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The company behind a plan to extract shale gas using the controversial method known as fracking has been accused of trying to influence opinion by “bribery”.
Canadian-based Tamboran Resources is proposing to invest £6bn developing 60 wells in Co Fermanagh, close to the border with Co Leitrim.
Representatives of Tamboran told Stormont’s enterprise committee the firm believes that “in a perfect world” it could begin commercial production as soon as 2016. However, the company said it would not oppose a public inquiry, which would push the schedule back.
Tamboran came under fire from Assembly Member Phil Flanagan (below) after it admitted it had given €20,000 (£16,000) to Manorhamilton Enterprise Forum to help prepare a planning application for a hotel in the Co Leitrim town.
“Can you understand why locals will look at that as influencing local people over the process? Some may call it a bribe,” the Fermanagh and South Tyrone MLA said.
But Tamboran CEO Richard Moorman insisted it was an example of how the area will benefit from a community fund set up to channel investment.
“Manorhamilton Enterprise Forum is made up of 26 businessmen in that area, who represent large multi-national companies and some running the local pub, and they approached us,” said Mr Moorman. “The town has been without a hotel for 27 years,” he said. “We believed it was impairing business in the town as people drive through.”
Mr Moorman said the basin being exploited is bounded by Manorhamilton and Enniskillen, and the company is going to need a base of operations. The funding is good for the area, he argued.
The company is seeking planning permission to drill a sample well by the end of the year, to extract rock cores from the basin centre. It would begin 12-month environmental impact assessments (EIAs) once sites are secured through lease or acquisition.
The company would then seek planning permission to drill up to five exploration test wells on one multi-wellpad, with drilling to possibly begin in 2014 following Government review and public consultation. It would then start EIAs on possible locations for further wellpads.
Tamboran says it could need 60 multi-wellpads with up to 24 wells per pad. The maximum land needed for the entire project would be about 150 hectares.
Tamboran says a local source of natural gas could bring electricity prices in Northern Ireland down, as the region currently has to import 97% of its natural gas supplies.
The company was granted a licence in April last year to explore the possibility of hydraulic fracturing — known as ‘fracking’ — to extract natural gas from shale rock beneath the ground in south west Fermanagh.