"This is one of the most important stories of it's kind in Europe."
Oil has been found for the first time on the Irish mainland an exploration company has revealed.
The discovery was made in rural Ballinlea near Ballycastle on the scenic north coast.
Now Rathlin Energy Limited intends to apply for planning permission to drill a second exploratory well.
But residents are concerned that if commercially viable supplies of oil are discovered that hydraulic fracturing — better known as ‘fracking' — could be used to extract it.
In a letter inviting north Antrim residents to Rathlin Energy Open Day, its spokesman Tom Selkirk said that although the “high quality oil” found at Ballinlea is not at a commercial volume, results were “very encouraging and represent the first discovery of onshore oil in Ireland”. The firm said that this year they will identify a site for a second well and intend to drill in 2013/14. It said fracking has no role to play in the exploration phase.
Rathlin Energy chairman David Montagu-Smith said: “At this stage Rathlin has no means of predicting the specific results of a new exploration well. Commercial success is hoped for but the risk of failure is very significant.”
But he added that if the next well found evidence of substantial amounts of oil in the shale rock, any fracking would “be guided and regulated” by Stormont’s Department of Enterprise.
The prospect of fracking has alarmed many residents and politicians in north Antrim.
SDLP councillor Donal Cunningham said: “Moyle Council have already expressed their opposition to fracking. Already in the USA, Canada, Europe and Australia, pollution caused by this process to land, to air, to surface
water and to groundwater has resulted in a terrible health toll and catastrophic environmental damage. We have to say no to the possibility of fracking, anywhere in the north coast Rathlin Basin.”
John Thompson (63), a retired Senior Planning Officer, lives at Glenstaghey, about six miles from the Ballinlea borehole.
He said the licensed exploration area appears to cover 216,000 acres from west of Ballycastle virtually all the way to Magilligan,
and inland to Garvagh and Ballymoney.
He said some of Northern Ireland’s key tourism assets — such as the Giant’s Causeway, Carrick-a-rede rope bridge and the unspoiled Causeway Coast — are covered by the licence, which has another four years to run.
He said: “We are in an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, which needs to be conserved and valued. Our unspoiled natural landscape, scenery, wildlife and clean water is even more valuable than oil or gas.
“Our natural resources are unique, and the very core of our tourism industry, agriculture and salmon-fishing.
“The public must be vigilant and public representatives need to be asking hard questions.
“I would like to think that the quality of life that I enjoy as a local resident would be maintained and cherished for generations to come.”
Mr Thompson attended the Public Relations event organised by Rathlin Energy at Ballinlea last week, and he was assured by a Rathlin Energy spokesman that no fracking would take place at the Ballinlea borehole.
However, many concerns were raised that the controversial process could be used in the wider area, if commercial oil and gas drilling is approved.
Added Mr Thompson: “At least with wind turbines, you can see the environmental impact; with oil and gas drilling as much as two kilometres underground, it’s anybody’s guess what lasting damage could be unleashed.”
For more than a decade Rathlin Energy has studied the geology of Antrim and Londonderry convinced there was the potential for an indigenous energy industry based on local oil and gas. In 2008 it drilled an oil exploration well at Ballinlea and eventually discovered oil. In 2010, the Department of Enterprise awarded Rathlin Energy a licence to continue their exploration. It covers the onshore area of the coal-bearing Rathlin Basin, stretching between Ballycastle, Limavady and Ballymoney.