Minister avoids call for Dail vote over fracking concerns

Published by Niall Sargent on

October 3rd, 2019

While recognising concerns over fracked gas links to a planned gas terminal in Co Kerry, the Minister for Climate Action has rejected calls for a Dail vote over its inclusion as a priority EU energy project.

Richard Bruton addressed the issue this afternoon during a Dail debate on the Government’s support for the Shannon LNG terminal that was hastily arranged following pressure from opposition parties and civil society groups.

Ireland is expected to push for the continued inclusion of the liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminal in the European Commission’s Projects of Common Interest (PCI) list at a high-level meeting in Brussels tomorrow.

Shannon LNG was put forward for the list that is updated every two years in 2013 as part of a north-south gas interconnector scheme from Scotland to Malta. 

The terminal also forms part of plans for a reverse interconnector project between Ireland and Moffat in Scotland. At present, the interconnector is unidirectional with gas only flowing from the UK to Ireland.

Prior to today’s debate, there has been no specific hearing or scrutiny of the State’s decision to include the project on the PCI list that critics say would see Ireland become a net exporter of fracked gas to Europe. The terminal would have the capacity to take in the equivalent of our current annual gas imports in just one day.

The US energy company behind the terminal project, New Fortress Energy, receives gas supply from hydraulic fracturing – otherwise known as fracking. It also plans to build new facilities in Pennsylvania where the majority of gas is extracted through unconventional drilling such as fracking.

Banned in Ireland in 2017, 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 industry is linked to numerous health, social and environmental issues and fracking also releases methane, a potent greenhouse gas. A recent study from Cornell University found that the US industry is mainly responsible for the increase in methane atmospheric concentrations over the past decade.

Launch of the Green Party's Keep It in The Ground Bill Photo: James Orr
Keep It in The Ground Bill banner Photo: James Orr

Conscious of concerns

Mr Bruton said this afternoon that he is “conscious of the concerns” raised by opposition parties and NGOs. He said that he now intends to ask the Commission to “review the relevant evidence on LNG in the context of adopting more ambitious climate targets”.

He added that he has also asked his Department to carry out a security of supply review to consider what fossil fuels are required during the transition to a low carbon economy and how they are sourced.

He said, however, that gas will remain a vital cog in our bid to reach carbon neutrality by mid-century and to ensure security of supply post-Brexit. Mr Bruton added that gas injection will be required as a “quick and flexible supply” during times of peak demand as we continue to ramp up renewables toward out 70 per cent target.

The Government has previously outlined support for LNG terminals in Ireland, stating in the draft National Energy & Climate Plan that the development of terminals would “improve energy security” and allow us to tap into the global LNG market.

Mr Bruton referenced recent advice from the Climate Change Advisory Council (CCAC) that outlines gas as an important “bridge fuel” in the transition to a low-carbon future. Critics have labelled the CCAC’s advice letter as a “troubling endorsement” that risks diverting capital away from investment in renewables and locking us into fossil fuels for decades to come.

Projects on the PCI list can gain access to a €5.35 billion funding pot and also go through a fast-track planning and permit granting process. Critics argue that this essentially allows them to avoid environmental assessment even where it cannot be guaranteed that they will not impact on protected nature areas.

Shannon LNG is currently embroiled in a legal challenge from Friends of the Irish Environment 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 and planning concerns.

Mr Bruton said that inclusion on the PCI list “wouldn’t override planning or regulatory needs” and that the project will still require “all the necessary regulatory compliance certifications that go with any such application”.

Natural gas pipeline USA Photo: Bilfinger

Opposition call for vote

Mr Bruton did not respond to opposition calls for a vote on the decision to support the project’s inclusion on the PCI list, however.

People Before Profit’s Brid Smith had asked him to wait until a full vote in the Dail following next Wednesday’s Climate Action Committee hearing on fracking with medical experts and environmental scientists from the US.

Earlier this week, Ms Smith said that it was “disgraceful and disingenuous in the extreme” for the Government to not reveal the date of the Commission meeting until earlier this week. Ms Smith and other opposition politicians had tabled questions in the Dail on the issue in recent months.

Sinn Fein’s David Cullinane said that the decision to support the importation of LNG while banning fracking at home due to concerns over possible health and environmental impacts was hypocrisy of the highest order.  

He accused the Government of trying to bypass parliamentary debate on the issue, asking why next week’s Committee hearing on fracking was not arranged prior to tomorrow’s meeting in Brussels.

John Brassil, a Fianna Fail deputy from Co Kerry, questioned opposition to the project now when it has been in the pipelines for over 10 years.  He said that other opposition parties supported the project before the last election and committed to its delivery if elected.

“I’m asking the house to be consistent on the issue,” he said, questioning the logic of opposing this project while we also import gas from the UK where there are already LNG terminals.

Martin Kenny of Sinn Fein said that, while the project may have appeared positive over 10 years ago, “this proposal is not sensible at this time… and needs to be taken off the table”.

Mr Kenny said that he has worked closely in recent years with communities and activists in his Sligo–Leitrim constituency who led the battle to have fracking banned in Ireland two years ago.

“We had people who could give you details of mini-earthquakes and other impacts in other countries,” he said, including examples from Pennsylvania where New Fortress Energy is expanding its operations.

Impact on US communities

Over 50 environmental, climate, medical and other civil society groups from Ireland and North America signed an open letter sent to the Taoiseach today requesting that Ireland does not support the terminal’s inclusion on the PCI list.  

The letter states that LNG is “disastrous for climate change, dangerous, and relies on fracking in the US that harms people and the environment”. 

The letter was co-signed by the actor Mark Ruffalo and director Michael Moore who both called on Ireland not to create further European demand for US fracked gas.

“Taoiseach Leo Varadkar must learn that climate leaders don’t support fracking,” Mr Ruffalo, a longstanding anti-fracking activist, said.

“If he allows for the approval of this dangerous Shannon LNG fracked gas import facility and other infrastructure… he will be both silencing the voice of democracy in Ireland and supporting fracking in America for decades to come.”

A recent investigative report in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette examined the potential links between fracking and health concerns in the state, finding at least 67 cases of extremely rare cancers in children in four rural counties where the fracking industry has a stronghold. 

Irish MEPs also sent a letter to the European Commission today calling on it to reject all Irish gas projects on the special energy list.

The letter is signed by MEPs from the Green Party and Sinn Fein, together with independent MEPs Clare Daly, Mick Wallace and Luke ‘Ming’ Flanagan. MEPs from both Fine Gael and Fianna Fail were also asked to sign the letter.

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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