N05-A platform designed to be powered by offshore wind; Source: ONE-Dyas

Court rules coast is clear for North Sea gas project: Will it be smooth sailing from here on?

Has a natural gas development in the North Sea finally managed to catch a break with calm seas and fair winds ahead or is this wishful thinking given the hard stance climate activities have taken on the project?

N05-A platform designed to be powered by offshore wind; Source: ONE-Dyas

Shortly after all impediments appeared behind it, the N05-A natural gas project in the Dutch sector of the North Sea ran into another legal trouble, as a court-ordered temporary halt of operations forced its drilling plans to go awry. A provisional ruling has now enabled the Netherlands-headquartered ONE-Dyas to move forward with its planned activities for the project envisioned to run on offshore wind power.

According to the preliminary relief judge of the Council of State, who has lifted the suspension of the so-called disciplinary measure imposed two weeks ago, the operator may install and use its planned wind-powered production platform 20 kilometers north of Schiermonnikoog to start extracting gas from the North Sea by the end of 2024.

Thanks to this, ONE-Dyas can provisionally use the permit and permissions granted by the State Secretary for Economic Affairs and Climate for the N05-A gas project until the Administrative Jurisdiction Division makes a final ruling later in the substantive proceedings on the objections of various nature-preservation-focused organizations to the development.

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The provisional ruling highlights that the State Secretary’s interest in this legal case stems from concerns over the security of natural gas supply in the coming winter period 2024-2025 to bridge the Dutch energy transition due to the permanent closure of the Groninger field and the loss of the supply of Russian gas.

With this at the forefront, the State Secretary wants to ensure that the production platform can be installed quickly in light of the limited window of availability for specialized transport equipment and installation tools that can undertake the assignment at short notice.

However, this goal is offset by the determination of environmental organizations to fight for the conservation and protection of animal species in the area and the surrounding nature reserves, as they fear irreversible consequences may be in store if the project goes forward.

This is the reason why Deutsche Umwelthilfe (DUH)Bürgerinitiative Saubere Luft OstfrieslandMobilisation for the Environment (MOB), the island community of Borkum, and others filed the lawsuit against the decision to approve the project, citing climate and biodiversity destruction fears. 

Weighing interests that are poles apart tilts ruling in gas project‘s favor

During a hearing, ONE-Dyas explained that the N05-A platform would need to be installed in the summer to meet the production deadline of achieving the first natural gas from the project by the end of 2024. To this end, the Dutch player contracted Heerema Marine Contractors’ Sleipnir crane vessel for a set period beginning in August 2024.

In addition, the operator underscored that the Sleipnir vessel was the only internationally operating ship running on LNG, contributing significantly to cuts in harmful local emissions of the project compared to other internationally operating installation vessels.

Since the Sleipnir vessel will be deployed elsewhere internationally after the end of the set installation slot and will not be available again until 2025 at the earliest, ONE-Dyas reiterated that the production platform would have to be installed in the period from the start of August.

In light of this, the production platform needs to be towed to the drilling location no later than July 31, 2024, to meet the installation slot, thus, the Dutch firm will have to make various calls no later than June 21, 2024. Around four weeks are anticipated to be required to make the platform and undercarriage sea-tight before the production platform can be towed to the drilling location.

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Even though the preliminary relief judge acknowledged the commercial economic interest ONE-Dyas has in this provisional procedure, he primarily contemplated the interests of the nature organizations that argued in favor of keeping the suspension in place to prevent development inroads.

The judge also considered the motivation of the State Secretary, who provided arguments in favor of lifting the suspension. After mulling over these opposing views and requests, the preliminary relief judge concluded that the result of weighing interests in this provisional procedure is to the disadvantage of environmental organizations.

While justifying his decision, the judge wrote: “Although the preliminary relief judge does not rule out in advance that the appeal by DUH and others may have some chance of success, he is – in view of the preliminary assessment of the legality of the grounds for appeal by DUH and others – not convinced in advance that any defects in the decision-making will be fatal for the ultimate realization of the ONE-Dyas initiative and that the initiative cannot proceed in its entirety due to these shortcomings.”

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As this ruling is a provisional judgment, a so-called substantive procedure is still underway that the Administrative Jurisdiction Division will deal with later at a court hearing in which all grounds for appeal will be discussed in detail. Afterward, a final decision will be made for this case.

In the wake of the opponents’ claims that the N05-A project might still require permits in Germany for the construction of the electricity cable, ONE-Dyas explained at the hearing that if such permits end up being needed in Germany, it would continue with the installation of the production platform irrespective of it.

“On June 21, the preliminary relief judge of the Council of State ruled that ONE-Dyas can continue with all activities for project N05-A in the North Sea. This statement is good news for security of supply, the economy and the climate, because we need to import less natural gas thanks to production from N05-A. As long as we cannot fully switch to sustainable energy sources, North Sea natural gas remains the best choice.,” outlined ONE-Dyas.

“Project N05-A makes an essential contribution to the energy transition and does so in the most progressive way: virtually no emissions, suitable for future development of green hydrogen and CCS. This ruling means that we can quickly continue with all preparations to supply the first natural gas from N05-A to households and companies at the end of 2024.”

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While the Dutch operator has welcomed the court’s decision, the activists who challenged the approval of the project, primarily on climate and environmental grounds, have no intention of throwing in the towel just yet.  

Commenting on the ruling, Jorien Bakker of Natuurmonumenten stated: “Disappointing statement for marine nature. But the race is not over: the appeal procedure is still ongoing, so I cannot imagine that One-Dyas will go wild again.”

As a result, the journey ahead for N05-A may not be as straightforward as it seems as fair winds are not likely to fill its sails due to further legal action activists are bent on pursuing along with other avenues they may devise to stop the project from coming online. Whether or not they will be successful in their endeavors remains to be seen.

With the Dutch government signaling its intention to remain vigilant and continue to work to prevent shortages during the energy transition, the State Secretary has pinpointed the acceleration of gas extraction in the North Sea, including the N05-A gas field, as an important pillar.

Despite the gas project’s somewhat chequered history with court proceedings, the final current may still end up in its favor and push its development along, allowing it to come into operation by the end of 2024, as planned. If the project reaches the production stage, the N05-A platform will run entirely on renewable energy from the nearby 113.4 MW Riffgat offshore wind farm.