Seanad debates

Thursday, 21 October 2021

Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Planning Issues

10:30 am

Photo of Pat CaseyPat Casey (Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the Minister of State who has responsibility for public health, well-being and the national drugs strategy but I had hoped a Minister from the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage would take this matter.In recent months and even before that, we have both seen the following headlines: "Energy blackouts this winter 'can never be ruled out'"; "European energy crisis a wake-up call for Irish policymakers"; "EirGrid warns of electricity supply shortfalls over next five winters"; "Ireland could be facing energy blackouts this winter"; "Dark days lie ahead if we fail to tackle energy crisis"; "New report paints stark picture of climate change impact in Ireland"; "Global warming to hit 'critical zone' within 20 years".

I will outline to the Minister of State what the Arklow Bank project will deliver to address two of these critical interlocking international challenges, namely, the climate crisis and the need to decarbonise our electricity system and deal with the immediate, significant energy generation capacity shortage. This project will reduce Ireland's carbon emissions by approximately 1% and will offset more than 500,000 tonnes of harmful CO2 annually. Wicklow currently has a housing stock of more than 56,000 homes. This project will generate eight times the electricity required for these homes. That is 520 MW of electricity, which is enough to power more than 450,000 homes with green energy, contributing to Ireland's action plan target of 1 GW of offshore energy by 2025.

In March, a report was presented to the Department to facilitate the extension of the long-stop dates within the lease and ensure that the project is delivered in line with the most up-to-date environmental standards. This will allow the project to deliver the positive change in line with Ireland's ambitious climate action targets and mitigate the current electricity generation capacity crisis the country is now facing by 2025. While I appreciate that this application requires examination, I do not consider that a delay in excess of seven months without any apparent advancement is acceptable. This is the core of the problem, not just in the Department but with all Departments and arms of the State. They just do not seem to understand the implications of processes and applications that are not time-bound. The uncertainties caused by the lack of decision-making will have a significant effect on Ireland delivering solutions and addressing the challenges we face.

Arklow suffered from serious decline in the late 1990s and early 2000s when thousands of jobs were lost, including in the IFI plant, which at its peak employed more than 1,200. These industries left behind hundreds of acres of industrial wasteland. I have supported this project in Wicklow. I was delighted when SSE Renewables decided to locate the operation and maintenance facility in Arklow in 2020. This will mean 80 full-time jobs and thousands of indirect jobs in Arklow and Wicklow during the construction phase and over the project's lifetime. It will contribute millions of euro annually to benefit communities and commercial rates. It is a capital investment of up to €2 billion to power the green recovery. I am annoyed and frustrated at the time being taken by the Department to progress this application, which would allow it to proceed to the next stage, namely, a transboundary environmental public consultation. If that is not achieved, we can throw our 2025 targets out the window.

Thanks to the likes of SSE Renewables, and others showing confidence in Arklow and Wicklow, Arklow is now moving to a new era of green technology, embracing new industries and new technologies. Arklow is at a turning point in its history. Let us not risk losing these opportunities to revitalise Arklow due to a process that is not time-bound and that is not progressing.

Photo of Frank FeighanFrank Feighan (Sligo-Leitrim, Fine Gael)
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I thank Senator Casey for raising this issue, which I am taking on behalf of the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage.

The programme for Government contains a commitment to achieving 5 GW capacity in offshore wind off Ireland's eastern and southern coasts by 2030. It also commits to production of a longer-term plan setting out how the State will harness the potential of at least 30 GW of offshore floating wind power in our deeper waters in the Atlantic. This pace of development is vital to achieve a reliable supply of safe, secure and clean energy.

Ireland's ambitions for the offshore renewable energy, ORE, sector require an up-to-date regulatory regime to provide certainty to project promoters and deliver a pathway to realising the necessary investment. The Maritime Area Planning, MAP, Bill, currently on Committee Stage in the Dáil, will enable the realisation of these ambitions for ORE by providing the necessary legislative toolkit for forward planning, well-regulated development, streamlined consenting, and comprehensive environmental assessment of proposals.

Under the Bill, a new development management system for the maritime area has been introduced to replace the current regime, as operated under the Foreshore Act, which dates back to 1933, and was designed to manage a completely different type of marine use to that currently envisaged. This new marine planning system will incorporate consenting for the occupation of the maritime area by means of maritime area consents, MACs, by a new agency, the maritime area regulatory authority, MARA, and a new planning consenting regime to be implemented by coastal local authorities and An Bord Pleanála.

The Bill also sets out special provisions for ORE projects satisfying the definition of "relevant maritime usage". The special provisions for ORE are in recognition of the need to have a pipeline of projects progressing under the new regime in order to meet our 2030 climate and energy targets. Recognising that it will take time to establish the new agency, MARA, it was decided by the Government that the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications should be granted limited powers to invite MAC applications for specific ORE projects for a specified period in advance of establishment. However, in the case of SSE Renewables and the Arklow Bank wind park phase 2 project, the company has an existing lease in place under the Foreshore Act and has now applied for an extension of the long-stop dates specified in that lease. While it is not appropriate to comment in detail on an application that will come before the Minister for determination, it is important to note that the application by SSE Renewables is unprecedented in the level of change from the existing lease arrangements, and, accordingly, it is necessary to review the application carefully so as to ensure that any decision made upon it is as robust as possible and will stand up to any challenge that may be brought forward.

I again thank the Senator for raising the issue. He referred to the 80 jobs that will be provided in Arklow in the future. He also referred to thousands of jobs in construction sector and in other areas. I hope the various stakeholders can come to an arrangement that gets matters progressed as quickly as possible.

Photo of Pat CaseyPat Casey (Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Minister of State for his reply. I had to wait until the very end to get exactly what I needed. When he referred to the MAP Bill, I was concerned that he was going to suggest this project should go through that process, but it is clear that he is not.

My issue does not just relate to the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage; it is all Departments. How can a project progress if it does not know when it is going to get an answer or when it can move to the next phase? Realistically and honestly, we will not deliver on what the Government and we, as a people, want to deliver on climate change unless the Departments make the decisions. All decisions should be time-bound now and in the future to give certainty.

I do not want to interfere in the process. All I ask is when the decision will be made. Could the Minister of State indicate when the Department will make the decision on the extension of the long-stop lease for SSE Renewables?

Photo of Frank FeighanFrank Feighan (Sligo-Leitrim, Fine Gael)
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We want to meet our 2030 climate and energy targets. SSE Renewables has a lease in place for the Arklow wind project, which is, fortunately, under the Foreshore Act. Senator Casey asked when a decision will be made. I do not have the information, but I will bring the question back to the Minister to see if we can expedite the matter as quickly as possible. It is good that an Oireachtas Member has chosen to raise this issue. There can sometimes be blockages so it is no harm to keep an eye on things and progress matters. I thank the Senator again.