In accordance with convention, the Business Committee has not allocated a time limit for the overall debate, but it has agreed a limit on individual contributions. The sponsor of the Bill will have up to 20 minutes to open the debate and a further 10 minutes to make a winding-up speech. The Minister will have up to 20 minutes to contribute, and the Committee Chair will have 15 minutes. All other Members who are called to speak will have 10 minutes.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Second Stage of the Onshore Fracking (Prohibition) Bill. The Bill has one very clear objective, and that is to ban fracking in the North of Ireland. In effect, that would realise a ban on fracking throughout the island of Ireland. Ultimately, what we need is a ban on all petroleum licensing. We must ensure that there is no exploration, drilling for or extraction of petroleum here in the North.
While consecutive DUP Economy Ministers delayed making decisions on the future of petroleum licensing, my predecessor, Seán Lynch, began to develop legislation to outlaw the particularly harmful method of fracking. On numerous occasions in the House, the current DUP Minister, Gordon Lyons, committed to bringing petroleum licensing to the Executive before the end of 2021. That was not delivered.
Last month, in response to a topical question for oral answer from my Sinn Féin colleague Philip McGuigan on why a ban on petroleum licensing was not included in the energy strategy, Minister Lyons stated that he planned to bring it to the Executive "in the coming weeks". Unfortunately, the DUP's decision last week to collapse the Executive means that, once again, we will not see any progress on a ban on petroleum licensing in this mandate. That makes the need to ban fracking all the more urgent.
As someone who was born and raised in County Fermanagh and who has been active in the community for a number of years, I know at first hand the impact that the threat of fracking has had on my local community for over a decade. Several attempts have been made to commence fracking in Fermanagh, but the people of Fermanagh and our local communities in Leitrim have been resolute in opposing such moves. The same must be said about communities that have been affected by other attempts to explore for oil and gas, particularly around the Lough Neagh area. That is because our communities know what natural beauty they have, and they value it and their environment. They value it for themselves and their children. Sinn Féin has stood with our communities throughout. We have been consistently and vociferously opposed to fracking. That is why we have worked to introduce this important Bill.
It is important to set out the policy context of fracking applications in the North. In 2011, the then Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment, Arlene Foster, granted a number of licences to companies to permit them to frack, including one in my constituency of Fermanagh and South Tyrone. As I said, that was opposed by our local community, who were deeply concerned by the potential impact of fracking on the locality. In 2015, the 'Strategic Planning Policy Statement' stated that in relation to fracking or:
"unconventional hydrocarbon extraction there should be a presumption against their exploitation until there is sufficient and robust evidence on all environmental impacts."
While the statement dealt with the imminent threat of fracking, it was by no means a permanent solution.
More recently, in 2019, two new applications for petroleum licences were submitted to the Department for the Economy. The applications concerned areas in County Fermanagh and near Lough Neagh and, if granted, could allow fracking to commence. Those applications are still being considered by the Economy Minister, although he has indicated that he will not take any action on them until a new petroleum licensing policy is agreed by the Executive. As I said, we now know that we will not have any new policy on petroleum licensing in this mandate. The existence of those two applications shows that the threat of fracking is still with us, that it is serious and that we need a permanent ban on fracking if we are to deal with it once and for all.
The evidence shows that fracking is particularly invasive and damaging in its exploration and extraction. It is an unconventional method of drilling for oil and gas. In the process of fracking, a horizontal borehole is drilled into subterranean rock. Fracking fluid is pumped into the borehole at extremely high pressures, with the aim of fracturing the rock. When the rock fractures, it releases oil and gas deposits, which can then be extracted. Large volumes of fracking fluid, which is a mixture of water, sand and chemicals, are required in order to create the fractures in the rock.
Fracking became widespread in America, particularly in places like North Dakota and Pennsylvania. It has a negative impact on nearby communities, having been shown to cause groundwater contamination, soil corruption, earthquakes, noise pollution and significant increases in airborne radioactivity as well as increased greenhouse gas emissions. The air emissions are particularly worrying as they are formed primarily of methane, which is more than 80 times as potent as carbon dioxide. It has also been linked to a host of health problems, including birth defects, cancer and asthma.
Fracking has serious consequences for biodiversity in affected areas, with many wildlife habitats and areas of conservation impacted by industrialisation or destroyed due to contamination. Like any industry that is based on a finite resource, it is prone to a boom and bust economic model. Once a well has been tapped dry, fracking companies simply pack up and leave.
I appreciate the Member giving way. She has given a little bit of background to hydraulic fracturing. First, will she confirm whether her definition of "hydraulic fracturing" in the Bill means high-volume hydraulic fracturing? Secondly, does it relate only to petroleum, or will the Bill also outlaw fracking when it is used for water boreholes?
Of course, communities are still left with the environmental impact of fracking long after the companies are gone. Fermanagh is renowned for its beautiful countryside and freshwater lakes, to which thousands of tourists and anglers flock every year. Even the public perception of the air, soil and water contamination caused by fracking could cause serious damage to areas that rely on those industries.
Beyond its local implications, banning the practice of fracking is also important in the context of our fight against climate change. Fracking would increase our greenhouse gas emissions. The Assembly is currently considering the Climate Change Bill, which will set ambitious, fair and deliverable targets for net zero emissions. It would also be unfair, as fracking companies, which would be responsible for increased emissions, would be the ones profiting at the expense of local communities. It makes absolutely no sense whatsoever to leave the door open to fracking or other means of petroleum extraction whilst we are still setting targets to reduce our own carbon emissions.
The opposition to fracking is not limited to Ireland and the United States, with many jurisdictions around the world having already introduced legislative bans or policy moratoriums on fracking. That is the case in the rest of Ireland and in England, Scotland and Wales. Again, the North is trailing behind others. We are the only part of these islands without such provisions to defend against fracking. That is despite the fact that the Assembly voted by a large majority in October 2020 for an immediate moratorium on fracking.
The DUP, as the party that has had policy responsibility for it in the Department for the Economy since 2007, has failed to protect our communities against the threat of fracking. The Bill, however, will realise a ban on fracking and bring us more into line with other jurisdictions.
The previous Economy Minister, Diane Dodds, commissioned the Hatch Regeneris report to examine the impact of fracking, as well as conventional oil and gas drilling, on our communities. That report was completed in May of last year but has still not been released to the public.
I will now turn to the Bill itself. First, I thank my predecessor, Seán Lynch, who began the process of developing the legislation over a year ago. I also extend my gratitude and thanks to the Assembly Bill Office for its work and advice, as well as for the assistance that it provided to Seán, me and our staff over the past number of months.
The Bill is short, with only one substantive clause, which amends the Petroleum (Production) Act 1964. The Bill states: "Onshore hydraulic fracturing is unlawful." It means that the Department would have no right to search for or get petroleum by way of onshore fracking, that it would not have any right to grant any licence for the same purpose and that any existing licences that permitted fracking were to have no effect.
The Bill pertains to only onshore fracking, where "onshore" includes everything apart from the foreshore, the internal waters adjacent to the North and the territorial sea of the North. It was my intention that the Bill would prohibit onshore and offshore fracking, but I was advised that the seabed and underlying natural resources are reserved matters. I wrote to the British Secretary of State about whether the Bill could legislate for offshore as well as onshore fracking. I did not, however, receive the necessary confirmation. That having been said, the intention of the Bill is firmly to ban all forms of onshore fracking and to shut the door tightly on the prospect of any fracking on the island of Ireland.
I look forward to the debate, and, in my closing remarks, I am happy to deal with any queries that Members may have.
I welcome the opportunity to speak briefly as Chair of the Economy Committee to outline the Committee's consideration of the Bill to date, before speaking in my party capacity, also briefly.
As the Bill sponsor outlined, the Bill aims to secure a ban on the issuing of licences in the North for the onshore exploration, extraction and production of fossil fuels by means of fracking. The Committee's current extensive legislative workload means that it was unable to invite the sponsor to brief members on the Bill in advance of Second Stage. The Committee will aim to do so if the Bill passes Second Stage today.
The Committee acknowledges that a review of petroleum licensing is ongoing in the Department for the Economy. That review has not yet been published, however. Although the Committee has not yet discussed the Bill itself, it has already consulted anti-fracking groups during informal Committee meetings. We also wrote to the then Minister outlining concerns, such as the impact of fracking on public health.
To conclude, the Committee welcomes the Second Stage of the Bill. However, there is obviously limited time left in this Assembly mandate, and, with the Committee's current legislative workload, it will be limited in its ability to give the Bill the attention and scrutiny that it deserves and requires.
On behalf of Sinn Féin, I will make some brief remarks. Sinn Féin's position on fracking is unambiguous. We are completely opposed to fracking and want to see the ban on fracking extended across this island, which is why this legislation has been brought forward. In the context of the climate crisis, and given that, just yesterday, the Climate Change (No. 2) Bill passed its Consideration Stage, it is clear that we need to end our reliance on fossil fuels. Therefore, our policy attention and investment should be focused on developing our renewable energy capacity. The energy strategy published by the Department for the Economy is clear on that matter.
Sinn Féin has repeatedly stated on the public record its opposition to petroleum licensing through exploration, drilling or extraction in the North and has called for a ban on petroleum licensing. In that context, I was disappointed that the Minister did not bring forward proposals to ban petroleum licensing when he published the energy strategy. As I referred to in my earlier remarks, the Department has undertaken a review of petroleum licensing and has been in possession of the Hatch Regeneris report on the matter since last summer. The Minister responded to questions about future petroleum licensing policy by saying that he planned to bring options to the Executive soon. In December, a Department spokesperson said:
"The Department hopes to be in a position to present policy options to the Executive later in the year. Following this, there will be a public consultation on the preferred option".
The Minister indicated at the Economy Committee a couple of weeks ago that he was finalising a document to go out to consultation and that he would have to take that to the Executive. He said:
"I do not want to pre-empt what the Executive says, but I will say this: I do not think that I am going to have difficulty getting Executive support".
Given that Sinn Féin is on record, along with other parties, in stating that we would not support policy proposals at the Executive unless they include a ban on petroleum licensing, perhaps the Minister will take the opportunity during his remarks to outline his preferred option for the future of petroleum licensing.
Given the discussion that we have had over the past week on the Climate Change (No. 2) Bill and the overwhelming rate of scientific evidence, including the IPCC sixth assessment report published in August past, which was described as a "code red for humanity", it is clear to me that there is no place for any new fossil fuel exploration in the North. Fossil fuels should remain in the ground. Therefore, I hope that all parties and MLAs will be able to support the principles of this straightforward Bill to ban fracking at its Second Stage, and I look forward to further scrutinising it at Committee Stage.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. I suspect that I will not need the full 10 minutes; I just want to make a few brief remarks.
I welcome the opportunity to speak to the Bill. There is a potential criticism when a Bill comes to its Second Stage in February before the dissolution of the Assembly, especially given that, only a few days ago, the party opposite was actually calling for the election to be brought forward, which would have curtailed any further business. There is a danger that people could see this as virtue signalling without any effect. That would be a very harsh criticism of the proposals that are in front of us today, because we are at least taking a benign look at this.
The Bill gives us the opportunity to debate the issue, and it gives the Committee the opportunity to explore it. As the Committee Chair highlighted, because of the passage of time, there has not been the opportunity for the Committee to explore the issue or, indeed, to question the Bill sponsor. There is at least an opportunity for us to explore what the scope of the Bill actually is, because I am still somewhat confused. The Minister sought to make an intervention — the Member may deal with this in her summing-up — to get clarification from the Member on whether the Bill purely covers petroleum licensing or whether it covers, for instance, boreholes when it comes to water. The Bill sponsor, who, one would assume, should be the person who is most over the scope of the Bill, essentially said, "Well, I am refusing to answer that". I do not know whether that means that she will deal with it in her summing-up, but, if the Member is refusing to detail the scope of Bill, it is very difficult for the rest of us to have absolute certainty. Perhaps the passage of the Bill at Second Stage will give the Committee an opportunity to explore those sorts of issues.
I appreciate the Member giving way. Does that not speak to a wider point about why we need to take our time with legislation in order to make sure that we understand what impact it will have? That is very important for definitions, in particular. The Bill sponsor may understand, in her own mind, what she is trying to do. We have to make the definitions themselves very clear. That is what I was trying to tease out, because it will have further implications.
It comes down to the fact that legislation needs to have a clear-cut policy intent, and clear-cut consultation needs to take place. Embracing any legislation should be done on the basis of full knowledge. By way of comparison, there was some criticism of the School Age Bill that we dealt with earlier on the basis that it should have come forward sooner. It came forward when it did because there had been clear-cut development of the policy and consideration of the policy options, and, indeed, consultation had taken place. While some Members wished that the legislation had been brought forward sooner or that it had a wider context than the confines of the Bill, it was absolutely clear what the policy position was and what we were voting on. If there is merit in all of this, it is that it at least gives the Committee the opportunity to tease out the detail of the proposed legislation, but it is clear, given the time frame, that the legislation is not in a position to get on the statute book.
Let me make it absolutely clear: we, as a party, support the phasing out of fossil fuels. That has been highlighted in, for instance, the energy strategy brought forward by the Minister, and it is clearly the direction of travel. It is undoubtedly the case that, across the Executive, there is not any enthusiasm or support for fracking. From that point of view, an assurance has been given that, if there were any attempt to change that, the Executive as a whole would have to endorse that, because it is clearly controversial and cross-cutting. We will not shift from the current position unless there is that level of endorsement, which clearly is not going to happen. There is therefore a question mark over the pure necessity of the legislation in the first place.
The energy strategy is now out for consultation, and there is a clear direction of travel in that proposal. However, rather than reaching the point at which that consultation concludes, the Bill seems to be pre-empting it. Mention was made of the fact that one of the reasons for its necessity is that, essentially, over a 15-year period since 2007, despite some interruptions to devolution, the only political party that has had control over this issue, from a departmental point of view, is the DUP. It would appear that the suggestion was that the DUP could not be relied upon to stop fracking. The fact that, in the space of 15 years, there has been no fracking perhaps suggests that there is not a danger coming from our party or, indeed, the Assembly as a whole. I simply mention those caveats. It is fairly clear from the parties in the Executive that there is a unanimous view on the subject.
The only other caveat that I would add is that we need to exercise a little bit of caution on the wider issue of petroleum licensing, for which there are two applications. From a legal point of view, due process has to be followed. We have to be careful that we do not reach a situation in which a potential decision is judicially reviewed, given that there is unanimity of approach from the Assembly.
I look forward to the opportunity to at least tease out some of the issues. Hopefully, we will get a more forthcoming approach from the Bill sponsor than we have had thus far in the debate. Perhaps that can be addressed, as well some of the issues with the scope of the Bill, in the Member's summing-up of the debate.
If not, there will be the opportunity in Committee to tease out the issues, because the Assembly needs to move forward on the basis of a level of certainty with any legislation, even this Bill, which, I suspect, will not reach the statute books in this mandate. As legislators, we need to know precisely what is being voted on. I am glad that there will be that opportunity to tease that out as the days move ahead.
I rise, as others have done, to speak briefly on the Onshore Fracking (Prohibition) Bill. I do not wish to be facetious — in some ways, I hate to do this — but, before I go on to the Bill, I want to correct some of what Mr Weir has just said. He said that the DUP had not posed a danger with regard to introducing fracking and that, in a sense, the DUP had not tried to introduce it. The first Minister to properly stand in the way of fracking in Northern Ireland was my colleague Mark H Durkan, who effectively introduced a moratorium here on fracking in 2015. When he did that, none other than Sammy Wilson, MP for East Antrim — former boss of the Minister — in the context of the DUP apparently never having advocated fracking, said that Mark Durkan:
"has clearly rolled over to the aggressive green lobby. I believe that the vast majority of people in Northern Ireland want us exploiting all the resources that we have, whether it's the potential of our scenery through tourism, our fields through agriculture, our quarries with stone or indeed underneath the ground."
I am sorry; there is always a Sammy Wilson quotation to be quoted back. I say that not to be facetious but to correct the record. We have always been kind of incomplete
— I am happy to give way to the Minister or to someone who thinks I am insulting them.
I thank the Member for giving way. I was making the point that there was an accusation that, because the DUP had held the Economy portfolio — previously ETI — there was a threat of fracking. I simply ask if the Member can point to anywhere in Northern Ireland where fracking has taken place in the 15 years in which this party has held those posts, and I will be more than happy to cover the cost of the petrol for both of us to go there, but I suspect that he may not be able to point to any example of where fracking has taken place in Northern Ireland.
I do in the sense that, sometimes, the Members opposite are quick to clutch their pearls when the words of their colleagues are spoken back to them. I am afraid that it is on the record, so some of the Members' colleagues will be held accountable for some of the things that they have said and some of the policies on this that they have advocated in recent years. I am sorry if that causes a problem for members of the Democratic Unionist Party.
I will move on to the substance of the Bill. The Onshore Fracking (Prohibition) Bill will not make it to the statute book before we break up for recess; Mr Weir is right about that. Therefore, we are not just debating the general principles of the Bill; we are really having, effectively, a debate on a motion rather than progressing legislation. Nevertheless, we will, of course, support the Bill at Second Stage. My party is strongly opposed to fracking here and to any new extraction of fossil fuels in Northern Ireland, not just in the context of a global climate emergency but in the context of strong and vociferous local opposition in all parts of this region where fracking has been mooted.
I appreciate the Member's giving way. I have tried to seek clarity from the Bill sponsor; perhaps the Member will be able to give his view. Is he opposed to fracking of all kinds or only for petroleum? If it is the case that he believes that fracking of all kinds should be prevented, does he think that the Bill reflects that?
The Bill is clear, and it says "petroleum". I am not the Bill sponsor, so it is not for me to explain what is or is not in the Bill. When it comes to fracking more broadly, I will not get into a debate about specific applications that may be in front of the Minister. There are serious issues and questions around other types of fracking — that is, fracking not specifically to extract oil or gas — including issues around the potential corruption of the water supply and the seismic effects that can happen. Indeed, the potential seismic risks are the reason why the UK Oil and Gas Authority, when it was asked by the UK Government to investigate this in 2019, came back and said that it could not rule out future seismic activity as a result of fracking exploration. That is one of the reasons why the UK Government, who, for the previous decade, had hitherto been extremely enthusiastic about fracking in opposition to local opinion and broader environmental sentiment —
I will give way in one minute. They had been enthusiastic about it for that decade, and even they are not any more. As we have heard, other jurisdictions on these islands either have a legal ban on fracking or an effective moratorium.
Thank you very much to the Member for giving way. During the Economy Committee's consideration, did the Committee have an opportunity to look at what the UK Oil and Gas Authority was saying? It is clear from the UK Oil and Gas Authority that fracking will not be permitted anywhere across the United Kingdom. Even though there is a moratorium in England, the clear intent of the UK Oil and Gas Authority is to make sure that there is no use of fracking anywhere in the United Kingdom.
The answer to that question is, "No, we have not", because we have not had the chance to do any detailed scrutiny of the Bill yet. I am the Deputy Chair of the Committee, but I am not speaking formally in that role. We have not heard from the Bill sponsor yet because of scheduling, and I hope that we are able to take some evidence on this before we break up. I am sure that that will be one of the things that we look at.
I welcome the fact that we will be able to scrutinise the Bill, assuming that it passes Second Stage today. There are substantive questions that we will need to examine. It is a short, one-clause Bill, but our party position is clear. We do not want to see fracking in Northern Ireland, and we do not want to see the extraction of fossil fuels. That is not just our party position but the clear position, I think, of most people in this society and that of the communities where it has been mooted. There really is no excuse and no justification for us having any doubt about wanting to countenance fracking.
It would be good to hear later from the Minister some clarity about his position on petroleum licensing. The truth is that we are not a big player in petroleum licensing or fracking, but, in one sense, that is not really the point. It kind of comes back to some of what we were debating the other day around the Climate Change (No. 2) Bill. It would, in a sense, be forever possible for a small region to say, "Sure, we are small when compared with China or India or even when compared with the rest of the UK or Europe". That is not good enough when it comes to the climate emergency. It is not good enough, because the scale of what we will have to do over the next century will involve literally every person on the planet. It will involve substantive, practical and political decisions being taken by those of us who have the power, and it will involve ethical, serious decisions being taken by all of us. This will be one part of it.
I am happy to support the Bill proceeding today at Second Reading, even though there is, obviously, no chance of it now getting any further and certainly no chance of it getting on the statute book before the end of the mandate. I hope that it is something that we can pursue in a new Assembly, assuming that those of us who are responsible enough to want to actually sit in an Assembly and make decisions, including on the climate emergency, can come back here and do that in the months ahead.
It is a pleasure to speak in the debate. Let me front-load my remarks with all the good news for the Bill sponsor: we will support the Bill going through its Second Stage. The Ulster Unionist Party does not support onshore exploration for gas or oil. As Members have made clear or referenced, we have spent considerable time in recent sessions in the Chamber talking about the climate and appropriate targets for reducing our dependence on carbon and reducing our greenhouse gas emissions. Therefore, drilling for hydrocarbons would be totally counterproductive and counter-intuitive to that aim. The Ulster Unionist Party will not support licensing, either in the Executive or on the Floor of the Assembly, and we hope that others will join us in adopting that position.
That said, it is my impression, from discussions with MLAs, many of whom are in the Chamber, and advisers to MLAs who are in the Building, that there is no chance of the Bill progressing through all its stages before dissolution. That raises a question for the Bill sponsor: why are we here tonight? It is 7.25 pm. There are many Members here from your constituency of Fermanagh and South Tyrone who want to get home tonight and who have other business to do, so why are we here?
I will in a second, because the other point that I want to make is the contrast with Mr O'Dowd, who has been passionate about his private Member's Bill on small-scale green energy generation. He told the Committee last Wednesday that he was pulling it. The Member will explain, but my impression was that, with the publication of the energy strategy, he needed more time to reflect and, perhaps, reshape his Bill. That is a very mature attitude to take. I give way to Mr O'Dowd.
I suspect that a number of private Members' Bills will come through the Assembly in the next number of weeks. In fairness to the Bill sponsor, the Business Committee will schedule private Members' Bills when there is a free slot. We have been encouraging Members to bring them forward. The Bill sponsor got a slot, and we scheduled it.
When I withdrew my Bill, I said that the deliberations of the Committee would be useful in the next mandate, if it is necessary to bring that Bill back. I suspect that the deliberations on this Bill will be useful in the next mandate, when we will need a fracking Bill.
I thank the Member for his intervention, and I accept that that is exactly what he said when he decided to pull his Bill. What he said about this Bill may be what the Bill sponsor wants to say, but that will be up to the Bill sponsor in her concluding remarks. I conclude here. Dr Aiken will have a lot more to say when it is his turn to contribute.
I thank the Bill sponsor for bringing the Bill to us this evening. It is one that the Alliance Party will support at this stage, but it raises a wide range of questions, and I have to express disappointment in the scope of the Bill. As others said, surely the objective of the Assembly, or at least that of the vast majority of those in the Assembly, is to see a permanent end to all fossil fuel exploration in Northern Ireland, both onshore and offshore. I appreciate that there are difficulties with offshore, but, given that the United Kingdom is inexorably moving towards that goal, offshore exploration is unlikely to proceed.
Here, however, we have a Bill that is narrow in definition and does not, for the Alliance Party, meet wider needs or the objective of demonstrating that there will be no further fossil fuel exploration in Northern Ireland. I do not want to delay the Assembly for long, but perhaps those are some of the areas that would be explored at Committee Stage. Indeed, if the Bill comes back in the next mandate, they will have to be further explored.
For example, it is a short Bill, and it only makes reference to:
"mechanical fractures in shale or strata encased in shale".
I understand that part of the argument for taking the Bill forward, apart from, obviously, the wider matter of environmental protection for the whole of Northern Ireland, is the Member's specific interest in her constituency. The type of fracking that she proposes to ban in the legislation, however, probably does not match much of the geology of her constituency, which has been calling out because the area has been earmarked for exploration. I wonder exactly what is going on, and I hope that the Bill sponsor will explain some of the narrow language in her Bill that seems to fail to hit the mark on its whole purpose of dealing not only with fracking but with the wider issue of fossil fuel exploration.
I have direct experience of that in my constituency of East Antrim — indeed, it is also the Minister's constituency — where we saw the ultimate failure, thank goodness, of an ill-thought-out oil exploration escapade at North Woodburn reservoir. That was a very regrettable situation. Had that escapade been successful, if that is the right word to use, it had the potential to damage the water supply for the whole city of Belfast and beyond. Had it come to fruition, there was the potential for devastating impacts.
At a cost of some £70,000, the Minister sought and procured a report on the whole issue of fossil fuel exploration. I guess that the excuse for not bringing it forward will be that there is no Executive. I implore the Minister to bring that report forward. As others have said, the whole issue of how we tackle climate change is important to many citizens across Northern Ireland. Intrinsically linked to that is fossil fuel exploration and, not least of all, fracking, wherever that may be and, indeed, whatever the scope of the Bill may allow us to do.
The energy strategy has also been mentioned. I am sure that the Bill sponsor will want to explain to the House how this legislation fits in with the overall aims of the strategy, which has its good points but has many areas of grave concern for the Alliance Party, not least its references to and praise for the potential to deliver blue hydrogen — a fossil fuel if ever there was one.
Ultimately, it is unfortunate that the legislation has come late to the Assembly. With others, I have criticised the Bill sponsor for the narrowness of the Bill. We would like an explanation as to why she brought it at this stage, having had so much time, as did her predecessor, to flesh out a Bill in this particularly strong area. Regardless of that criticism, it is important that we hear from the Bill sponsor why it is so narrow in its scope and why it seems to fall far short of achieving very much at all, given its few short lines.
Failing to ban fracking and petroleum licences in this mandate will have a dire consequence for our country's future. The Minister has failed to make a clear recommendation based on the Hatch report. Despite all the national agreements and the fair belief that we all have that it would be very difficult to see fracking or petroleum exploration, clearly, we cannot know that, once and for all, until the Minister and others — ultimately, the House — legislate to say that no more fossil fuels will be extracted from the ground or from under the ground in Northern Ireland. Tonight, many across Northern Ireland are concerned and worried about their health, the environment and how we are ever to tackle climate change in this community.
Failing to ban not only fracking but a wide range of exploration methods does not cut it, as far as the Alliance Party is concerned. We need to send a very clear message from the Chamber to the industry, fossil fuel supporters and those still investing in that type of technology: we do not want you, we do not need you, and your time is up.
I will keep my remarks brief because the Bill is short. That is no reflection on the Bill sponsor. We all need to consider a clean, green recovery and clean energy. The status quo of importing and consuming fossil fuels at current levels is unsustainable. I have heard Members complaining about fossil fuels tonight and in many debates, but I would be interested to know what is in their tank or fireplace. You have to put your money where your mouth is. I currently use a fossil fuel. Of course, I will look at that when other options become affordable. It is important for everybody to lead by example.
The Economy Minister has brought forward an energy strategy that contains a range of ambitious targets and policies to support the transition to safe, affordable and clean energy solutions. The draft energy strategy, 'The Path to Net Zero Energy', includes the following goals:
"Energy Efficiency: Deliver energy savings of 25% from buildings and industry by 2030; and Renewables: Meet at least 70% of electricity consumption from a diverse mix of renewable sources by 2030."
The draft strategy continues:
"Green Economy: Double the size of our low carbon and renewable energy economy to a turnover of more than £2 billion by 2030."
Any change to petroleum licensing in Northern Ireland would need to be decided by the entire Executive. I recognise the concerns about carbon emissions, global warming and the environmental impacts of petroleum extraction. Those concerns have been raised to me and, no doubt, to others in the Chamber. There needs to be further public consultation, but it is clear that fracking would not lend itself to the vision that has been put forward, and, due to public opposition, it has been banned, or more or less banned, in the Republic of Ireland, England, Scotland and Wales, because of environmental and public health impacts.
Independent research was carried out in England and Wales, and it is vital that such research is completed in this part of the United Kingdom. Ministers have made it clear that a ban on fracking may present legal obstacles and, in particular, the potential for challenge in the courts by those whose applications for licences are pending or are rescinded as a result of any Bill. That, no doubt, will be explored if the Bill reaches Committee Stage.
As with all Bills and laws that come forward, it is important that there is a fuller explanation of the practical and legal ramifications of a Bill's clause 1. I am content, at present, with the objectives of the Bill. I will wait to see whether it will pass this stage, and then we can carry out relevant work in the Committee. As my colleague said to the Bill sponsor, fracking will have to be defined. In my previous life, I drilled for water and made boreholes etc. What implications did that have, given that it was purely to provide water for livestock?
I thank the Member for giving way. The Bill sponsor will, I am sure, address this point in her summing up, but my understanding of the Bill is that it is to amend and will insert a new clause into the Petroleum (Production) Act (Northern Ireland) 1964. Can the Member tell me whether that is where any permissions for fracking for water come from?
Perhaps that question is better answered by the Bill sponsor than by me, to be honest. When you drill to explore for water, it depends on what method you use to get it out. You can put in air or water at high pressure. So the definition —
I appreciate why the Member raised that question, and, yes, the Bill would amend the Petroleum Act. However, it says, "Onshore hydraulic fracturing is unlawful". That is the effect that the Bill would have. Further down, the Bill says that that is:
"in connection with the use of a well to search or bore for or get petroleum".
However, we need that clarified. That is all that I was asking. Also, we would need to know whether that is for high-volume extraction. However, I let the Member resume his speech.
This is a short Bill, and I will, hopefully, keep my remarks equally short. There are many reasons to be opposed to fracking. My colleague Áine Murphy has outlined them all: damage to our environment, water systems, soil, air and health and much more. Fracking destroys our land, countryside and communities. Sinn Féin stands with those communities that are rightly opposed to fracking. No community should have that threat hanging over it.
As others have said, there is no public demand or support for fracking, and it is a practice that should not be countenanced by any Member. For that reason, and in the absence of various DUP Ministers bringing forward policies or legislation, I thank my colleague Áine Murphy for introducing the Bill.
Yesterday, progressive MLAs across most political parties in the Chamber came together, after three long days of debate and voting, to shape ambitious climate legislation for the North. I hope that, once all the stages in the legislative process are complete, that Bill will become law before the dissolution of the Assembly. The Climate Change (No. 2) Bill will set out a new, green, environmentally proofed path for the North. There is no place in that pathway for petroleum licences and petroleum extraction, and there is certainly no place for fracking. Sinn Féin is vehemently opposed to that practice, and I support and commend the Bill.
I welcome the opportunity, as a Fermanagh and South Tyrone MLA, to speak on the subject this evening. The concerns about fracking centre on my beautiful constituency and are well rehearsed. The Minister will know that I am incredibly proud to come from that part of the world. From the outset, I want to make clear that I am opposed to the practice of fracking, given the environmental concerns associated with it.
At the start of the debate, the Minister raised a vital point about the Bill's scope. I hope that the Bill sponsor will deal with that in her summing up, as it may help to give further understanding of the Bill. The energy strategy taken forward by our Economy Minister sets out a range of ambitious targets and policies to support the transition to safe, affordable and clean energy solutions and to reduce our dependency on fossil fuels. It is safe to say that the practice of fracking does not lend itself to the vision set out in the Minister's energy strategy.
I am pleased that my party is committed to phasing out fossil fuels. As representatives, we have a responsibility to ensure the protection of the environment and to seek to promote renewable energy sources. The status quo of importing and consuming fossil fuels at current levels is unsustainable. To see that commitment, all you have to do is to look at the Minister's energy strategy, 'The Path to Net Zero Energy', which includes the following goals:
"Implement a support scheme to bring forward investment in renewable electricity generation";
"Phase out fossil fuel heating oil";
"Phase out coal and certain solid fuels for home heating";
"Introduce support for low carbon heat technologies including heat pumps"; and
"Create a roadmap to a cleaner, greener transport system".
How would fracking tie in to any of that? Does it sound like support for fracking?
It is important that we listen to the strength of public opinion on fracking and act accordingly. There has been a step change in public opposition to it, and I am glad that the Minister has been listening to that. I want to set the record straight: from what I can see and hear, no party in the Chamber is actively advocating petroleum licensing. Indeed, no fracking is happening in Fermanagh. It is very important that we send out that message from the Chamber tonight. To land the blame at my party's door is slightly mischievous in the run-up to an election.
We need to have environmental and independent reviews to provide evidence. The importance of consultation and wide-ranging DFE reports must not be diminished either. They empower us by giving us the evidence to do what we should be doing in this place: proper scrutiny of legislation. As an aside on that point, it concerns me when I hear phrases such as, "We hope to have the opportunity for proper scrutiny of legislation in Committee". We must ensure that legislation has proper, robust scrutiny. I see that scrutiny in the Health Committee, on which I sit. The Chair of the Health Committee is here. The time constraints that we are under at the minute make that scrutiny difficult, but we are legislators. Laws should not be used just for election literature, because they have real impact on the ground.
I return to the Bill and to fracking. From the discussions that I have had with him, I know that the Minister cares about Northern Ireland and will carefully review all the facts presented to him through any independent reviews, public consultations and environmental and economic studies. Politicking on the issue is not an option; it is too great a concern for my constituency of Fermanagh and South Tyrone.
Gabhaim buíochas le hÁine Murphy as an Bhille seo a thabhairt os ár gcomhair. I thank Áine Murphy for bringing the Bill before us. The SDLP supports the Onshore Fracking (Prohibition) Bill. There is a compelling case for a ban on the issuing of licences for onshore exploration, extraction and production of fossil fuels by means of fracking here in the North.
It was an SDLP Environment Minister who, in 2015, introduced what was, in effect, a moratorium on fracking until scientific evidence could demonstrate that it could be carried out safely, without risk to the environment and public health. There is still no such evidence. Indeed, there is more evidence than ever that fracking can have a significant negative impact on the environment and on the health and well-being of nearby populations.
Reference was made to Lough Neagh's being one of the potential target areas for frackers. It is well known, having been well established, that there are high levels, possibly higher than elsewhere, of asthma and related chest illnesses around the shores of the lough. It is a fact that coughs, shortness of breath and wheezing are the most common complaints of residents living near fracked wells. An epidemiological study of more than 400,000 patients of the Geisinger Health System in Pennsylvania, carried out by Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health — for Members' interest, it is the largest school of public health in the United States, if not the largest in the world — found a significant association between fracking and chest and related problems and increases in mild, moderate and severe cases of asthma. Another Hopkins-Geisinger study looked at the records of almost 11,000 women with newborns who live near fracking sites and found that they had a 40% increased chance of having a premature baby.
Those are just some of the things that we have to consider. I listened very carefully to the Fermanagh and South Tyrone representative Mrs Deborah Erskine. I have no doubt about her sincerity. As a co-signatory, on behalf of the SDLP, to the private Member's motion in 2020, I welcomed the Assembly's decision that:
"the environment can no longer be treated as a second-class consideration."
— [Official Report (Hansard), 13 October 2020, p31, col 1].
Indeed, Mr McGuigan referred to our lengthy periods of listening to evidence and voting last night. On the occasion of the 2020 motion, the Assembly called for Executive action and legislation to ban in the North:
"all exploration for, drilling for and extraction of hydrocarbons"
— [Official Report (Hansard), 13 October 2020, p28, col 1].
Even before the latest DUP election stunt, the Executive had failed to bring forward legislation to ban fracking. The Minister announced a review of petroleum licensing, but that has not been published yet. Perhaps he can respond about that later. It is the Minister's responsibility to introduce a ban on fracking. Although it is a cross-cutting issue, affecting a number of Departments, it is for his Department to initiate the ban, and I genuinely hope that that ban comes.
There are no active petroleum licences, but two applications for licences remain under consideration by the Department. The existence of those applications and the possibility that a Minister might award a licence in the future — perhaps the Minister will give us some indication about that tonight — will continue to undermine our target to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 and mock efforts to reduce the use of hydrocarbons as an energy source, locally and globally.
We have heard that the evidence on fracking has been considered by Administrations across these islands, all of which came to the same conclusion. They recognised that regulation of fracking is not enough. It is time that we closed down that option here too. The future is one of a decarbonised energy system. We can demonstrate our commitment to that greener, cleaner vision — for tonight, anyway — by supporting the Bill.
Our young people are demanding a climate reset for the sake of their future. An Executive ban on fracking would be a small step towards convincing them that we are listening and that we hear them. It would send a clear message to companies that we do not want fracking here, with the constituent health and environmental risks that it brings. The SDLP supports the Bill.
As my friend Mike Nesbitt pointed out, the Ulster Unionist Party will support the Bill as it goes through the Assembly. It is good that we have had the opportunity to listen to all sides of the argument during the debate. I do not detect anybody, anywhere in the Assembly who is for fracking in Northern Ireland. If we look at what is happening across the rest of our nation, particularly the report from the United Kingdom Oil and Gas Authority, it is very clear that there is no attempt to introduce fracking onshore anywhere in the United Kingdom. That is a very appropriate place from which to continue our discussion this evening.
I very much appreciate the Member giving way and the comment that he made about there being no appetite or intention to see fracking anywhere across the United Kingdom. Does he agree that it is vital that, in considering the Bill, we define fracking? Will he comment on the very narrow description of fracking in the Bill?
Thank you very much indeed, fellow Members.
However, some significant and important questions have been raised by the Minister. When we talk about hydraulic fracturing, one of the issues is what else it is used for. One of the issues that is quite important when we are looking at the future energy mix is the use of geothermal energy. The fact is that, sometimes, drilling will be required for that. It is important that we delineate how fracking is specifically used, because it may be used for things such as water boring. One of the most significant areas that we need to look at is carbon capture and the use of underground storage facilities for that purpose. My friend from east Antrim and many of us from that area have raised issues about the implications of gas caverns. The fracking process might not be used specifically for that, but we must keep it in mind.
The Bill is very narrow in its focus, but it is very important that we send a strong message from the Assembly that we do not wish to see any form of petroleum or gas drilling going on in Northern Ireland. There is another reason for that. Many people will be aware of the way in which oil and gas companies now look at their accounts. Many of them look to what they call "distressed assets", or assets that are left specifically in the ground.
Oil and gas companies across the world are expending an awful lot of effort on drilling and are using hydraulic fracturing to do their drilling processes, but they are leaving those assets in the ground and then using them as tradable assets in the energy markets. Those of us who noted the profits that were announced by Shell and BP today will know that that is something that the major hydrocarbon companies are doing. The last thing that we want in Northern Ireland is a situation in which somebody uses fracking to drill, thereby creating problems with the environment, and finds some form of resource that they leave in the ground to exploit at some indeterminate time in the future. That would desecrate the environment and have no net economic impact whatsoever. As we move towards decarbonisation, we very clearly need to be led by the science.
In the Assembly, we have had a lot of debate about the Climate Change (No. 2) Bill and the climate emergency. We in the Ulster Unionist Party have said that we listen very closely to the science from the Climate Change Committee (CCC). For us, that means that we need to get to the 82% solution, or better, by 2050. The science is very clear. Indeed, when the UK Oil and Gas Authority saw the issues that were being caused in Lancashire, including microquakes, it put a halt to fracking.
I declare an interest: some of my family live in Oklahoma in the United States. The area around Shawnee in Oklahoma, where they live, has been very much affected by fracking. It has had an impact on the water table and supplies, and there have been other issues, which has not been much of a benefit.
The Assembly has an opportunity. That is why we should all join together and support the Bill.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on this long-awaited Bill. My thanks go to all of the campaigners and activists for their tireless work and lobbying to introduce a comprehensive ban on fracking and hydrocarbon extraction in Northern Ireland and to keep the pressure on the Executive parties.
We are making progress, but there is still much to do.
The Green Party will obviously support the Bill at Second Stage because we support the principles of it. However, I, like others, want to raise serious concerns about its detail and limited scope. I am extremely disappointed and concerned that the Executive have failed to implement the clear and unambiguous call of the motion that I brought to the Assembly in 2020, which was agreed to, to implement an immediate moratorium on petroleum licensing until legislation is brought forward that bans all exploration and drilling for and extraction of hydrocarbons in Northern Ireland.
The Executive speak regularly of a commitment to phasing out fossil fuels yet have failed to take that critical step. The onus remains on Ministers to bring forward a comprehensive and unequivocal ban if they want to be taken seriously. Worryingly, the proposed energy strategy includes proposals for blue hydrogen production, a fuel source that has been shown to produce emissions that are up to 20% higher than those of gas.
Last Thursday, I attended a virtual event with a long-standing campaigner and actor whom many of you will know as the Hulk. Mark Ruffalo has been deeply involved in anti-fracking campaigns ever since proposals came to light for shale gas extraction in his home state of New York. Perhaps he will be listened to. His view, which is one that I share, is that the gas industry still has Northern Ireland in its sights, and the Executive's proposed energy strategy leaves the door open for fracking under the guise of so-called renewable gas and blue hydrogen production. We cannot allow that to happen.
In 2014, Tamboran Resources, one of the companies that is being considered for a petroleum licence by the 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 people:
"have a right to know if the gas is present."
Tamboran has suggested that there are potential benefits through investment, jobs and, bizarrely, energy security. That argument is full of holes. The same argument was made by Arlene Foster, the previous Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment, who said:
"I firmly believe that Northern Ireland needs to explore the potential that shale gas offers",
— [Official Report (Hansard), Bound Volume 69, p238, col 1]. and
"Shale gas provides a valuable opportunity for increasing the security of energy supply".
— [Official Report (Hansard), Bound Volume 69, p238, col 2].
It would appear that that is no longer the DUP's position on shale gas, which is welcome.
The carrot of potential investment and economic returns that is dangled in front of our noses is nothing more than a false promise. Even the Hatch Regeneris report — I have not seen it, and I do not think that anybody has — that was talked up so much by the previous Minister, and has yet, as I said, to see the light of day, despite being passed to the Department last summer, appears to be absolutely conclusive in that respect, if what we have read on social media is accurate. If the leaks that emerged at the end of last year are genuine, the report undermines the central argument in favour of drilling, saying that the economic and employment benefits for Northern Ireland would be relatively low.
Does the Member agree that, putting aside the potential for environmental devastation, a lot of the studies into the economic impacts have found that, given the work that would need to be done around fracking, which requires specialist staff who are, quite often, if you like, migrant labour — people who come in from outside to do that work — the added economic benefit in particular areas in terms of the multiplier effect for specific regions is, as was found in large parts of the United States, actually quite low? Of course, the environmental cost can also be devastating.
I thank the Member for his intervention. I do agree. I would also make similar comments about any potential for gold-mining.
That research was commissioned by the previous Minister for the Economy. We were told that it would form the basis for the Executive's adopting an evidence-based policy going forward. However, the evidence is clear that the arguments in favour of fracking do not add up. The report has been quoted online as saying that Northern Ireland is unlikely to achieve the economies of scale and low production costs that would provide a major benefit from lower energy prices. Perhaps, the Minister, in his summing up, will confirm whether that leaked report is, in fact, the correct one.
We also know that large multinational corporations that profit from environmental destruction are adept as shielding themselves from tax obligations and other regulations, and they are remarkably good at funneling profits into the hands of shareholders via offshore accounts. Drilling for fossil fuels is not the way in which to achieve energy security: renewables are.
The only real energy security is from renewable resources that can generate sustainable green jobs and solve the complex crisis of rising fuel prices that we now find ourselves in the middle of.
Our citizens should not be at the mercy of the market for fossil fuels when it comes to something as essential and significant as transport, energy and the ability to heat and light our homes. Continuing to rely on fossil fuels will mean that we will never come close to meeting our Paris commitments, including the targets being considered under the climate Bills, nor would we be able to meet the huge challenges that climate change will bring.
Returning to the specifics of the Bill, it is clearly not enough, but it is a start. I recognise that legislating for offshore exploration and extraction requires the Secretary of State's consent, and I am keen to hear more detail from the Bill's sponsor about the communications and efforts to secure that. It is shameful, again, that the Executive have not sought the relevant consent and brought forward comprehensive legislative proposals that reflect what the House agreed in 2020. I do not need to list the potential harms to public health that fracking brings. We know about the chemicals, the noise, the pollution, the dangers of releasing certain substances and the detrimental impacts that all those things can have on people's health, not to mention wildlife habitats and our natural environment.
As I have stated before in the Chamber, our entire petroleum licensing regime is flawed. The absence of meaningful consultation under the Petroleum (Production) Act (Northern Ireland) 1964, 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 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 former Minister has already accepted that our laws are seriously out of date, yet we still wait for action and for the promised consultation and policy direction.
The Green Party will continue to strongly oppose fracking, drilling, extraction of fossil fuels from mining and putting people's public health at risk for commercial gain. You cannot be in favour of climate action and fossil fuel extraction at the same time. As I say, while the Bill is a start, it falls short, and we have much more to do. The Executive must act, and I plead with the Minister to please release publicly the full Hatch Regeneris report. Ministers must implement the immediate moratorium and bring forward a comprehensive ban on all exploration of, drilling for and extraction of hydrocarbons.
It is important that there be a ban on fracking of any kind in communities here. I welcome the opportunity to discuss the Member's Bill this evening. As environmental activists and campaigners have stated, such a ban would be ineffective if the Executive did not take a clear position on the need to ban exploration licences for petroleum and other fossil fuels. The current Minister and two previous DUP Ministers have had applications on their desks for PLA1/16, which would allow for exploration for petroleum in the area running from Lough Neagh across to Belfast lough. It would impact on the drinking water of people in my constituency and way beyond, so, before the Minister is out of office, whenever that is, I ask him to make sure that the application is thrown out and that EHA Exploration Limited, which is trying to engage in that extractive and dangerous action, is told that it is not welcome to do so. For more than two years, activists have campaigned against the application and submitted a record number of opposition letters and petitions, but the Minister has not acted. It is time for the Minister to do the right thing and bin the application.
The truth is that the DUP has allowed Tamboran and Dalradian to operate and given them the green light for works to extract and explore. The Minister's energy strategy, which has been announced and discussed, falls way short of what is needed at this time. It allows for the continuation of fossil fuels. It is a policy dictated by the current petroleum policy, which dates back to the 1960s and shows and states a clear addiction to and support for the petroleum industry and the fossil fuel industry. Oil and gas are bad not only for the planet but for the pocket. People pay over £1,000 a year extra on their bills to fund the profits of the likes of Shell and its shareholders.
On the issue of petroleum licences and the Executive, it is worth stating, as the previous Member did, that it was late in the day when Sinn Féin indicated that it would vote against any such policy being brought to the Executive. It was pressure from activists across the North and from the aforementioned Mark Ruffalo and others that made Sinn Féin commit to blocking it at the Executive. Before that, there was silence on the Sinn Féin strategy in the Executive. That shows activists that their pressure and campaigning can bear fruit.
I share the concerns that other Members have about blue hydrogen. Despite what the fossil fuel industry would have some believe, methane gas has no role in decarbonising our energy system. The hype about blue hydrogen from fossil gas is just a hydrogen horror story. As others have said, evidence has indicated that it is worse than gas.
Mr Buchanan's comment that the polluters — the big companies — might challenge the current Bill or future Bills in the courts signifies the problem. The polluters have had their way for decades, for far too long. We need to turn the tables on the polluters and to put them on the back foot in court, if necessary. We need to go further than the Bill currently allows. We need to ensure that there is no fracking whatever, no fossil extraction or exploration for oil or gas. Throw all current applications in the bin. No more drilling. Keep it all in the ground.
I welcome the opportunity to respond to the debate on the private Member's Bill. I value the interest shown by the House in this important and current issue.
I note with interest the Member's desire to prohibit onshore hydraulic fracturing. However, that is only one element of the much broader and more complex policy area of petroleum licensing. As Members debate the Bill today, I ask that they reflect on the steps taken and the progress made by my Department in formulating policy proposals on the future of all onshore petroleum activities in Northern Ireland.
Recognising the changing strategic policy context for energy supply, carbon emissions and climate change, my Department has recently undertaken a review of our petroleum licensing regime. An important step in that review was the completion of independent, Northern Ireland-specific research on the economic, environmental and social impacts of petroleum exploration and development activity. My officials have fully considered the research findings, along with other international studies, and I can confirm that my Department's policy review has now concluded.
I have also considered this complex policy area carefully and given due consideration to the expert advice received. As it is a cross-cutting and controversial policy area, on 31 January, I circulated a paper to Executive colleagues outlining the position not just on fracking but on all onshore petroleum licensing activity. My paper recommended that the Executive agree a preferred policy option of a moratorium on all forms of exploration and extraction of oil and gas, to be followed by the introduction of a legislative ban. That would not only bring Northern Ireland in line with the rest of the United Kingdom on the issue of fracking but go further by legislating for all other types of petroleum exploration or extraction.
The position of my party is, therefore, clear, now and in any future Executive. Of course, my proposed way forward will now require the agreement of a future Executive, and, following that, the preferred option will be subject to public consultation. It is important, therefore, for Members to consider the Bill before them in the context of those developments, as well as with an understanding of the context of petroleum licensing in Northern Ireland, presuming, of course, that the other parties in the Executive share my view. To date, only the Finance Minister has responded to my paper. The Ministers from the SDLP, the Alliance Party and the UUP have not responded. The question for those other parties to answer is why they did not respond.
It may be useful to provide some general context for this evening's debate. Onshore exploration for petroleum in Northern Ireland has been taking place on a small scale since the Petroleum (Production) Act (Northern Ireland) 1964 was introduced. Over that time, although small amounts of oil and gas have been found, no commercial extraction has taken place. Companies explore for and seek to extract both conventional and unconventional hydrocarbons. Conventional hydrocarbons are found in porous rocks and are easily accessed by vertical wells and standard production techniques. Unconventional hydrocarbons, by contrast, are found in less porous rocks such as shale and are less easy to access. That is when techniques such as long horizontal drilling combined with high-volume hydraulic fracturing are used.
This Bill is focused solely on one testing and production technique: the use of fracking to access hydrocarbons in shale. There are currently no petroleum licences in Northern Ireland. The last active licence was relinquished on 28 April 2020. Members will also be aware that my Department is considering two petroleum licence applications. Both applications were subject to a public consultation process that closed in July 2019. My Department received over 5,700 responses, which were published at the end of October 2019. PLA1/16 by EHA Exploration Limited proposes exploring for oil and gas in the porous sandstones in the area to the south and east of Lough Neagh using conventional drilling techniques. PLA2/16 by Tamboran Resources (UK) Limited proposes exploring for gas in County Fermanagh. Initially, the application sought approval for the use of high-volume hydraulic fracturing. However, Tamboran subsequently made a request to revise its application in March 2020. The proposed revision will remove the need for fracking.
In summary, therefore, across Northern Ireland at this time, we have no petroleum licences in place, and neither of the two existing applications currently propose the application of high-volume hydraulic fracturing. I have repeatedly stated that decisions on both licence applications will be made by an Executive as a whole following the agreement of Northern Ireland's future petroleum licensing policy, informed by my Department's policy review. I reiterate that commitment today and sincerely hope that those responsible for the misinformation on social media are listening.
The number and range of concerns raised in the responses to my Department's consultations on the two applications brought into sharp focus the urgent need to review and update Northern Ireland's petroleum licensing policy. On that basis, my officials commenced a review in late 2019, in accordance with the Executive's policy development toolkit, of Northern Ireland's current onshore petroleum licensing system. The aim was to establish a robust evidence base from which to develop policy options for any future licensing regime. Initial considerations highlighted the lack of Northern Ireland-specific information on the impacts of petroleum licensing and the need for independent research. In October 2020, my Department commissioned Hatch Regeneris to undertake independent research on the economic, societal and environmental impacts of onshore petroleum exploration and production in Northern Ireland. In addition to analysing up-to-date peer-reviewed research and considering the policy context in Northern Ireland and further afield, Hatch engaged extensively with stakeholders, including government, councils, industry, environmental organisations and community groups.
The final Hatch report was delivered to my Department in July last year. My officials have given careful consideration to its findings as well as other relevant international studies in order to develop evidence-based policy options. That report was circulated to my Executive colleagues, but I am now prepared to publish it so that all interested parties can read it. As I have already set out, my January paper to Executive colleagues presented the outputs of the research and the options for the future of not just fracking but all petroleum licensing in Northern Ireland.
My paper also recommended my preferred option of introducing a moratorium and eventual legislative ban on all forms of onshore petroleum exploration and production. That was based on a number of factors. First, a moratorium and ban on all forms of onshore petroleum exploration and production would not disadvantage the local economy. As I said, in the last 50 years, there has been no commercial production of oil or gas in Northern Ireland. Hence there is no reliance on the sector. Specifically, the Hatch Regeneris research concluded that the potential positive economic impacts of petroleum exploration and production would be relatively minor. The preferred option would therefore ensure a focus on the growth of the low-carbon renewable energy sector, which would use a secure indigenous resource and support people into secure, well-paid jobs. Secondly, a moratorium and ban on all forms of onshore petroleum exploration and production would remove the possibility of potential adverse societal and environmental impacts on local communities and the rural environment, as no further exploration or development would be permitted.
I turn to the specifics of the proposed Bill. From the outset, I note my disappointment and surprise that the Member at no point sought to engage with my officials or me on what is proposed in this cross-cutting, controversial and complex area. It would have been useful for us both if she had. It is also unclear what level of consultation took place with those who may be impacted by the Bill's passage. I note that there is limited detail in the explanatory and financial memorandum on the extent of engagement that took place during the Member's eight-week consultation.
The Bill is very limited, as it deals with just one of a number of potential oil and gas extraction techniques — hydraulic fracturing. As I set out earlier, that technique is used to extract hydrocarbons from non-porous shale rocks. In Northern Ireland, such rocks are located largely in the Fermanagh area. The enactment of the Bill would not, however, address future petroleum exploration or production activities by any other means in Fermanagh or in other areas of Northern Ireland. Perhaps that is the Sinn Féin position, but it is not mine.
The Bill also includes a limited definition of hydraulic fracturing. Unlike the definition in the Petroleum Act 1998, which covers the rest of the United Kingdom, it does not define high-volume hydraulic fracturing by the large volumes of water used. Other types of fracturing with much lower volumes of water are used for purposes other than extracting shale gas: for example, as I said earlier, water boreholes may be fractured to increase their yield. That type of fracturing is different from the process involved in shale gas exploration and production. Therefore, the Bill needs careful scrutiny to ensure that it does not have unintended consequences. The definition may require an amendment to specify the volumes of water used and so clarify the types of fracking that would fall within the remit of the Bill.
I also note that the Bill attempts to have retrospective effect in the proposed new section 2A(2)(c) that it seeks to insert into the Petroleum (Production) Act (NI) 1964. The explanatory and financial memorandum does not provide any assessment of the legal or financial implications of such retrospective action. That also requires careful consideration. That is why I repeatedly feel the need to remind the House that legislation requires sober and careful consideration. That is often not possible when private Members' Bills address such major policy areas.
I thank the Minister for giving way. The legal costs of judicial action came up during the discussion on the moratorium and were raised by a few Members this evening. Will the Minister confirm whether his Department has had any indication of whether there would be any legal challenge if the Bill, or any moratorium or banning of fracking in Northern Ireland in subsequent legislation, were to come in?
That is why I stated previously, perhaps even in response to questions for written answer from the Member, that, if there were outstanding fracking applications or the potential for that to happen, we would bring in our policy, put that through in the proper way with consultation and then make sure that the legislation was in place. Ultimately, it is for the Executive to decide on those other applications. That was always going to be the case. It is a little bit disingenuous for some Members to say this evening that the threat of fracking has always existed and that it would have been decided solely at the whim of a DUP Minister. Of course, that is not the case, as I have always made it clear that, because those applications and licensing applications are controversial, cross-cutting and significant, I always would refer them to the Executive.
I appreciate the legal requirements that are on a Minister and a Department in dealing with licensing applications when they come in. The reality is that you are suggesting that you are willing to move Northern Ireland to the point where there would be a moratorium, which would still allow licensing applications to come along, because those people may think that they can still persuade change, but, ultimately, you indicated that you are willing to legislate to end all exploration. In those circumstances, do you not agree that we need to get to that point quickly in order to ensure that we send out a clear signal that there is no longer any point in making a licensing application in Northern Ireland?
I certainly understand that the Member wants to ensure that the Assembly legislates on that as soon as possible. I hope that he will understand that I wanted to carefully consider what was a significant report. I am sure that, when I release it in the coming days, he will take a lot of time to look at it as well. It is only right that, as a Department, we took the time to consider the matter. A lot of work was being done on the energy strategy and other issues in that part of the Department. I sought to bring it as quickly as I could. I sought agreement. Certainly, we can recognise that we are in the position tonight where there is unity around that issue. We now have a solid basis for making that decision based on the independent research that my Department commissioned and on the other international studies that we looked at.
First, the reality is that any licences will require cross-community support in the Executive. It is fairly clear that that will not happen any time soon, for a number of reasons. Secondly, the policy in front of us this evening, as I set out, commands support across the Executive. That should not come as a surprise; I made that clear at the Economy Committee last week or the week before, as the Chair set out a few moments ago. I hope that I made my position clear when I said that I did not believe that there would be any issue getting agreement at the Executive on what I was bringing forward.
I recognise that petroleum exploration and hydraulic fracturing in particular is an emotive subject. For that reason, I recognise that, despite the Bill's narrow scope and shortcomings, Members may feel that they have to support it today. I warn Members that this is a complex policy area that cannot and should not be addressed on a piecemeal basis. For that reason, I am still of the view that the appropriate way forward remains the implementation of my recommended option, which has been informed by expert advice from independent research and which will be subject to full public scrutiny through a consultation process. Subject to a future Executive's agreement and to public consultation, the introduction of a moratorium and the implementation of a legislative ban in the next mandate will address all types of petroleum exploration and production for all of Northern Ireland. My preferred approach is more comprehensive, and I believe that it will be welcomed by those who are so concerned about the issue.
I do not want to rehearse what everybody said during the debate, but I want to touch on a couple of issues. The first point is on some of the comments that have been made on the energy strategy. Some Members said that the energy strategy does not go far enough. I believe that it is appropriate and right for Northern Ireland, given that it was endorsed unanimously at the Executive and that so many stakeholders in the renewable sector, the business sector and others said that it is the strategy that we need.
Comments have been made about blue hydrogen. My focus is on green hydrogen: that is where we have incredible potential in Northern Ireland because of our wind resource. I want to harness that, and green hydrogen is the way in which we can do it. There has been some scaremongering out there and, quite frankly, nonsense spouted by those who say that it is a pro-fossil fuel energy strategy. That is certainly not the case. You can clearly see the direction of travel that we are headed in.
I will touch on some of the comments that have been made. I do not want to be hypocritical or say that this will be a win on climate change, because we will certainly have to continue to depend on fossil fuels for some time. We are being dishonest with the public, and with ourselves, if we say that we will not have any need for fossil fuels in the short term. As of 15 minutes ago, 45% of our own electricity was generated from fossil fuels. We have to be honest and recognise that fossil fuels will continue to play a necessary role as part of our fuel supply. Let me make it clear, however: I want us to head as quickly as we can towards renewables. The Chair of the Committee said:
"Fossil fuels should remain in the ground."
If that happens, we will find ourselves in trouble very soon. I based my decision on the economic and societal impacts that hydraulic fracking and petroleum licensing may have in Northern Ireland. I understand that we will still need fossil fuels. We will still be dependent on them for a time. We are being dishonest with ourselves if we say —
I thank Members for their contributions to what has been an interesting and colourful debate. I will keep my closing remarks brief and respond to some of the issues raised in due course.
This is a cross-border issue as the impact of fracking that may happen in County Fermanagh would be felt in County Leitrim and many other parts of the north-west. The discussion that we are having must be seen in the context of the overall climate emergency, which has been mentioned throughout the debate. The Bill sits alongside other important draft legislation, such as that on climate change, in bringing us into line with the rest of Europe in playing our part in the fight against the climate disaster.
Our goal as a society needs to be to reduce carbon emissions and protect future generations. As well as its climate implications, fracking has a direct and long-term impact on local environments and, ultimately, local communities. It is heartening to hear from many in the Chamber that they do not support fracking.
I will now address some of the issues raised by Members, starting with Miss Woods's contribution. I originally emailed the Secretary of State essentially to gain permission to legislate on offshore fracking. He did reply, and requested additional information, which we provided at the time. The only issue was that, after we provided that information, he never got back to us. We were under serious time constraints, and, as a result, we decided to press on with the Bill to legislate on onshore fracking.
A number of Members referred to the ins and outs and ups and downs of the definition. To put it simply, the aim of the Bill is to ban all fracking for petroleum. The definition's wording was drafted on the basis of delivering robust legislation to ban all petroleum licensing in the North. The Bill would amend the Petroleum (Production) Act 1964, so we have to be clear in the terminology that we use to amend that existing legislation.
I am absolutely committed to working with any and all Members, the Economy Committee and the Bill Office and to following the correct legislative processes to ensure that the Bill can be as robust as possible. I am open to Committee scrutiny of it. I very much look forward to reading the Hatch Regeneris report, and I am glad to hear that the Minister's preferred option is to introduce —
Sorry. Where was I? I am glad to hear that the Minister will release the Hatch Regeneris report in the coming days, and I am heartened to hear that his preferred option is to introduce a moratorium and a ban.
That concludes my remarks for this evening. As I have stated, I am more than willing to work with Members, parties, the Bill Office and the Committee to scrutinise the legislation robustly.
Question put and agreed to. Resolved:
That the Second Stage of the Onshore Fracking (Prohibition) Bill [NIA 48/17-22] be agreed.