Infrastrata’s recently announced exploratory well in Co. Antrim—to be or not be?

A company called Infrastrata have recently obtained ‘permitted development’ rights to drill an exploratory borehole, in their Larne-Lough Neagh Basin licence area—starting and finishing within a four-month time period sometime between September 2014 and March 2015—but will the project ever get off the ground?

Infrastrata does not yet have:

  • a lease on the land it intends to drill
  • enough investment/funding, and
  • approval from the Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA), the Northern Ireland Health and Safety Executive (HSE), and the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (DETI).

A partner company, Nautical, pulled out of the joint venture when it was bought over by Cairn Energy plc, and so Infrastrata now need a new investor/partner to help finance the project. Their subsidiary company, Islandmagee Storage Ltd has recently been dealt a blow by BP Gas Marketing Ltd pulling out of the planned gas storage project at Islandmagee. These withdrawals of continued support cannot be helpful to the company’s plans. 

As news of the planning permission being granted under ‘permitted development’ rights has emerged, residents and environmental groups are appalled that such a project can be given this type of planning permission which bypasses public information provision, consultation, and independent environmental scrutiny. People who live nearby have not been given an opportunity to voice their concerns about the potential health impacts of exploratory drilling.

In Northern Ireland, Part 16 of Schedule 1 of the Planning (General Development) Order (Northern Ireland) 1993, allows ‘permitted development rights’ to apply to the drilling of exploratory boreholes for ‘Mineral Exploration’. This means that the normal planning approval processes do not apply, as long as certain limited conditions are met.

Questions must be asked, about whether it is still appropriate for Northern Ireland to include the drilling of exploratory boreholes for petroleum explorations as ‘permitted development’. England and Scotland have specifically excluded it from their equivalent legislation. The Department of the Environment (Northern Ireland) states that: “Generally, permitted development rights are applied to relatively minor non-contentious development”.

However, drilling exploratory boreholes for petroleum exploration cannot be described as either minor or non-contentious. The nature of onshore oil and gas explorations has changed markedly in the decades since this legislation was prepared. The technology and techniques used by the industry have become much more complex as the target rocks have become more difficult to access. Public knowledge of the potential health impacts of the fugitive emissions of toxic gases to the air as a result of drilling and/or flaring, potential water and ground pollution from loss of drilling fluid and toxic waste, have increased due to more public health research being undertaken and information being more readily available. 

The lack of public information, consultation or opportunity for participation in decision-making around such a project, which could have significant environmental and health consequences for the local community, and is likely to involve 24hr drilling with associated lighting and noise, surely contravenes at least two of the three pillars of the international Aarhus Convention—access to information, public participation and access to justice—to which the UK, including Northern Ireland, is a signatory.

It remains to be seen whether Infrastrata’s exploratory borehole will proceed…it obviously still depends on everything falling into place by September/October. The company, the DOE, NIEA, HSE and DETI can expect to hear some objections between now and then—particularly as the company is likely to want to explore for multiple types of oil deposits, including those in tight sandstones or source rock, requiring unconventional extraction methods such as the controversial high volume (slick-water) horizontal hydraulic fracturing.

 

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