The Port of Cork has recently signed a memorandum of understanding with NextDecade Corporation, an American liquefied natural gas (LNG) development company. NextDecade is listed on the stock exchange as worth nearly $1 billion (€850 million).
The memorandum is an informal agreement to explore a major gas supply project costing hundreds of millions of euro. This would be a joint development opportunity for NextDecade and Cork, involving the installation of a Floating Storage Regasification Unit (FSRU) and an accompanying LNG import terminal in Ireland. LNG is natural gas, mostly methane, that has been condensed into liquid form for transport or simpler storage by cooling it to about −160 °C.
The gas imported to this facility would be fracked gas from the Texas/Mexico border – gas extracted by hydraulic fracturing. This is an intensive extraction process of injecting water at high pressure into bedrock to force open fissures, and access residual oil or gas.
Fracking is a hotly debated technology, with some seeing it as an alternative to typical fossil fuel usage, but with many environmentalists arguing that it is overly demanding in terms of water and energy, and has a high risk of polluting local groundwater.
America has had a recent boom in hydraulic fracturing sites. This has left the country’s fossil fuel industry with an excess of gas. In order to relieve this glut, suppliers are scouting out opportunities for export in the form of LNG.
This installation would comprise of a jetty in Cork harbour to hold a container ship storing the LNG, which would then be regasified into the national grid through an underwater pipeline. Here, the LNG would arrive from a proposed Rio Grande LNG export facility, located at the Port of Brownsville in Southern Texas.
Currently, Cork Harbour provides more than 25% of Ireland’s energy and also houses 20% of Ireland’s energy generating capacity, including Ireland’s only oil refinery, operated by the Canadian company Irving Oil. Cork County Council has set aside a 960-acre site for energy related developments in Whitegate. NextDecade intends to supply Ireland with one third of its natural gas requirements once the project has been completed.
The commercial manager of the Port of Cork, Michael McCarthy, has said that the plan will be a huge boost for the region and country’s economy. The project has been fast-tracked by the company, with McCarthy commenting: “Subject to planning permission being granted, there is no reason why the project couldn’t become operational by the end of 2019 or early 2020.”
This move comes just one month after the Bill to ban fracking (hydraulic fracturing for extraction of oil and gas) in Ireland was signed into law. The proposed facility has drawn criticism from environmentalists and the Green Party, who have stated that the Government are backtracking on environmental commitments by not intervening.
Speaking to the website GreenNews.ie, the Green Party representative for the Cork North Central constituency, Oliver Moran, said: “On the one hand, the government are highlighting the dangers of fracking and banning it in this country, then on the other hand they’re importing fracked gas from other countries.” Moran continued: “It makes Ireland’s fracking ban look like little more than greenwashing from Fine Gael. The Government are simply exporting environmental damage to other areas. The hypocrisy is staggering.”
The Department of Communications, Climate Action and the Environment have released a statement on the project claiming that, as it is a commercial project, the department does not have any direct involvement.
Environmental activists from the group “Not Here Not Anywhere” have questioned the Minister, Denis Naughten, about the project. However Naughten has spoken out in defense of gas infrastructure, stating that 88% of the energy consumed in Ireland is imported and that continued fossil fuel development is necessary for energy security under Brexit. According to the departmental statement, “the potential for LNG will be considered as part of a range of actions in relation to energy security, along with storage and interconnection.”
The chairman of the Port of Cork, John Mullins, echoed this sentiment, saying that if the project were combined with gas coming from the Corrib gas fields and the Kinsale gas fields, it “would meet Ireland’s requirements for the next 25 years. Therefore we wouldn’t be reliant on getting gas from Scotland. Clearly there can be implications with Brexit and we need to be thinking on our feet”.
The project has also been met with resistance on the other end of the supply chain, in Rio Grande, as locals have expressed fears about the project’s potential impact on the community.
Jim Chapman, chair of the Lower Rio Grande Valley Sierra Club, commented: “These are enormous industrial facilities that could fundamentally change our coastal communities. These decisions must not be made behind closed doors and without rigorous, open discussion of how this will impact our children, our grandchildren, and us. Residents should have the opportunity to learn, hear, and respond to one another in a public venue.”
The Texas Sierra Club has also released a statement, with organiser Rebekah Hinojosa claiming the county has betrayed its citizens. “The natural gas for the terminal will come from fracking, which damages Texas land, pollutes water and air, and causes illness in surrounding communities,” Hinojosa said.
This is not the only new gas development being explored in Ireland. Shannon LNG, another LNG company, has recently reapplied to An Bord Pleanala, altering the planning conditions for its proposed terminal in Kerry.
Planning permission for the terminal was granted in 2008, subject to several tariffs on gas interconnectors to be levied on Shannon LNG. The planning permission is due to expire next March, a condition which the company are now attempting to alter.