There are no plans to lease out parts of Northern Ireland's most scenic landscape for wind farms, Regional Development Minister Danny Kennedy has insisted.
But Agriculture Minister Michelle O'Neill is considering turning over some forest parks to wind turbines – much to the ire of former Finance Minister Sammy Wilson.
Last month the Belfast Telegraph revealed the contents of a strategic plan by NI Water that proposed the company lease some of its vast lands in the Mournes – including the Silent Valley – to wind energy.
But this week, when questioned by Mr Wilson, Mr Kennedy said he wanted to set the record straight, insisting that both he and NI Water had no current proposals for wind farms.
"I am very happy to place on record that I have no intention of putting forward such proposals for an area of outstanding beauty in the Mournes and I do not believe that NI Water has either," he said.
However, responding to a written question by the Alliance Party's Anna Lo, the Agriculture Minister said her department is considering the potential for some forest land to be developed for wind farms and is currently recruiting a wind farm programme manager to take this work forward.
Last night Mr Wilson, a former Environment Minister who is a fervent opponent of wind farms, said it was a "certainty" that such a plan would blight many of the areas considered to be among our most scenic.
"It's a bit of an irony that on forestry land something as obtrusive as wind turbines is going to be allowed, but something that you wouldn't see, such as a plant for fracking, they wouldn't allow," he told the Belfast Telegraph.
Mr Wilson said installing wind turbines on Forest Service land would be much more expensive, environmentally destructive and intrusive on the landscape than putting in a plant for fracking.
"Do you have pylons crossing the forest or do you have underground cabling with the potential for tearing through acres of trees?" he asked.
"It is a certainty that it will blight many areas that are seen to be the most scenic areas in Northern Ireland. The average height of a wind turbine is now 350 feet and it will be hugely disruptive to wildlife in the area, as well as the usual impact of the infrastructure to take the electricity away."
A DARD spokesperson said: "The Forest Service is exploring how its lands can be exploited for wind farm development in a way that is consistent with its forestry objectives, and are in a process of recruiting a wind farm programme manager to take this work forward.
"It believes there is an opportunity to release some forest lands for this kind of development, but a considerable amount of work still needs to be done to establish a clear business case to take proposals through planning, to finance approved projects, and to ensure that there are clear benefits that can be delivered to communities."
STORY SO FAR
Members of Stormont's regional development committee were left reeling after two DRD officials said they would be "advocating" leasing land to wind farm operators, pointing that NI Water's annual electricity bill of more than £30m is expected to rise to more than £47m by 2021. Ukip MLA David McNarry said DRD was "advocating the destruction" of one of Northern Ireland's most scenic places in its plan 'PC15: Social and Environmental Guidelines for Water and Sewerage 2015-2021' and said he was considering setting up a petition to gather opposition to the plan.