Mark H Durkan defends Belcoo borehole decision

Protesters held an ecumenical service at the gates of the quarry on Monday night Protesters held an ecumenical service at the gates of the quarry on Monday night

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Environment Minister Mark H Durkan has defended his decision to block an exploratory borehole for shale gas.

Former finance minister Sammy Wilson had accused Mr Durkan of signalling that Northern Ireland "is not open for business".

Mr Durkan said each application was judged on its own merits.

He said there was a "lack of objective information about the cumulative environmental impact" of work at the site in County Fermanagh.

Tamboran Resources wanted to drill a 750m deep hole at a quarry at Belcoo, using permitted development rights.

Mr Durkan said drilling could have a significant impact on the environment.

The company issued a statement saying it was "deeply concerned" by the minister's decision.

Former environment and finance minister Sammy Wilson criticised Mr Durkan's decision.

"In taking the stance that he has, he's going to deny Northern Ireland the potential to have hundreds of millions of pounds worth of investment in our own indigenous fuel," Mr Wilson said.

"He is going to deny Northern Ireland the opportunity for hundreds, if not thousands, of jobs directly in the exploration of shale gas and thousands of jobs in the downstream industries that would result from that, like fertilisers, pharmaceuticals etc."

He said Mr Durkan's decision was also inconsistent.

Analysis

Tamboran had intended to drill using "permitted development rights", which meant the firm would not have needed to apply for planning permission.

The minister could only veto this if he assessed that work was likely to have "a significant environmental impact".

And that is exactly the position he has arrived at.

Tamboran will now have to make a full planning application with an accompanying environmental statement, a process that will, conservatively, take months to complete.

But it does not mean the borehole will not eventually be drilled.

Alternatively, Tamboran may want to try to get a judicial review of the decision, arguing that the minister has not interpreted the planning regulations correctly.

"A number of boreholes going down to 3,000 feet have already been allowed in Northern Ireland without this full planning permission being required," he said.

"I think the firm would have a very good case for going for a judicial review."

Judged on merits

In response, Mr Durkan said: "In this particular instance, the site chosen by Tamboran for their proposed exploratory drilling is the site of a quarry where unauthorised work has been carried out in the past.

"I'm adopting a precautionary approach and am taking into account the lack of objective information about the cumulative environmental impact of that work and work that might take place in the future.

"If the company is as committed to here as Sammy is suggesting, then they'll be prepared to undertake the work required and to provide me with a full environmental statement."

Protesters celebrate

On Monday night, anti-fracking protesters held an ecumenical service at the gates of the quarry to celebrate the minister's decision.

Donal O'Cofaigh from Belcoo Frack Free said the decision could delay the project considerably.

"It's a great relief, the minister has made the right decision," he told the BBC.

"This is the first time that we are going to have the opportunity to be consulted on that. This is something that is of grave concern to the local community."

The MP for the area, Michelle Gildernew of Sinn Féin, also welcomed the announcement.

"The decision to deny Tamboran to begin deep bore test drilling in Belcoo, Fermanagh, is the correct decision given the clear opposition to fracking in the area," she said.

Tamboran staff moved into the quarry three weeks ago and carried out work to secure the site.

Sammy Wilson criticised the decision, claiming it is a major opportunity missed

Protesters objecting to both fracking and gas exploration had held a permanent vigil at the quarry.

The aim of the borehole was to check if there was enough gas below ground to warrant seeking a licence to set up a fracking operation.

Protesters said they feared a borehole could be the first step towards the setting up of an industry that they believe could damage the environment and the health of local residents.

The borehole drilling process would not have involved fracking.

Tamboran will now have to make a full planning application with an accompanying environmental statement.

"The company is currently reviewing its position and will release a further statement in due course," Tamboran said.

Currently, Sinn Féin, the SDLP and UUP say they oppose fracking, while the DUP has said exploration should take place, and any application for extraction should be judged at the time.

Last week, politicians condemned a petrol bomb attack that targeted the family home of a Tamboran worker in Letterbreen.

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