EnergyEnergy report

Oil and gas exploration to be banned

The Department for the Economy has announced plans to bring forward proposals that would ban all forms of petroleum exploration and production.

The Department for the Economy (DfE), which has responsibility for energy policy, currently has the power to grant licences to companies to search for and extract onshore oil and gas. If the DfE’s proposal is accepted by the Executive, the proposed changes will involve amendments to the Petroleum (Production) Act (Northern Ireland) 1964.

The announcement, made by then Minister for the Economy Conor Murphy MLA, follows a consultation on the current petroleum licensing system, which was open between 15 January and 12 April 2024. Although the findings of the consultation are not yet public, Murphy stated that the “vast majority of respondents to the consultation supported the move away from fossil fuels”.

The Republic of Ireland and Wales have both banned all onshore oil and gas activity, and the Scottish Government has introduced a ban on hydraulic fracturing i.e. ‘fracking’.

There are currently no active petroleum licences in Northern Ireland with the last active one relinquished in 2020. However, the Executive has yet to issue decisions on two applications which cover Fermanagh, Tyrone, Armagh, and Antrim.

The DfE’s proposal comes in the aftermath of a two-year long campaign by pressure groups including LAMP Fermanagh, Friends of the Earth NI, and Frack Action, and has been supported by both Murphy and his predecessor Gordon Lyons MLA.

In January 2022, a Department for the Economy paper recommended that the Executive should agree a preferred policy option of a moratorium on all forms of exploration and extraction of oil and gas, to be followed by the introduction of a legislative ban.

Speaking in April 2024 on the proposal, Murphy said: “As climate change is one of the defining challenges of our time, one of the key objectives of my economic vision is to reduce carbon emissions. To meet our net zero targets, a priority will be to move away from petroleum to renewables.

“I intend to ban all forms of onshore petroleum exploration and production – including fracking. This will not only help us transition from fossil fuels to renewables but also towards a greener economy and more sustainable way of life.

“I will soon ask Executive colleagues to approve a ban and, if this is granted, I will introduce legislation to this Assembly to ban onshore petroleum licensing. This will require amendments to the Petroleum (Production) Act (Northern Ireland) 1964 and other regulations.”

DUP MLA Phillip Brett described the proposals as “meaningless unless we offer an affordable and accessible alternative for households across Northern Ireland”, and called on the Minister to outline “how he plans to swiftly bring forward a strategy to enable households to make the transition to renewable energy as a means of heating their homes”.

The introduction of legislation will be a relatively lengthy process. If the Executive grants its support, there will be subsequent scrutiny to be taken by the Economy Committee, with the Minister outlining 2025 as a possibility for the introduction of legislation.

In the meantime, however, the Minister stated that the DfE will not accept or process onshore petroleum licensing applications.

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