Up for grabs: 7,000 square kilometre Malta seabed identified for energy projects and artificial islands

Concessions to be awarded to private companies in tendering procedure with planning and environmental permits awarded within three months after submission of all documentation

The government has identified a 900sq.km zone of shallow waters around Hurd’s Bank, and a 6,500sq.km belt around the island as two areas where it intends issuing concessions to private companies for the production of renewable energy, the production and storage of hydrogen, fish farms and the establishment of “artificial islands”.

The government is also committed to fast-track planning permits for such projects to a maximum duration of three months from the submission of all required documents. Apart from Hurd’s Bank, which is designated as Area 1 of Malta’s Exclusive Economic Zone, the entire offshore belt extending between 12 nautical miles to 25 nautical miles, which spans over 6,500sq.km, is designated as Area 2.

Significantly the document refers to the production of hydrogen, in an indication that Malta is exploring the local production of this energy sector, instead of relying exclusively on the hydrogen-ready pipeline linking it to Sicily.

The technology for the production of green hydrogen, which uses renewable energy sources instead of fossil fuels for energy, is still in its infancy but may grow in the next decades.

In 2021 the government enacted legislation for the legal frame-work for economic activities in an Exclusive Economic Zone outside the country’s territorial waters. In June Finance Minister Clyde Caruana declared that this zone had the potential of extending the country’s responsibilities over 71,446 square kilometres, bringing with it “huge economic potential”.

The procedure for awarding concessions in the two areas identified for offshore economic activities has now been spelt out in a document recently issued to industry stakeholders by the finance ministry, in a pitch to “internationally recognised companies” interested in undertaking “activities and projects” in the two selected areas.

The concessions will be awarded through a three-stage procedure: starting with a pre-qualification questionnaire, followed by a shortlisting of companies who would be invited to participate in a next stage of dialogue meetings with each shortlisted company.

The final stage will consist of a tender in which the shortlisted companies will be asked to submit a final offer. The company with the best offer will enter into a concession agreement for a number of years with the government.

Activities carried out in the EEZ will still require a development permit from the Planning Authority in Malta and an environmental permit from the Environment Resources Authority in Malta.

But these projects will be fast-tracked, with the ministry’s document anticipating that planning and environmental permits will be issued within three months from the submission of all the required documents, including environmental impact assessments.

The document suggests that the area around Hurd’s Bank, characterized by its relatively shallow waters, is the one with the greatest potential.

In fact the area of interest adjacent to Hurd’s Bank has a depth ranging from 50m to 100m, with an area of 900sq.km identified as a separate EEZ Area. But proposals will also be considered within a greater 6,500sq.km belt around Malta’s territorial waters in which depths range from 100m to 1,000m.

The government said it will ensure freedom of navigation and overflight rights on areas granted as concessions to private companies. But installations in Malta’s EEZ will have the right to establish “a safety zone” to safeguard their own safety as well as the safety of navigation around them.

In September 2021 the Planning Authority started assessing an application for a project over 7,500 sq,m of seabed, 19km (10 nautical miles) south of Delimara.

But the project is located at the edge of Malta’s territorial waters and not part of the pro-posed EEZ, and its details are still missing because the application has not yet been fully submitted.