WORK is expected to begin later this year on a £400 million natural gas storage facility deep beneath Larne Lough.
Environment Minister Alex Attwood has given the go-ahead for the development, which will be first of its kind anywhere on the island of Ireland.
The project will see the creation of seven huge underground caverns carved from prehistoric salt deposits a mile under the lough. Once completed, developers Islandmagee Gas Storage Ltd (IMSL) intend to store 500 million cubic metres of natural gas – enough to satisfy Northern Ireland’s peak demand for about 60 days.
Construction of the facility is expected to take seven years to complete, and IMSL believe it has the potential to create around 200 construction jobs and 20-30 long-term operational posts.
And the scheme has the backing of fuel giant BP, who have agreed to fund the activities necessary to develop the project.
Welcoming the approval of planning permission for the project, IMSL director Paddy Larkin said the creation of an energy bank beneath Larne Lough would help guard homes and businesses in Northern Ireland against rising gas prices in the volatile international market.
He added: “Northern Ireland currently has no natural gas storage and relies wholly on gas imports to meet its heating and power generation needs. This facility will make a significant contribution to security of energy supplies as well as helping to meet the greater short-term demands placed on the gas network to support increased intermittent renewable generation.”
However, over 350 objections have been lodged with planners from local people who are concerned about several aspects of the scheme.
One of the main sticking points for environmentalists is the process by which the underground storage areas are created. A method known as leaching is employed to dissolve the salt and form large egg-shaped cavities. The waste salt solution, or brine, will then be deposited out at sea.
This process will only take place during the construction phase, but there are fears that the brine will damage marine life in the area.
Islandmagee residents have also expressed concerns that the local roads infrastructure will be unable to cope with the high volume of heavy vehicle traffic during the lengthy construction period.
But the Environment Minister maintains that the project is safe and believes it will also provide a major boost to local economy.
Mr Attwood said: “I am very conscious that there are environmental concerns about this. However there has been an exhaustive consultation process and I am satisfied that this proposal can obtain other relevant consents and proceed in a way that creates jobs and develops the economy whilst protecting the environment.
“We have demonstrated that energy, environmental and economic needs can be reconciled successfully. SeaGen, the birthplace of modern tidal energy sitting in the Narrows in the mouth of Strangford Lough proves this point. This project at Islandmagee can do the same and I would not be supporting it unless I was satisfied that could be done safely, which my rigorous scientists have assured me it can.”
Mr Attwood added: “This security of supply of energy will be a significant step forward in the way we manage our energy sector. North Sea gas supplies are declining steeply and this facility will make a significant contribution to the security of gas supplies for the whole island of Ireland and indeed for Britain.
“Further, gas storage has the potential to reduce volatility in energy prices – gas can be purchased for storage when prices are low for use or sale when prices are higher. This is important for Northern Ireland’s future economic development.”
While the debate about the project rumbles on, preparation work on the first test borehole is expected to be carried out in late 2012, with drilling planned for the first half of 2013.
IMSL is a joint venture between InfraStrata and Mutual Energy, which owns the Moyle Electricity interconnector that links the power grid in Northern Ireland with Scotland’s. The company’s agreement with BP contains an option for the fuel giant to acquire a controlling stake in the business.
In addition to planning permission, IMSL must also obtain other consents to progress the project, including water order consent, abstraction license and a marine construction license.