Environmentalists have criticised a Northern Ireland Executive department for making £75,000 available to fund a consultants’ report on the pros and cons of petroleum exploration.
This includes the controversial practice of fracking.
The Economy Department is putting the contract out to tender and hopes the work will start in the autumn.
It will look at the “economic, environmental and societal” impacts of onshore drilling for oil and gas.
Fracking opponents say the contract should not be awarded.
In May 2019, a public consultation was held following a fresh licence application by exploration company Tamboran to evaluate shale gas in the south west of Northern Ireland.
The application, and a second one for conventional oil and gas, are currently under consideration.
Shale gas is extracted using the controversial practice of fracking, where gas-bearing rock is fractured using a high pressure solution of water, sand and chemicals to bring the gas to the surface.
A previous attempt by the company at an exploratory well faced significant community opposition amid pollution and health concerns.
The tender documents say the consultants’ report will be used to “formulate evidence-based policy options and provide ministers with the information needed to make fully informed decisions about future petroleum development.”