Shannon LNG: is using bottlenose dolphins as a key issue in this debate misplaced?

27th Jan 2019

Next week there is a judicial review of the planning application issued to Shannon LNG to construct a liquefied natural gas plant (LNG) terminal on the southern shore of the Shannon Estuary. Although planning permission was granted 10 years ago, after a full environmental impact assessment had been carried out, which included an Oral Hearing for local people to raise their concerns, this is a review of the decision made by An Bord Pleanála last July, to extend planning permission, rather than reviewing the necessity of an LNG terminal in Ireland

This renewed interest in a LNG terminal has raised many questions over whether such a LNG terminal is appropriate in Ireland. Both the political and environmental climate has changed considerably over the last decade, including Ireland’s obligations to reduce reliance on carbon based fuels.

The potential negative impact on dolphins in the Shannon Estuary have been used by some groups as a justification to oppose planning permission. The IWDG are committed to the protection of whales, dolphins and porpoise and their habitats throughout Ireland. It was the IWDG way back in 1993, who identified the Shannon Estuary as home to a resident group of bottlenose dolphins, and provides a unique and extremely important habitat. The Shannon population is considered genetically discrete and recent research by the IWDG estimates just 154 individuals occur in the population. The dolphins use the entire estuary as far upriver as Limerick City and into the Fergus Estuary. For example, acoustic monitoring has shown they occur off Shannon Airport on 15% of days but off Moneypoint power station on 80% of days. Recently the IWDG have shown dolphins from the Shannon occur frequently and for long  periods in Tralee and Brandon Bays outside the boundaries of the Lower River Shannon SAC and as far north as Kilkee and Doonbeg on the Clare coast.

  

Land-based monitoring in the Shannon Estuary © Simon Berrow/IWDG

Impact on bottlenose dolphins

The IWDG (through the former SDWF) contributed to the risk assessment of the proposed terminal on bottlenose dolphins and their habitat and concluded that the construction and operation would not cause a significant impact if appropriate mitigation measures were employed. We are currently carrying out some limited acoustic monitoring to update our knowledge of the current use of the site by dolphins to inform opinion.

Environmental Impact assessments typically concentrate on the site of the proposed development and associated activity. Although the cumulative effect of a development, in combination with other current and potential activities, must be taken into account during environmental assessments, this is difficult as a lot of assumptions and speculation are required as what is proposed compared to what actually goes ahead can be quite different, as well as the scientific challenges of modelling cumulative impacts.

In the opinion of the IWDG, the proposed construction and operation of an LNG terminal will of course impact on the estuary but it will not have a “significant impact” on the dolphins and their habitat or compromise the conservation objectives of the Lower River Shannon SAC. Will the proposed development enhance the habitat for, or improve the conservation status of, bottlenose dolphins in the estuary? No.

Would the dolphins be better off if there was no LNG terminal? Of course.

 

Moneypoint Power Station © Simon Berrow/IWDG

Cumulative effects

The IWDG are concerned that although the impact of the LNG terminal in itself will not have a significant impact, when these effects are combined with other present and proposed developments such as the expansion of Shannon Foynes Port Company, future developments at Moneypoint and Tarbert power stations, the development of marine renewable energy such as tidal power and offshore wind, then these cumulative effects could start having significant impacts. Not one development is significant but the cumulative effects of many could be "death by a thousand cuts!"

Monitoring these cumulative effects is not the responsibility of individual projects such as Shannon LNG, but is the responsibility of either state agencies charged with environmental protection or bodies representing all industries who are operating in the estuary as a way of meeting  their individual environmental obligations.

Although opponents to the construction of an LNG terminal may use the presence of a resident population of dolphins as an opportunity to undermine the development, this would be counter-productive. There are much bigger issues to be discussed, and on a national level, which should have profound implications for this and subsequent planning decisions in the estuary and elsewhere in Ireland. Obviously it is essential to asses the potential impact on dolphins but making this a key issue is mis-placed. 

Do we need an LNG terminal in Ireland? Should we be importing fracked gas from overseas, when Ireland has voted to ban fracking in this country? Would such a terminal delay progress to a de-carbonised economy and provision of renewable energy? Is this terminal intended to provide Europe with gas and not just Ireland and thus be part of an international energy security network?

Failure for Ireland to meet its carbon reduction targets will result in huge fines from Europe, up to €400 million per annum. Will this LNG assist us on our road to a low carbon economy or delay this process?

Will the jobs associated with this terminal and spin off services contribute to the economic well-being of the local communities and offset emigration of our young people? Of course they will and they are badly needed both in North Kerry and West Clare. The Shannon Estuary provides unique deep-water berths within Europe and the vast majority of goods coming into Ireland and Europe arrive by sea, therefore the Shannon Estuary has unique natural resources and is strategically very important at a European level.

 

Dolphins bowriding a large ship in the Shannon Estuary © Simon Berrow/IWDG

Role of stakeholders in a democratic society

These are big issues, which all citizens and stakeholders in a democracy should be involved in their decisions. Many of these issues have been raised recently by Futureproof Clare who have been calling for more public debate (https://www.facebook.com/futureproofclare), and are vocal in their opposition to this LNG terminal.

Politicians and managers must weight up all the pros and cons, costs and benefits and cumulative effects before making decisions on our infrastructure. Protecting nature conservation is essential, especially given recent stark warnings on the rate of biodiversity extinctions and is a legal obligation in the Shannon Estuary as it’s a European Protected Site for a range of habitats and species. Failure to maintain their conservation status can result in huge fines.

Can we have economic development and maintain high nature conservation status in the Shannon Estuary and beyond ? Yes we can but only in a spirit of respect and openness and with a much greater commitment to understanding the functioning and habitat requirements of our species and habitats and ensuring robust monitoring and surveillance is in place to ensure any deterioration in their conservation status is detected early enough to prevent any significant impacts.

Is this an impossible, idealised view of the world? I hope not!

 

Site investigations at the Shannon LNG terminal site off Ballylongford © Simon Berrow/IWDG

The future economic development of our country requires knowledge of our natural habitats and native species and greater investment must be put into building this knowledge to inform those who are in positions to make informed decisions. So within the debate about planning permission from an LNG terminal in the Shannon Estuary, the resident dolphins are an important issue to be considered. Are they the most important issue? No.

Let’s hope next week’s judicial review will provide an opportunity for all stakeholders and interested parties to engage in a real debate about the future energy policy in Ireland and put our impact on climate change and carbon emissions centre stage because this is the real challenge to present and future generations.

Dr Simon Berrow

CEO, Irish Whale and Dolphin Group

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