Environmentalists bring High Court challenge over plans for €1.2bn data centre

Project’s approval is not consistent with climate action objectives, groups say

Consulting firm Bitpower estimates there were 82 data centres in the Republic as of one year ago. Photograph: iStock

Controversial plans for a €1.2 billion data centre campus in Co Clare are under threat as a new High Court action claims the project’s approval is not consistent with climate action objectives.

Three Co Clare-based environmentalists and two NGOs say An Bord Pleanála acted irrationally by granting permission while failing to require any mitigation measures for the greenhouse gases that will be emitted by the facility.

Friends of the Irish Environment, Futureproof Clare and the three locals say they have concerns about the recent “explosive growth” of data centres in the State and their heavy consumption of electricity and water resources.

There were 82 data centres operating in the Republic as of one year ago, consulting firm Bitpower has said, while the Central Statistics Office reported that these used as much electricity as all urban households during 2022.

READ MORE

The court applicants say their case raises important issues of public policy related to climate justice and whether some parts of the economy are “off-limits” when assessing compliance with the Climate Action and Low Carbon Development Act 2015, as amended in 2021, while other parts of society are “expected to shoulder the burden of emissions reductions”. The lawsuit alleges there is no legal basis for such an approach.

The proposed plant is to comprise six data halls covering 145 acres (1.3 million sq ft) of land on the eastern outskirts of Ennis. Developer Art Data Centres Ltd says the project would create 400-450 permanent jobs, with up to 1,200 jobs during six years of construction.

The planning, strategic assessment and zoning processes took six years, with the project eventually getting the green light last April.

The High Court action asks for a strike-down of An Bord Pleanála’s permission. The local challengers are Colin Doyle, of Cottage Gardens, Ennis, who says he is a retired professional specialising in air quality and emissions; Martin Knox, also with an address in Cottage Gardens, who says he is a retired academic and environmental manager; and Christine Sharp, of Seafield Road, Quilty, who describes herself as a horticulturalist and environmental activist.

The five challengers, represented by FP Logue solicitors, cite the 2015 Act in support of their contention that the board failed to perform its functions in line with the most recent climate action plan and other green objectives.

The proceedings came before Mr Justice Richard Humphreys this week when barrister Damien Keaney stressed an urgency to resolving the case. He said his client, the developer, is looking to see matters progress as expeditiously as possible.

The judge adjourned the case to next week, when the applicants will seek his permission to pursue their challenge.

In an affidavit, Ian Lumley, who is a member of Friends of the Irish Environment, said the “unregulated growth of data centres stands to undo much of the emissions mitigation being achieved in other areas of the economy and society”.

“This single data centre will take up a very significant proportion of the allowable budget of national greenhouse emissions,” he said.

Mr Lumley said the Oireachtas has recently legislated to place an increased obligation on An Bord Pleanála when it comes to environmental considerations. He said it must perform its functions, in so far as it is practicable, in a manner consistent with the latest Climate Action Plan of the Government.

The Climate Action Plan aims to achieve a 51 per cent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 on 2018 levels, but recent reports show Ireland is “completely off achieving that target”.

The case alleges that permitting data centres without demonstrating how they advance achievement of the national climate objective is not permitted under the 2015 Act, as amended.

Ellen O'Riordan

Ellen O'Riordan

Ellen O'Riordan is High Court Reporter with The Irish Times