Woodburn Forest drill row after Assembly debate

The drilling operation at Woodburn Forest.
The drilling operation at Woodburn Forest.

Two East Antrim MLAs have clashed over the ongoing Woodburn oil drill controversy.

Following a debate about the exploratory well site at the Assembly earlier this week, Infrastructure Minister Chris Hazzard indicated moves to amend legislation around Permitted Development Rights.

InfraStrata, the company behind the project, sought to carry out drilling work late in 2013 on the grounds that it was “permitted development” and did not require a planning application. Permission was then granted automatically because the Department of Environment failed to respond in time once it was notified of the plans.

Welcoming the minister’s comments, his Sinn Fein colleague and East Antrim MLA, Oliver McMullan said: “There are serious concerns about the handling of the process about how the application for drilling was handled at Woodburn.

“It’s scandalous that a licence was granted by the former Department of the Environment without a full environmental impact assessment.

“I welcome therefore the proposal by Infrastructure Minister Chris Hazzard to ensure this can’t happen again.”

However, Alliance MLA Stewart Dickson said the proposal to change rules around planning permission for oil and gas exploration comes too late.

The motion, Mr Dickson claimed “will have no effect on Woodburn Forest, where that particular horse has bolted”.

He added: It was a poor move by Sinn Fein – they are an Executive party and the Executive has the power to stop that drilling.”

During Monday’s debate in the Stormont chamber, former Environment Minister Mark H Durkan stressed that projects such as Woodburn tend to be “cross-cutting in nature” with the legacy departments Enterprise, Trade and Investment responsible for licensing, Regional Development for water supply, Agriculture for the forest and DoE.

He continued: “What we are seeing at Woodburn Forest was never subject to a planning application. It is what constitutes permitted development. People are shocked, and rightly so, that something of this scale and nature was not subject to the scrutiny of a full application, and I do have a great deal of sympathy with them.

“Indeed, before leaving office, I commenced a review of permitted development with a call for evidence in relation to exploratory drilling, with the intention that something like this cannot happen again without the wider consultation and deeper scrutiny of a full application.”