On Tuesday 17th May exploratory drilling for oil began in Woodburn Forest, near Carrickfergus, County Antrim, the first adventure of fracking on this island. There are serious concerns about a lack of transparency and democracy as the project comes to life, despite an official moratorium on fracking. Campaigners point to a litany of governance and regulatory failures surrounding the scheme. Oil exploration has been allowed to proceed on publicly-owned land without planning permission, public consultation, due-diligence checks or an assessment of environmental impact.
The UK-based energy company InfraStrata expects to find oil at Woodburn. It was granted a petroleum exploration licence for the Larne and Lough Neagh basin in March 2011 which was renewed in March 2016. This licence area stretches 520sq km across north-east Northern Ireland. It encompasses a site at Islandmagee in Antrim, where the company is constructing an underground gas-storage facility. Should InfraStrata find oil, it will secure the right to extract hydrocarbons across the entire licence area without ever having been subject to public scrutiny. The DUP’s finance spokesperson, Sammy Wilson has colourfully suggested he’d like to see “as much oil in Carrickfergus as there is in Texas”. Neither the DUP’s nor Sinn Féin’s MLAs seem exercised by the issue.
Once oil or gas is found, any attempt by the Northern Irish executive to halt drilling would allow InfraStrata to make claims for compensation for loss of profits. In a similar ongoing case concerning the fracking company Tamboran Resources in County Fermanagh, the company is suing the state for compensation of up to £3bn.
Members of the Stop the Drill campaign have maintained a vigil at the InfraStrata site in Woodburn, since February. They are highlighting the democratic deficit in the project, as well as the danger that drilling poses to the local community’s water supply. The drill rig is situated on land leased to the company by the public water utility, Northern Irish Water. The fifty-year agreement between Northern Irish Water and InfraStrata gives the company permission to re-inject petroleum, water and any other fluids into the ground at the site. It is just 300 metres from a reservoir that supplies water to 130,000 homes in Carrickfergus and Belfast.
Situating the well on publicly owned land has meant that InfraStrata does not need to negotiate consent from local landowners. Legislation provides that if the company decided to proceed with the production phase, it can acquire the land without landowner’s authorisation. The use of public land to facilitate contentious energy projects over community objections echoes Shell’s lease of land from Coillte for its Corrib project.
It raises serious questions about a lack of meaningful public consultation in the planning and development of energy projects in Northern Ireland. Such consultation is a right enshrined in the EU Aarhus Convention on access to information, participation and redress in environmental decision-making.
After securing the site from Northern Irish Water, InfraStrata by-passed planning permission for the Woodburn project by exploiting a loop-hole in regulations known as ‘permitted development rights’ (PDR). This is normally used for minor, non-contentious issues. PDR was granted by default in November 2013 after the Department of Enterprise Trade and Investment failed to assess the application within the required statutory deadline. It also seems to breach the EU Environmental Impact Assessment Directive.
Despite calls from the Stop the Drill campaign to review the project on the grounds that it should not be permitted under PDR, Minister Mark Durkan and the Mid and East Antrim Council allowed work to begin in February 2016. As tree-felling on the site began, the local community was alarmed that the company had still not produced a Waste Management Plan for the handling of toxins and dealing with any contamination on the sensitive water-catchment site.
The arrival of the drill rig on site on 9th May was delayed by courageous action of the local community who maintained a defiant slow walk in front of the rig as it travelled to the site. A retired teacher attached himself to the rig with a bicycle lock, in a symbolic act of protest. In a statement to the assembled media, he declared his belief that he was justified in carrying out this act of civil disobedience in order to prevent what he saw as a larger crime from being committed by InfraStrata.
A member of the local community, Richard Irwin, has taken two judicial review cases in an attempt to stop the drill. The first case refers to InfraStrata’s alleged breaches of its “permitted development rights”. The second seeks to question Northern Irish Water’s decision to lease land in a statutorily protected water catchment to an oil company. These cases are both continuing. In the meantime, community members and supporters continue to gather at the vigil camp in Woodburn Forest.
For further information on the Stop the Drill campaign: www.stopthedrillcampaign.com. Jamie Gorman is a community worker undertaking PhD research on environmental justice