Scottish Ministers recently won their appeal against a decision in 2016 in favour of the RSPB’s judicial review challenge to the consenting of four offshore wind projects off the Fife and Angus coasts.
In their decision the Lord President Lord Carloway, Scotland’s senior judge, sitting with Lord Menzies and Lord Brodie, issued a trenchant restatement of the law of judicial review. Simply put,
““It is not the role of the Court to test the ecological or planning judgements made in the course of the decision making process…” Parliament has determined that the decision-maker in this area is not to be a judge…in the formal setting of a court room.”
This is a welcome decision for Mainstream. We have been developing this project since 2009. At every stage, we have worked closely and patiently with our environmental partners to assess and mitigate the potential impact of our Neart na Gaoithe project (“NNG”) on marine wildlife.
The Appeal Court judges recognised that fact in the decision.
For us, it is not just about this one project. It is about building new energy systems that will make a material contribution to combatting climate change – the very climate change that is warming the waters around the British Isles and by driving sand eel populations northwards, depriving iconic bird species of their traditional feeding grounds.
We all recognise that the RSPB has a duty to its members to act to protect the UK’s bird populations, and we have had a constructive relationship with them for many years.
What is disappointing is that in order to justify the judicial review they have sought to dramatically overstate the potential impact of this project on birdlife in the Forth and Tay estuaries.
Recent suggestions 1,000s of gannets could be harmed are so far from reality it undermines our ability to work together constructively to find common solutions to help mitigate climate change impact on Scotland’s marine wildlife.
Several reports in recent years have suggested climate change is the major factor in the decline on many seabird populations.
In the period since NNG submitted its offshore planning application, advances in turbine technology have enabled us to alter the design of the site to significantly reduce turbine numbers, and to space them out, while maintaining output, and the amount of CO2 emissions displaced.
Recent scoping submissions to Marine Scotland show that the number of turbines proposed for the Forth and Tay area is now around half the proposed number from when the applications were submitted.
Alongside advances in turbine technology, there have been similar advances in our understanding of seabird behaviour around offshore turbines. The ORJIP (Offshore Renewable Joint Industry Programme) Bird Collision study has used real data from the 100-turbine Thanet offshore windfarm to identify bird behaviour around large offshore infrastructure projects.
While the draft findings have not been released, I am reassured by what is being discovered about bird activity and avoidance. The RSPB is also aware of this data, which is why their strident reaction to the court decision is so puzzling.
The advances in turbine technology, reduction in turbine numbers and improvements in knowledge of seabird behaviour, mean that previous assessments of risk to birds are gross overestimates.
Mainstream is committed to undertaking studies of a similar scale to the ORJIP study when NNG is operational, to reduce risk to wildlife and to further improve science in this area. We hope that this can be undertaken in collaboration with the RSPB and other environmental organisations.
I am reassured by the more measured views of the RSPB’s sister environmental organisations. On Monday, the WWF’s Director for Advocacy tweeted “This looks amazing” next to a story on the successful completion of the Burbo Bank offshore windfarm, a project part owned by LEGO, which has installed the world’s largest offshore turbines, the Vestas 8MW machine.
We all want to do the right thing for the environment. I set up Mainstream to help the world achieve its once off transition to sustainability. As I set out earlier, Lord Carloway and his colleagues referred to the importance of NNG in the battle against global warming. This is a huge driving force for us at Mainstream, where the company has committed itself to leading the drive to make electricity without emitting CO2.
I want to work with the RSPB and all our partners to build NNG in a way that has the least impact on the environment.
We have significantly reduced the number of turbines in the project. They will be spaced over a kilometre apart, providing huge corridors for transit. The project will also act as an artificial reef and by so doing enable the build-up of fish stocks, which have also been decimated by climate change.
It is time for our friends in the RSPB and across the environmental movement to sit down with us, and with the Scottish government, to agree on a common objective – the imminent risk to all life, avian and human, posed by climate change, and the necessity to work together to find solutions to this, the greatest challenge of our age.