It is with great relief that we welcome Rathlin Energy Ltd’s decision to terminate their Petroleum Licence (PL3/10) for the Rathlin Basin, and withdraw their planning application to drill an exploratory well into the shale layer at Ballinlea.
The company cited a number of reasons for their decision—depressed world oil prices, unforeseeable delays in the planning approval process, and a lack of suitable conditions in Northern Ireland. Their licence was due to expire early in 2016 and they would have had to extend it in order to complete the planning process, and their drilling plans.
Questions have been raised in Europe around the petroleum licencing system in Northern Ireland, which, unlike that in the rest of the UK, has not been subject to a Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA)—and therefore offers less protection for the people of Northern Ireland. SEA is something that campaigners here will continue to lobby for before any more petroleum licences are awarded.
We can only speculate about the timing of Rathlin Energy’s announcement, coming so soon, as it does, after Minister Durkan’s announcement that there would be a presumption against unconventional hydrocarbon extraction in Northern Ireland Planning Policy. Campaigners have long believed that Rathlin Energy’s explorations could lead to unconventional hydrocarbon extraction, including hydraulic fracturing (fracking) along the North Coast, and so are delighted that they have decided to terminate their licence at this time.
In terms of the planning process for this application, certainly there have been delays—but these have largely resulted from a lack of comprehensive information provided by the company and their representatives to the Planning Service, in order to enable them to make a decision. The information provided with the application as been inadequate since the initial application in 2013.
The Protect Our North Coast (PONC) Group is pleased that the company has decided to withdraw, particularly as they had indicated that they would “not be able to function” if they were “at odds with the local community”— Over many meetings the feelings of the community were clear and witnessed in particular by the vote in April 15 in Ballinlea Community Hall when local people unanimously passed a motion expressing their opposition, and after which PONC asked Rathlin Energy to withdraw their application.
Despite the relief that Rathlin Energy has terminated its licence, the campaign will not end completely. There are other aspects of the campaign which need to continue. There is still a threat to the North Coast from at least one off-shore petroleum licence near Rathlin Island, issued by the UK Department of Energy and Climate Change—and the Northern Ireland system around petroleum licencing and planning approvals requires some improvement.
But for now, the PONC group is happy to have witnessed this wonderful moment and would like to thank everyone who supported our campaign and to those who voiced their concerns and objections. We believe that their contribution to the planning process has helped to protect the north coast area from an industrial development which posed grave risks to public and environmental health.