Bill on offshore wind farms and ocean power sparks political row

Opposition accuses Darragh O’Brien of railroading National Marine Planning Framework through Dáil

A number of large wind-farms are already planned for the shallow banks off the east coast but in time technology will allow the development of floating wind farms in the far-deeper Atlantic waters off the west coast. Photograph: iStock

A number of large wind-farms are already planned for the shallow banks off the east coast but in time technology will allow the development of floating wind farms in the far-deeper Atlantic waters off the west coast. Photograph: iStock

 

A major political row has erupted over new marine legislation that will pave the way for developing ocean power and offshore wind farms in future.

The Opposition has accused the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage Darragh O’Brien of railroading the National Marine Planning Framework (NMPF) through the Dáil this week without allowing the all-party housing committee an opportunity to carry out adequate pre-legislative scrutiny.

The planning framework is a spatial plan that sets out how development and activities can occur in Ireland’s maritime area, which covers almost 500,000 square kilometres of waters around the island, extending from the high water mark to 200 kilometres out to sea at some points.

The framework will determine where offshore wind power sites can be located, as well as tide and ocean energy facilities. It will also determine locations for new ports, infrastructure, aquaculture, fish-farming, shipping lanes and boating activities and facilities.

The framework is vital for the development of offshore wind-power which is seen as the key for delivering Ireland’s future electricity needs, as well as meeting climate change targets. A number of large wind farms are already planned for the shallow banks off the east coast but in time technology will allow the development of floating wind farms in the far-deeper Atlantic waters off the west coast.

These wind farms will be enormous. The huge Dogger Bank Project 130 kilometres off the northeast coast of England has 200 turbines (some with a span of 300 metres, which is higher than the Eiffel Tower) and, when completed, will supply electricity to 6 million homes.

While opposition TDs say they broadly support the framework, they want more time to scrutinise the 300 page document and to explore concerns that have been raised in two key areas.

The first relates to another — and competing — environmental concern. That is that the framework will be passed before Marine Protected Areas around the coast of Ireland will be mapped out. It could mean, say environmental bodies, that the framework will be in operation without any balancing protection in places for wildlife or sensitive marine habitats.

The Irish Wildlife Trust said it has serious concerns about its passage without a full debate. Pádraic Fogarty of the Trust said it was worried that “marine protected areas are being long-fingered while other developments are being rushed through”.

Concerns have also been raised by inshore fishing organisations who argue that the development and operation of large offshore wind farms could have the potential to impact their livelihoods.

The matter has been the subject of an ongoing dispute in the Housing Committee with Opposition members objecting to the framework going through the Dáil without further scrutiny. After a series of discussions last week, Mr O’Brien and Government Chief Whip Jack Chambers agreed that a 45-minute debate would be held on Thursday (since then extended to 55 minutes).

However, at a meeting of the committee on Tuesday, the issue was pressed to a vote with Sinn Féin and the Social Democrats opposing the motion. Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the Greens all voted to allow the Dáil motion to go ahead. Sinn Féin’s Eoin O Broin said on Tuesday the opposition was not opposing the Bill but required just one more session with officials from the Department to ensure that Marine Protected Areas would not be neglected and that they should be introduced in parallel with the framework.

For its part the Department and Minister have pointed out that it has taken a long time to reach this point and insisted that all issues have been exhaustively discussed.

“There have been two rounds of public consultation on this. An expert advisory group was convened. There were two sessions with the joint Oireachtas Committee. All of this happened over the course of four years. Now we have a debate in the Dáil this week,” said a spokeswoman.