Protected areas in Irish waters will not be created in time to guide decisions on off-shore wind farms.
Plans to designate 30pc of Irish waters as Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) are running behind preparations for a string of wind farms along the east and south coasts.
Officials say planners will be encouraged to use the best evidence available from existing conservation data and have regard to proposed designations when making decisions.
Sinn Féin planning spokesman, Eoin Ó Broin, says, however, it is a back-to-front way of going about business.
“We don’t have those designations, we don’t have them mapped out, we don’t even have sensitivity mapping of where they might be,” he said.
Mr Ó Broin raised the issue as the new National Marine Planning Framework (NMPF) was discussed at the Oireachtas Housing and Planning Committee.
The framework sets out for the first time policies and practices to be observed in offshore construction and industrial activity which is due to take off rapidly as the country moves towards offshore wind farms as the main source of electricity.
But it has been drawn up in the absence of MPAs despite the Government’s pledge to reach the 30pc target by 2030.
“Planning officials in local authorities and An Bord Pleanála will have to make very complex planning decisions without the visibility of the Marine Protected Areas and therefore the impact of any possible planning decision on the ecosystems in those areas,” Mr Ó Broin said.
“It would be a bit like approving a county development plan without having the zoning map, something I think would be a roundabout or back to front way of doing things.”
Anne-Marie Clancy, assistant principal at the Department of Environment, said it was essential to get offshore energy projects under way as the target was to have 5GW of offshore renewable energy by 2030.
“Given our 2030 targets for offshore renewable energy and the long lead-in times for developing offshore wind projects, we’re in a situation where the MPAs won’t be designated in time for development of the offshore wind projects,” she said.
“We are liaising very closely with the relevant officials in the Department of Housing and with the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) to ensure that decisions that are made over the coming years can be taken in the context of the best available data.”
Conor McCabe of the Department of Housing’s Marine Planning Unit said a public consultation on MPAs was under way and legislation to underpin them would be drawn up over the coming years.
In the meantime, he said conservation data was available from the NPWS which would feed into any decisions taken by planning authorities.
“It isn’t as if these decisions will be taken in isolation fromany environmental concerns. Environmental concerns are very much at the forefront of the NMPF,” he said.
“It would be great to have everything done at once but that’s not how the world works.”
The committee is to request further time and engagement with officials to discuss the framework.