Onshore Petroleum Licensing and Drilling

Private Members' Business – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 2:00 pm on 13th October 2020.

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Photo of Rachel Woods Rachel Woods Green 2:00 pm, 13th October 2020

I beg to move

That this Assembly recognises the moratoria, in various forms, on fracking in England, Scotland and Wales and the ban on fracking in the Republic of Ireland; notes that this motion builds on the 2015 strategic planning policy statement presumption against the exploitation of unconventional hydrocarbon extraction in Northern Ireland; acknowledges its responsibility to protect public health and the environment; and calls on the Executive to instigate an immediate moratorium on petroleum licensing for all exploration for, drilling for and extraction of hydrocarbons until legislation is brought forward that bans all exploration for, drilling for and extraction of hydrocarbons in Northern Ireland.

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP

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 minutes to wind. All other Members who are called to speak will have five minutes.

Photo of Rachel Woods Rachel Woods Green

From the outset, my sincere thanks must go to the groups and campaigners who have worked tirelessly on this and without whom we would not be standing here today. Non-exhaustively, they are Stop the Drill, Letterbreen and Mullaghdun Partnership (LAMP) Fermanagh, Fermanagh Fracking Awareness Network, Protect Our North Coast, Belcoo Frack Free, Friends of Woodburn Forest, Ballinlea Residents' Group, Love Leitrim, Safety Before LNG, Friends of the Earth and Farmers for Action. This is not the voice of one constituent; this is the voice of thousands, all saying that we must not start an onshore petroleum production industry here and that we need to legislate for the cessation of licensing for exploration and extraction.

I thank the Members who signed the motion as we attempted to achieve consensus across the Chamber and Sinn Féin for bringing it to be heard so soon after it was tabled. It is vital that it be debated now. It is disappointing that not every party could sign up to it, as that would have sent out a powerful message. It was not to be.

Hydrocarbon extraction in all its guises and names is a process by which fossil fuels are extracted from under the ground. Those are processes that we do not wish to have in Northern Ireland, nor do we wish to continue with any drilling of exploratory wells — we are talking not about one well but, potentially, thousands — under licence by the Executive to fundamentally destroy our landscape, our community and our environment.

In 2014, Tamboran, one of the companies that have a petroleum licence in for consideration in our Economy Department, stated that it was:

"undertaking work it is required to do under the terms of the licence from government and intends to meet its obligations in full."

It said that it believes that people:

"have a right to know if the gas is present."

Tamboran suggested potential benefits that that can have for investment, jobs and, bizarrely, energy security. That argument is full of holes. It was an argument also made by the previous Enterprise, Trade and Investment Minister, Arlene Foster when she said:

"I firmly believe that Northern Ireland needs to explore the potential that shale gas offers ... Shale gas provides a valuable opportunity for increasing the security of energy supply" — [Official Report (Hansard), Bound Volume 69, p238, cols 1 and 2].

Members, beware of chasing the carrot being dangled in front of your nose. This is nothing more than a false promise. Drilling for fossil fuels is not the way to achieve energy security; renewables are. It is a practice that will mean that we will never come close to meeting our Paris commitments or the need for divestment, let alone dealing with the climate emergency or, indeed, the elusive New Decade, New Approach (NDNA) commitments.

Licences of any kind granted to companies will not create the kind of jobs for the future that the people of NI need. As we have seen in the US, job creation from drilling claims are overstated and short term. We all know and have debated recently the importance of well-paid, long-term jobs for people in Northern Ireland. Drilling operations will not supply those. According to Amec, only 17% of the jobs at Cuadrilla's Lancashire site went to local people, and those were mainly non-specialist jobs and, therefore, in non-highly paid sectors.

If we want both energy security and sustainable jobs in NI, we need to focus on renewable energy. Jobs in the renewable sectors create over six times as many jobs as gas per unit of power generated or saved and around three times as many jobs for the same investment.

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

The Member speaks of ensuring that there is local benefit. In light of her lauding of renewable energy, does the Member have any comment on yesterday's Audit Office report, which demonstrated that the big financial winners were financial institutions subsidised by local funds from local consumers going into their coffers, courtesy of a renewable energy scheme?

Photo of Rachel Woods Rachel Woods Green

I thank the Member for his intervention. I do, but the renewable sector will work when it is administered properly.

If we want both energy security and jobs for Northern Ireland, we will need the same investment in renewable energy. Projecting to 2030, we need double the renewables capacity to meet a 70% renewable energy target. These would be sustainable jobs, with upskilling through our technical colleges, schools and universities. I have mentioned before the opportunity for retrofitting focusing on green energy and the avenues that that opens up as part of our just transition to a low-carbon economy.

We have all been told in the last few months to listen to the science on public health, and we have taken heed. As policymakers, legislators and elected reps, we should always strive for safe, happy and healthy communities. Hydrocarbon extraction is not the way to achieve that. Exploration and extraction are bad for public health. The drilling and fracturing processes that are used to extract use a range of chemicals that are harmful to health while mobilising toxic and radioactive substances that naturally occur in shale, rock and coal. A 2016 Yale study found that, of the 1,117 water pollutants and 143 air pollutants found in fracking fluids and waste water that had been assessed, 55 could be classed as known, probable or possible human carcinogens.

All Members received a briefing from Dr O'Dolan, and I hope that they read it. Airborne chemicals can leak from pipes, well heads and other infrastructure. We have to look at radon and its presence in Fermanagh. There is no evidence that fracking can operate without threatening public health directly.

Friends of the Earth has shown that the industry brings with it wider changes that can detrimentally impact on health. Around well pads, workers and nearby residents are exposed to continual noise from drilling, flaring and compressor stations. Exposure to noise pollution is linked to cardiovascular disease, cognitive impairment and sleep disturbance, not to mention the impact that it has on air quality and pollution. There are concerns about the mental health and well-being of people who live close to gas operations. A large part of the reason that fracking was banned in New York State was that there were significant gaps in the knowledge about potential public health impacts, and all potential impacts had not been adequately studied.

I do not have time to go into the impacts on tourism that the thousands of wells could have, but it should be obvious. Fermanagh alone boasts many nature reserves and areas of special scientific interest, not to mention the Marble Arch Caves. All that could be put at risk.

As the motion states, hydraulic fracturing has been legislated against in the Republic of Ireland since 2017. The Welsh Government have confirmed that they will not undertake any new licensing, and, in Scotland, the Government's position is that they will not support the development of unconventional oil and gas. In 2019, fracking was halted by the Government in England. Andrea Leadsom, a former Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Secretary, said that the Government had always been clear that shale gas exploration in the UK must be carried out safely. However, she concluded that future unacceptable impacts on the local community could not be ruled out, and a moratorium on fracking in England was introduced. It is time for Northern Ireland to follow suit with more than a presumption. The industry cannot be regulated safely. There is nothing unique about Northern Ireland that will exempt us from the fate of other fracked communities or communities that are suffering from the dirty effects of coal seam gas production. Northern Ireland is too small to support a gas industry with hundreds of well pads. We simply do not have the space for this type of dangerous industry without threatening people's lives and livelihoods.

The entire petroleum-licensing regime is flawed. The absence of meaningful consultation under the 1964 Petroleum Act, the failure to uphold the rights enshrined in the Aarhus convention, the absence of strategic environmental impact assessments and the absence of management plans for special areas of conservation (SACs) and other protected areas mean that there are no ecological baselines for the assessment of environmental impacts with the scientific certainty that is a legal requirement under the habitats directive. The Minister for the Economy claimed yesterday that our laws are seriously out of date.

To finish, in the words of a former envoy for climate change at the UK Foreign Office:

"You can be in favour of fixing the climate. Or you can be in favour of exploiting shale gas. But you can’t be in favour of both at the same time".

The Executive must legislate to that effect as a matter of urgency. I commend the motion.

Photo of Gary Middleton Gary Middleton DUP

I thank the Members who tabled the motion and welcome the opportunity to speak to it.

The Economy Committee received a briefing earlier this year from the Minister and the Department, outlining some of their priorities for the remainder of this mandate. The Minister was very clear at that time that clean energy would be one of the highest priorities on the Department's agenda. Of course, as an Economy Committee member, it is evident that that has been the case from a climate change and an economic perspective.

We should all be focusing on a clean green recovery. The Minister continues to champion that clean green recovery and clean energy. All Ministers and Departments have a responsibility to deliver on those aims. The New Decade, New Approach touched on that, and we must continue to focus on it.

I also note that work is continuing at pace to develop a new energy strategy for Northern Ireland following an earlier call for evidence. Five working groups have been established on the areas of consumers, energy efficiency, heat, power and transport. The groups will provide evidence, and the Department will carry out analysis of that evidence, and that will inform options for consideration by Ministers and the wider Executive. An expert panel on the future of energy has also been established to advise on the development and first implementation phase.

Through our work on the Economy Committee, we are aware that it is hoped that an options paper on the energy strategy will be published for consultation by the end of March 2021. In the meantime, I very much welcome some of the urgent policy decisions that have already been taken, particularly the Minister's recent announcement of a new target of at least 70% renewable electricity by 2030. It is also welcome that the Department is working on a range of projects that will showcase Northern Ireland's potential to develop cutting-edge hydrogen technology in Northern Ireland.

Northern Ireland has led the way in developing renewable electricity to meet the Executive's 40% renewables target, with 48% of our power now coming from indigenous renewable sources. That success has helped to support a low-carbon renewable energy economy made up of 3,500 businesses, 5,400 jobs and over a quarter of a million of exports, but that is a fraction of the size that it could be. There is a substantial economic recovery opportunity in decarbonising energy, growing the green economy across Northern Ireland and delivering significant export opportunities for home-made lower- and zero-carbon solutions.

Photo of Jemma Dolan Jemma Dolan Sinn Féin 2:15 pm, 13th October 2020

I will start my remarks by quoting two individuals who, going by their remarks over the years, care deeply about climate change and the future of our planet. The first is:

"Global warming, climate change, the devastating loss of biodiversity are the greatest threats that humanity has ever faced and one largely of our own creation."

The second is:

"Today’s ecological crisis, especially climate change, threatens the very future of the human family, and this is no exaggeration."

One quote is from Pope Francis; the other from Charles Windsor. If they can agree on the threat facing us from climate change, it should be easy for all of us to agree to this motion. Indeed, as evidenced by all who signed the motion, it is pretty clear that most of us recognise the threat posed to us all and what the way forward should be. Hydrocarbons, fossil fuels and oil and gas — whatever term you wish to use — are a clear and present threat to human health, to biodiversity, to humanity itself and to our planet's very future.

One of the simplest answers to that threat is to keep fossil fuels in the ground. As an Assembly and a society, we must consign oil and gas to the dustbin of history. We must look to renewable energy today, focus on renewable energy today and support renewable energy today; not push it into the next mandate or into the next year. The first step in fully supporting renewable energy is supporting this moratorium on issuing petroleum licences and then introducing legislation to ban all hydrocarbon exploration and extraction.

I will now speak briefly about my county of Fermanagh. For too long, the threat of fracking has hung over our community in Fermanagh. Multiple studies have linked fracking to not only air and water pollution, soil contamination and the creation of dangerous waste by-products but to several types of cancer, pre-term births, high-risk pregnancies, asthma, migraines, fatigue, nasal and sinus symptoms and several skin disorders. All the people on the ground, of all political persuasions and none, know that the negative impacts of fracking far outweigh the supposed benefits of the oil and gas industry rolling into our area. The farming sector, the larger agri-food sector and the tourism sector are the lifeblood of my county. The long-term damage that would be done to the health of my constituents, coupled with the devastation to the economy and the environment, can never be allowed to happen.

In 2014, without warning and with no community consultation, an oil and gas company rolled into Fermanagh and made illegal threats against Belcoo residents. That fracking company went on to take two judicial reviews against two separate Executive Ministers. Big oil and gas companies do not have the best interests of our constituents at heart and do not respect our democratic institutions. That is why I urge all parties to fully support the motion.

Photo of Patsy McGlone Patsy McGlone Social Democratic and Labour Party

As one of the co-signatories to the motion, I welcome, on behalf of the SDLP, the motion and the debate. It is an opportunity for the Assembly to make it clear that the environment can no longer be treated as a second-class consideration.

In the continued absence of a climate change Bill, it is up to the Assembly to highlight the steps that we must take to safeguard the environment for future generations. As the future is one with a decarbonised energy system, now is the time to demonstrate our commitment to that greener and cleaner future.

It is right that the motion calls for action from the Executive as a whole, because this is a cross-cutting issue that goes beyond the licensing remit of the Department for the Economy. Short-term economic interests cannot be allowed to trump the long-term concerns about the impact on public health or the environment. As we know, like some political parties, the companies that are seeking these licences frequently overpromise and under-deliver. It should not just be about the immediate environmental impact that is caused by extraction; the long-term impact on our climate from the continued use of hydrocarbons is now centre stage, which is where it should be. That impact must be a major part of our policy decisions.

As the motion notes, the 2015 strategic planning policy statement set out a policy of the:

"presumption against the exploitation of unconventional hydrocarbon extraction" because of its potential environmental impact. As welcome as that was, it is time for the Assembly to accept the reality of that environmental impact and to step beyond the presumption of 2015.

The evidence has been considered by Administrations across these islands, and they have reached the same conclusion, which is that the onshore extraction of hydrocarbons is not safe. It has a detrimental impact on the local environment and undermines efforts to reduce the use of hydrocarbons as a local and global energy source.

In July 2017, the Irish Government banned the:

"Exploration for and exploration of onshore petroleum by means of hydraulic fracturing".

The Scottish Government introduced:

"A moratorium on onshore unconventional oil and gas" extraction in 2015. Last year, they finalised a policy position, which was:

"of no support for unconventional oil and gas" extraction in Scotland. The Welsh Government confirmed in December 2018 that they would not support fracking for petroleum in Wales and, significantly, that they would not "undertake any new petroleum licensing."

In November 2019, the British Government finally accepted the scientific evidence that shale gas exploration could not be carried out safely, and they brought in an immediate moratorium on fracking in England. All those Administrations have recognised that the regulation of the activities of the companies that are involved in this practice is not sufficient, but we can and should do more.

The Assembly must step up and call on the Executive to put in place an immediate moratorium on all onshore petroleum licensing. Legislation must be brought forward to ban all exploration for the drilling for and extraction of hydrocarbons in Northern Ireland. Here in the North, just as they are across the world, our young people are demanding a climate reset. By accepting the motion, we will let our young people know that we are listening to them and that we are committed to a greener and cleaner future for them and for all. I support the motion.

Photo of Rosemary Barton Rosemary Barton UUP

I am participating in the debate as a person who lives, I believe, in one of the most beautiful constituencies of Northern Ireland, part of which, County Fermanagh, has been under threat for some time from the exploitation of gas by the fracking method. If a licence for that had been granted, it had the potential to destroy the health of the people and the beauty and economy of the area.

As the United Kingdom is committed through its Climate Change Act 2008 and the Paris agreement to limit its warming to below 2°C while aiming for 0°C by 2050, over the past few years we in Northern Ireland have made a concerted effort to support that Act by looking at alternative sources of energy and encouraging the use of sustainable materials with a shift away from, for example, our one-use plastics. Therefore, I see the motion as extremely important. We must continue our work towards protecting our environment and, even more importantly, protecting public health. In doing so, we must reject anything that would negate our efforts so far towards improving our environment and would destroy our air and water quality, which would have a profound effect on our health.

In response to a question for written answer from me, the Minister for the Economy confirmed that there are no active petroleum licences in Northern Ireland for exploitation, drilling and extraction. It gives no guarantees about the fact that, in the near future, there may be applications for such a licence or even applications already waiting to be processed. If a licence is granted, it entitles the holder to undertake exploitation, drilling and extraction processes, subject to the regulatory permissions, for a period of not one year but up to 30 years. Yes, there is an expectation that licence holders should review the potential of resources when evaluating the overall prospect of their licence. Who is going to check that?

The argument about the economy suffering if a moratorium was granted on petroleum licences does not hold. In Fermanagh, which has some of the most beautiful areas of karst scenery, it would be totally destroyed. At present, our tourism industry flourishes in parallel with our agricultural industry and the limited manufacturing companies in the area. All of those combine to retain our natural countryside in the county and collectively contribute to the county's economy. The damage to health that extraction can cause has been well documented over the years, from different lung problems because of the unclean air to a number of medical problems associated with drinking contaminated water. At the moment, we all know the importance of good health and sacrifices that we make to stay healthy and protect ourselves.

I ask that further consideration and thought be given to the consequences of granting permission for petroleum licences. The health of those living near to prospective drilling sites for petroleum exploration and production cannot and must not be sacrificed for the sake of our economy. We support the motion.

Photo of John Blair John Blair Alliance

I welcome Minister Mallon's recent plans to extend the planning permission requirement to cover exploration for oil and gas, including fracking. It is a welcome announcement and, in my opinion, a critical step towards the cessation of petroleum exploration and the detrimental associated environmental impacts that it causes. Like the proposer of the motion, I thank the campaigners who have kept us informed and involved.

Speaking on behalf of Alliance, I say that we are at a crucial juncture. The decisions that we make today and the actions that we take will determine whether we succeed or fail at preventing the worst impacts of climate change and the further devastation brought by that. Scientific assessments of the carbon contained in existing fossil fuel reserves suggest that full exploitation of those resources is incompatible with the agreed target of no more than 2°C of global warming. The unrestricted extraction of those reserves and continuing to issue petroleum licences in Northern Ireland, or elsewhere, undermines attempts to limit greenhouse gas emissions and would be counter to these imperatives. By ceasing to issue petroleum licences in Northern Ireland, we can contribute towards our climate change obligations and prevent any further damage or risks associated with drilling exploration wells, unconventional hydrocarbon exploration and, of course, fracking.

The big picture is climate change, but fracking is harmful not only to our climate. The environmental concerns also risk detrimental health issues. There is growing evidence of a variety of health problems associated with air pollution and water pollution caused by fracking. Multiple public health risks have emerged in research associated with petroleum exploration and production, including increases in certain cancers, asthmatic conditions, neurological problems and low birth weight amongst those living in communities that neighbour drill sites. Those issues, at the very least, deserve further exploration, examination and, of course, a moratorium.

The correlation is simply too strong to ignore, especially when we have cleaner and renewable energy options easily available to us.

For our safety and that of future generations, we should not allow the new Administration in the Assembly to sell off public lands or allow drilling on our island, and we should ban fracking completely. We urgently need to legislate for the cessation of petroleum licensing for exploration and extraction. Until that can happen, it is imperative that a moratorium on fracking be imposed. Today, we can join counterparts in the UK and Ireland in calling for a date for a moratorium on the exploration and development of new reserves. We can promote the widespread roll-out of renewable energy, decrease the consumption of fossil fuels and mitigate the devastating impacts of climate change. If we mean the recently publicly expressed sentiment and intent to build back better and have a green recovery, we cannot in any convincing or sincere way also realistically talk about further fossil fuel exploration. Green recovery requires 21st-century solutions to modern-day needs. I support the motion and urge others to do so.

Photo of Sean Lynch Sean Lynch Sinn Féin 2:30 pm, 13th October 2020

As the third Fermanagh Member to speak, I welcome the debate and support the motion. Never before have the issues of climate change and fossil fuels been so crucial. In a recent documentary that many Members may have seen, David Attenborough said:

"The time for action is now. Unless we act, we may reach the point of no recovery."

We have all seen the huge floods and fires across the globe in recent times. Last week, it was confirmed that September gone was the was the warmest on record recently: 0·05°C hotter than last September. Scientists say that that is a clear indication of temperatures being driven by emissions from human activity.

The motion mentions the ban on fracking in the South of Ireland. That was passed into law two years ago and was welcomed by communities across the country where fracking had been mooted, including in counties surrounding my native Fermanagh such as Cavan, Leitrim and Donegal. As we know, fracking is a controversial method of extracting shale gas in which chemicals, water and sand are released at high pressure into the rock to break it up and release the gas. The practice has been linked to various environmentally damaging outcomes, including air and water pollution, soil contamination and even earthquakes. A five-year study published by Ireland's Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 2017 found that fracking had the potential to damage the environment and human health.

Sinn Féin's aim is to phase out fossil fuels and create a greener and more self-sufficient island when it comes to energy. A ban on fracking in the South while continuing a policy in the North would not make any sense, particularly in Fermanagh, where fracking has been a huge issue in the past number of years, as a number of Members mentioned. The region has the same rock formation and water sources as reach down through Cavan and Leitrim. That water flows as far as the Shannon estuary. The region is also one of immense natural beauty. It forms part of a geopark recognised by UNESCO that includes Cavan Burren park, the River Shannon pot, the world-famous Marble Arch caves and now the popular Cuilcagh walk, better known to people today as the "Stairway to heaven". If fracking were to be allowed there, as well as the dangers previously outlined, it would impact massively on agriculture and tourism in the area, as others have said. Never has there been a greater need to decrease carbon emissions dramatically in order to prevent climate breakdown and further intensification of the climate crisis that we are experiencing. If that means large quantities of fossil fuels remaining in the ground, so be it.

Given the Assembly's recent declaration of a climate change emergency, I have initiated a private Member's Bill (PMB) to ban fracking. The Bill's purpose and policy objective is to halt the issuing of any further licences from the Minister for the Economy for the exploration, extraction and production of fuels extracted by hydraulic fracturing. The PMB will go out to consultation in the near future, and I hope to secure as much support as possible across the Chamber. I look forward to engaging with the stakeholders who have been campaigning on the issue for years.

The Department for the Economy now issues the licences. As of February 2020, two applications are being considered, covering the areas around the Lough Neagh basin and almost the entire county of Fermanagh. In a recent response to my colleague Caoimhe Archibald, Minister Dodds rejected calls for a moratorium on petroleum licences because there was no legislative scope for it. There is therefore a need for legislation in that regard. The Minister has advocated another review and further research into the operations and the impact of the licences. The climate science is clear, as is international scientific opinion on the impact of further exploration and extraction of fossil fuels. Other countries have already acted to ban fracking. We are in not only a climate crisis but a climate countdown, and we have little time to lose.

Photo of Sinead McLaughlin Sinead McLaughlin Social Democratic and Labour Party

First, I pay tribute to the multitude of environmental campaigners whose drive and determination have pushed the issue to the fore. I recently met the Stop the Drill campaigners, and I share their concerns that fracking is a danger to the climate, to the environment and to public health. I am proud of the SDLP's strong record on the issue. As Environment Minister, my party colleague Mark H Durkan introduced a moratorium on fracking until scientific evidence demonstrates that it can be can be carried out safely without risk to the environment or to public health. No such evidence exists; instead, we have a wealth of evidence that serves as a stark warning of the dangers that fracking poses. In 2011, we saw how fracking in Blackpool caused two separate earthquakes. Further from home, we have observed confirmed cases of drinking water contamination from fracking in Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia and Texas. Research has also linked air pollution from fracking to a long list of health issues, ranging from respiratory illness and central nervous system damage to birth defects, cancer and premature death. Not only that, but one of the main pollutants released in the fracking process is methane, a major greenhouse gas. Over 100 years, methane has heat-trapping power about 30 times greater than CO2. No wonder that methane has been dubbed "CO2 on steroids".

The evidence is clear. The damage caused to our environment and our communities would be irreversible. I am pleased that Infrastructure Minister Nichola Mallon's new plans to remove permitted development rights for oil and gas will place more power into the hands of communities, ensuring that they have the right to participate in any planning decisions regarding future petroleum exploration. The Assembly can and must go further by introducing legislation that bans all exploration for, drilling for and extraction of hydrocarbons in Northern Ireland.

Now is the time to accelerate the growth of our renewable sector and build a more affordable, clean and secure energy that creates a legacy of well-paid jobs. The North is well placed to harness the potential of hydro, wave and tidal energy resources. Instead, the Department for the Economy has decided to waste £75,000 of taxpayers' money on a research project on the potential economic, societal and environmental impacts of onshore petroleum exploration and production of unconventional oil and gas. Let us be fair: the Department has a proven track record of wasting millions of pounds of taxpayers' money in the energy sector. Given the environmental challenges that we face, it is surely crystal clear by now that we must move away from our dependence on fossil fuels. We do not need to spend thousands of pounds to find that out. I support the motion.

Photo of Stewart Dickson Stewart Dickson Alliance

I also support the motion and commend Ms Woods and my Alliance colleagues for bringing it to the Chamber today.

A few years ago, the people of Carrickfergus in my East Antrim constituency faced the prospect of oil exploration at Woodburn Forest in the hills above the town. Local opposition was particularly strong, but exploration went ahead. It was, perhaps, one of the biggest issues in the Carrickfergus area, supported by many environmental activists. The key concern was how close the site was to the Woodburn reservoirs and the potential for the contamination of drinking water for the greater Belfast area. Unfortunately, at the moment, we have a similar threat to our environment in east Antrim with an application to store gas under Larne lough. A multitude of assurances were given at the time, but, as we have seen in other countries where companies provide those assurances, the reality is very different. Ultimately, it is money, not the local community, that drives the business. Fortunately for the town and for Northern Ireland, no oil or gas was discovered, and the prospectors left, but what happened to the thousands of trees that were planted as a planning requirement to restore the area? They subsequently died, leaving the area barren. Furthermore, if oil had been found, I have no doubt that a full application for drilling would have been made and would have put the local environment in peril. It is for that reason and many others that I welcome the Infrastructure Minister's announcement that exploration will now be subject to planning permission, putting a check at the very start of the process. The public need to have confidence that a strict process is in place.

Some people seem to be under the impression that oil exploration would flood Northern Ireland with investments and wealth, just like the TV show 'Dallas'. I am sure that our Minister for the Economy would not wish to be portrayed as a J R Ewing or a Sue Ellen. That is a very dated perception. Fossil fuels have had their day, and they are the fuels of the past. The Economy Minister is working on an energy strategy. She has indicated that she would expect at least 70% of our electricity to be renewably generated.

What I believe to have precipitated this debate is a move by the Economy Minister to commission research into the economic, societal and environmental impacts of onshore petroleum exploration and production in Northern Ireland. Many in the Chamber will have been contacted by concerned and distressed residents in County Fermanagh. Many believe that this is a precursor to proceeding with fracking in the area by producing research that promotes exploration and may make it more difficult to turn down future applications. The Minister, regardless of her research, needs to stop this. She needs to look properly at what the implications are and could be and at how she can ensure that we do not see fracking or petroleum exploration in County Fermanagh.

There is a ban or moratorium in all other parts of the British Isles. England tried to promote the practice, but shale gas exploration led to earthquakes, amongst other concerns. It is important that we draw this to a close now, banning the practice altogether. The risks are too high for any potential benefits, not least as we move towards a post-fossil-fuel era. The Minister informed us yesterday — I take some hope from this — that the system for licensing is old and that a greener, cleaner, more sustainable economy is what she wants for Northern Ireland. It is what, I believe, we all want for Northern Ireland. The Minister is right: that is the way forward, so let us leave fossil fuels in the ground. The future will be bright only if it is green and clean. Our energy sources will likely need to be different and involve clean generation, and I would like to hear more about other initiatives that the Department is taking with regard to them, specifically hydrogen, as I believe that a bid was put to the Executive in respect of that.

I hope that the Minister can outline how we can ban fracking and petroleum exploration, put it behind us for ever and market Northern Ireland as a green energy leader for a better, cleaner future and to assist with our economic recovery.

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP

Question Time to the Executive Office is due to start at 2.45 pm, so I ask Members to take their ease. After Question Time, this debate will resume, when the next Member to speak will be Mr Steve Aiken.

The debate stood suspended.

(Mr Speaker in the Chair)