Ireland set for ‘biggest marine governance reform in a century’

Framework will provide greater certainty for investors in Irish offshore wind resources

Beach at Enniscrone, Co Sligo. Photograph: iStock

Beach at Enniscrone, Co Sligo. Photograph: iStock

 

The Government is to make major changes to the way in which Ireland’s marine waters are protected and developed, including the construction of billions of euro worth of offshore wind farms.

Under a new National Marine Planning Framework (NMPF), legislation produced by the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage will lay down policy until 2040.

Details of the Maritime Area Planning Bill were announced by Taoiseach Micheál Martin on Thursday. It would, he said, set down “for the first time in our history” proper legislation to manage Ireland’s seas.

It will set down a vision for how “we want to use, protect and enjoy our seas”, according to Minister for Housing Darragh O’Brien.

The legislation on managing marine development and protecting its natural resources was approved by Cabinet on Tuesday, and will go before Oireachtas from next week.

Mr Martin said the legislation represented “the biggest reform of marine governance in a century”.

“It enables us to set a clear direction for managing our seas, and to clarify environmental, economic and social priorities,” he added.

Existing State and development consent regimes are being replaced and streamlined based on a single consent principle; “one State consent (maritime area consent) to enable occupation of the maritime area and one development consent (planning permission) with a single environmental assessment”.

This will be processed through a new body, the Maritime Area Regulatory Authority (Mara), which will be based in Wexford and have enforcement powers.

Near-shore development will be processed through a new foreshore licensing regime, with local authorities having a greater role in their area. Larger offshore projects including wind farms and electricity interconnectors will go through An Bord Pleanála but be licensed by Mara.

Fishing industry

The framework contains a vision, objectives and planning policies for all marine-based human activities and outlines “how those activities will interact with each other in an increasingly pressured ocean space”, Mr Martin said. But it is also designed to provide greater certainty for investors in Ireland’s offshore wind resources.

Those pressures included impacts on the fishing industry post-Brexit, but this sector would continue to be central to the marine economy, he said.

Speaking at the NMPF launch at the Commissioners for Irish Lights headquarters in Dún Laoghaire, Co Dublin, Minister for the Environment Eamon Ryan said the framework was the Government’s response to a scenario where “we are navigating through the most troubled waters possible” due to climate disruption.

This was reflected in temperatures of 50 degrees currently being experienced in parts of Canada, temperatures that would normally be experienced in the hottest deserts; seas that were changing with melting ice sheets in Greeland; and uncertainties with the gulf stream, “as this climate change chaos starts to unravel before our eyes”.

Ireland, with a sea area 10 times greater that its land area, has a particular responsibility to monitor, protect and manage it in a sustainable way, he added.

The framework and Bill would have huge implications for providing telecommunication cables, fishing and for other economic activities, including development of offshore energy in one of the windiest parts of the world – which would power the economy while protecting the environment.

“Our offshore wind resources are also a wonderful opportunity for us to break free from fossil fuels and reach our ambitious climate goals ... We are determined that as we develop our resources, we do so in a way that protects and restores our marine environment and its biodiversity. Additional legislation to follow on marine protected areas will be crucial in helping us achieve that,” Mr Ryan said.

Legislation to protect threatened species and habitats by designating 30 per cent of maritime area as MPAs by 2030 is be published later this year.

Wind Energy Ireland said the framework and Bill was critical to enable a target to develop 5,000 MW of offshore wind energy by the end of 2030 with up to 10 wind farms. “Establishing a planning system for these projects is absolutely essential,” said WEI chief executive Noel Cunniffe.

“The heatwaves we’re seeing in North America remind us again there is no time to waste. We must decarbonise our energy system as quickly as we can and offshore wind energy is critical for this,” he added.

“The Oireachtas must give it the proper, robust, scrutiny required of every piece of legislation but, if TDs meant what they said during the debate on the Climate Action Bill, it should be pushed to the top of the agenda,” Mr Cunniffe said.

Legal specialist Kevin Collins of Pinsent Masons said: “This is the firing pistol desperately needed to kick-start a new era of offshore and onshore development, and address Ireland’s potential longer term electricity supply issues.”

The announcement “gives developers and investors alike the confidence and security to begin Ireland’s energy transformation and exploit Ireland’s oft-touted significant wind resources whilst tackling head-on its potential long- term supply and demand issues”, he believed.

Action and a clear infrastructure plan was needed now to deliver the flexibility the market needs to avoid serious grid problems and to make Ireland’s energy revolution both feasible and affordable, Mr Collins said. “This includes needing to allow design flexibility to factor in demand spikes and future proof projects for years to come.”