During the debate on the Onshore Fracking (Prohibition) Bill Second Stage at Stormont on Tuesday night, the Economy Minister told the Assembly that his preferred policy option on fracking would be a moratorium on all forms of exploration and extraction of oil and gas, to be followed by the introduction of a legislative ban.

The significant comments came during the debate on the Private Member’s Bill, brought by Sinn Féin MLA for Fermanagh and South Tyrone, Áine Murphy.

The policy option is one that will be welcomed by anti-fracking activists in the county who have been fighting for this for more than 10 years.

In his speech, Minister Lyons said: “That would not only bring Northern Ireland in line with the rest of the United Kingdom on the issue of fracking, but go further by legislating for all other types of petroleum exploration or extraction.”

He said a moratorium and ban on onshore petroleum exploration and production would not disadvantage the local economy, as there has been no commercial production of oil or gas in Northern Ireland in the past 50 years.

Minister Lyons said: “Specifically, the Hatch Regeneris research concluded that the potential positive economic impacts of petroleum exploration and production would be relatively minor.

“The preferred option would therefore ensure a focus on the growth of the low-carbon renewable energy sector, which would use a secure indigenous resource and support people into secure, well-paid jobs.

“Secondly, a moratorium and ban on all forms of onshore petroleum exploration and production would remove the possibility of potential adverse societal and environmental impacts on local communities and the rural environment, as no further exploration or development would be permitted.”

The Minister did say that his focus is on Green hydrogen and there is “incredible potential in Northern Ireland because of our wind resource”, and that the North will have to depend on fossil fuels for some time to come.

He said: “I want to harness that, and Green hydrogen is the way in which we can do it. There has been some scaremongering out there and, quite frankly, nonsense spouted by those who say that it is a pro-fossil fuel energy strategy.

“That is certainly not the case. You can clearly see the direction of travel that we are headed in.”

Minister Lyons also announced that he will be releasing the Hatch Regeneris report soon.

Belcoo Frack Free welcomed Minister Lyons’ statement, saying: “It appears after more than ten years of campaigning that we have near-universal agreement on the way forward here in Northern Ireland – something that doesn’t occur often.

“Minister Lyons said he circulated his proposals to the Executive on January 31, shortly before the resignation of the First Minister on February 4. He also stated that he would release the Hatch Report imminently.

“We are aware that there is uncertainty about whether this can proceed through the Executive without the office of First Minister and Deputy First Minister, and where it lies in business to be concluded before any election is announced.

“We await a response from the other political parties that supported the motion of October 13, 2020, which called on the Minister to implement a moratorium and a legislative ban on petroleum licensing [based] on the Minister’s proposals, and we will continue to work with all parties to move this through the Executive if it is feasible to do so.

“Despite all the uncertainty, this is very good news.”

LAMP Fermanagh said the new policy is welcomed; however, a spokesperson said: “We wish it had been a preferred option because of public health, human rights, climate and equality considerations, rather than primary economic ones”.

They continued: “The people who have had to live under the threat of licensing that would have allowed fracking are owed an apology for being subjected to the threat of fracking to all they value, their health, homes and businesses for 10 years.”

Miss Murphy’s Bill was passed and will move on to the next stage; however, it is unlikely that it will become law within the current Stormont mandate.