.
I have heard a lot of talk about the supposedly watertight environment that InfraStrata is operating in. I was there on Friday, and I saw the pipe coming out of the site into the forest, presumably for water run-off. It is not exactly watertight. There were plenty of damp areas outside the site, and everybody knows that they are not because of the recent rain.
We need to change the open-door policy at the Department for the Economy. We need to get rid of permitted development rights for minerals exploration and to ensure maximum scrutiny when these types of applications come forward. We heard today about the Programme for Government and the new model of how we will do things. I welcomed elements of that, one of which was going out to the public and asking them. I have a petition signed by close to 65,000 people objecting to this. If there is to be a new model from this new Executive — a paradigm shift, as it was described earlier — we need our Executive to listen. We need to hear that the people do not want this. We need to stop the drill.
It is very important that the Assembly debates this issue, particularly given the massive environmental hazard that faces Woodburn reservoir. It is nothing short of a disgrace that the drill has been given the go-ahead just 300 metres from Woodburn reservoir. The potential risks to the water are obvious. Dangerous chemicals are used in the drilling, and the oil well itself sits in a reservoir catchment area. The reservoir supplies water to thousands of homes across Belfast, including my constituency of West Belfast.
It is absolute madness that this drill was given the go-ahead by politicians. Not only have we allowed InfraStrata to drill on unprotected land for fossil fuels that are ruining our environment but we are allowing them to run the risk of contaminating our water supply. It is simply unheard of for an oil well to be situated in the catchment area of a reservoir, and the fact that some politicians allowed this to go ahead shows how out of touch some of them really are.
We should be exploring ways to increase our renewable energy and setting an example to the rest of the world, not digging for oil beside a major reservoir and potentially contaminating our water supply. Indeed, the draft Programme for Government that we discussed earlier today refers to a commitment to reducing greenhouse emissions. Will the Executive intervene to halt the drilling at Woodburn? Shame on the politicians who let this drill go ahead, and shame on NI Water for putting the interest of corporate profits ahead of the safety and hygiene of our drinking water. I offer my support to the campaigners who have worked tirelessly over the last few weeks and months to highlight the issue. This drill must be stopped. We cannot risk our water, and we need to put the environment before the interest of big companies.
There will be nothing controversial in anything I say, as always.
I was struck by what I heard when listening to some contributions. Bells kept ringing in my head, if you know what I mean. When Members were talking about what is happening at Woodburn, the phrases used and the problems described made me think of Mobuoy Road, of Dalradian and of Prehen wood. If you want to know what all of those are, I can tell you that they are all examples of exactly the same thing as is taking place at Woodburn. Gerry Carroll and Steven Agnew were right: ideologically, economically and politically, what we are witnessing is a clash between the interests of business — of profit — on the one hand, and the interests of the people on the other. This is about rapacious capitalism despoiling our country and our countryside. That is what is happening here.
I mentioned Mobouy Road. Most of you have probably not heard of Mobouy Road, but, before the year is out, you will know all about it. At Mobouy Road, just outside Derry in the townland of Campsie, is an illegal dump that, at a conservative estimate — the previous Minister, Mark H, will, I think, confirm what I am saying — holds 1·2 million metric tons of waste that is illegally dumped. Members of the Assembly, you do not dump 1·2 million tons of waste out of sight, or, as we say around Derry, "unknownst". Loads of people knew that was going on — it is a wide area. The former Minister, Mark H Durkan, was good enough to accompany me and members of Friends of the Earth, the River Faughan Anglers, the Enagh Youth Forum and many others from around the area on a tour of what is there. I tell you this: you should go and see that dump. See the lagoons, as they are called, where water is gathered. See the bubbles coming up from below. These are not little bubbles like a fizz; these are huge bubbles —
Yes indeed. What I am saying — I think that it is necessary to say this because we are not dealing with the issue that arises if we concentrate on Woodburn only — is that this is not a one-off; it is part of a pattern. I cannot illustrate the pattern that the problem before us today is part of without saying that. I mentioned Mobouy and Prehen wood, where exactly the same thing happened. All that is left of Prehen wood is a little clump of pristine greenery along the banks of the Foyle, just outside Derry. It is being treated in exactly the same way as this area of Woodburn forest, which is another little forest. It is the last pristine piece of forest in what was once a forest running all the way from Derry to Strabane, and it is all cut down and destroyed.
We have this little place; it has red squirrels, it has buzzards, it has badgers. When I was a kid, it was known as the "Bluebell Wood", because you would collect an armful of bluebells. All the kids did that and took them over Craigavon Bridge home. The magical thing was that, when you came back the next week, they had returned; it was still carpeted with bluebells. That is under threat. That is something precious. You cannot put a price on that experience. People are entitled to beauty as well as bread, a house to live in and all the rest of it. We are destroying the beauty that has been bequeathed to us by nature.
There is a housing development that begins at the edge of Prehen Wood. The developers had the nerve to advertise it as "Prehen Wood development". It literally abuts the forest, and it has been given planning permission.
The connection between those things is this — I could mention Dalradian and the gold mining, but I will not because I do not have time. I could bring you the correspondence between the Planning Service and the Prehen Historical and Environmental Society, which was treated like dirt. It was quite clear that the Planning Service was laughing at them. When the Information Commissioner twice intervened and told the Planning Service, "Give these people the information they are asking for. They are entitled to it", there was no result. There was just mulish reluctance even to comply with their own regulations and with the law. Exactly the same has happened at Woodburn.
In each of these instances, commercial interests have trumped the interests of the environment. That is the real context within which we have to understand these things. Whatever we do, regardless of super-councils and the rest of it —
I thank the Members who tabled the motion and welcome the opportunity to speak on an important issue that has attracted significant concern and public interest. I have been very conscious of the concerns of residents in Antrim and further afield about the exploratory drilling at Woodburn Forest.
The ongoing development at Woodburn involves InfraStrata carrying out an exploratory borehole at Woodburn Forest to understand the subsurface geology and identify areas where there may be the potential for oil and gas deposits. Those drilling operations are not for the unconventional extraction of hydrocarbons.
At the outset, I assure Members that the work is restricted to exploration only and for a limited period. If commercial extraction were to take place in the future, it would be subject to the full planning application process, environmental assessments and assessment of all potential impacts, including the impacts on water supply, the environment, tourism and local communities.
Given the nature of this development and the issues raised, responsibility cuts across a number of Departments, including the Department for the Economy, the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs, and my own Department for Infrastructure. As Minister with responsibility for planning, I aim to continue to improve our planning system and to make sure that it is effective and efficient and that it operates in the wider public interest. I am committed to ensuring that it delivers for local communities and the region as a whole and that the planning system addresses the present as well as the long-term future needs of our society.
The planning system should, where possible, facilitate development, but it must not compromise on environmental standards. Sustainable development is at the heart of our planning system, and it is clear that there will be many instances where it is necessary to balance competing social, economic and environmental interests. Whilst the planning process may not always be able to reconcile competing interests, transparency, fairness and accountable decision-making are fundamental to ensuring that all interests are taken into account.
Minerals are an important natural resource, and their exploitation makes an essential contribution to the North's prosperity and well-being. The minerals extraction industry provides employment, often in rural areas, and produces a wide range of products for a variety of purposes in construction, agriculture and industry. I want to facilitate sustainable minerals development and balance that with the need to protect the environment and ensure compliance with all environmental regulations. As a result, I have decided to propose a change to the current legislation, policy and procedures in relation to mineral exploration.
I propose to remove permitted development rights for oil and gas exploration. In the future, under my proposals, exploration for oil and gas will require the submission of a planning application and will be subject to the full rigours of the planning process, including environmental impact assessments (EIA) and public consultation. I intend to consult on the legislative change shortly.
As I have indicated, given the nature of the Woodburn development, responsibility cuts across a number of Departments. The work is being carried out under a licence awarded by the former Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment, which is now the Department for the Economy. The initial licence was granted for five years in March 2011, and a further five years was approved earlier this year. The Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs also has a range of responsibilities, mainly through the Northern Ireland Environment Agency, which is responsible for water quality and environmental protection. Its water management unit granted consent under the water order to regulate any potential impacts on surface water and groundwater and, as a result, has implemented a surface water and groundwater monitoring plan. NIEA is also responsible, through the Drinking Water Inspectorate, for ensuring that NI Water's drinking water supply meets regulatory requirements.
My Department's primary role is in relation to the associated planning and water responsibilities.
Sorry; I just want to get through this.
First, in relation to planning, the work at Woodburn is being carried out within the existing legislative framework for assessing proposals for mineral exploration referred to as permitted development (PD). Existing permitted development rights are provided for mineral exploration by class A of part 16 to the schedule to the Planning (General Permitted Development) Order (Northern Ireland) 2015. That permits development on any land for a period not exceeding four months of the drilling of boreholes, the carrying out of seismic surveys or the making of other excavations for the purpose of mineral exploration.
A number of other conditions apply, including the storage of topsoil and restoration of the site. Under article 7 of the 2015 order, there is a requirement to notify the relevant district council of the proposed exploration, and the council may, within 21 days, issue a direction, if considered appropriate, that permitted development rights under article 3 shall not apply to the development, therefore requiring the submission of an application for planning permission. That remains an important safeguard. In addition, where an environmental impact assessment is applicable based on the details of the proposed development, PD rights cannot apply. It is important to emphasise that the temporary permitted development rights for minerals exploration do not allow the commercial extraction of minerals, including oil and gas. Such activity will be subject to the full planning application process as well as the relevant EIA, licensing and environmental permitting arrangements.
In April 2015, the vast majority of planning powers transferred to local government. Therefore, for over a year, the planning responsibilities at Woodburn have been a matter for Mid and East Antrim Borough Council. Up to that point, the former DOE had responsibility to consider permitted development notifications. In August 2013, InfraStrata submitted a permitted development notification to DOE detailing its intention to carry out an exploratory borehole in Woodburn forest. In addition to the provisions of the permitted development legislation, environmental impact assessment regulations require consideration. In the case of the InfraStrata proposals, an EIA determination was carried out, which concluded that the proposed development did not need to be accompanied by an environmental statement and, therefore, that planning permission would not be required. InfraStrata was advised of that in December 2013.
Following the transfer of planning powers in April 2015, the jurisdiction for the proposal moved to Mid and East Antrim Borough Council. It is understood that the council sought legal opinion on the project and was similarly of the opinion that the operations were indeed permitted development. Members should note that the council's procedures in respect of Woodburn are the subject of a legal challenge. In that regard, it is not appropriate for me to comment further on those matters.
If the company finds oil and gas deposits from its current exploratory work and wishes to extract them, it will need to apply for full planning permission to Mid and East Antrim Borough Council, or to my Department if the amount extracted exceeds 500 tons per day in the case of petroleum or 500,000 cubic metres per day in the case of gas. If the proposal involves the extraction of unconventional hydrocarbons, the application will be regionally significant development and will be considered by my Department.
A number of issues have also been raised about the impact of the exploratory borehole on the water supply. NI Water owns the land at Woodburn forest and has entered into an exploration agreement with InfraStrata. That agreement allows for the construction of an access road and the drilling of an exploration well.
If InfraStrata wishes to move ahead with oil production, the agreement allows for InfraStrata to exercise an option for a long-term lease. However, that option is only exercisable if InfraStrata receives full planning permission for the production well and any associated infrastructure.
As previously referred to, there are other regulatory safeguards in place relating to pollution control, groundwater regulation and water abstraction practices. NI Water has in place drinking water safety plans for all its water treatment works and supply areas. Those plans identify the potential risks in the catchment and, where needed, put in place any appropriate mitigation measures and controls to protect drinking water quality. NI Water also works closely with NIEA to minimise any potential impacts on drinking water quality and monitors risks as part of the drinking water safety plan process.
Before entering into the agreement with InfraStrata, NI Water gave careful consideration to the protection of the water supply in the catchment area of the site. The exploration project at Woodburn has been designed as a zero discharge site. This was achieved through the development of a fully bunded site, lined with a specialised geosynthetic clay liner that prevents liquids on site from soaking into the ground below. In addition, NI Water has taken further precautions to allay concerns that the public may have and has put in place increased monitoring of raw water at all reservoirs in the catchment area and at the associated water treatment works. NI Water has also ensured that the portion of the Woodburn north river that is within the catchment area of the drill site is not currently flowing into any of its reservoirs. While NI Water is of the opinion that the project is well designed and well managed, this is a belt-and-braces approach to provide further reassurance to the public. NI Water is satisfied that the proposed work will have no detrimental impact on the impounding reservoirs or the public water supply.
Clearly, the ongoing work at Woodburn has generated significant public concern. However, one of the key restrictions to the permitted development for mineral exploration requires that development does not exceed a period of four months. I am advised that this time restriction will expire in a few weeks, in early July. Permitted development legislation also includes conditions regarding reinstatement of the land, including that, within 28 days of the cessation of operations, the borehole shall be adequately sealed, any structures and waste material removed and the land restored.
Given the short remaining time frame for the Woodburn development to operate within the permitted development framework and the fact that jurisdiction for this matter is the responsibility of Mid and East Antrim Borough Council, there are very limited opportunities for me to act in this case. However, the case has highlighted to me the need for change. I am very conscious of the need to ensure that permitted development rights are fit for today's purpose. That is why, today, I have proposed changes to permitted development rights. I look forward to working with the Assembly and the industry in taking those proposals forward.
A LeasCheann Comhairle, I have asked my officials to take note of the Hansard report of the debate. If I have not addressed any points that have been raised by Members during the debate that fall within my remit, I will write to them in response.
Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Comhghairdeas faoi do cheapachán, a Cheann Comhairle. I congratulate you on becoming the Speaker.
Oliver McMullan opened the debate and really summed up the difficulties right from the start. He asked why the previous Environment Minister had not insisted on a full environmental impact assessment and why there was a failure to respond within the 21-day deadline. He called for what, I think, most people agree to and what the Minister dealt with in the end: the repeal of section 16 of the permitted planning rights for mineral exploration and for all future applications to be put through a full planning application.
Gordon Lyons got up and said that he was happy with the assurances provided because they came from DETI and other agencies that he mentioned. The question that I would put back to the Member is this: if there is no difficulty with that and you think that there are no risks, what is the problem with full planning permission being used in these terms? When you think about it, if you, as a single parent, are building an extension to your house — as a single person, I beg your pardon; maybe you are a single parent — as a single person, you will have to ask for full planning permission. A single person has to do that, yet it does not have to be done here despite the number of people who are personally affected, many of whom are above us here. It affects something like 1,800 streets, including over 500 in Belfast.
Roy Beggs took up the challenge from Gordon Lyons and said that there are risks, and he went through a long litany of those risks which, you will be glad to hear, I am not going to repeat. He articulated the risks, and I think that most MLAs agree with him.
Claire Hanna said that the original decision did not have all the facts and that, now that there was further information, she defended her colleague Mark H Durkan valiantly — I am not too sure whether she did it well — by blaming everyone else. However, she supported the motion.
Stewart Dickson said that this was a vital matter, but then he tried to launch a very vicious attack on the proposer of the motion, and I think that was quite despicable. He said that it was a simple matter of a "stroke of a pen". When we get on to the Minister, we will find out that it is not simply a matter of a stroke of a pen, but it can be done, and the Minister has outlined how it can be done.
Caoimhe Archibald said that the law should be corrected because it is flawed and that the licensing should be by a mandatory and, I think, very importantly, independent environmental impact assessment, so that there can be no question about the impact assessment. She also said that we were going in the wrong strategic direction, and I agree with her. What we should be doing is reducing our dependency on the use of fossil fuels, so that it is not just — as Eamonn McCann later mentioned — to do with Woodburn forest, but to do with the whole of the North and, indeed, if you think about it widely enough, the whole of humanity.
Mark H Durkan — who, it is important to say, also supports the motion — explained that it was not a matter of "the stroke of a pen", in his case or anybody else's, and that there were other Ministers involved and indeed councils. Some of that was disputed by Stephen Agnew, who got up afterwards. He said that it was a huge decision and that it was made without public consultation or public agreement. I think that it is very important to try to rectify that. He also said not to play politics with it but then blamed all the other parties; but then, all is fair in debate. He is also supporting the motion. He argued, as others have done, for a change in permitted development rights and that there must be full planning permission and maximum scrutiny.
Gerry Carroll spoke very briefly. He mentioned the fact that thousands of homes, including some in West Belfast, are affected. As I remember, it is over 1,800 streets. It was unheard of to have a drill site as close to a reservoir as we have in these circumstances. He supports the motion. I notice that he referred a number of times to "politicians"; I remind him that he has now entered that field himself. He will soon be referred to as a politician also. He also said, as Eamonn McCann did, that we should put the environment before big business. In that, I absolutely agree with him.
Eamonn McCann, with his usual passion, said that this is not new. He named only a small number of other examples, but there are clearly many. He said that this is capitalism versus the ordinary people and capitalism versus the environment. He also said that this is much more widespread and we will see that as we go on. He very eloquently said that you cannot put a price on nature or natural beauty. He demanded change.
Minister Hazzard — which, if he does not mind me saying so, is either a very appropriate or inappropriate name for the debate that we are involved in — went through a whole litany. He went through the history of this and what the difficulties are. He agreed with many of the Members who spoke about that.
Let me get back to the remark about the "stroke of a pen", which was made earlier. While it cannot be done by the stroke of a pen, it can be done, and the Minister made the point that he intends to do that. I am not even going to try to go through all the issues that he raised, but he put forward a plan. It will appear in Hansard; people and demonstrators can read it there. I am very confident that we will end up dealing with this matter under this Minister, even though, as he pointed out, there are other Departments and agencies involved in what must be dealt with. I commend the motion to the House.
Question put and agreed to. Resolved:
That this Assembly notes with concern the application by InfraStrata to drill at Woodburn forest, County Antrim; recognises the concerns of residents in County Antrim over drilling proposals at the forest; and calls on the Executive to ensure that such applications are not approved until assurances are secured against any negative potential impacts on water supply, the environment, tourism and local communities.
Adjourned at 8.20 pm.