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Coastal Environment - Environmental Protection

The Foreshore Act 1933 was drawn up before major construction in the coastal zone was envisaged. Permission for construction of large scale, industrial developments at sea, notably offshore wind farms, is now being granted under this outdated legislation. The absence of modern “fit for purpose” legislation and regulation means that Ireland’s coastal environment is not adequately protected.

Offshore wind farms are a relatively new and untested technology, with just 1400MW installed world wide at end 2009. Like any industrial development, they have the potential to have individual and cumulative negative impacts on the environment.

OSPAR

The OSPAR Convention is the current legal instrument guiding international cooperation on the protection of the marine environment of the North-East Atlantic. Work under the Convention is managed by the OSPAR Commission made up of the Governments of the 15 contracting parties and the European Commission representing the European community.

The OSPAR Commission aims to protect the marine environment from the adverse effects of human activities and to contribute to the sustainable use of the seas. It has produced three reports of particular relevance:

1. Problems and Benefits Associated with the Development of Offshore Wind Farms (OSPAR 2004) which identifies some of the potential advantages and disadvantages of offshore wind farms.

The report lists possible impacts of offshore wind farms on the marine environment during construction, operation and removal.

Impacts include:

  • Disturbance of the seabed
  • Sediment re-suspension
  • Noise & vibrations
  • Electromagnetic fields
  • Temperature increase
  • Physical presence
  • Disturbance to marine fauna
  • Introduction of hard substrate habitats
  • Hydrography & Geomorphology
  • Visual & socio-economic impact

"The use of offshore wind energy is a relatively new human activity in the marine environment. Therefore, there are significant knowledge gaps regarding both potential impacts and the scale and cumulative nature of such impacts on the marine environment and wildlife resulting from the establishment of offshore wind farms" (OSPAR, 2004).

2. OSPAR Review of the Current State of Knowledge on the Environmental Impacts of the Location, Operation and Removal/Disposal of Offshore Windfarms (Ospar 2006) seeks to clarify where information is good and where it is lacking.

The report highlights “significant gaps in understanding most notably in the area of construction noise, bird displacement, seabed morphology, public perceptions /acceptance and cumulative impacts (the assessment of which although required under the Strategic Environmental Assessment Directive and Environmental impact Assessment Directives is notoriously difficult).

The interaction between marine renewable energy projects and other marine activities such as shipping, oil & gas exploration, aggregate extraction and fishing also requires further study. This is particularly relevant to impacts on sites protected under the Habitats Directive (such as sandbanks) where “in combination” effects must be considered as part of an Appropriate Assessment. Establishment of a workable method of assessing cumulative effects and creation of guidance for the industry is required.

In many cases there are large gaps in our knowledge in respect of very basic elements of the marine environment. Species responses and behaviours are often not well known and knowledge of distribution and abundance can be sparse. Significant data gaps exist for basic temporal and spatial environmental data such as migration routes, migration times, spawning/breeding areas, spawning/ breeding times, distribution and abundance, etc for key species of birds, fish and mammals.”

3. OSPAR Guidance on environmental considerations for Offshore Wind Farm Development (2008) aims to assist in the identification and consideration of some of the issues associated with determining the environmental effects of offshore wind farm developments.

The introduction states “While the associated reduction in CO2 emissions from the use of wind turbines should be welcomed, the identification of suitable locations and utilisation of suitable construction, operation, maintenance and removal techniques to ensure that adverse impacts on the environment are minimised, plays an important role in its expansion".

CCA comment

Key issues raised in these OSPAR documents are of particular relevance to Ireland given

  • The very extensive gaps in knowledge of the Irish marine environment and key species of birds, fish and marine mammals.
  • The lack of a Strategic Environmental Assessment to assess cumulative impacts before extensive projects advanced through an outdated permitting process.
  • Selection of sites was entirely developer-led
  • Sites chosen are largely shallow sandbanks protected under the EU Habitats Directive

“Before offshore renewables development is encouraged with financial incentives and projects come off the drawing board - in accordance with accepted guiding principles (e.g. precautionary principle, best environmental practice, best available technology), EU policy and international conventions - it is vital that Ireland first puts into place a comprehensive maritime governance framework…and an integrated, ecosystem-based approach to the management of human activities affecting the ocean and coastal environment, including strategic and spatial marine area planning. Without any further delay

“No further offshore developments of any kind (wind, wave, tidal, oil and gas, aquaculture, etc.) should be considered, encouraged or licensed in Ireland's territorial waters or EEZ until such developments can be properly planned and managed”

Friends of the Irish Environment. Marine Workgroup (Website accessed Jan 2010).

The American Littoral Society

The American Littoral Society (ALS) is a leading environmental organization concerned about issues that affect the littoral zone - that area on the beach between low and high tide. Founded in 1961, the Society is a national, non-profit, public-interest organization comprising over 6,000 scientists, naturalists, environmentalists, divers, fishing enthusiasts and citizens from all walks of life.

ALS seeks to encourage a better scientific and public understanding of the marine environment and provide a unified voice advocating protection of the delicate fabric of life along the shore.

Its website (accessed December 2009) states that the organisation “endeavours to prevent human misuse (and overuse) of the ocean”. “Pressure is also mounting to use the ocean to feed the voracious American appetite for energy. Whether the dirty fossil fuel kind or the kinder, gentler renewable kind, an ocean industrialised is an ocean degraded. Our mission is to prevent industrial use of the ocean until:

  1. Such uses are framed by policy and regulations tied to a bona fide energy plan that includes the full range of renewable energy sources and effective conservation incentives.
  2. Science tells us that the benefits of the specific use sufficiently outweigh the detrimental impact on the sea and the creatures that live there”

In a Position Statement, ‘Industrial Offshore Wind Power – A Costly Diversion’, ALS state:

Our concerns about the impact and appropriateness of building industrial scale offshore wind facilities in no way indicate a disregard for the critical issue of global climate change or that we are not working constructively to address the issue…

“We are concerned about the potential benefits from offshore wind as compared to its impacts on ocean and coastal resources and traditional uses of the ocean and that the enormous amount of public funding needed by offshore wind might be used more effectively to reduce (CO2) emissions through other means, primarily conservation”.

Our concerns fall into three categories:

  • potential impacts to living resources and traditional uses of the ocean
  • plans to erect large offshore facilities without proper testing and evaluation
  • evidence that offshore wind power will not measurably reverse global warming

The statement concludes:

“Wind turbines have become icons for our ability to deal with global warming despite clear evidence of their limited ability to mitigate it. Energy companies, turbine manufacturers and a large portion of the environmental sector have embraced offshore wind power as a panacea for global warming, generating a political momentum that cannot (or will not) stop to consider good policy.

All the while, this dash toward wind has diverted attention from the difficult and politically distasteful changes we must make to the houses we live in, the cars we drive, the food we eat, and just about every other aspect of the way we live, challenges which are truly at the root of addressing global climate change.

This is a dangerous diversion that not only puts already stressed coastal resources and public money at risk, but also risks postponing the more difficult actions we need to take to reverse global warming past the point of no return.”