'This is a car crash' warns Attracta Uí Bhroin
Ireland’s effort to develop offshore wind farms, before deciding which parts of the sea should be off-limits to development equates to a car crash, politicians have heard.
They were told the State could end up being sued by wind project developers, the European Commission, or both.
“I think we are going to end up with a very serious mess,” environmental lawyer, Attracta Uí Bhroin, of the Irish Environmental Network said.
“This is a car crash.”
Legislation is being drafted for the designation of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) but the process, which is already overdue, will take some time.
In the meantime, several very large offshore wind projects intend to apply for planning permission before the end of this year after years of preparation.
Ms Uí Bhroin told the Oireachtas Housing Committee, which is holding hearings on the legislation, that developers could potentially sue the State for losses.
They have invested heavily in designs, plans and site surveys and several have been granted Marine Area Consents, which clears them to apply for contracts for supply of electricity and to submit planning applications.
The concept of legitimate expectation could apply, where a developer had a level of assurance that their project had a chance of success whereas they would have known they had little chance if seeking to build in an MPA.
An alternative scenario could see the European Commission prosecute Ireland for allowing wind farms to be built in areas retrospectively found to warrant being designated MPAs, resulting in massive fines and orders to remove the structures.
A precedent had been set with the Derrybrien wind farm in Go Galway where the State failed to adequately consider environmental impacts.
More than €22m in fines have accumulated, with the total rising daily, and huge costs lie ahead for the removal of the turbines and reinstatement of the site.
There is no agreed definition yet of what kinds of development should or should not be allowed within Irish MPAs and Niall Goodwin of industry body, Wind Energy Ireland, said he believed wind farms could co-exist with MPA designations.
He cited examples abroad where turbines had helped with the regrowth of reefs and provided other protections for biodiversity.
Pádraic Fogarty of the Irish Wildlife Trust said, however, he was inclined towards the guidance set down by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.
It stated that: “Any industrial activities and infrastructural developments are not compatible with MPAs.”
It also states that the fact that some infrastructure might incidentally protect some forms of marine life was not sufficient reason to allow it in an MPA.
Sinéad Loughran of BirdWatch Ireland told the hearing she did not believe offshore renewable energy could be consistent with MPAs.
The meeting heard that clarity on the issue was crucial. A number of proposed offshore projects are earmarked for sites that marine experts working with NGOs have recommended should be designated MPAs.
The committee is holding further hearings on the legislation and is to finalise its recommendations for the Government before the end of this month.