Concern raised over State support for gas terminal

Published by Niall Sargent on

October 2nd, 2019

Environmental and opposition groups have questioned the Government’s support for the inclusion of a proposed gas terminal in Co Kerry on a special list of European energy projects that they say will encourage the importation of fracked US gas.

Shannon LNG intends to build a gas terminal on the Shannon Estuary and import liquefied natural gas (LNG) from the US. It is currently included in the EU’s Project of Common Interest (PCI) list.

PCIs are cross-border infrastructure projects linking energy systems across EU states that it says will help the bloc achieve long-term decarbonisation in line with Paris Agreement targets.

Projects on the list can gain access to a €5.35 billion fund and go through a fast-track planning and permit process owing to their overriding strategic and public interest significance.

This essentially allows them to avoid environmental assessment even where it cannot be guaranteed that they will not impact on protected nature areas.

The Shannon LNG project – located close to a protected coastal wetland – has been on hiatus for the past decade since planning permission was first granted in March 2008.

Despite its stalled status, in 2017 it was included as part of a PCI portfolio of projects that, when combined, would create a north-south gas interconnector scheme spanning from Scotland down to Malta.  

Natural gas pipeline USA Photo: Bilfinger

Decision time for Ireland

PCI lists are drawn up every two years and must be approved by every member state. As such, the Government must approve the terminal’s inclusion in the next round or it will be removed from the list.

It is believed that representatives from the Department of Climate Action (DCCAE) will attend a high-level meeting in Brussels this Friday at which the next PCI list will be adopted. The Department did not respond to requests from The Green News asking it to outline its position.

Critics argue that the inclusion of the project in the next PCI list will facilitate the importation of fracked gas from the US, driving up methane emissions and making it impossible to achieve radical cuts in emissions required to limit temperature rise.

New Fortress Energy, the current owner of the Shannon LNG project, is known to receive some of its gas supply from companies that use hydraulic fracturing, otherwise known as fracking, to extract gas.

Fracking is a process for extracting natural gas by drilling into rocks and injecting pressurised water, sand and various chemicals to force out the gas. The gas, formed through the decomposition of dead organisms in the rocks, can then be captured as an energy source.

Ireland is part of a small cluster of countries that have banned fracking for shale gas. A 2017 study published by the Environmental Protection Agency found that the practice has the potential to damage the environment and human health.

Global shale-gas production has exploded in recent years, rising from 31 billion cubic meters in 2005 to 435 billion cubic meters in 2015. Almost 90 per cent of production was in the US.

A recent study from Cornell University found that increasing methane concentrations in the Earth’s atmosphere over the past decade is most likely linked to emissions from the fracking industry.

Deputy Brid Smith at protest outside Dail July 2019 Photo: Kayle Crosson
Deputy Brid Smith at protest outside Dail July 2019 Photo: Kayle Crosson

Hypocrisy of the highest order’

People Before Profit (PBP) is set to table a motion next week calling for the Government to drop its PCI support for Shannon LNG.  The motion has attracted cross-party support, with over 40 deputies from opposition and independent groupings signing on to the motion.

The motion, seen by The Green News, also calls on the Government to oppose any European projects that would facilitate the building of LNG terminals that would “support the importation of fracked North American gas into the energy mix of Europe”.

Last year, MEPs voted against a motion to block the inclusion of major gas infrastructure projects in the PCI list. This current list contains more than one hundred gas infrastructure projects that received over €1.3bn in subsidies between 2014 and 2018 according to Friends of the Earth Europe.

PBP’s Brid Smith will hold a press conference on this issue at Buswells Hotel this afternoon alongside anti-fracking campaigners from Ireland and the US, as well as Professor Barry McMullen of DCU who has co-authored a study on the impact of gas on Ireland’s climate targets.

At a special UN climate summit in New York last week, Leo Varadkar said that gas exploration still has a role to play as a ‘bridge fuel’ as we look to decarbonise the economy by mid-century. He also mentioned Ireland’s decision to ban fracking as a climate success story.

Green Party climate spokesperson Councillor David Healy said that this form of “boasting” is “hypocrisy of the highest order” if the Government supports both the search for gas and the Shannon LNG terminal.

“If we are to take climate scientists seriously then we cannot import fracked gas. We have to solve our energy problems here by stepping up our investment in renewable energy.

“We must make sure that we don’t export our problems and contribute to climate breakdown through trade. If we are to stop climate breakdown we have to keep it in the ground,” Cllr Healy said.

FiE and Climate Case supporters outside High Court Photo: Niall Sargent
FiE and supporters outside High Court for Climate Case Ireland Photo: Niall Sargent

Environmental assessment loophole

Last Friday, Friends of the Irish Environment (FIE) sent a letter to the Minister for Climate Action Richard Bruton outlining its concern that the Shannon LNG project “has the potential to lock in hydrocarbon infrastructure without any strategic assessment at a national level”.

The environmental group is currently embroiled in a legal challenge in relation to the extension of planning permission for the terminal. The case was recently referred to the European Court of Justice over a number of environmental concerns.

In the letter, FIE’s legal team FP Logue Solicitors indicates that its client cannot find any draft plan or environmental screening, report, or assessment, or any notices in relation to Ireland’s approval procedure for nominating the terminal to the PCI list.  

This, the letter states, is preventing the group from exercising its rights to participate in the decision making process as outlined in several EU Directives.

The letter indicates that the group may seek a legal challenge on the issue on the basis that the “approval procedure adopted by Ireland breaches EU law”.

The group argues that the approval process for nominees to the PCI list would qualify as a ‘plan’ under the Habitats Directive. A plan, FIE says, can only be agreed to once it is determined that it will not have a significant effect on protected nature areas, alone or in combination with other developments in the area.

The terminal would be located adjacent to protected areas on the River Fergus and Lower River Shannon, the latter of which contains an important calving site for bottle-nosed dolphins in Ireland.

“Our client has been unable to find any indication that you have excluded significant effects on at least the [protected areas] in the Shannon Estuary for the purposes of approving Shannon LNG as a proposed project of common interest in which case it is clear and well settled that you lack the jurisdiction to grant such an approval,” the letter states.

In addition, the group argues that the PCI approval process qualifies as a ‘plan or programme’ under the Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) Directive as it sets the framework for future development consent in the energy sector.

In this light, FIE argues that a detailed environmental assessment procedure should be first carried out where the Government identifies and examines all reasonable infrastructure options, including the option of not putting forward any nomination.

In reaching its decision, the Government is also required under the SEA Directive to document how environmental considerations have been integrated into the plan or programme, the FIE letter states.

In addition, a monitoring program would need to be defined and implemented to identify unforeseen adverse effects of the project on the environment so as to able to undertake appropriate remedial action as required.

FIE has requested access to full details of the approval procedure and information on when a decision on Shannon LNG’s inclusion in the new list will be made.

It has also asked the Department to give a commitment to provide a copy of any approvals as soon as they are made along with documents relevant to the decision-making process.

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Niall Sargent

Niall is the Editor of The Green News. He is a multimedia journalist, with an MA in Investigative Journalism from City University, London