Court rejects bid to block gas cavern scheme that campaigners fear will create marine ‘dead zone’

A legal bid by campaigners to overturn a minister’s decision to authorise the construction of seven large gas storage caverns in the seabed beneath Northern Ireland’s Larne Lough has been dismissed by the High Court in Belfast, which rejected arguments that the climate change impacts of the development had not been taken into account.

Former Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs [DAERA] minister Edwin Poots granted the plans a Marine Construction Licence in 2021. Developer Islandmagee Energy Limited’s scheme would see seven large gas storage caverns hollowed out underneath the lough by carving out salt layers by a method known as solution mining. The gas caverns are proposed to have a total capacity of around 500 million cubic metres and would be formed at a depth of 1,350 metres below sea level.

Campaigners, however, warn that the discharge into the sea of the resulting hypersaline salt and chemical solution created by the excavation process would create a “dead zone” in a protected marine area near Islandmagee where no marine life could survive.

Eleven Northern Ireland Priority Species, which are given protection under legislation, are found within 100 metres of the discharge point, including harbour porpoise and skate, according to Friends of the Earth Northern Ireland and local campaigners No Gas Caverns, which launched a legal challenge against the minister’s decision.

Among their grounds of challenge, the groups argued that Poots had failed to take decisions in accordance with the UK Marine Policy Statement, which requires consideration of the impact on climate change of the project. Further, the groups argued that the minister had taken into account an irrelevant consideration - the potential for the caverns to be repurposed for hydrogen storage.

The groups also contended that the decision was in breach of the Habitats Regulations, failed to comply with the Environmental Impact Assessment Regulations, and that as the proposed gas caverns development is “cross-cutting”, “significant” and “controversial”, the minister was required to refer the decision to the Executive Committee under section 20(3) and/or section 20(4) of the Northern Ireland Act 1998.

However, Mr Justice Humphreys dismissed all seven grounds of the challenge.

Friends of the Earth Northern Ireland director, James Orr, said: “This is an incredibly disappointing judgment for our environment and the local community who have fought so tirelessly against this hugely destructive scheme.

“This project will have a devastating impact on the local environment and wildlife, and significantly increase Northern Ireland’s contribution to the climate crisis.

“But the campaign against these gas caverns is far from over. Our lawyers will carefully consider this judgment before deciding our next steps against this reckless development.”

The judgment, No Gas Caverns Ltd & Anor, Application for Judicial Review, is available here.