Assembly Member for the area Seán Neeson said: “I have always been interested in extending the natural gas network to as many areas in Northern Ireland as possible. Members will know that I was to the fore in the campaign to extend the network to the north-west. That has happened, and I believe that opportunities exist to extend the network to other areas throughout Northern Ireland. I have raised that issue on a number of occasions in the Committee for Enterprise, Trade and Investment. I know that officials will attend the Committee’s meeting on Thursday to deal with the strategic energy framework consultation, and I look forward to that meeting. Believe it or not, energy issues have been one of the main subjects that the Committee has dealt with over the years.
“East Antrim is the energy centre of Northern Ireland. We have Ballylumford power station, Kilroot power station, the interconnector and natural gas coming into the area. Furthermore, as other Members said, we are looking at the prospect of gas storage in the Larne/Islandmagee area. All in all, we have a lot to contribute to energy supply in Northern Ireland.
“Like other Members, I met Phoenix representatives early last year, and it was clear that they had carried out their research. As Members know, two licence extension applications have been made, one for Whitehead and the other for Saintfield. Indeed, I know that Simon Hamilton has worked very actively on the Saintfield application. Like other Members, I wrote to the Minister and to the Utility Regulator. Phoenix carried out research in the Whitehead area and identified 1,800 domestic and 50 commercial properties that could be supplied with natural gas.
“One of the reasons why I have always supported the natural gas industry in Northern Ireland is because I believe that consumers should be given choice. That is why I want the gas network to be extended to as many places as possible. I regret that not as many consumers have benefitted from the extension of the gas pipeline to the north-west as I believe should have. Hopefully, however, that situation will change at some time in the future.
“The fact that Phoenix Natural Gas was going to invest somewhere in the region of £2·4 million of its own money clearly shows its commitment to the project.
“The letter that I received at the end of September from the Utility Regulator seemed to suggest that the company supported the Whitehead project. I deeply regret that the impositions placed on Phoenix are now making that project more difficult to deliver. The fact that Kilroot power station recently installed a natural gas generator clearly shows the importance of the fuel to the area.
“As other Members have said, the Utility Regulator is independent, and we have to recognise the importance of his independence. In recent times, he has been very helpful, particularly to the Committee for Enterprise, Trade and Investment. It is important that the Committee is kept informed. I would like the Utility Regulator to come to the Committee to explain why those difficulties have been placed in the way of this major investment.
“However, I continue to hope that consumers in Whitehead will benefit from natural gas, bearing in mind that the pipeline just passes them by. Anything that can be done by the Department would be greatly appreciated.”