No plans for gas ‘fracking’ in Larne, says energy firm

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PETROLEUM exploration company InfraStrata has stated this week that it is “not looking to undertake fracking” in Co Antrim.

The firm, which holds a licence for oil and gas exploration between Larne Lough and Lough Neagh, said it has always intended to pursue “conventional” means of discovery.

A partnership with US firm eCORP Oil – which has engaged in controversial fracking (hydraulic fracturing) in the past – has been dissolved and InfraStrata maintains that its new partners – Nautical Petroleum, Brigantes Energy and Terrain Energy – are all, in common with InfraStrata, “conventional explorers”.

Hydraulic fracturing entails pumping millions of gallons of water, sometimes mixed with chemicals, deep into the ground to dislodge gas from layers of shale. This “unconventional” method enables the energy industry to extract gas that cannot be reached using conventional drilling.

The Department of Trade and Enterprise has issued four petroleum exploration licences in Northern Ireland. One company –Tamboran, which holds a licence covering parts of counties Fermanagh, Cavan and Leitrim – has indicated that it intends to use fracking without chemicals, It claims that problems associated with the process in the US were down to loose environmental controls.

As reported last week, Larne councillors are to have a private screening of Gaslands – an award-winning documentary film that exposed consequences of fracking in some US states, including water pollution and public health issues. The Green Party, meanwhile, has urged the public to attend a free screening of the film in the McNeill Theatre at Larne leisure centre on Wednesday, December 14 (7.30pm).

The Larne Times asked InfraStrata about its plans and invited the company to comment on the fracking controversy. The public relations agency engaged by the firm told us: “InfraStrata would not wish to comment on ‘unconventional’ exploration and fracking of shales because it is not what they are exploring for. They are looking for ‘conventional’ targets that do not involve fracking.”

The spokesperson referred to the Vibreosis seismic survey undertaken on the company’s behalf recently. Over an eight-week period, a total of 275 kilometres of 2D seismic data were acquired in Co Antrim along a series of 13 individual lines traversing, Antrim, Newtownabbey, Carrickfergus and parts of Larne and Ballymena in an area known as the Central Larne-Lough Neagh Basin.

The company’s website (www.infrastrata.co.uk) reports: “InfraStrata will now review the data with project partners to assess the conventional petroleum potential in the area and stakeholders will be fully consulted on any future plans or activities.”

We referred the agency to an October 7, 2011 response by DETI Minister Arlene Foster to Green Party MLA Steven Agnew in which the minister indicated that while the primary objective of Central Lough Neagh Basin exploration is to “identify conventional Permo-Triassic oil and gas targets”, the terms include a permit to “review the unconventional gas potential of the licence area”.

The agency replied: “InfraStrata’s intention has always been to explore for conventional oil and gas, which have been successfully produced in many locations onshore UK for more than 50 years. At the time InfraStrata made the application to DETI for the exploration licence (back in 2010) its partner was eCORP, a company with experience in unconventional exploration in the US and so it was mentioned in the application that the unconventional potential would be reviewed. However, eCORP is no longer a partner in the petroleum exploration licence PL1/10 (Central Larne-Lough Neagh Basin). There are three other partners – Nautical Petroleum, Brigantes Energy and Terrain Energy – who like InfraStrata are conventional explorers.

“The partners are not looking to undertake ‘fracking’ for gas from shales in the Antrim area. As previously explained, the data that was recently acquired over the area is currently being processed and will be interpreted early next year.”

Asked if its interpretation of the data will lead to drilling and, if so, at which locations, InfraStrata said: “This may or may not lead to drilling in a place as yet unknown. Under the licence conditions the partners have three years to make a decision on drilling. If the data reveals a suitable prospect for test drilling, the earliest that drilling would take place would be late 2012 and stake holders would be fully consulted well in advance on any plans.”

The Larne Times then asked if eCORP was entitled to receive of any or all of the data in the survey for its own future use. We also asked if was feasible that InfraStrata could sell the data referring to unconventional exploration to eCORP or other unconventional exploration companies.

The media spokesperson told us: “eCORP hasn’t been a partner since the licence was awarded and therefore has no rights to data. InfraStrata and partner data only becomes public domain after a significant number of years, as it remains commercially confidential to InfraStrata and partners in the meantime.”

She added: “InfraStrata and partners are focusing on the conventional potential whilst it has the exclusive oil and gas rights in the area under their DETI petroleum licence.

“They can’t say what might happen in the future (potentially after many years) when their data becomes available to others through normal data release processes, and the petroleum licence has been relinquished should their exploration efforts be unsuccessful.”