Onshore Petroleum Licensing and Drilling

Private Members' Business – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 3:30 pm on 13th October 2020.

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Debate resumed on motion:

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. — [Miss Woods.]

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP

Members will know the time that has been allocated for the debate. There are two more Members left to speak, and there are nine minutes left. If the first Member whom I call is generous, the final Member on the list, Mr Carroll, will also be able to speak. It is up to Dr Aiken whether or not he wishes to be generous.

Photo of Steve Aiken Steve Aiken UUP

Thank you very much indeed, Mr Principal Deputy Speaker. Of course I shall be generous. I shall try to keep my remarks to about three minutes to allow Gerry to speak. We should do that in the spirit of cooperation.

I support the motion for a very clear reason: in Northern Ireland, we do not wish to have drilling for hydrocarbons such as gas, gas fracking or petroleum. The reason for that is quite simple: we are moving away from a hydrocarbon era and into an era of renewables, smart grids and the appropriate use of new technologies to provide energy for Northern Ireland.

Bearing in mind that that is the case and that I wish to keep my remarks short, I will move on to the specific questions about what we need, rather than proposals for drilling for oil and gas in Northern Ireland. It is about what we need to do with a new energy strategy. The important point about that strategy is with some of the things to which we need to look. We need to install new smart grids. We need to conduct studies into the feasibility of offshore wind and how it can mix into the wider all-island and pan-European energy markets.

I welcome the Minister's commitment to hydrogen. For our farmers, in particular, who are looking to the future, it is important that we look at the use of biogas and hydrogen. We should consider whether our Utility Regulator is fit for purpose to allow us to inject energy from hydrogen and biogas directly into the grid.

We need to investigate the monopoly of the ESB and EirGrid or, as they are better known in Northern Ireland, NIE and the System Operator for Northern Ireland (SONI), and the implications for the Northern Ireland energy market, particularly with how it affects and distorts prices and pricing, and the impact on people who are trying to put renewables onto the grid. The Minister will be well aware from her predecessor, who introduced the monopoly system, that that needs to be fundamentally reviewed.

We need to consider whether we have a system that is fit for purpose and is capable of dealing with future energy policy in Northern Ireland. The key thing that we have to consider is whether Northern Ireland is too small to have its own regulation system. Among the keys to future renewable energy issues will be contracts for difference and the important decision of whether we go for a United Kingdom-wide system, using Ofgem, or look to another system. We should not try to reinvent the wheel. We seem to get it badly wrong every time we do so, whether it is for wind, RHI boilers or trying to build the incineration-to-power plants that are not needed in my constituency.

I am about to sit down to give more time to Gerry Carroll. I would like the Minister to address those points. We support the motion.

Photo of Gerry Carroll Gerry Carroll People Before Profit Alliance

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker, thank you for pointing out the time shortage. I also thank Dr Aiken for being generous with his time. I signed the motion, so, had I not been called to speak, it would have been absurd and raised all sorts of questions about how the House operates. I thank you, Mr Principal Deputy Speaker, and Dr Aiken for mentioning that. Ms Sugden is also looking to get in but has not been called, so there are issues there as well.

Several months ago, the House declared a climate emergency, which was an important step on the path to, hopefully, tackling the existential climate and biodiversity issues that threaten life itself on the planet. Of course, as with many things, just because something has been debated and voted for does not automatically make it a reality. Repeatedly, in the House, we hear from Members and Ministers that we should not be working in silos and that there should be a joined-up approach to tackling a range of issues. However, I firmly believe that either the Department did not get the memo; or it did and wants to ignore it. On the one hand, we have an overwhelming desire for action in our communities to tackle the climate issues, an approach that the House endorsed; on the other hand, the Minister or Department, or both, has gone off in the opposite direction and is implementing or allowing to exist policies that could damage the environment. Not only is that a contradiction of what the House said and how it voted, but it represents a slap in the face for all those who walked out of their school or workplace as part of the climate strikes and for all the community campaigners, who, as mentioned by others, have been fighting to protect the environment. It is very worrying therefore that the Department could be, if it is not already, embarking on a path that could lead to the validation of further licence applications.

It appears that the Department has validated an application from a company that has worrying financial irregularities. As I understand it, an application from a $2 company in the Isle of Man for a licence to explore in Fermanagh was validated. Even after the validation, the Isle of Man authorities refused to reveal who that company's beneficial owners were. Still, a licence to explore was granted. The Department tried to check with the Isle of Man authorities who the beneficial owners were only after the application had been validated, thereby breaking the 1987 and 2010 regulations. That is very concerning. It is a bit like a bank giving a mortgage to somebody without looking at their bank statements. That would not happen, so why should it happen on a much bigger and more dangerous scale? Why should corporations be allowed to act with such impunity and with so little scrutiny of their decisions and transactions?

If this licence proceeds, there could be another expensive inquiry into a flawed and potentially dangerous system that is detrimental to the environment. Why not stop it happening now? We were told that lessons were learned from the renewable heat incentive (RHI) scheme. To me, that does not seem to be the case: this smacks of a transition from cash for ash to cash for gas. Those issues need to be addressed. As when RHI whistle-blowers were dismissed and their concerns brushed under the carpet, there are massive questions for the Minister in this case. She may not have this information, but it is important that she responds today or as quickly as possible. These concerns are of huge public interest.

The problems do not seem to end there. Affecting my constituency and others, there is an application — PLA1/16 — for potential drilling and extraction in an area that extends from Lough Neagh right across to west Belfast and covers multiple council areas in the North.

It is worth saying that thousands of responses, or objections, were submitted to this application by members of my community and people from other Members' communities and beyond, yet we have not heard a decision from the Department. It is worth emphasising to the Minister that, whilst we have been waiting over a year for a response to it, nothing less than binning this application would be agreeable to my constituents and, I am sure, to many others.

It is very concerning. In general terms, there is a mistaken view that granting licences of various kinds may bring jobs or some economic benefit to beleaguered communities. Licences may be granted to multinational corporations and mass polluters. We need to have a wide-ranging and imaginative campaign to create green jobs as part of a just transition, and that is even more essential given that hundreds of thousands of people will lose their jobs because of COVID and the recession. Rather than let those —

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP

I am afraid that the Member's time is up.

Photo of Gerry Carroll Gerry Carroll People Before Profit Alliance

I will bring my comments to a close. I support the motion.

Photo of Diane Dodds Diane Dodds DUP

I welcome the opportunity to respond to the motion, and I value the interest that has been shown by Members in this very important and current issue.

I will provide some context on the current arrangements for petroleum licensing in Northern Ireland. Onshore exploration for petroleum in Northern Ireland has been taking place on a small scale since the Petroleum (Production) Act (Northern Ireland) was introduced in 1964. Over that time, although small amounts of oil and gas have been found, no commercial extraction has taken place. There are currently no petroleum licences in Northern Ireland. The last one, held by Terrain Energy, was relinquished on 28 April 2020. The House will, of course, be aware that my Department is considering two petroleum licensing applications, and I will talk about those in more detail later.

In the past, having the economic security of an indigenous oil or gas supply would have been welcome. My Department and its predecessors would have been strong advocates for the exploration for and exploitation of fossil fuels. However, in recent years, there has been a step change. Genuine and proven concerns about carbon emissions, global warming and the environmental impacts of petroleum extraction and use are setting a new policy context. Indeed, many in the Chamber today have recognised that evolving policy context, with references to the changes in policy in the other nations of the United Kingdom. In recognition of that clear change not only in policy objectives but in public opinion and even before the New Decade, New Approach commitment to tackle climate change head-on, a review of our approach to petroleum exploration and exploitation was needed. On that basis, my Department commenced a wide-ranging review in 2019.

I wish, for a moment or two, to return to the two petroleum licence applications that are being considered. One applicant proposes exploring for oil and gas in the porous sandstones in the area to the south-east of Lough Neagh using conventional drilling techniques. The other applicant proposes exploring for gas in County Fermanagh and initially proposed the use of high-volume hydraulic fracturing, which is also known as fracking. Both applications were subject to a public consultation process, which closed in July 2019. My Department received in excess of 5,700 responses, which were published online at the end of October last year. Following its own review of the responses received, one of the applicant companies, Tamboran Resources (UK) Ltd, made a request to the Department to revise its application. The proposed revision will remove the need for fracking, very much as a direct result of the strength of opposition to this controversial technique, which was highlighted by the respondents to the consultation process.

In summary, across Northern Ireland at this time, we have no petroleum exploration and development licences in place, and neither of the two applications that are being considered propose the application of high-volume hydraulic fracturing.

The extraordinary and unprecedented number of responses to the public consultation on petroleum licensing applications is a clear sign of the change in public attitudes and demonstrates the concerns that exist around petroleum exploration. I recognise the very legitimate unease that has been raised through the consultation process and, indeed, by Members of the House directly to me. My Department is considering the issues and will do so in conjunction with the relevant experts across government and other regulatory bodies, as is required. However, the number and range of concerns that were raised in the responses to the consultation has simply underlined the lack of knowledge and evidence that we have around the issues. It has also brought into sharp focus the urgent need to review and update our petroleum licensing policy and regime to meet the needs of Northern Ireland going forward. I have previously made it quite clear that a review of the licensing policy in this area must be completed before any decision on the two current applications can be taken.

A Member:

Will the Minister give way?

Photo of Diane Dodds Diane Dodds DUP


I have also given a commitment that, given the cross-cutting and controversial nature of petroleum exploration and development, it will be for the Executive to make the final decision on what our future petroleum licensing policy will be.

As I indicated, my Department has commenced a wide-ranging review of our petroleum licensing regime. The review is being undertaken in accordance with the Executive's policy development toolkit, with the aim of establishing a robust evidence base from which to develop policy options for any future petroleum licensing regime. Work began in February 2019 with a high-level review of the existing regime to assess its effectiveness and the impact on sustainability, particularly in light of the UK's net-zero carbon commitments. That included engagements with counterparts in Scotland and Wales. The outputs of the review only further highlighted the deficiency of the existing information on the Northern Ireland-specific impacts of petroleum licensing.

When taken in conjunction with the number and range of issues that were raised in the consultation on the two applications, the review also identified a need for independent research into the economic, societal and environmental impacts of onshore petroleum exploration and development in Northern Ireland. This research is designed to help to inform the evidence on which we can base our future petroleum licensing policy. My Department is working through the final stages of the procurement exercise and intends to award the contract for this project in the coming days.

There has been much speculation this afternoon in the House, and many have referred to the policy developments in England, Scotland and Wales. One thing that England, Scotland and Wales have in common in this area of policy development is that they all carried out that independent research before coming to that policy decision, just as Northern Ireland will and should do. Once the independent research is completed, the review will move into a period of intensive stakeholder engagement, with a view to developing evidence-based petroleum licensing policy proposals.

Any new policy proposal will, as and when necessary, be subject to a full environmental and regulatory impact assessment, including a strategic environmental assessment. After any proposals for a future policy have been fully developed and assessed, it will then be taken forward to a public consultation. Ultimately, the final decision on the future petroleum licensing policy for Northern Ireland will then be taken to the Executive, prior to the draft legislation coming before this House. That is my commitment to this House.

Members will also be aware that my Department is developing a new energy strategy, with consumers, businesses and domestic users as central to all of the themes of work. Many have referred to it, and I look forward to engaging with you on it. Indeed, I noted the issues that you specifically addressed, Mr Aiken, and I will write to you on those very specific issues.

The new strategy will set out a road map to 2050 to decarbonise heat, power and transport. It will substantially improve our energy efficiency and benefit energy consumers. The review of petroleum licensing policy will therefore need to take account of the policy direction in the energy strategy. I thank Mr Dickson for reminding the House that I have said very clearly that Northern Ireland needs not just economic recovery but a green economic recovery and sustainable environmental policies that can be part of the new economy in Northern Ireland's second century.

I understand that the motion has wide support across the Chamber and that petroleum development is a very emotive subject. As Minister, I want to ensure that any decision that I recommend to the Executive on future policy is based on robust evidence and presents the best way forward for Northern Ireland as a whole.

At this stage, I cannot support the motion as presented. I have taken legal advice on the matter and have been advised that the course of action proposed in the motion would, most likely, be subject to challenge. Accordingly, my view is that the appropriate way forward is to undertake the Northern Ireland-specific research that my Department is in the process of procuring. As Minister with responsibility for this area, I am asking for the time and space to allow officials to develop evidence-based policy proposals that will be subject to a rigorous policy development process. I will then ask the Executive to take a fully informed decision.

To conclude, I thank Members for their contributions to today's debate. I assure all in the House that I and my Department remain committed to working with all key stakeholders to ensure that we continue to deliver key Programme for Government outcomes and climate change commitments in Northern Ireland. I have set out my Department's direction of travel, which will result in the Assembly and the Executive being able to deliver an evidence-based petroleum licensing policy for Northern Ireland, for the benefit of all our citizens.

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP

I call Mr Philip McGuigan to make a winding-up speech. You have 10 minutes.

Photo of Philip McGuigan Philip McGuigan Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. I begin by thanking those groups that have campaigned tirelessly on this issue and will continue, no doubt, to make sure that the issue is kept high on the agenda until it is successfully resolved. As a co-signatory to the motion, I thank all other Members who signed it, in particular Rachel Woods, who opened the debate.

If the subject matter of the debate — hydraulic fracturing, petroleum licensing and hydrocarbon extraction — can perhaps be a little complicated, the politics of the subject is conversely simple. If there was ever a time when extracting our energy sources from underground was appropriate, that time has long since passed. The Assembly, in one of the first debates upon its resumption after the New Decade, New Approach agreement, demonstrated that it wanted to take a new approach to the environment by declaring a climate emergency. It followed that up with a debate that signalled that the majority of MLAs want to see a climate Act legislated for in the North to help protect our environment. It is clear from those debates and, indeed, from the one today that the majority of political parties and MLAs want to see the Chamber be the source of progressive environmental legislation that not only looks to the future but helps protect the future.

In that scenario, we need to keep Ireland's fossil fuels in the ground and spend our time and energy researching, developing and promoting clean, renewable forms of energy. There is no wisdom in investing in fossil fuels, either from the perspective of a climate commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions or from an economic perspective. Minister, the Department for the Economy needs to stop wasting time on its review of petroleum licensing and, as the motion asks, immediately issue a moratorium on licensing until legislation can be brought forward that totally bans the practice of extraction. As has been pointed out, there are currently no petroleum licences in place in the North, so the time could not be better to cease the practice.

The motion is about more than just fracking. It is important, however, as others have done, to point out its dangers. Whether it is methane pollution and its impact on climate change, the pollution of air and water, workers and communities being exposed to toxic chemicals or soil contamination — all of which can lead to an increase in certain types of cancer, asthma, migraine and skin disorders and add risk to pregnancies — the risks of fracking are endless.

Photo of Colm Gildernew Colm Gildernew Sinn Féin

Does the Member agree with me that the recurring issue of fracking and these processes hang like a sword of Damocles over communities in relation to health and safety and well-being, and that legislation is what is needed to deal with this issue?

Photo of Philip McGuigan Philip McGuigan Sinn Féin

I thank the Member for the intervention, and I agree. I suspect that the communities of Fermanagh and along the north coast will have listened to the Minister and been disappointed that she has not added certainty to the subject today, when given the chance. It is not difficult to see why local communities, whether they be in Fermanagh, the north coast, in my own constituency at Ballinlea or close to Woodburn forest in County Antrim, have come together to resist the potential harm to their communities, their environment and their locality.

This motion is also about the risks associated with drilling exploratory wells, even when hydraulic fracturing is not initially being undertaken. Those risks expand and become cumulative if exploration becomes commercial and there is extraction using multiple wells. It is the licensing that opens the gates to all the harmful potential and risks. We need to close the door now so that companies do not come along and use other technologies, such as acidisation, or use coal seam gas production. We currently have a system that allows for development by stealth. The only way to ensure that it does not happen and that communities can breathe a sigh of relief is, as my party colleague has pointed out, by banning the practice and banning the issuing of licences.

It is time that we moved away from fossil fuel dependency. Countries all over the world are taking action on banning fracking. On these islands, in the South, Scotland, England and Wales, there is either a ban or a moratorium. As we move beyond the current pandemic to building a future, it must be based on certainty, sustainability and green growth. For that certainty, we need to rule out past practices that are no longer beneficial to us. That means implementing the tenets of this motion.

In the debate I think there were 11 speakers, or 12 or 13 if you include me and the Minister, and all spoke against the practices of fracking. Rachel Woods, who proposed the motion, talked about the importance of moving towards renewable energy from an environmental as well as an economic argument and clearly pointed out the dangers and the impact of fracking.

Gary Middleton spoke about all the strategies and policies in various Departments on moving forward with regard to energy and said that there is a bit of a dichotomy where some Departments are moving forward with a progressive approach but, hanging over our heads, we still have this issue that needs dealt with.

Jemma Dolan, my party colleague and the first of the Fermanagh contingent to speak, spoke about the impact on her constituents and the fear and worry that many in Fermanagh have about this, the local opposition and the reasons why there is local opposition, in terms of the damage to the local community and countryside.

Patsy McGlone talked about this being an opportunity in this Assembly to say that environmental issues are no longer second-class issues. Rosemary Barton, also from Fermanagh, talked about the beauty of her constituency and county and the impact that fracking would have if allowed to go ahead. John Blair welcomed Nichola Mallon's recent announcement on permitted development in oil and gas. That, in some way, details how in some Departments there are positive moves, but in others, less so.

Seán Lynch, again from Fermanagh, addressed the impact locally. He talked about how this impacts on climate change and about the all-Ireland impact of having two policies on this island that interact, particularly given the proximity of Fermanagh to the border. He also talked about his private Member's Bill, which he intends to launch for consultation very shortly and which would ban the practice of fracking. Sinead McLaughlin commended her party colleague, Mark H Durkan, who introduced the moratorium in 2015. Stewart Dickson talked about his constituents' experience of oil exploration in Woodburn and the concerns and the opposition there and the impact on the area.

Steve Aiken, again supporting the motion, talked, as everybody else did, about how we need to move towards renewable energies. He talked about offshore wind, smart grid, hydrogen and biogas. He said that the North was too small an area for regulation, and, although he did not say it, I think that he meant that we needed an all-Ireland approach to such an issue


along with all other issues.

Gerry Carroll put today's debate in the context of the climate emergency and, as have I done, talked about some good work. However, all the talking needs action to make it a reality. He talked about the impact on the public and public support, with schoolchildren, community groups and environmental groups all trying to protect the environment. He mentioned his concerns about the current licensing process.

The Minister put the debate in context. She talked about the current legislation having been in place since 1964 and said that, in that period, no commercial extraction has taken place. If that does not send a signal that we do not need that legislation, I do not know what will. She said that her Department has recognised, over recent years, that we need a step change regarding policy objectives and that that should match public opinion. She went on to talk about the review in her Department and about the two current applications. She stated that 5,700 responses had been received. She did not give the details, but I imagine that a lot of them were opposed to the practices. As a result, one of the applicants, Tamboran, removed the need for fracking. However, as I have said, this debate goes much further than fracking; it is the issuing of petroleum licences that we need to cease. She said that her Department was considering the issues, and she gave reasons why she feels that she cannot come forward at the current time.

The motion goes beyond fracking. We do not, in my view, need a review of petroleum licensing policy; we need legislation to stop it. I hope that the Minister takes note of the strength of feeling of the political parties and the individual MLAs who have spoken today and actions that strength of support for today's motion into legislation in the near future.

Question put and agreed to. Resolved:

That this Assembly refers to the Assembly and Executive Review Committee, under Standing Order 59(3)(b), the matter of the commissioning of an independent review of the adequacy and effectiveness of the statement of entitlements for an official Opposition, as set out in paragraph 3.7 of annex C of the New Decade, New Approach (NDNA) deal; agrees that the terms of reference for this review should be agreed jointly by this Committee and the Assembly Commission; and further agrees that the Committee should report on the outcome of this review to the Assembly.

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP 4:00 pm, 13th October 2020

I ask Members to take their ease. The next item of business will be an Adjournment debate, and we need to let the Health Minister and the various MLAs get into the Chamber.

Motion made: That the Assembly do now adjourn. — [Mr Principal Deputy Speaker.]