Brussels avoids entering dispute over gas project at Doñana reserve

Gas Natural sues Andalusia government for blocking permits for venture in National Park

Antonio J. Mora

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Doñana National Park, near Huelva, in April 2013.
Doñana National Park, near Huelva, in April 2013.Julián Rojas

The European Commission (EC) has decided not to get involved in an ongoing dispute between Andalusian authorities and the Madrid central government over a proposed gas exploitation project beneath the protected Doñana National Park.

Gas Natural-Fenosa is demanding €358 million from the Andalusian government for holding up the final permits after the firm received the go-ahead from the Environment Ministry.

The project includes the installation of 20 kilometers of gas pipelines, 16 new exploration sites and a huge permanent underground storage facility in a natural area that straddles the provinces of Huelva and Seville and is home to the highly endangered Iberian lynx.

Conservation groups such as WWF Global have also been campaigning against the venture.

Andalusia is blocking the project because of the “cumulative” consequences to the ecosystem

Andalusia had hoped that Brussels would support the southern region in its arguments, but the EC said in a letter that the dispute was “exclusively national” and asked both sides to reach an agreement.

The regional government said it was blocking Gas Natural from starting the project because of the “cumulative” consequences the storage facility would have on the Natura 2000 network of  protected ecosystems throughout the European Union, of which the Doñana National Park forms part.

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The EC has not commented on the regional government’s arguments, saying that “it doesn’t find itself in a position” to judge whether the environmental studies conducted by Andalusia are sufficient enough to issue such a ruling. Brussels instead called on both sides “to work together” and follow European environmental regulations.

But Brussels’ cool response may have only served to exacerbate the estrangement between both sides. The Andalusian government said it would “continue to insist” on the need for the Environment Ministry to re-evaluate the project and reconsider its initial opinion that the gas facility would “have no negative effect on such a symbolic site.”

The region will continue to push the Environment Ministry to change its mind over the impact

“The ministry has done its part. Now it is up to the regional government to hand out the final permits, including unified environmental authorization,” said a government spokesman in Madrid.

Over the last two years, the ministry has reviewed and approved three environmental impact statements enabling work to begin. But the Andalusia administration is asking the ministry to revisit these statements and consider the “cumulative effects” at Doñana.

Rafael Villaseca is CEO of Gas Natural Fenosa, which is suing Andalusian authorities over a gas project in Doñana National Park.
Rafael Villaseca is CEO of Gas Natural Fenosa, which is suing Andalusian authorities over a gas project in Doñana National Park.EFE

“We are going to keep pushing the ministry until it addresses our petition,” said Carmen Lloret, the secretary general for integrated environmental management at the Andalusian government.

For its part, Gas Natural said the cumulative impacts on atmosphere, geology, soil and water had already been evaluated during the petition process.

The EC letter surfaced after Gas Natural filed an administrative lawsuit against the Andalusian government, demanding €358 million for blocking the permits.

On Thursday international conservation group WWF asked the Andalusian government to remain firm despite the cold shoulder from Brussels.

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