Belcoo Frack Free: letter to David Ford re. Woodburn and Policing

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Interesting letter to David Ford and covered to entire NI executive from Chairman of Belcoo Frack Free – sent in March 2016.

Co Fermanagh BT93 5DN
Dated : 14 March 2016

Mr David Ford
Minister of Justice
Block B,
Castle Buildings
Stormont Estate Belfast BT4 3SG

cc : Northern Ireland Executive.
Subject : Woodburn and Policing

Dear Minister Ford,

I write as chair of Belcoo Frack Free with regards to the proposed drilling at Woodburn. I urge you and your colleagues in the Executive to give this matter your undivided attention to avoid violations of EU law, and international conventions, and most importantly violations of human rights issues. Ultimately the PSNI are going to be in the middle of it all as they were in the proposed Belcoo drilling project, but there is a more hardened line being drawn at Woodburn.

The proposed drilling is taking place under ‘permitted development rights’. These rights negate any consultation with the Public with regards to decision making. In fact if it wasn’t for asking questions of relevant Departments under Freedom of Information and Environmental Information Regulations, it would be doubtful whether any information on this would have come to light. The original licence was granted without a Strategic Environmental Assessment, and without Public consultation.

It was plain from the gatherings in Belcoo, from my own and others experience, and indeed the PSNI officers agreed with us, that the lack of Public Consultation, through the use of Permitted Development, and through the non-publishing of decisions and changes to terms and conditions, negates any forum for the public to participate in decision-making – a right granted via the Aarhus convention of which both the UK and the EU are signatories. This leaves protest as the only manner in which one can get ones views aired or heard.

There is one crucial difference between Belcoo and Woodburn. There was a decision still to be made at Belcoo. It appears all the decisions have been taken in relation to Woodburn (pending legal action).

What is clear is that the manner in which the decisions have been taken with regards to Woodburn has caused great dissatisfaction with the planning and licensing process, especially given that

– DETI awarded the original licence without an SEA and without proper public consultation. According to Assembly Question AQW 23654/11-15 by 28/05/2013 neither DETI nor GSNI had attended any public meetings in relation to Infrastrata licence PL1/10.1 (1)

– Permitted Development rights were granted by default. (The DOENI admit that they had 21 days to reply to Infrastrata’s request, and failed to do so in time, effectively granting these rights by default.)

– A new 5 year licence term to facilitate drilling was granted by DETI only by removing obligations previously committed to by Infrastrata. A contentious decision given Infrastrata’s inability to follow up commitments on this licence and other licences in the UK. (a rewarding of failure)

– This is the first known case of a Public Water Utility leasing land for Oil and Gas drilling, and in addition the drill is happening less than 400M uphill of a reservoir that serves approximately 130,000 people. There is a difference between being ‘open for business’ and being reckless.

– Pending Information from DETI to the contrary, this is the first directonally drilled petroleum well in Northern Ireland (this is not a straight vertical well – the drill bit will turn at least 30 degrees with the bottom of the borehole being approx 260M SE of the well head). Studies on deviated wells have shown them to have more integrity issues. (as an aside DETI continue to flout the regulations with regards to information requests). (2)

Now I know all the Ministers in the Executive like to operate in Silo and I appreciate that obligatory coalition poses issues, nevertheless those decisions made in silo eventually snowball into decisions that in this case leave the Minister for Justice through the PSNI with the balancing act of facilitation of peaceful protest versus the facilitation of Infrastrata and their contractors in going about their business. The protest at Belcoo was largely peaceful, and our right to protest was upheld by the PSNI through consultation with the community.

HOWEVER CRUCIALLY, there was no imminent arrival of drilling equipment on site, nor given the DOE Minister’s decision was there any drilling activity actually allowed on site. Also Belcoo is a lot more remote than Woodburn and a lot harder to get to. The drilling at Belcoo was proposed to happen while many people, especially the student community were on leave. The controversial nature in which the DETI minister has granted another 5 year term to Infrastrata along with a battery of other consents courtesy of bodies under the control of DOENI, DRD, and the local Mid and East Antrim Borough Council have made people believe many hard won rights to be informed of, to be listened to, and participate in decisions on the Environment have been violated. The Woodburn reservoir area is a local amenity. The drilling has attracted international and widespread UK attention. All these are likely to make protest at Woodburn sustained, and require policing of far greater numbers than at Belcoo.

Moreover, Infrastrata are on a time limit. They must be finished in 4 months and know that any delay will likely put them over that limit and in violation of their right to continue on site without making a further application for yet another extension. This however is their problem for not going through the full development channels, and cannot be used as an excuse by Infrastrata to claim a hierarchy in the rights issue, nor should it be used by planning to grant them extra time on site, given the clear directions already stated in the letter dated 19th December 2013 from Strategic Planning.

The rights granted to Infrastrata must not trump any rights obliged to the Public, namely the right to free assembly, the right to free speech and the right to peaceful protest. There is an interesting precedent which you should make your PSNI commanders aware of in relation to walking slowly in front of Lorries from the Barton Moss protests in Salford.

There are other rights which Infrastrata has a duty to respect as a condition of their licence. Under the Petroleum Production Regulations (Northern Ireland) 1987 (Amended 2010) there is a condition placed on Infrastrata namely ; Preservation of amenities

’29. The Licensee shall carry out all operations within the licensed area in such a manner as not to interfere unnecessarily with the amenities of the locality in which the licensed area is situated.’

This is very relevant given that the whole Woodburn area is designated as an outdoor recreation area as part of the Belfast Metropolitan Area Plan 2015. We are not talking about a quarry in Fermanagh, we are talking about an amenity for local people that has been commandeered by the Oil and Gas industry.

Mr Ford, given the cards dealt to you by the decisions of your colleagues in the Executive, I do not envy you your position, but given the cards dealt to the people of Carrickfergus and the surrounding area I believe they have many more reasons to hold those decisions in abhorrence. Please ensure that Policing is considerate of the predicament that the local community find themselves in. I am unsure why community liaison officers are not present on site as they were in Belcoo, and I would question the decision not to deploy them. If its a matter of funds, then I should look to either cross charge DETI or the Company.

Finally I wish to note that policing of the Belcoo site for three weeks cost almost 500,000 GBP. I don’t believe it is correct that Executive Ministers operating in silo effectively pass the cost of not holding public consultation and making inadequate decisions onto the Minister for Justice in the form of Policing bills. I note also that Cheshire Police force are attempting to reclaim costs from IGAS in relation to policing their site in Chester. The reality Minister Ford, is I feel the taxpayer and the ministry of Justice are being forced to pay for the incompetencies of other Departmental/Ministerial decisions.

Yours sincerely
Tom White

Chair Belcoo Frack Free.

(1) AQW 23654/11-15…/printquestionsummary.aspx…
(2) 2 AQW 47623/11-15…/printquestionsummary.aspx? docid=239673
(3) Report re Barton Moss ‘walking slowly’ –
(4) Map of Belfast Metropolitan Area Plan 2015 –– carrickfergus-woodburn-forest.pdf
(5) Cheshire Police to reclaim costs from IGAS…/cheshire-police-commissionerdeman…/