This is not a death knell

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FRACKING firms will not give up on ambitions to drill for shale gas in the north despite the environment minister rejecting borehole plans, energy experts have said.

Australian company Tamboran had sought permission to drill an exploratory borehole in Co Fermanagh to test for commercially-viable levels of gas.

But its plans were thrown into dis-array on Monday after SDLP minister Mark H Durkan, pictured, rejected the proposals for collecting rock samples at a Belcoo quarry.

Tamboran will now have to apply for full planning permission with an accompanying environmental impact statement, which could take more than five months for planning officials to process.

The company could also decide to challenge the decision in court, arguing that the minister has not correctly interpreted planning regulations.

Tamboran has so far only said it is “deeply concerned” by the minister’s decision, while DUP MP and former environment minister Sammy Wilson has accused Mr Durkan of signalling that Northern Ireland “is not open for business”.

But experts last night predicted the decision would not deter Tamboran or other companies from pursuing fracking in the north.

Andrew Ryan, partner at Belfast-based law firm Tughans and head of its environment and planning team, said he believed Tamboran would have “more than enough confidence” to pursue its plans.

“I certainly do not see this as the death knell for fracking in Northern Ireland,” he said.

“It is clearly an obstacle that Tamboran were hoping they would not hit but they have invested so much in this process so far that I would be surprised if this is the end of it.

“I would be surprised if this is the last chapter.”

Tamboran had sought to drill a 750m-deep borehole under current ‘permitted development rights’, meaning the firm would not need full planning permission.

The plans were met with fierce opposition, with demonstrators setting up a protest camp outside the quarry where the drilling was due to take place.

A Tamboran employee’s family home in Letterbreen was also targeted last week in a petrol bomb attack, which was condemned by both politicians and anti-fracking campaigners.

The firm has also faced opposition politically with Sinn Féin, the SDLP and UUP saying they oppose fracking.

Of the main parties only the DUP has said exploration should take place, adding that any subsequent fracking bid should be judged later.

A public relations expert who has previously worked with energy companies said he thought Tamboran “underestimated the community backlash” and could have benefited from more rigorous local consultation.

But despite the opposition, he predicted the firm would still “stay the course” and push forward with its plans.

“They have directed too many economic resources to this to just walk away,” he said.

Fracking, a technique used to extract natural gas, involves pumping water, sand and chemicals into a well under high pressure to force gas from the rock.

Tamboran was granted a petroleum licence in 2011 for an initial five-year period from the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment to explore for natural gas in Fermanagh.

While proponents insist fracking is safe and can lower fuel bills, opponents are concerned about the contamination of water supplies and earth tremors.

Prof Richard Davies, project lead of independent research consortium ReFINE (Researching Fracking in Europe), claimed there is no substantial evidence that fracking itself causes contamination of water supplies.

However, the Newcastle University academic said problems have occurred when a small percentage of boreholes have leaked in the past, particularly in the US.

Prof Davies said it was “good practice” to properly assess a site for any potential contamination or other issues before any drilling takes place.

“One of the big learning points from the US is that you need to understand the level of contamination before any drilling or fracking takes place,” he said.

“Baseline surveys are seen as good practice and it provides confidence as to whether your activity has caused damage to the environment.”

* PROTESTS: Main, a protester carries a sign at the anti-fracking camp based at the site where Tamboran want to drill in Belcoo, Co Fermanagh. Left, anti-fracking protester Sara Stewart at the makeshift camp. Below, from left, protesters Pauline Morgan and Leah Doherty Pauline Morgan show their support; police maintain a presence at the camp; Sinn Fein’s John Feely joins the protesters; a protester keeps dry in a caravan PICTURES: Mal McCann