The Earth's Corr: Sinn Fein says it opposes new fossil infrastructure yet their minister refuses to stop oil terminal

Sinn Fein says it is committed to “no new fossil fuel infrastructure” and opposes any “that will lock us into fossil fuel use for decades to come”.

Yet party politician, John O’Dowd, has decided not to call in two major projects that include new fuel fossil infrastructure in Northern Ireland in his role as Infrastructure Minister.

Minister O’Dowd was handed a document on his first day in office briefing him about the issues likely to arise within his first 4-6 weeks in office.

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And that 67-pager included just two potential ‘call ins’ for planning applications.

Both were about major new fossil fuel infrastructure Mid and East Antrim Council had already recommended for approval at Cloghan Point Oil Terminal and Kilroot Power Station.

But the council’s approval of both applications was put on hold until O’Dowd made a decision on whether to actually call them in to have a look at their implications following furious calls from campaigners that the 2022 Climate Act should be considered.

Cloghan Point Oil Terminal, backed by LCC Group which runs Go Petrol Stations, is arguably the most contentious of the two with 31 third party ‘call in’ requests.

They want to expand the existing oil storage on the Antrim Coast near Whitehead, which currently holds reserves for the Republic of Ireland, so almost 200,000 tonnes of oil can be held on the site - along with a major dock for huge tankers to ship it in.

Campaigners are concerned about a whole host of issues, including its knock-on effect on emissions after NI vowed to meet net-zero and on the expansion's impact on wildlife as well as the quiet community.

The first day briefing outlined how “the council cannot issue decisions until as Minister you have decided whether or not to ‘call in’ this application”.

But now Minister O’Dowd has said he won’t call it in, it looks likely to be approved.

We asked DfI if the Climate Act was considered in the decision making process.

They told us: “Minister O’Dowd gave the matter careful consideration in line with all of his statutory obligations.”

We asked if those statutory obligations included the Climate Act. They haven’t answered that question.

They told me: “In deciding whether or not to ‘call in’ application LA02/2018/1145/F, all issues raised by the third party ‘call in’ requests and how the council addressed these matters were considered.

“This included matters raised by third parties relating to Climate Change and the Climate Change Act.”

But that leaves the impression the climate crisis was only considered in terms of how the council dealt with climate concerns third parties raised.

I put it to DfI that the Minister didn’t specifically take into account the Climate Act when making his decision on the project as a whole, they added: “We have nothing further to add.”

I asked DAERA what date Stormont departments had a statutory obligation to take the Climate Act into consideration in relation to their decisions since it oversees the Climate Act and will put together the action plan to drive our emissions down.

A DAERA spokesperson said: “The Climate Change Act (Northern Ireland) 2022 came into operation on 7 June 2022.

“Section 52 of the Act places duties on all Northern Ireland departments to exercise their functions, so far as is possible to do so, in a manner that is consistent with the achievement of the emissions reduction targets in the Act and the carbon budgets which will be set under the Act.

“All departments are aware of their statutory obligations in this regard.”

The line that really stands out here, if we are being forensic about the situation, is they have to exercise their functions “so far as is possible to do so, in a manner that is consistent with the achievement of the emissions reduction targets in the Act and the carbon budgets”.

DAERA tells me departments do have to take cognisance of the overall emissions cuts needed by 2030, 2040 and 2050 - when we have to legally reach net-zero.

But carbon budgets are yet to be set for each department and the sectors they are responsible for. So have these two fossil fuel projects slipped through the net? I’ll leave that for you to ponder.

I get that Kilroot’s gas turbines are designed to replace more polluting coal, but is there not a better way to create the electricity NI needs without displacing one fossil fuel for another?

It’s outrageous that our government is still allowing new fossil fuel infrastructure to be built - when what they should be supporting is the roll out of solar panels and wind farms that together could provide most of the power we need - with some battery back-up for the days production is down.

There are great projects underway in NI, not least of which is the venture into geothermal energy.

I just don’t think we are quite there with the joined up thinking needed for the renewables revolution we need, with some politicians failing to take a step back and look at the bigger picture and how making these transitions will help everyone.

A renewables revolution by its very nature is climate justice in action for those of us suffering massively under the weight of increasing fossil fuel bills and Stormont failures to roll out grants for retrofitting, insulation and solar panels for the masses.

If Sinn Fein is serious about stopping new infrastructure that will lock us into fossil fuel use for decades to come and in their own words “greatly impede the transition to a zero carbon society” how has one of their own allowed decisions on two major fossil fuel projects to pass him by through refusing to intervene?

There were over 400 objections to the oil terminal and campaigners have branded Minister O’Dowd’s decision shocking.

Hilary McColum from Stop Whitehead Oil Terminal campaign said: “Since we were alerted to the oil terminal proposal in 2019, one of the key aims of our campaign group has been to highlight the impact it would have on the ability of Northern Ireland to respond to the increasingly alarming rate of climate change.

“Investment on this scale can only further entrench our reliance on fossil fuels, and the owners of the site will be seeking to recoup their investment by selling more oil and petrol, for a longer time, against the interests of current and future generations.

“The Environmental Statement produced by the developers assesses the climate impact of things like the boiler for the staff canteen, but says nothing about the millions of tons of fossil fuels that will pass through this site and the impact that this will have on the climate.

“While we have pointed out the inadequacy of this assessment to the local authority and the Department of Infrastructure, but it has nevertheless been accepted by them, so they too are letting us and future generations down.

“The Climate Change (NI) Act 2022 places a legal obligation on Government departments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 48% by 2030, and achieve net zero by 2050.

“We believe building a new, major fossil fuel import and distribution facility is contrary to their responsibilities under the Northern Ireland Climate Change Act.”

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