I have received a portfolio of documents on the Islandmagee gas storage proposals. My Department is the competent authority on the marine licence, and I am also considering review documentation for the other two DAERA licences that were issued back in 2014 — a water discharge consent and a water abstraction licence. The documentation is comprehensive and will therefore take some time to be considered fully.
I thank the Minister for his response. The Minister will be aware that the gas caverns project has been, and remains, contentious, particularly in Islandmagee. I am interested in getting more detail on the advice that he has received on the full marine licensing review and on the abstract licence and consent to discharge. Is the Minister minded, on the back of legal advice, to refer the issue to the Executive? Will he support calls to instigate a local public inquiry?
I received the documents on this just recently and will give them full consideration before making a decision. I recognise that the proposed development is unpopular with some local residents. That in itself does not mean that it is controversial under the legislation on Executive referral. While it may be controversial locally, that does not necessarily mean, in terms of the measures for a Minister to have to take it to the Executive, that it is controversial. I can assure you that I am considering the option of Executive referral. I am mindful of my duties under the ministerial code and the option of holding a public inquiry. As you can appreciate, I am unable to comment further at this stage until I have given it full consideration.
Our scientists have been working on this and identifying the issues. Public inquiries are called on the basis of facts, not noise. While I sincerely appreciate the concerns of residents, given that it is a very pleasant and beautiful area, right out to Browns Bay, which I go to on occasion, and that local residents will therefore want to keep it as it is, all these things have to be given full and appropriate consideration. I am in a situation in which there is huge potential for whatever decision I make to be judicially reviewed by either the applicant or the residents. Therefore, I have to be very careful about what I say, and, before arriving at a decision, I have to give this my absolute careful consideration. We have the papers, and progress is being made on arriving at a decision. We are working on that at this stage.
It certainly is a consideration. Responsibility for energy lies with the Department for the Economy. We have been looking to receive advice from that Department on its future expectations. Gas is a clean energy, but it is still a fossil fuel. It certainly has a much lower impact than coal or oil. Consequently, if it is identified that gas will be used for a considerable part of the foreseeable future, that would lead you to a point at which the gas caverns are beneficial from an energy point of view but not necessarily an environmental point of view. However, if Economy points to providing the energy resource from other means as opposed to gas and a significant upgrade in renewable energy, that would take you away from the gas caverns. I should say that the Department for the Economy has set a target of 70% for renewable energy by 2030. Beyond that, we would need to develop widespread large-scale offshore electricity generation, and that takes about 10 years to plan. That issue in itself will have its controversies. Whatever you do in all those areas, there will be controversy, and we need to respond to that.