3 Reports now await publication re North/South Interconnector – Brendan Smith TD


Below is Report of Oral Questions to the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment in Dáil Éireann on 18th September re proposed North/South Interconnector with particular reference to the delays in publishing independent reports which were commissioned following the passing of Fianna Fáil Motions in Dail and Seanad Éireann.

North-South Interconnector

Timmy Dooley

Question:

48. Deputy Timmy Dooley asked the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment when he plans to publish two reports that his Department has commissioned on the feasibility of undergrounding the North-South interconnector and provide compensation for owners of property near high voltage transmission lines; and the status of these plans. [37631/18]

Brendan Smith

Question:

50. Deputy Brendan Smith asked the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment if he has received the two independent reports on the proposed North-South interconnector; if so, when he plans to publish the reports; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [37595/18]

Brendan Smith

Question:

80. Deputy Brendan Smith asked the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment when he plans to publish the two independent reports on the proposed North-South interconnector; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [37594/18]

Shane Cassells

Question:

83. Deputy Shane Cassells asked the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment the status of the North-South interconnector project. [37619/18]

More than a year ago the Fianna Fáil Party introduced motions in this House and Seanad Éireann calling on the Government to commission independent studies of the technical feasibility and cost of undergrounding the North-South interconnector. It is welcome that following the motions the Minister has commissioned two studies. I understand the reports have been with him for some time. Communities in counties Cavan, Monaghan and Meath are anxious to know what has been recommended in them. I hope the Minister is in a position to indicate to us that the reports will be published without further delay.

I propose to take Questions Nos. 48, 50, 80 and 83 together.

As the Deputies will be aware, in 2017 I commissioned two studies designed to address the main points of the motions passed by Dáil Éireann and Seanad Éireann, as well as key concerns expressed by those opposed to the development of the North-South interconnector, NSIC, as an overhead line. The first is an independent study to examine the technical feasibility and cost of undergrounding the interconnector. Three international experts in the field of electricity infrastructure development carried out a comprehensive analysis of international developments in undergrounding technologies since publication of the international expert commission’s report in 2012. That was a key request of the representatives of the communities concerned about the proposed overhead line development. Two of the consultants appointed were members of the 2012 commission, while the third was a member of the 2014 independent expert group appointed by my Department to review key electricity grid projects. Therefore, all members of the commission were familiar both with the development of transmission grids across Europe, as well as the project in the context of Ireland’s all-island electricity grid.

The North-South interconnector is critical to ensuring a safe, secure supply of electricity throughout the island of Ireland. It also supports the core objectives of European and national energy policy, namely, sustainability, security of supply and competitiveness. The project is the subject of legal challenges in both Ireland and Northern Ireland, with important legal dates imminent in both jurisdictions this month and next. EirGrid and ESB Networks are awaiting the outcome of the judicial challenges before they proceed to discharge their operational duties in the construction of the interconnector.

The second study is focused on the levels of compensation provided for land and property owners in proximity to high voltage transmission lines in a European context. This study was undertaken to consider a separate concern raised by public representatives at meetings with me on the impact of transmission lines on land and property values and the level of compensation paid in lieu of such impacts. Levels of compensation provided for land and property owners are considered to be a reflection of the impact of transmission lines on land and property values; therefore, this study, undertaken by KHSK Economic Consultants, analysed the compensation regimes in other European and selected international countries. Both studies have been completed and submitted to me.

In order to have the most up-to-date assessment of the implications of Brexit for the energy sector before bringing the reports to the Government, I sought the views of the energy regulator and electricity and gas transmission system operators on the implications for the electricity market in Ireland in the event of a hard Brexit, including for the single electricity market, SEM, timelines for the delivery of programmes such as DS3, delivering a secure, sustainable electricity system, and the North-South interconnector and continued secure cross-Border electricity trading across interconnectors.  The outcome of this analysis was submitted to my Department last week and is being considered. I have previously indicated to this House that it is my intention to bring the relevant reports to the Government for consideration prior to their publication. I expect to do this shortly.

I thank the Minister for his detailed response. He has told me previously in response to numerous parliamentary questions that he expects to bring the report to the Government shortly or within a few weeks. That dates back some time.

The Minister mentioned the people who had been given sight of the report. Has EirGrid had sight of it? Was it asked for comments or submissions on either of the studies? The Minister is fully aware that in no circumstances will communities in counties Cavan, Monaghan and Meath allow the transmission cables to be overground, if the project is to proceed. The fundamental issue is that if the project is to proceed, the transmission cables need to be placed underground. We know for some time that EirGrid has accepted that it is technically feasible to place the transmission cables underground. In addition, the cost differential in undergrounding or overgrounding the cables has narrowed significantly from the time the project was initially commissioned ten or 12 years ago. The Minister needs to give a very strong commitment to communities in counties Cavan, Monaghan and Meath that if the project is to proceed, their concerns will be taken into account. Those individuals, families and communities will not accept the transmission cables being placed overground in any circumstance.

The reports were requested by me on behalf of the Oireachtas. A decision was made by the Government in that regard. I will present the reports to the Government. The hold-up has been that it was incumbent on me to consider the implications of a hard Brexit for our electricity system, the single electricity market, our gas market, the North-South interconnector and the ongoing DS3 project. I wanted to have a comprehensive position to present to the Cabinet.

The third report specifically engaged with EirGrid and Gas Networks Ireland on the implications of a hard Brexit. Before the summer, the European Commission requested of me that that be carried out. We will report back to the Commission on the report.

EirGrid has had sight of both reports.

No. My reference to EirGrid and Gas Networks Ireland related to a third report I sought regarding the implications of a hard Brexit for our electricity and gas systems. It will be presented to the Cabinet along with the other two reports. It was only received by my Department at the end of last week. The intention is to turn it around quite quickly and bring all three reports to Cabinet very soon.

A very distinguished and reputable journalist, Michael Fisher, who does a lot of work for The Northern Standard newspaper in Monaghan and is a former RTÉ correspondent, did a great public service in obtaining through freedom of information requests correspondence between the Minister’s Department and EirGrid. Reading that correspondence over the summer months, one would think that EirGrid is a division of the Department. It is obvious that it was consulted and its views sought on any move by the Department. It was not kept at arm’s length but, rather, seems to be a de facto division of the Department, which is utterly wrong.

I am the first Minister for a long time to meet and directly engage with interested groups—–

We welcome that.

—–and colleagues on the matter. I do not think any Member questions my sincerity or commitment to a fair process in this matter. I have the reports. I hoped to bring them to Cabinet earlier, but having received the request from the Commission, I believed it was fair to bring all three reports together. It is my intention to do so quite soon. Once they have been brought to the Cabinet, I intend to publish the first two reports and report on the third one to the Commission.

I am very interested in where the Minister intends to go with this monstrous pylon project, as are my constituents in County Meath and those of my colleagues, Deputies Niamh Smyth and Brendan Smith, who are present, in County Cavan. As Deputy Brendan Smith stated, we have intently read the weekly publication of what have come to be known as “the EirGrid files” in The Northern Standard over the summer. They comprise documents obtained by the respected journalist, Michael Fisher, who has unearthed some fascinating stuff. Most shockingly, he exposed the “best buddy” relationship which the documents show exists between the Minister’s Department and EirGrid officials. More important in the context of the underground review group about which the Minister has today been asked is the fact that EirGrid officials emailed proposed agendas for meetings with the underground review group to his Department. I have those emails in front of me. How can the Minister call this an independent review when the body being looked at put together the agenda for meetings? The last time I checked, the defendant in a court case does not prepare the case for the prosecution. Following the intervention by EirGrid, an email from the Minister’s Department to the independent review group stated that EirGrid was trying to structure a Thursday meeting a little and had suggested a draft agenda for the meeting. That is a little more than trying to structure the meeting a little. Like my colleagues and, most importantly, the people of County Meath, I am very interested in the work the Minister has on his desk. However, I would love to hear his insights into those serious revelations by Michael Fisher in regard to the process.

I have not read the articles referred to by Deputies Cassells and Brendan Smith and, therefore, will not comment on them.

The Department has seen everything else.

As soon as the reports have been presented to Cabinet, I intend to publish them so that people can read them for themselves.

As we speak, EirGrid is trying to canvass farmers at the ploughing championships and get them on board with its project to traverse the land of farmers and that of their neighbours with monstrous pylons across counties Meath, Cavan and Monaghan. It will not succeed. The cosy relationship between the Minister’s Department and EirGrid was exposed by Michael Fisher in the EirGrid files which I am holding in my hand. They show a very unhealthy link between the Department and EirGrid which scuppers any belief in the integrity of the process. The Minister spoke of meeting interested parties. Such people no longer have any belief in the process after reading those reports in The Northern Standard which were published over eight weeks.

EirGrid officials went so far as to monitor my social media account with the intent of giving a heads-up to officials in the Minister’s office that he should expect questions on the matter from me in the Dáil. I will save them the bother of having to do so. I will add the Minister as a friend on Facebook and he can monitor it himself and read what I intend to say. The only thing such officials will find on Facebook is a resilient community in counties Meath, Monaghan and Cavan which will not be bullied by EirGrid.

I will obtain the EirGrid files published by The Northern Standard for the Minister because they contain serious insights into what is, as has been said, a very unhealthy relationship between the Minister’s Department and EirGrid.

I do not monitor anyone’s social media account, nor do—–

I have the evidence here. Shall I read it out?

I do not dispute what the Deputy stated but—–

I have it here. I will hand it to the Minister.

——I do not monitor social media accounts, nor do any of the staff who work with or were personally appointed by me. Every Member of this House is legitimately entitled—–

The Minister’s senior officials are listed in the email.

—–to raise any issue in the House with me or any other Minister and I will always try to respond to the best of my ability. I understand the frustration that the reports have not yet been published but it was important for me to provide the Cabinet with a comprehensive review of all aspects of the matter, and I think Deputy Brendan Smith in particular will understand and appreciate that. Brexit is a big issue and it is important that we carry out a full assessment of its possible implications. I intend to bring that to Cabinet very shortly and I will publish the two reports to which I have referred as soon as I have done so.

Deputy Brendan Smith had two questions in this grouping so is entitled to another speaking slot.

I anticipate some interesting discussions at the Cabinet table when the Minister presents those reports because his colleague, the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection, Deputy Regina Doherty, stated some time ago that one would expect civil disobedience if the project were to proceed on the basis of the transmission cables being overground.

I was very surprised that the Minister, Deputy Naughten, allowed the procurement process to continue while the projects are the subject of proceedings in the Irish Supreme Court and the Court of Appeal in Northern Ireland. Why was the procurement process allowed to continue while the project is the subject of those court proceedings? We know that decisions cannot be made on major infrastructural projects North of the Border because of the governance situation in Northern Ireland.

As Deputy Brendan Smith is aware, there are judicial proceedings under way North of the Border and in this jurisdiction. As he is also aware, on 6 September the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Ms Karen Bradley, announced that legislation is to be introduced in the House of Commons to deal with the issues that have been raised regarding the Arc21 waste incinerator judgment. There are similar issues in regard to the North-South interconnector. As the Deputy is aware, we expect that the judicial review in this jurisdiction will be heard soon. No works have commenced during this procurement process. I have stated that on several occasions in the House and explained why the process is proceeding, but there will be no works until we have clarification regarding the consent process.

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