Stormont Environment Minister Alex Attwood’s announcement, granting planning approval for underground gas storage below Larne Lough, raises a number of issues, writes JOHN ANDERSON
FRIENDS of Larne Lough expressed major concerns that saturated brine from the dissolution of the salt caverns was to be discharged to the waters of Larne Lough, in that, it was completely unacceptable to risk the alteration to the ecosystem of this unique ‘bottle neck’ Lough. Comparisons to the Dead Sea were made.
Also, regarding the low level noise pollution from the proposed pumping station on the shore of the Lough, operating, as it will, round the clock for many years during the forming of the storage caverns. This type of constant noise can be very damaging to ‘quality of life’.
The storage company subsequently assured us that the plan to pump directly to the Lough had been abandoned and the discharge would be pumped to sea off Islandmagee. No assurances have been given regarding specific noise levels resulting from pumping.
However, the Islandmagee discharge remains. If, as the storage company computer modelling shows, a small area around the saturated brine discharge diffusers will be ‘killed’ by the high concentrations of salt, but that current and waves will dilute the discharge to normal levels outside this zone, then all is well.
However, if in reality, the saturated brine does not diffuse, for reasons of, for instance, temperature differential and/or high density, flumes of high density brine could potentially damage corridors of water and sea bed and shoreline over considerable distances with dire consequences.
In the context of the precautionary principle this needs careful consideration, together with any cumulative effect that may come from another similar discharge to the North of the mouth of Larne Lough, proposed by another company.
When a project is tagged with a ‘£400m investment’ label there is a tendency in NI to assume that it must be good, irrespective to what checks and balances are in place. Whilst the principle of the need for strategic storage capacity for gas in NI is easy to establish and has merit, there is clearly hard commercial reality driving this project.
Gas will be bought as cheaply as possible on the spot market and sold for the highest possible price at peak consumption periods…. simple business logic.
As a pipe always goes two ways, does it follow that this gas will be exclusively for NI? ….of course it does not, unless NI is the highest bidder.
Anyone who believes that this storage facility is a guarantee of cheap gas for NI is not thinking this through.
If, and only if, the planning and regulatory processes are allowed to operate on technical and professional grounds without political interference and the regulation of gas prices is coupled to a will to decrease, rather than increase, the conspicuous consumption of gas - only if the necessary conditions are attached to the planning approval and are rigorously enforced - only then, will projects like this represent a genuine community and NI benefit rather than exclusively a shareholders’ advantage.
John Anderson is chair of Friends of Larne Lough. He is an engineer and former Independent Larne councillor. John sits on a number of Environment and Built Heritage bodies.
Friends of Larne Lough is a constituted community environmental group formed in 1999 to further the improvement of water quality and environment in and around Larne Lough.