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Larne gas cavern project a victim of green nimbyism and North’s administrative deadlock

Gas storage saga has been dragging on for years for facility that should have been operational in 2022 and which would have helped following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine

In 2008, a consortium applied to create seven gas caverns one mile beneath Larne in Co Antrim. The £400 million facility would hold two weeks’ worth of gas, improving security of supply. Photograph: Islandmagee Energy

Storing gas in salt caverns is a proven technology, used around the world for over 60 years. Caverns can be old mines or purpose-built voids hollowed out in salt deposits using high-pressure water.

In 2008, a consortium of energy companies applied to create seven caverns one mile beneath Larne in Co Antrim, the only suitable deposit in Ireland. The £400 million facility would hold two weeks’ worth of gas for the whole island, improving security of supply.

So began an epic, typical argument that continues to this day. Residents and environmental groups, led by Friends of the Earth, launched a “No Gas Caverns” campaign. They won endorsement from elected representatives but the project had political support where it mattered.

Stormont’s SDLP environment minister, Alex Attwood, granted planning consent in 2012. The EU designated the project a strategic priority the following year and provided funding. The British government also offered financial guarantees.


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Securing other approvals dragged on through planning and consultation processes, not helped by two lengthy Stormont collapses. In 2021, Attwood’s DUP successor, Edwin Poots, approved a marine licence enabling work to finally commence. Inevitably, No Gas Caverns then went to court. It brought a judicial review on seven grounds, most claiming a threat to wildlife from flushing salt water into the sea while excavating the caverns. It also claimed Poots should not have approved the licence on his own, as the Stormont executive can consider anything significant, controversial or “cross-cutting” (affecting more than one department).

Belfast High Court rejected the case on all grounds last year, ruling environmental threats had been properly considered and the matter could not have been significant, controversial or cross-cutting, as other ministers did not raise it.

Ruling out transitional technology in the energy transition is green absolutism, an extreme position that deserves a robust dismissal

No Gas Caverns appealed, this time only on the grounds Poots should not have acted alone. On Monday it won. The court found it was “irrational” to consider the project uncontroversial when there had been public objections to it from Sinn Féin, Alliance and one member of the UUP, all executive parties, plus the Greens.

Harland & Wolff, which heads up the consortium, said it would consider going to the UK Supreme Court. “Whilst today’s judgment is disappointing, it is unfortunately not uncommon in the legal system,” chief executive John Wood wearily informed the BBC.

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So more years of this saga lie ahead and still not one grain of salt has been moved for a facility that should have been operational in 2022, when it would have proved its worth following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

It seems odd for a judge to have wondered why politicians objected to something in public while raising no concerns among themselves. Stormont’s rules on matters deemed significant, controversial or cross-cutting are protections under the Belfast and St Andrew’s agreements. Pragmatic discretion in their use, recognised as basic politics by the high court, has effectively been ruled unlawful and replaced with mandatory executive consensus where even one assembly member has complained, guaranteeing deadlock. Northern Ireland has acquired this unique obstacle in addition to all the familiar obstacles to delivering infrastructure, on energy projects in particular: sclerotic planning, political short-termism and endless indulgence of activists and Nimbys.

Taking an axe to the planning system is a popular suggestion but this is hopelessly simplistic, especially in Northern Ireland, where Stormont’s record on the environment is horrifying. If anything, more safeguards are required. Complexity is no excuse for absurdity, however. Planners, ministers and courts have spent more than a decade examining the risk of a one-off discharge of salt water polluting the sea. Numerous expert reports confirmed this risk was obviously minuscule.

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Friends of the Earth based much of its objection on the view that any fossil-fuel project breaches Stormont’s statutory target of net zero emissions by 2050. The consortium engaged with this argument, explaining salt caverns can be used for green hydrogen or compressed air to help meet the target, but Friends of the Earth was unmoved. Perhaps engagement was unwise. Ruling out transitional technology in the energy transition is green absolutism, an extreme position that deserves a robust dismissal. Use of the courts as a campaign tactic also requires a firmer response.

Most judicial reviews are mere findings of inconsistency in the mountains of waffle governments produce. Unlawful does not mean illegal, let alone criminal, although campaigners are happy to let this confusion fester. While losing a judicial review may mean a decision has to be retaken, courts cannot impose penalties and rarely order corrective action. Yet ministers and their officials are terrified of a scolding from the bench. They could shrug it off more often and produce less waffle in the first place. Powersharing inclines Stormont to churn out strategies, policies and guidelines. Once the mountain reaches a certain height, every decision contains a contradiction.

That dreaded peak is in sight, looming over Larne. It will be a wonder if anything even slightly contentious is ever built in Northern Ireland again.