On 13 October, the Northern Ireland Assembly passed a motion backing a “moratorium on onshore petroleum licensing and drilling”. Environmental campaigners now demand legislation banning all exploration, drilling, and extraction of hydrocarbons in the north of Ireland.
Campaigners have particular concerns about an application to drill at Lough Neagh. EHA Exploration Ltd is applying for a petroleum licence to drill in the south Lough Neagh basin. Environmental campaign group Stop The Drill told The Canary:
We are firmly opposed to all drilling. They can’t put the catchments of Lough Neagh at risk. Water protection and public health is at the core of our campaigns.
On its Twitter page Stop The Drill said:
Lough Neagh is the biggest freshwater lake in the UK and 40% of Northern Ireland’s drinking water is taken from it. We are very concerned by this proposal. The area under consideration ‘is within the drinking water catchment areas for a number of @niwnews Water Treatment Works (WTWs) and drinking water abstraction points within the Lough Neagh system.
It also told The Canary:
We share the concerns of NI Water who have noted in their consultation response to PLA1/16 that the area under consideration ‘is within the drinking water catchment areas for a number of NI Water’s Water Treatment Works (WTWs) and drinking water abstraction points within the Lough Neagh system. These drinking water catchments have been designated as a Drinking Water Protected Area (DWPA) under Article 7 of the Water Framework Directive’.
The Northern Ireland Assembly declared a climate emergency in February this year. Furthermore, there was cross party support for the 13 October motion. However, the DUP’s Diane Dodds, who’s also minister for the economy, couldn’t support it. Dodds said:
At this stage, I cannot support the motion as presented. I have taken legal advice on the matter and have been advised that the course of action proposed in the motion would, most likely, be subject to challenge.
As Minister with responsibility for this area, I am asking for the time and space to allow officials to develop evidence-based policy proposals that will be subject to a rigorous policy development process.
But campaigners are determined to stop the drill going ahead. What’s more, they’ve had success in the past. In 2016, campaigners stopped drilling for oil and gas at Woodburn forest. And so far no commercial oil extraction has taken place in the north. As stated by minister Dodds:
There are currently no petroleum licences in Northern Ireland. The last one, held by Terrain Energy, was relinquished on 28 April 2020.
Furthermore, minister for infrastructure Nichola Mallon is tightening environmental legislation. Mallon proposes changing legislation related to fracking. As matters stand, fracking can take place in the north of Ireland through permitted development rights. This means a company only needs planning permission for commercial extraction. But Mallon wants to make planning permission mandatory for exploration also.
Remaining environmental concern
The fight to protect the environment doesn’t stop at Lough Neagh. It also continues in other parts of the north. An anti-gold mining protester in the Sperrin mountains has launched a judicial review into the application to mine there.
While minister Mallon has ordered a public inquiry into this goldmine application, campaigner Martin Tracey feels it doesn’t go far enough. Tracey believes the inquiry should deal with health and environmental concerns as well as threats to life and safety. He wants Mallon’s investigation to comply with human rights.
In a separate case, minister Mallon angered environmentalists when she granted planning permission for dredging on Lough Neagh. This is taking place at a different site to the proposed petroleum drilling site. They described it as “an appalling assault on ecology and our environment”.
The campaign continues
Campaigners right across the north are active and are taking direct action to protect their environment. Our environment. With this success and momentum behind them, their environmental campaign is likely to get stronger.