Northern Ireland’s decision to sign off an undersea project that could provide a quarter of the UK’s gas storage capacity will be challenged in the High Court in Belfast on Tuesday over environmental concerns.
No Gas Caverns and Friends of the Earth Northern Ireland are seeking to overturn a decision by former Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA) minister Edwin Poots to grant a marine licence, granting construction rights in sea areas for the Islandmagee facility.
Friends of the Earth believe the case is the first of its kind in Northern Ireland where the courts have had to grapple with the implications of climate change in the context of government decisions.
The groups are seeking to have the marine licence quashed, meaning the application for the permit would be referred back to DAERA. This could set back or end plans to build the biggest gas storage facility on the island of Ireland.
Poots granted the marine licence to Islandmagee Energy in 2021 for the construction of seven underground caverns at Larne Lough, an inlet in Antrim where scenes from the popular TV series Game of Thrones were filmed.
According to Harland and Wolff shipbuilding group, lslandmagee’s parent company, the caverns would provide more than 25 per cent of the UK’s natural gas storage capacity, based on 2018 data.
A judicial review hearing scheduled to last four days will start on Tuesday, where lawyers will argue that Poots failed to properly consider the environmental implications of the project when granting permission.
James Orr, director of Friends of the Earth Northern Ireland, said: “We are . . . in court today because of flagrant breaches of environmental law.”
Edwin Poots said he could not comment in advance of the hearing.
The planned caverns would be carved out of salt layers under the lough by a method known as solution mining. Campaigners have claimed this solution would then be discharged into the sea, affecting local species including harbour porpoise and skate.
Harland and Wolff has argued the project, which was granted planning permission in 2012, will play a vital role in energy security across the island of Ireland.
John Wood, Harland and Wolff chief executive, told the FT in January: “If you look at . . . how close the island of Ireland is to the lights going out, gas storage is absolutely crucial to that stability of supply.”
He added that the judicial review was “an opportunity to end this once and for all” and he had four investors keen to get involved.
“We actually welcome the judicial review . . . all the advice we’ve had is everything we’ve done is to the letter of the law,” he said in an interview at H&W’s offices in Belfast. “There’s no reason why the marine licence shouldn’t have been granted.”
DAERA said: “It would not be appropriate . . . to comment further until the legal process has been completed.”
Harland and Wolff declined to comment.