Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Lignite mining in North Antrim is a very important issue for many people, as I am sure other Members who represent the area will agree. It also concerns other parts of the North, as air pollution from a lignite mine in Ballymoney would affect all those living in Belfast, in the east, to those living in Donegal, in the west. It would also affect parts of Scotland.
A similar lignite mine to that proposed in North Antrim created a black triangle in parts of Germany and the Czech Republic. In those areas, sulphur dioxide and nitrous oxides from lignite-fuelled power stations have damaged the environment and were linked to the destruction of vegetation and to genetic mutation in livestock. That was in addition to the dust and water pollution that was experienced locally.
The World Wildlife Fund’s local representative, Malachy Campbell, has pointed out that carbon dioxide is thought to be the main reason for climate change. Given that lignite releases more carbon dioxide than coal, oil or gas— [Interruption.]
The environmental effect would be disastrous. When I saw the effects of a flash flood in Cushendall this morning and spoke to families who have been devastated by the damage that it caused, I was provided with a glimpse of how badly affected communities would be if climate change were not tackled adequately.
The Australian company Auiron Energy, which is now known as Felix Resources, applied to build a mine outside Ballymoney but withdrew its application three years ago. However, the company remains adamant that its project is still alive. I am concerned that, even since that application was withdrawn, the relevant planning legislation makes it easier and more attractive for companies to apply to operate lignite mines here.
The Just Say No To Lignite Campaign group has done some superb work, which was demonstrated by the fact that more than 35,000 letters of objection to the lignite mine application were submitted. I want to be the first to welcome representatives of that group to the Assembly today.
No one should be under any illusion that the issue has been resolved. Lignite designation still has a negative effect on communities. The development of new mines is controlled by the Planning Service, which is now in the hands of local politicians. Although it is not possible to enforce an outright ban on the development of new lignite mines, it is possible to draft development plans and policies in ways that will ensure the refusal of planning permission for such proposals. The Planning Service’s draft northern area plan 2016 includes two designations that affect lignite mining: first, areas of constraint on mineral development; and, secondly, lignite resource areas. Under the areas of constraint on mineral development designation, the Planning Service is unlikely to grant planning permission for the development of new mines. Under the lignite resource area designation, proposals for new lignite mines are likely to be given planning permission, subject to certain environmental and transportation considerations being met.
The easiest way in which to place restrictions on the development of new lignite mines will be to expand the areas of constraint on mineral development designation and reduce the size of lignite resource areas. There is absolutely no reason why those courses of action cannot be taken. North Antrim is awash with tourist attractions and locations marked as areas of outstanding natural beauty. The region has massive potential for the development of clean and renewable energy sources such as wind power. Who in their right mind would even contemplate the building of a pollutant lignite mine the size of 4,000 football pitches in the middle of such an area?
Planning restrictions are still in effect in North Antrim as a result of the presence of lignite. Planning permission will not be granted for any new homes in the designated lignite resource area. That will have a devastating effect on the surrounding communities. Indeed, by way of the draft northern area plan, the Planning Service has more than trebled the size of the protected lignite zone. Areas such as Dunaghy and part of Stranocum are now trapped in that zone, which means that new homes and new businesses cannot be built there.
The situation is outrageous, but the problem can be resolved if the Ministers responsible show firm and unyielding leadership. All four main parties are opposed to lignite mining in North Antrim. Therefore, now that those parties are all represented in the Executive, there can be no excuse for not expanding the area of constraint on mineral development designation in Ballymoney; for not reducing the size of the lignite resource area, thereby removing the planning stranglehold that grips rural communities; for not ensuring that lignite no longer forms an integral part of the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Industry’s energy strategy; and for not increasing the focus on renewable energy.
More than 35,000 people cannot be wrong. I am glad that the Minister of the Environment is in the Chamber for the debate. Sinn Féin wants a firm commitment from the Ministers responsible that they will act on this issue, acknowledge that lignite is the dirtiest and most polluting fuel in Europe, and, once and for all, close the door on lignite in North Antrim. Go raibh maith agat.
I welcome the opportunity to place on public record once again our opposition to the extraction of lignite in the most idyllic part of this country, and, in particular, in my constituency of North Antrim. The issue of lignite mining has been a running sore in the area since lignite was first discovered in the early 1980s. Two common themes have emerged since then; namely, lignite mining is not wanted, and, if it were to be start, it would devastate the area.
Nevertheless, we should not lose sight of the fact that the areas that have been mentioned were not the first in which lignite was discovered. I am glad that the Minister of the Environment is in the Chamber this evening. I am pleased that my colleague from South Antrim, Mr Clarke, and the leader of the Alliance Party, Mr Ford, are also in the Chamber. The Minister will know that a site at Ardboe in County Tyrone had previously been considered as suitable for the extraction of lignite.
It seems as though Ballymoney has been specifically chosen as the area in which lignite mining is to be pursued. I want the Minister to explain why Crumlin and Ardboe have suddenly gone off the radar and why north Antrim has been specifically targeted as a site for lignite mining. In the past, serious issues have been raised about why the contractors did not return to the site in Ardboe. I will say no more on that issue unless it is absolutely necessary during the debate.
Lignite mining would have a profound, long-term and irreversible destructive effect in north Antrim. It can create deserted villages and lunar landscapes. In the past, I have also described it as “environmental rape”, and that is putting it mildly. However, it is also open to serious question whether the suggested benefits that that kind of devastation would create would even transpire. It is well attested that the process by which electricity is created by that kind of lignite mining plant suffers from high pollution and is vulnerable to the price fluctuations of the market. Furthermore, many jobs that would be created by such an operation would be short term and would not be filled by people from the local area, but, quite possibly, from overseas. All that would occur in what is now rich agricultural land, but by then that land would have witnessed the closure of some 80 farms.
It would also be the single greatest cause of a massive drop in tourism along the Causeway Coast. The Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment need not bother with its proposed interpretative centre at the Causeway if lignite mining were to go ahead. The establishment of lignite mining would mean kissing goodbye to the Giant’s Causeway and to the Causeway Coast’s status as an area of outstanding natural beauty and a place that attracts visitors. The gateway to the Causeway would be devastated. The Member has correctly referred to the fact that the proposal covers the equivalent of around 4,500 football pitches. Members need to understand that it is not a proposal for a small-time development but a large extraction and removal of the countryside in north Antrim.
The economic arguments are only one collective reason why Northern Ireland cannot afford lignite mining. The ecological and environmental reasons include: the impact on the rural landscape, with many thousands of acres being used in the operation; the many miles of overhead power cables; the annihilation of the farming community; the destruction of habitats; a massive increase in road traffic; and the diversion and possible pollution of rivers such as the hugely important River Bush. The River Bush has already suffered as a result of many problems through the years, and it could do without more problems.
Further problems for the area would be land pollution from the various toxins that would result from the project, the substance of houses and the need to rehouse many people, and increased illness and higher mortality rates in the area as a result of air pollution.
Those are the potential repercussions of lignite mining in north Antrim. However, the threat of lignite mining haunts the area today; it is not merely a cloud in the future. It is a reality with which people have to live; it is a long shadow that is currently being cast over the economy, the housing market, the environment, the ecology and the population of my constituency.
It is widely believed that house and land prices have been depressed because of the threat that hangs over the area. Effects have been felt from the villages of Stranocum and Dunaghy to the town of Ballymoney.
The Minister of the Environment should initiate an investigation into the impact to date of the threat of lignite mining in my constituency. She may say that such an investigation would involve the consideration of matters such as house and land prices, economic investment and employment, which are be beyond the remit of her Department. If that is the case, a joint investigation is required and, as we are all advocates of joined-up government, I am sure that such an example of good practice will not be difficult to achieve. This issue is important enough to warrant such an approach, which I request be taken.
Reassurance and certainty are additional requirements. The Minister is in a position to state unambiguously that, as far as her Department is concerned, the nightmare for North Antrim is off the table and will not be coming back.
There is another issue that Members must be clear about when they discuss the lignite issue. The extraction of lignite for use in power generation is not the only matter for concern. Given that lignite is a fossil fuel, which would incur huge carbon taxes and all the problems that have been highlighted, and having read the statistics, no Member could conclude that the extraction of lignite could be financially viable for any company.
I highlighted this issue when I wrote to Malcolm Wicks who, at that time, was the Minister of State for Energy at the Department of Trade and Industry. The matter was clarified in the Planning Service’s ‘Draft Northern Area Plan 2016’, which states, under the headings “Designation COU 15” and “Lignite Resource Area”:
“The lignite deposit in Ballymoney Borough is recognised as an important and valuable mineral resource, part of which has been proven to be of internationally recognised standards. The Plan safeguards this resource, to ensure the reserves remain exploitable if and when the need arises.”
The important part of that quotation is:
“exploitable if and when the need arises.”
Regrettably, that has caused grave concern. The problem is compounded later in the same document. Under the headings “Policy MIN 1” and “Protection of the Lignite Resource”, the document states:
“The lignite reserves in Northern Ireland are included within the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment’s overall long term Energy Strategy Framework for Northern Ireland.”
Therefore, current draft Government policies not only identify a valuable resource, but allow for its exploitation if and when the need arises. That is the heart of the problem. Who is to say whether or not some genius, if such a person still exists, might discover a purpose other than power generation for which lignite could be used? Lignite would again be considered a valuable resource — something that could be exploited. Members must have reassurances that the cloud that has hung over my constituency for such a long time will be raised, once and for all.
In conclusion, I wish to pay tribute to the Collective Objectors to Lignite Development group, which has accomplished an immense task. It is easy for politicians to use other people’s material, rather than do the work and gather the material themselves. The coalition launched the Just Say No to Lignite Mining campaign and has single-handedly ensured that the issue has not gone under the radar. That group has ensured that the issue has been kept to the forefront of the public’s attention.
Public opinion has been mentioned during the debate. Sometimes, one must be careful about public opinion; it is not always a good benchmark from which to plan public policy. Unfortunately, certain legislation has come to the fore after it has been approved by public opinion. However, the 37,500 signatories of the petition against lignite mining, which include people not only from Northern Ireland, but from the Republic, Scotland and other areas, have made it abundantly clear that the issue must be dealt with.
This matter must be dealt with in a way that gives the landowners and the population of the affected area — as well as the rest of Northern Ireland — the assurance that although lignite has been identified as a valuable resource, it will be kept in the ground and will not be exploited, so that the people of North Antrim can be left alone in peace to enjoy the tranquillity of the greatest constituency in Northern Ireland. Without bias, I want to say that that constituency also has the greatest MP, who happens to be the First Minister of Northern Ireland.
There is little left for anyone to say after that excellent speech, and the one that came before it. I am glad that I have the opportunity to speak on this subject, because those of us who have had the privilege to work with the coalition and the Just Say No to Lignite campaign can say that, undoubtedly, our meeting with them was one of the most moving at which one could be present. We heard people speak from the heart about their difficulties, fears and concerns.
When one considers the situation, and the fact that lignite is at the bottom of the list of energy production sources, one begins to realise that this issue should not have come to the fore at all, particularly in the present climate of global warming. From that perspective, the Assembly must take on board the fact that lignite mining would create a huge potential for pollution in this country.
When figures and research were produced, we discovered that dust from such a mine would travel for at least 90 miles, and that most of Northern Ireland, particularly the most northerly part, would be covered in that dust. Furthermore, that dust would spread as far as Scotland. The reason that people in Scotland got behind the campaign against lignite mining in North Antrim is that they too would be affected by it.
Those of us who travelled to the continent to see lignite mines and their surrounding areas realised immediately that if that was what would become of North Antrim, action must be taken to stop it. Not only did we see the rape of the countryside, but the awful desolation of those areas, which were without people, schools, churches, community centres, and so forth. Owing to lignite mining, there was nothing there except a wilderness.
Moreover, huge mounds of the top strip of mined earth were left just as they were. When one considers the amount of lignite in North Antrim and the depth at which it lies, one wonders where those mountains of topsoil and top strip will be put. It is claimed that they will be put back into the hole that is left in the earth. However, if many thousands of tons of lignite are mined, that which is stripped from the top layer of soil will not fill the huge, gaping hole that remains.
To facilitate that mining, rivers would need to be diverted and watercourses changed in the North Antrim countryside, which is one of the most beautiful parts of Northern Ireland.
On top of that there is the disturbance to farms, churches and all the people who live in the area as well as the planning permission restrictions. Are Members to agree to allow an entire generation or two to be taken away from that countryside? I am glad that the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development is in the House, as we have the opportunity to take a serious look at this from the point of view of the human population and do something about it. Planning restrictions should be eased. Young people cannot get new houses built in those areas. The old population is growing older, and young people are forced to go elsewhere.
I do not want to repeat arguments that have been made so cogently already, but when Members look at this, they will see that there are wider implications than that of the rape of the countryside. There are also environmental and human implications, and the area affected is not only countryside. The lignite goes under the town of Ballymoney, so if the mine extends fully, most of the town of Ballymoney will disappear.
This presents a challenge to Members: shall we take on board what needs to be done? There are environmental reasons; there is pollution from dust; there are planning restrictions there are the residents and changes in the rate of population growth. But we should also consider this: we cannot let this happen because it would destroy not only the area around Ballymoney, but the country as a whole. I support the motion.
As the Member who moved the motion said, this matter is of extreme importance. I run the risk of being repetitive as Members are singing off the same hymn sheet; nevertheless, it is important that the following facts and opinions are on record.
The background is that Ballymoney Power Ltd (BPL), which is part of an Australian Company called Felix Resources Ltd, submitted a planning application for a lignite opencast mine and power station. At the time, over 37,500 people opposed the proposal, which is the largest number of objections raised against any planning application submitted in Northern Ireland. All the political parties were opposed to the development.
A coalition against the proposal was set up. That coalition, which I support, actively embarked on a campaign to stop the proposals from going forward, and it is still working on that cause. My predecessor, Sean Farren, strongly supported the campaign group, whom he introduced to Members of the Dáil, because pollution from the mine could reach Donegal and other areas of the South as well as some parts of Scotland, if it were allowed to go ahead. Despite the fact that the planning application did not prosper, there is concern that the company may still be working on it in the background.
I am concerned that, as detailed in Policy MIN 1, ‘Protection of the Lignite Resource’, in the draft Northern Area Plan, the Planning Service has now chosen to protect the resource for future exploitation. That new plan also proposes to extend the lignite area.
In April 2003, some of those objecting to the mine travelled to Aachen in Germany to see the effect of opencast lignite mining. What they saw was described as:
“scenes of deserted villages and lunar landscapes”.
I have a number of facts and figures about the mine and power station that I will relate as if the mine were going to go ahead. I hope that exactly the opposite will happen, but the intentions of the developers are as follows: the mine will cover an area of 5,500 acres — the equivalent of over 4,000 football pitches — and extend nearly 8 km from the bypass around the town of the Ballymoney. BPL says that the proposals will provide employment and a major economic boost to the area. However, the Ballymoney area has a relatively low unemployment rate and has more potential for tourism development, which would not be detrimental to the environment or people’s lives.
Mining may last for 30 years or more, affecting not only our generation, but those that follow. A large part of the upper Ballymoney River will be removed, and that will interfere with the River Bann into which it flows and, consequently, affect the groundwater. Furthermore, two of the streams that feed into the River Bush will be covered by the heap of removed soil.
It is likely that the depth of the mine will cause the water table will be lowered, which will cause the meadows, springs, wells and streams to dry up in the summer. That, in turn will destroy the habitats of curlew, lapwing, snipe, moorhen and buzzard. Is it worth taking a risk and damaging the ecosystems of the River Bush and lower River Bann to such an extent that eels and salmon become extinct?
The mine will operate 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. It could be at least 500 feet deep, and the chimney of the power station will be over 500 feet high. Water tables in the area will be affected if the proposed mine and power station go ahead. Approximately 80 farms and 167 houses will disappear, and churches and schools will also be affected. Some seven townlands will disappear entirely. Communities and family connections that have been built over generations will be broken up and never replaced. Pylons and overhead power lines will disfigure the countryside.
The power generation plant will devour six million tonnes of materials a year, and property values in Ballymoney and the surrounding area will be drastically affected. There will be a loss of archaeological sites, artefacts, raths and souterrains that date back to early Christian times. Homes, roads, lanes, tracks and hedges will end up in the soil heap, and a slice of human history will vanish with them.
In the area known as the “Black Triangle” which covers parts of Germany and the Czech Republic, sulphur dioxide and nitrous oxides from the lignite fuel power stations have damaged the environment and have been linked to the destruction of vegetation and to the genetic mutation of livestock. Such damage would also occur in North Antrim, in addition to dust and water pollution.
Our damp weather will make the pollution worse, because it localises sulphur dioxide, which produces acid rain. Lignite produces more carbon dioxide than burning coal, gas or oil, and it is one of the worst fuels for climate change. A huge list of dangerous chemicals will be produced, all of which will cause serious health problems such as poisoning, cancer and bronchitis. Human, animal and plant health will deteriorate.
Mining lignite will create a big hole in the ground, which will be filled with by-products from the furnace and covered with the soil from the soil heap. There is also a fear that the hole could become a landfill site. Either option will put the quality of the groundwater at great risk. It has been said that the area will be landscaped and replanted following the replacement of the soil. However, that land will not compare with land that has taken thousands of years to develop. Who dismantle the pylons after the project is complete or restore the site if the company becomes insolvent?
Some basic questions must also be asked about lignite mining. Will it be good for tourism on the Causeway coast? The importance of the Causeway coast to our tourist industry cannot be overstated, and one must wonder about the wisdom of building a mine in that area — as Rev Robert Coulter mentioned. Who will bear the consequences of a badly damaged environment?
We should aim to generate more electricity from wind and solar power, as substantial capacity for sustainable renewable energy already exists across Northern Ireland. The proposals concerning the mine and power station directly contradict Assembly policies. Sustainable economic development is required. The UK Government’s White Paper on energy has set targets for the use of renewable energy at 10% by 2010 and 20% by 2020, with a reduction in carbon dioxide emissions of 60% by 2050. Lignite mining, on the contrary, is a non-renewable and highly inefficient source.
It is essential that the Assembly stop any plans for a lignite mine and power station in North Antrim — or anywhere in Northern Ireland. We must protect the North Antrim environment for the future and say no to lignite mining in North Antrim or anywhere else.
Thank you, Trevor.
I thank Daithí McKay for securing this Adjournment debate. I assure him that the lignite mine proposal is not only opposed by the four parties represented in the Executive, but by the five groups in the Assembly.
During a previous election campaign, I had the opportunity to meet representatives from the Just Say No to Lignite campaign, and I congratulate them on their extremely effective lobbying, the evidence that they produced and the key way in which they addressed the issue. It is therefore a matter of considerable disappointment that the threat of the mine is still floating around. Although the proposal was said to have been abandoned three years ago, it has not yet been seen off. I am concerned that the proposal is protected under the guise of a planning policy to protect a resource when, in fact, it is preserving a threat.
The exploitation of lignite was considered in the 1980s in the Crumlin area — a short distance south from where the present threat exists — and I remember the extent of the planning blight that existed at that time, over what was a smaller area than the area from Ballymoney to Stranocum, which is currently threatened.
As the intruder from the next-door constituency, I do not intend to repeat all the arguments that have been made. Mervyn Storey highlighted the economic problems — in particular the threat to tourism — that would arise if lignite mining were developed. If Members refer to the statistics that show how much tourism contributes to the Northern Ireland economy, they will see that it is a key area that must be considered.
Rev Coulter discussed the general problems that arise from the use of fossil fuels, including global warming and various other environmental difficulties. Acid rain would be a problem, not just in the immediate locality, but potentially over a wide area from Donegal to Ayrshire. The environmental damage that would be caused in the immediate area by the digging of a huge opencast mine can scarcely be exaggerated.
A proposal for harvesting alternative energy on the north coast attracted suggestions that to put wind turbines out at sea would destroy the landscape forever. Those who used such language need to get real. There is absolutely no doubt that a 500-foot-deep hole, infringing on seven townlands, would destroy that landscape forever.
To consider the problem seriously, we must — as Declan O’Loan did in the last part of his contribution — identify appropriate alternative environmentally friendly energy resources in Northern Ireland. It is not enough to say simply that there should be no lignite mine in North Antrim. We must consider the contribution that we can make. The wind in Northern Ireland is a better resource than is available in virtually any other part of Europe. We should use it to play our part in reducing the threat of global warming.
I hope that the Minister will address the threat of lignite mining to the north Antrim countryside and give us an assurance that, in the execution of her wider environmental responsibilities, she will co-operate with the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment to ensure that we develop relevant environmentally friendly energy sources, rather than persist with lignite mining.
At the commencement of the debate, I did not think that I would be in a position to welcome my North Antrim colleague Declan O’Loan into the Ulster Says No campaign. I am delighted by the progress that we are making in our constituency and the conversions that have taken place. [Laughter.]
On a serious note, I really do —
It is most welcome that Members from other constituencies have joined with those from North Antrim. That is quite right: this matter is not simply about North Antrim. It is not simply about preserving Stranocum or Ballymoney; rather, it pertains to the whole of the Province, the whole of the island and to parts of the western coast of Wales. Members should recognise that fact.
A few years ago, I was a member of a loyalist flute band. Members may wonder what that has to do with lignite mining. However, the band’s bass drum bore on its side the words “Eternal Vigilance”. Members should adopt that motto with regard to the lignite mine. We should be eternally vigilant.
As my colleague Mervyn Storey mentioned, the Collective Objectors to Lignite Development group has been a driving force in raising vigilance and opposition to the lignite-mining scheme. Its Just Say No campaign organised tens of thousands of letters opposing the scheme. Indeed, as the Member opposite stated, the group sent over 37,000 letters, which demonstrates the campaign’s vigilance.
We cannot, however, let the matter rest there. At present, the Planning Service does not have a planning application for a lignite mine in North Antrim. That may not always be the case. Vigilance is required to ensure that, if ever a company tries to put such a scheme on the agenda again, the community will resist it.
Every Member has rightly spoken of the filthy stink that an opencast mine brings to a community.
It is one of the filthiest ways to mine. As Members have said, it causes all sorts of pollution, and it impacts adversely on the environment, the community and, potentially, people’s lifestyles and health. That being recognised, we must ensure that that opposition can continue should any future planning applications be made.
Members have rightly identified the Causeway coast as one of the most scenic parts of Northern Ireland, and they highlighted the fact that opening a mine on the route to that area would cause devastation. It would be madness for representatives of that area, or of any part of Northern Ireland, to pursue such a planning application.
Earlier today, the House debated rural planning. Many members mentioned how difficult it is to get a single planning application passed now because of Planning Policy Statement 14 (PPS 14). It would be totally ironic if an application of this magnitude was given the green light when single farmyard applications are not. That irony is not lost on anyone.
I understand that the Minister must consider on merit all applications that come before the Department. No one wishes to constrain the Minister, and I am aware that the Department has legal obligations. However, I hope that she will be able to assure the House, and my constituents, that if a planning application similar to the last one emerges, all the environmental implications of the proposal will be fully assessed. If that happens, we will have the opportunity to be vigilant, to identify issues and to ensure that opposition continues in such a constructive, focused and compelling manner that the Minister will be left with only one option — to remain in the “Ulster Says No” lobbies with other Members of this House.
Some Members also mentioned the mineral extraction licence. I understand that a moratorium on those licences is in place until October 2007. The expiration of that moratorium may signal to someone an opportunity to seek a prospector’s licence to start drilling again or to carry out experimental drilling. That is an important time frame. In October, the vigilance really must begin again. It is at that point that a fresh application could be lodged, with the potential to progress. It is right to flag up our opposition now, not just as constituency representatives, but as representatives of Northern Ireland as a whole. We must recognise that that is the wrong type of planning application for Northern Ireland at this time. It would be wrong for our environment, our housing, our farmers, and our community. Northern Ireland does not need that sort of mining. I hope that our eternal vigilance will be in force, and that that vigilance will be effective.
I congratulate the Member who secured this adjournment debate, and I welcome the opportunity to discuss this issue. I can sense the depth of feeling that has been expressed by the Members in the Chamber today. The Department is very much aware of the concerns of the residents of Ballymoney and Stranocum about the application for opencast mining in the area and the proposal contained in the draft northern area plan to protect an area of lignite reserves there.
The Planning Strategy for Rural Northern Ireland contains the current regional planning policy for mineral extraction. That requires that where there is an occurrence of proven reserves of minerals that are of particular value to the economy, those reserves are protected from surface development that would prejudice their future development. The Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment has identified lignite as a mineral of particular value to the economy, and the reserves in Northern Ireland form an integral part of its energy strategy.
I will give a little bit of background on that matter. Exploration work in the 1980s and the 1990s discovered extensive lignite resources, which is known as brown coal, in three areas of Northern Ireland, which my friend Mervyn Storey mentioned — Ballymoney and Crumlin in County Antrim, and Ardboe in East Tyrone. However, the lignite deposits around Ballymoney are the largest and are the only deposits economically accessible by opencast mining. That answers one of the questions about why the debate has concentrated on Ballymoney as opposed to East Tyrone or Crumlin.
The Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment is responsible for issuing and regulating prospecting and extraction licences for all non-precious minerals, including lignite.
My Department’s planning policy recognises that, although the exploitation of valuable minerals, such as lignite, may have environmental effects, there should not be a presumption against their exploitation, but rather each proposal should be treated on its merits. I welcome the comments of my colleague from North Antrim the Junior Minister in relation to my legal obligations. I acknowledge that I must look at each application for lignite mining on its merits, and I will have more to say on that matter.
Members will no doubt appreciate the necessity to protect minerals that are recognised as valuable to the economy of Northern Ireland; however, that protection — and Members must take this on board — does not necessarily mean that a future application will be approved.
What a great day it is for the Assembly when this debate has enjoined Declan O’Loan and Ian Paisley Jnr in a campaign of internal vigilance. I look forward to that campaign continuing. In response to their comments on environmental matters, I assure them that all the environmental implications of any proposal will be fully assessed before a decision is reached. I have no difficulty in giving them that undertaking.
Many Members referred to the application that was received by the Planning Service in 2003, which was accompanied by an environmental statement, to develop an opencast lignite mine and power station outside Ballymoney in County Antrim.
The Department declared that the application was a major planning application under article 31 of the Planning (Northern Ireland) Order 1991. Mr Storey said that he needed to place on the public record the opposition to that application. No one is in any doubt about the depth of that opposition, given that it provoked the largest response to any application, and the Department received 36,000 objections. However, I must take issue with him over his controversial remark about North Antrim being the most beautiful part of the country, because we all know that that is Fermanagh and South Tyrone, but that is a different matter.
The application, as I said, attracted approximately 36,000 objections, and it was withdrawn in June 2004. The Department is unaware of any applications planned for the near future.
I mentioned the differences between Ballymoney and the other two areas of lignite reserves. Ballymoney is seen as the only site that is big enough to make extraction economically viable. Ardboe and Crumlin definitely have lignite reserves, but they are considerably smaller than that at Ballymoney.
Government policy on lignite reflects the fact that extensive reserves are of strategic significance to Northern Ireland. Considerable data has been compiled as a result of exploration activity over the past decades. That led the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment to suspend, in October 2004, the issue of any further prospecting licences for lignite in the Ballymoney area. That is still the position. However, my colleague, the Minister for Enterprise Trade and Investment, will review that position in September 2007.
In the event of a company’s lodging an application for a mining licence or lease, it is necessary for that company to obtain planning and other statutory approvals before DETI will consider the mining licence application. As I said, no applications for prospecting or mining licences for lignite in the Ballymoney area have been received during the period of the moratorium.
There is a moratorium on lignite prospecting licences in Northern Ireland until October 2007. No prospecting licence applications for lignite have been received in the Ballymoney area during the moratorium. An application for a mining licence will be considered by DETI only in the event of planning permission being granted by the Department of the Environment.
Although I cannot, as some Members asked, give an outright promise on this issue because of the legal obligations on my office, it should be of some comfort to Members to know that any application to mine and to create a power station in or around Ballymoney would need no less than five different consents. The applicants would need: a mining licence from DETI; consent for a power station from that Department; planning permission from DOE; and pollution consents from my Department. They would also need to satisfy the Environment and Heritage Service (EHS) that the development would not destroy local habitats.
Dr Coulter asked why lignite is still seen as a viable commodity. I am told that DETI’s policy is to encourage diversity both in fuel use for power generation and in the sources of fuel supply. That is the rationale for protecting the current resource.
Mr Storey mentioned the strategic energy framework. I can inform him that the framework is currently undergoing an internal DETI review, which I understand is due for completion in the autumn.
The north-east area plan 2002, which was adopted by my Department in August 1990, provided protection for an area of lignite reserves between Ballymoney and Stranocum. The new draft northern area plan 2016, which was published on 11 May 2005, proposes to protect a larger area between Ballymoney and Stranocum. The lignite resource area that is now proposed differs from that of the 2002 plan because it is based on a more accurate identification of the lignite reserves, which in turn is based on survey work that consultants carried out for DETI. I know that colleagues have raised several objections to the growth of the area that is designated under the draft area plan, but that increase is based on scientific research that has been carried out for the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment.
However, colleagues will be aware that they now have an opportunity to object to the proposed policies to protect the lignite reserves. To date, more than 4,000 objections have been received. Declan O’Loan mentioned the wording of the draft area plan, and I am sure that we can consider that.
In all probability, the lignite policy and the designation components of the draft plan will be debated at the public inquiry into that plan. Obviously, I cannot prejudge the outcome of that inquiry. However, if an application for lignite mining were received, it would need to be accompanied by an environmental statement identifying the environmental impacts of the proposal and indicating what measures would be taken to mitigate those.
Mr Ford widened the debate by asking about the Crumlin lignite reserves, but I have already dealt with that matter. He also said that he hoped that my ministerial colleague in the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment and I were considering more renewable energy sources. As he will know, I informed the House on 25 June that we will introduce permitted development rights for renewable energy developments for domestic properties. We are considering widening those to include commercial properties. Therefore the answer to his question on whether we are considering ways of increasing renewable energy is most certainly yes. I have already discussed that with my colleague the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment, and I am sure that that discussion will not have been the last.
Finally, Dr Coulter mentioned the planning restrictions that will be imposed under the draft area plans as a result of the designation of lignite reserves. As he will know, such designations are not the only difficulty with planning applications in the countryside because — I know that this will be of little comfort to him — under PPS 14 there would be very limited development in that area. However, that perhaps does not answer his question about the reason that planning restrictions will be imposed by the lignite resource area designation.
The Minister mentioned her commitment to renewables, which we welcome. The DUP has always said that the use of lignite cannot be opposed unless there is an alternative. Currently, there are a number of applications in the planning system that have identified renewables, and these are taking a considerable time to process. I refer in particular to two outstanding applications in North Antrim, one of which regards the Long Mountain in Dunloy. Will the Minister ensure that those applications are given priority so that the issue is resolved? This would show people that politicians are serious about the issue of alternative energy sources.
All wind farm applications now go to the strategic planning department in Planning Service headquarters. That is a good move because it means that applications for wind farms, which by their nature are specialist, will be dealt with by a specialist team. However, if the Member wishes to raise specific issues with me, I am happy for him to do so and I will look into them.
Any application received regarding open-cast mining would have an environmental statement, which would be publicised in the normal manner. The public would then have an opportunity to make representations. Given the comments made by Members, I have no doubt that there will be quite a number of comments, if and when such an application was advertised. I have already mentioned the procedures for major applications under article 31 of the Planning (Northern Ireland) Order 1991. It is likely, if not certain, that any application made for open-cast mining would be dealt with under article 31. Article 31 allows the Department to ask the Planning Appeals Commission to hold a local public inquiry, if necessary, to consider representations and help reach a decision on a major application. The final decision on article 31 applications is made by the current Minister, who takes in all of the considerations including the environmental impact.
It is good to have a debate of this nature, and it is a good one to finish on. The debate is essentially an environmental one. I take great heart from that: environmental issues are now coming to the fore in the country, which is right given the prominence of issues such as climate change and sourcing better forms of renewable energy.
As this is the last debate before the summer, I hope it is clear that the Executive are listening to the concerns of Members. Members will understand that I cannot give a definitive no on the issue, although they should be aware that I will take great cognisance of any citation of an environmental impact in an application that relates to lignite mining.