Islandmagee Gas Storage Project

Oral Answers to Questions — Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 2:45 pm on 8th November 2021.

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Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP 2:45 pm, 8th November 2021

2. Mr Beggs asked the Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs whether he will review the draft notice to approve marine licence ML 28_12 for the Islandmagee gas storage project and consent conditions of discharge TC041/20. (AQO 2680/17-22)

Photo of John Stewart John Stewart UUP

9. Mr Stewart asked the Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs for an update on the application for a full marine construction licence for the Islandmagee gas storage project. (AQO 2687/17-22)

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

With your permission, Mr Speaker, I will answer questions 2 and 9 together. I am satisfied that all material considerations have been assessed by officials for the marine licence application, reviews of the discharge consent and abstraction licence for the proposed Islandmagee gas storage development. Therefore, I do not intend to review the decisions on the matter. Final licences were issued to the applicant on 5 November 2021. I am content that adequate mitigation has been identified to minimise the impacts of the project and has been incorporated into the conditions of the marine licence, discharge consent and abstraction licence, which will augment the existing mitigation in the planning permission.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

The discharge licence speaks of 24,000 cubic metres per day, which is difficult to visualise. It has been estimated that that is equivalent to 10 20-ton loads of rock salt being deposited at that spot every hour for the next eight to nine years. How can the Minister be sure that that will not be detrimental to the sensitive ecosystem and, in particular, that solid deposits will not come with the concentrated brine that will gather in that area?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

At no time did I take anything to do with or interfere with any of the actual assessments that took place. I waited patiently, allowed civil servants and people with expertise, on their behalf, to carry out all those investigations, and I made a decision that was based on what was recommended to me by those officials. A number of in-depth assessments were made on the potential impacts of the project on the environment, including a detailed habitats regulations assessment (HRA), completed by DAERA, which considers the potential impacts of the project on the national site network and also the Portmuck area of special scientific interest (ASSI), Gobbins ASSI and Larne lough ASSI. The HRA was also reviewed by an independent third party. An environmental statement was prepared by the applicant. The chapters on avian and marine biodiversity, underwater noise and cumulative effects were updated in 2018-19, as was the brine dispersion model and accompanying third-party audit. That material has been made available to the public on the DAERA website.

Photo of John Stewart John Stewart UUP

I thank the Minister for his answers so far. I share local people's real concerns about the potential environmental impacts of the project. Will the Minister confirm what measures are in place in the draft marine construction licence to require the developer to decommission in the event that the gas caverns are commenced but not completed or are not used for a period? Will the Minister ensure that any financial guarantee that is provided under the lease between Islandmagee Energy and the Crown Estate to manage any residual liabilities at the end of the lifespan of the gas caverns is to the benefit of his Department?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

Islandmagee Energy Ltd is responsible for the safe decommissioning of the gas storage caverns at the end of the project's life and ensuring that arrangements are made in respect of any residual liabilities. The lease from the landowner, the Crown Estate, will require that an acceptable abandonment programme that is applicable to the works, including the arrangements for residual liabilities, is provided. The Crown Estate has indicated that works cannot commence below mean high water spring tide level until the issue is resolved. DAERA has included that information on the marine licence. DAERA will continue to engage with the Crown Estate to ensure that all conditions are satisfied. The company may require a new marine licence from DAERA to undertake the physical aspect of the decommissioning activity. At that stage, the impacts of decommissioning would be considered, and potential environmental impacts would be given full consideration.

Photo of Philip McGuigan Philip McGuigan Sinn Féin

I have heard the Minister's answers to the previous two questions. However, it simply beggars belief that a project of the size of the gas storage facility that is proposed for Islandmagee would not have a significant environmental impact in an area of special scientific interest that is surrounded by other ASSIs and conservation areas. Given the need to move away from the use of fossil fuels and the British Government's announcement that new gas boilers will be banned from 2035, does the Minister now accept that this project should be scrapped?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

Whether the project is financially viable is a matter for the people who are developing it. My Department was asked about its environmental acceptability. All the people who were involved in that took their decision on the basis of whether that could be achieved, and they then made their recommendations to me on that basis. That is how that came about. It is not a result of anything other than that. Therefore, whilst I recognise that the decision will not be popular, I also recognise that I need to take cognisance of the material that was put in front of me by independent officials and, indeed, by experts in that issue.

I remind the Member that one of the issues in front of us today is the price of gas, which has skyrocketed because there is a lack of stored gas. The Member may not be so concerned that people in his constituency — people who are on the breadline — are paying gas prices and, indeed, electricity prices that are 30% and 40% higher than in previous years. His resistance to having storage, thus leaving it to Vladimir Putin to turn gas on and off as and when it suits him, putting the Member's constituents' prices up on the back of that, is a matter for him.

Photo of Stewart Dickson Stewart Dickson Alliance 3:00 pm, 8th November 2021

Minister, given the cross-cutting nature of your decision, what consultation have you had with the Utility Regulator and the owners of the Scotland-Northern Ireland interconnector pipeline that transports gas from Scotland to Northern Ireland? In response to the answer that you have just given, I ask this: do you not recognise that the application is not for gas to be stored for Northern Ireland but for gas to be stored for the rest of the United Kingdom and for it to be sold at ransom prices in the rest of the United Kingdom? Where are the cross-cutting considerations? Will you be the Minister who leaves Northern Ireland with a hole under Larne lough and nobody else agreeing with you?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

I am sorry that the Member may want to hype things up. A process was commenced as the result of an application. That process was conducted properly and correctly. At its conclusion, I was presented with the documentation. I sought no documentation throughout the process. I sought not to have any influence on the process. I merely allowed the process to be carried out to its conclusion, and I was then presented with options.

What was identified and recommended to me by the officials and the experts was clear. The Member may not like what they have recommended. Indeed, I may not like what they have recommended, but I have to give consideration to experts when they are asked to do a piece of work, and I have to take full cognisance of the views expressed by them. He may not like those views, but they are arrived at on the best basis possible.

Photo of Patsy McGlone Patsy McGlone Social Democratic and Labour Party

The Minister referred to independent involvement and third-party audits. Will he expand on that? What external and independent assessment has the Department sought of the environmental impact of the project on the marine habitat?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

As I indicated, the recommendations were put out to third parties and independent expertise in order for them to provide us with due diligence. A further check was done that went beyond what officials and civil servants would have done. That course of work was carried out. The precautionary principle was applied to all of it, and we therefore did not arrive at the decision quickly, or, indeed, easily.

The work was started before my time, and I deliberately became involved only at its conclusion. Given the sensitivities around it, I did not want to encourage people one way or the other in coming to their recommendations. I wanted an independent recommendation, so I was always going to take the decision on the basis of the independence of the people who were acting on behalf of the Department.