Stormont must stop Petroleum licensing to end fracking threat

The continued reality of that threat was revealed with the publication before Christmas of the long-delayed Sinn Féin White paper which the party promised would outlaw fracking. Campaigners have long demanded to see the content of the White paper but were bitterly disappointed when newly co-opted MLA Áine Murphy finally did make it public. While the bill does set out a ban on fracking it also specifically limits the definition of fracking to shale rocks – in a way that the legislation which banned onshore fracking in the Republic did not.

This is concerning precisely because Tamboran, the company which sought to frack Fermanagh, specifically identified fracking opportunities in Bundoran sandstone – which would fall outside the narrow ‘shale’ definition identified by Sinn Féin’s bill.

The concerns are even greater as it would appear inexplicable that Sinn Féin would bring forward a bill similar in so many regards as that passed in Leinster House – but mistakenly then adopt a definition of fracking which is at variance to that in the southern legislation. The question is doubly troubling since Sinn Féin is a party which seeks to burnish its all-Ireland credentials at all times.

An electoral sideshow

But the Sinn Féin white paper is only a side-show as it is extremely unlikely that such a white paper would be passed by the current assembly. Indeed, the publication of its timing ahead of an upcoming assembly election suggests it is more of an electoral stunt.

Of much greater concern is the upcoming decision by the Stormont Executive on its future petroleum licensing policy. Given the almost total ‘regulatory capture’ of Stormont government and agencies by the oil and gas industry – it is likely that this will offer a green light to exploration and an open door for the return of the Frackers.

The recent publication of Stormont’s Energy strategy in December confirmed that while the Executive is content to pay lip-service to climate concerns it remains wedded to ‘business as usual’ capitalism. In particular Stormont is clearly keen to promote hydrogen – including blue hydrogen, obtained by burning methane, and which due to fugitive emissions of the latter has been shown to be more polluting than coal – as a ‘transitional fuel’. (I hope to return with a more expansive consideration of that strategy in a future post.)

Stormont’s Hatch review on the way forward for fracking

Another confirmation of the oil and gas industry’s regulatory capture of the Department for Economy, is the fact that it commissioned oil and gas consultants, Hatch, to conduct a review to ‘inform’ the Executive’s decision on its approach to fracking. As has been stated correctly by Friends of the Earth, this decision as opposed to any white paper is the key issue when it comes to whether fracking proceeds or not.

From start to finish, representatives of the communities who face the threat of fracking have challenged the Hatch review as excluding them. Using my councillor platform, I have repeatedly stated the total lack of confidence which local communities have for the entire Hatch review process. But regardless, this document will inform the Executive in making its long-term decision on fracking here.

Notwithstanding those concerns, it is vital that the community mobilise to keep the pressure on both Sinn Féin and the DUP to make sure they end the fracking threat. The only way to do this effectively is to impose a total ban on all petroleum licensing for either exploration or exploitation.

Petroleum licensing – a trojan horse for fracking

If Stormont adopts a policy which leaves the door open for what is deemed the ‘conventional exploration’ of oil or gas then the industry can be relied on to use the courts to push open the door for unconventional exploitation in the future.

Let us remember that in 2014, when Stormont Ministers were forced through mass mobilisation of the community in Belcoo to remove the threat of drilling, the industry openly threatened the Executive with legal cases that would cost ‘b for billions’. Once they get an exploratory license, they will claim that if they are denied the ability to drill or exploit it that Stormont is costing them billions and use the courts to force Ministers to reverse course.

We can expect nothing different if Stormont doesn’t bolt the gate closed now when there are no live licenses to base such a legal case on.

The workers’ green economic alternative

It’s not as if we need oil and gas exploration. The climate science is undeniable: oil and gas deposits everywhere need to be left where they are – deep in the ground – if we are to avoid a serious increase in global temperatures.

If Stormont is serious about playing its part is averting a climate crisis then that must start with a ban on all petroleum licensing: ending the fracking threat once and for all as well as an end to the waste of public funding for obsolete fossil fuel technologies and infrastructure.

The opportunity exists for Stormont to use some of its £1.3 billion capital headspace to bring forward a massive (and potentially highly lucrative) investment in democratically-owned and controlled green industries and renewables capacity. We have hugely favourable climatic and geographic conditions for wind, wave and tidal energy – the revenue from which could underpin public services and further economic growth. Instead of selling our future for a handful of low-paid, short-term and polluting jobs in Fracking, we must choose a workers’ green new deal which could sustain thousands of quality, well-paid and sustainable public sector jobs in this area.

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