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Dáil Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 21 Feb 1968

Vol. 232 No. 10

Continental Shelf Bill, 1967: Second Stage.

I move that the Bill be now read a Second Time. The purpose of the Bill is to provide the statutory framework for the exploration and exploitation of the natural resources of this country's part of the continental shelf. The concept that a State might have exclusive rights to explore and exploit the natural resources of the sea bed and subsoil outside its territorial waters to where the sea bed falls to the ocean floor assumed growing importance after the last war. Technological advances were making it possible to explore and exploit such natural resources, but considerable uncertainty existed in international law as to the precise rights of individual States to the parts of the continental shelf adjoining their shores. At the request of the United Nations, the International Law Commission carried out a study of the problem with a view to bringing the definition and control of these rights within the ambit of international law. The Report of the International Law Commission was considered by the International Conference on the Law of the Sea, 1958, which was convened at Geneva by the United Nations, and this resulted in the drafting of the Convention on the Continental Shelf.

The Convention was signed by this country's delegates, subject to ratification by the Government, but has not yet been ratified. The Convention came into force internationally in 1964, after being ratified by 22 countries. To date the Convention has been ratified by 35 of the 46 countries which signed it, including the West European countries Britain, France, Denmark, Portugal, the Netherlands, Switzerland and Sweden.

The Convention clarifies the position in international law regarding the continental shelf, deals with the allocation of the shelf between adjacent States or States whose coasts are opposite each other and defines the right of the adjacent coastal State to explore and exploit the natural resources of its particular area of shelf, subject to the State assuming certain obligations. The continental shelf is defined as the sea bed and subsoil of the submarine area adjacent to the coast but outside the territorial waters to a depth of 200 metres or beyond that limit where the depth of the waters permits exploitation. The natural resources covered by the Convention are defined as mineral, including oil and gas, and other non-living resources of the sea bed and subsoil, together with living organisms belonging to sedentary species. I might add that this definition excludes all swimming fish. Under the Convention, the rights the coastal State may exercise over its area of continental shelf are limited to such rights as are necessary for the exploration and exploitation of its natural resources. These rights do not amount to full sovereignty which would be inconsistent with the legal status of the waters above the shelf as high seas and of the air space above these waters.

The actual exploration and exploitation of the natural resources of the sea bed is a recent development in most parts of the world. It has been made possible only by notable advances in technology and it is still a very difficult, hazardous and expensive operation compared with similar work on dry land. Because of the heavy expenditure involved, marine exploration is usually confined to the search for the most rewarding types of deposit, such as oil and gas. Metallic ores do not possess the same potential significance because of mining difficulties and cost of exploitation. Some spectacular progress has been made in the exploration and exploitation of off-shore petroleum and gas in many parts of the world. I should mention, however, that the sea bed is not specially favoured with deposits of oil and gas as compared with adjoining land areas. In European waters the outstanding example of submarine exploration is the search for gas and oil in the North Sea. The potentialities of this area had long been recognised but it was the discovery of a huge gas field in the adjoining land area of Northern Holland in 1959 which gave rise to the present intensive exploration, which has yielded such promising results. Of growing importance is the dredging from the sea floor of sand and gravels for use as concrete aggregate and of banks of shells and other organic material for use as lime and fertiliser.

The area of continental shelf accruing to this country includes half the Irish Sea area and an area of Atlantic Shelf extending about 200 miles off the south-west coast and 165 miles off the west coast. These are very approximate indications of the extent of the area but it will, very probably, exceed the size of the national territory. The amount of geological information available about our shelf area is very little and it is not possible to give any real indication of the exploitable resources likely to be found there. Lest spectacular success elsewhere should give rise to too much optimism as to the potential of our area of shelf, I think I should point out that the results of the search for oil and natural gas carried out over the whole country and the territorial waters by a group of American companies have not been encouraging and the limited geological information at present available does not suggest the presence in our area of shelf of gas deposits comparable with those discovered in the North Sea. Some oil companies have, however, indicated an interest in exploring our area of shelf which suggests that the area has possibilities for oil and gas and there is no reason why we should not entertain hopes of success. We know that sand and gravel aggregate is present in great abundance in the many banks and shoals fringing our east coast and beds of organic mud of possible use as fertiliser have been noted off the west coast.

While the potential of our area of shelf must be regarded as largely unknown at present, the important fact is that technological advances have now made the exploration of this vast area possible and such exploration offers the exciting possibility of locating valuable resources, the exploitation of which could prove to be of great benefit to our economy. It is, therefore, considered desirable that we should now provide a statutory framework for the exploration and exploitation of the natural resources of the area. We will then be in a position to grant licences and leases to competent parties desirous of exploring and exploiting the resources of our area of shelf.

As I already pointed out, the rights which the coastal State may exercise over its area of continental shelf do not amount to full sovereignty. Our existing laws could not, therefore, be taken as applying automatically to our area of the shelf and it is necessary to extend the application of a number of existing statutes to the area so as to provide a basis of law and order for operations there. Much of the Bill is concerned with the extension of the application of these statutes. The interests of many Departments are concerned, and the Bill has been drafted in consultation with these Departments.

The Bill provides that the Government may by Order designate the area of continental shelf over which the rights which accrue to the State will be exercised. These rights are vested in and exerciseable by the Minister for Industry and Commerce except where the Government may by direction vest the rights in another Minister. The rights relating to minerals, oil and gas will be exercised by the Minister for Industry and Commerce and if the exploration or exploitation of any other natural resources, such as sedentary fisheries, should arise at some future date the Government will by direction provide for the exercise of the rights by the appropriate Minister.

We are applying the provisions of the Minerals Development Act, 1940 and the Petroleum and other Minerals Development Act, 1960, which govern mineral and petroleum exploration and exploitation in the land area and territorial waters, to similar operations in the shelf area thus providing a legal framework for the grant of exploration licences and exploitation facilities to operators in the area.

Provision is made for the extension of criminal and civil law to installations in designated areas and waters within 500 meters of such installations and in the case of other parts of designated areas, to any act or omission arising out of the exploration or exploitation of the natural resources of the areas and for the prosecution of offences taking place in the shelf area.

The Bill also provides for the safety of navigation and installations in the shelf area and for the prevention of the pollution of the sea from pipe lines or installations.

The provisions of the Submarine Telegraph Act, 1885, which deals with the wilful or negligent breaking or injuring of cables or pipelines, are being extended to all cables and pipelines and the provision of the Wireless Telegraphy Acts, 1926 and 1956, which relate to the control of and interference with wireless telegraphy, are being extended to wireless apparatus on or near installations.

Provision is also made for the extension of insurance cover under the Social Welfare Acts and the Insurance (Intermittent Unemployment) Acts to persons engaged in exploration or exploitation in the designated shelf areas.

I am sure that the House feels, as I do, that the exploration and exploitation of the natural resources of our continental shelf area is highly desirable. I hope that, on its enactment, this measure will provide a satisfactory legal framework for the carrying out of such work and I have every confidence that the Bill will meet with the general approval of the House.

It is clear from the North Sea exploration that there should be legislation of this kind. It is wise that we should enact it so that we shall be not only in step with the rest of Europe but ready without delay to encourage the development of exploitation of the continental shelf we own, if "own" is the right word. It appears as if under the international agreement mentioned by the Minister, as far as a nation can own it, we do own it and it is to be a piece of Ireland. Wherever these boring rigs are erected and whatever exploration takes place, evidently even our social welfare provisions will apply. Therefore, we must own it as a bit of Ireland, probably, as the Minister said, much bigger than the Ireland we now have. You could compare that with the frozen state of Alaska which the United States brought into their fold. The geographical area was bigger of course than its importance.

We like to see this legislation enacted also because since the time of the North Sea exploration, various things have happened. Boring rigs have gone adrift and have been a danger to shipping. It is necessary that there should be control there and that there should be an arrangement whereby there will be no danger to navigation. Also in the last month we have had a situation in which a borehole which had been made in the North Sea became a danger on the basis of leaks. If the wind was blowing in the right way, you could have had natural gas being blown across cities on the east side of Britain. This again is something over which we should have control. Nobody should be in a position to go out from the west or east coast and bore for gas or conduct any sort of operation which could pollute the air or the sea. For that reason also, this Bill is very necessary.

The laws of the State must also be there. I thought of shades of Jimmy O'Dea when I was told about the jurisdiction of the Garda Síochána. One can think of the unfortunate sergeant in the next parish to America having jurisdiction over a lot of heavy-drinking Americans and Canadians who were boring for gas perhaps 50 miles out. This is something he will have to see about.

He will be well fit to deal with them if he is on the west coast of Ireland.

I am not in any way reflecting on this local sergeant. Many of them are very dear friends of Deputy Dunne and myself. It was just a thought. We would hope that there would be money made by our tax-gatherer who would tax the profits of such an operation. It may seem a bit far-fetched to speak of pirate radio stations but a couple of years ago somebody died. I will not say there was a murder; I forget whether anybody was convicted but a man died and people took over a pirate radio station by force. Therefore, policing of this area, if there is any development there, is a real responsibility of the State and something that must occur. These things appear so far away and then one realises that they are not. In a port in my constituency, a boat has been regularly plying to supply a radio ship with fuel, food and supplies and all the rest. We even know the shops they buy their goods in. I shall say no more on that. It is a trawler and it is still plying.

Wireless control is one of the most important things because where you get a pirate radio on land, it makes the news on the paper. Nobody is terribly worried. They are caught and then they give interviews to the paper. Sometimes, but not often, it is an underground movement. We have had that too coming in on Telefís Éireann or Radio Éireann. On land, it does not constitute a danger to life, but on sea, it constitutes a very real danger. Any of us who go to sea a bit know that, for instance, on the half hour and the hour, you have the three minutes silent period when nobody may go on the air except to give "May-day", the SOS of the sea. When anybody hears May-day, they listen and they do not speak. That is an international law of the sea. I am sorry to tell you that I happened to be near France once and I was horrified to hear a Frenchman whistling the Marseillaise and thinking it was a great joke. The person with the highest watt-output drowns out the other. A person with a 50-watt output will drown out a person with a 20-watt and a ship with a 150-watt output will drown out one with a 50-watt output. The international May-day 2182 wave-band is reserved for that SOS. If you had pirate radios or persons who were not licensed or disciplined on rigs boring along our continental shelf, the position would be that people could lose their lives. Ships might, during the silent period, find themselves unable to get their SOS through because the heavier watt output of a boring rig with perhaps a more powerful dynamo generator might be such that they would have an output of 150-watts. It would mean that the whole business of safety at sea and navigation would be affected.

I do not want to say anything else about the Bill except to welcome it and to say that one of the interesting things about it is that we are now talking in metres which means that we are very near the metric system. We are going to police waters within 500 metres of these installations. This is a non-controversial Bill but one which should receive the consideration of the House as being very necessary.

We used to talk about our spiritual empire beyond the seas. It looks now as if we will be talking about our physical empire underneath the seas, or at least something approximating thereunto. The Minister says: "The area of continental shelf accruing to this country..." I would suggest that the Minister might recommend that these people who compose his speeches might have reference to the recent excellent booklet circulated by the Department of Finance as to the use of economy of language and the appropriate use of language. "Accruing" in this instance does not seem to me to be the best word. However, that is only by the way.

His statement says that the area of continental shelf which will fall to come within the legislation of this country will be an area extending about 200 miles off the south-west coast and 165 miles off the west coast. That is pretty considerable. It is very necessary that this piece of legislation should go through the House and should be on the Statute Book, because we have, as Deputy Donegan indicated, read of the development of this kind of exploration not alone in the regions of the Great North Sea, but I think some years ago off the coast of America. I must say that the prospect of a collection of oil-rigs existing off our shores is not a very entrancing or inviting one, but I have no doubt that with the passage of time, the present awkward-looking rigs will become as dated as the early motor car is today and that some method will be found of exploiting the mineral wealth which may be discovered under the continental shelf by a method which may possibly dispense entirely with any surface rigging whatsoever. With technological development, such a concept is not outside the bounds of possibility and it is to be hoped that it will happen because it does not look natural or in any way attractive. However, I suppose it is a necessary part of mineral development at the beginning at least but I am sure that there will be improvements along that line.

There is just one thing which strikes me in regard to this Bill and I am sure it must have occurred to the Minister also and anybody who thinks about it. It is essential that we provide the ordinary machinery of law to ensure that the authority of Dáil Éireann, in so far as it is feasible and necessary, in regard to what is known as the continental shelf, shall be exercised, in the matter of exploitation of resources. Nobody can say what may be hidden there. It may be that there may be some discoveries in the near or, perhaps, in the very distant future but it is not impossible to think of an important discovery, say, towards the outer edge of the continental shelf— some tremendous form of wealth, oil, natural gas or what have you and that such a discovery exploited, perhaps, at great cost by interests which would not originate in this country might not benefit us in the slightest. What could we do to enforce our rights at such a remove from our shores if somebody wanted to defy us? Assuming anybody would take such an extreme course, in order that we might protect the natural interests, should this Bill or some other legislation not provide that if there is at any time in the future some exploitable wealth descivered part of the profits which will flow from that wealth will be available to the people who live in this country?

I am thinking of the sinking of an oil rig 165 miles south-west of the Irish coast and oil being taken from there to some port on the Continent, to some other country, without reference to this country at all. What tangible benefit would that be to us as a nation? How would it benefit our economy? Should we not ensure in so far as we can in such an eventuality, however remote it may now appear, that we should have already in our statute law a provision which will enable us to ensure that this territory, the wealth which flows from this territory, would primarily be of benefit to the population of this country? This is the only point which occurs to me in regard to this essential measure which is in accord with the spirit of the times in which we live. We should be ready to avail of every possible opportunity to keep in step with progress either in Europe or in the rest of the world.

I shall be very brief. I have a particular reason for welcoming this Bill and I am happy to see it has now at last been introduced. It is, of course, possible, as has been mentioned by some of the other speakers, that there could be an oil discovery but the matter which interests me most, and the one which I hope will now be fully investigated, is the question of organic mud and its use as a fertiliser. The Minister referred to it thus in his speech.

I know that members of the staff of University College, Galway, have carried out extensive research on the floor of the ocean off the west coast of Ireland and they have discovered there quantities of the deposit which in their opinion is of very high value as a fertiliser. From their studies into the use of this material in other countries it seems that it is being marketed by other countries and is proving of great financial benefit to countries who have invested in its development and the marketing of this particular type of fertiliser.

It is maintained that it is present in large quantities off the west coast of Ireland. Some of us were worried that some outside interests might get going on this before any Irish interest did and that then, not having this particular Bill and this particular jurisdiction over this part of the ocean, that the Irish nation might possibly lose something which might have been very profitable to the nation if we had jurisdiction over this area. I think the Bill clarifies that position and that many developments will take place. I should like to recommend to the Minister that he would give whatever assistance he can to the further research and investigation of this deposit which it is firmly maintained is there and maybe in the not too distant future this country might reap very rich rewards from this part of the continental shelf. This might prove of great benefit to the country in the years ahead.

Although this Bill may seem to many of us somewhat remote and not very applicable to present day affairs there is no doubt that submarine exploration is virtually only in its embryo stage. This is a matter of considerable importance to all of us and to all maritime countries. I take it that this is enabling legislation so that we may opt into the scheme or convention adopted in Geneva at some period or other.

I consider the Minister's definition of the territorial jurisdiction of our continental shelf just a little vague. I would be anxious to know if at this convention which took place in Geneva and at which presumably we were represented by somebody or other some territorial distribution was made. We ought to have a map which would clear up any matters which might arise in the future in regard to particular areas. The Minister stated that our territorial claims would be half Irish. I take it that the other half would be around Britain or neighbouring countries which have shores near us, 165 miles into the Atlantic and 200 miles south-west of the Irish coast.

That again raises the question which was raised by some other Deputy—I think it was Deputy Dunne—of a map being very desirable. If I was asked a question in relation to a place about 200 miles off the coast of Ireland my geographical knowledge would be very vague without a map. You would certainly conflict with territorial claims by other countries if the ratio depth of 200 metres, as stated in the Minister's speech, came into operation. There might be some considerable confusion unless that point is completely cleared up. I would ask the Minister to inform the House whether such a map exists, if one was drawn up at the convention and if not my fears on that point would need to be cleared up.

Another thing I want to ask the Minister is this. Fairly recently there have been ships off the Irish coast carrying out surveys. I am not quite sure of their nationality. I believe them to belong to a British company who are carrying out survey for natural gas. They were engaged in these operations prior to the introduction of this Bill, which I assume the House will give the Minister today or next week perhaps. How will the concessions given to this company be affected by this legislation? I take it they were looking for natural gas. It is possible that there is quite a lot of gas under the sea within the area of our territorial waters. If it is in the North Sea, it stands to reason that it is probably a bank or a streak of some sort. There is absolutely no reason why it should not be found in the Irish Sea, be it in the northern area or down in the southern area. We need to be sure we have complete jurisdiction over our own territory.

I am somewhat dubious as to the legal issues and the protection of our rights. We have a very poor chance of protecting our maritime rights if we have difficulty in protecting our territorial waters which have a limit of 12 miles. It will be very difficult to operate 165 miles off the west coast and about 200 miles off the south-west coast with three antiquated corvettes. We shall have to make a treaty or agreement with some other maritime power to look after our interests which we are unable to look after ourselves. We would in no way be denigrating ourselves in so doing. We are not a first-class power or a wealthy country. It is only natural to look to other countries to join with us in a convention or a treaty to help us to protect our interests.

We are to have control to the extent of 200 metres in depth. That means we must have up-to-date charts and surveys of the waters around our coasts. I do not know how the Minister proposes to deal with that problem. I presume he will use the British Admiralty charts which are, perhaps, the most up-to-date in the world. The British Navy survey is perhaps second to none. If we rely on ourselves to find out our rights in relation to this depth of 200 metres, it will be a different story altogether because we have not had such surveys of our harbours or of our territorial waters for the past 50 years.

I welcome this Bill. Since I became a Member of this House, I have tabled questions on numerous occasions on the possibility of exploration for oil and natural gas in our territorial waters. I believe this will prove one of the most important Bills ever to be introduced into this House if the results are what we hope they will be. The Bill will achieve two objects. Either we shall strike oil and/or gas and become a rich country or else it will stop us from wondering if oil or gas are in fact there. Such natural resources have been found off the north coast of Holland and in the North Sea and there is great hope that some deposit of oil and/or natural gas will be discovered within the range of our territorial waters. It may not be well known that, even at the moment, quite a good few Irish workers go to Holland to take part in taking the oil from the sea bed. We have a very well-trained manpower there, since the Dutch discovered this a few years ago, who could be very useful to us if our experts strike oil and/or natural gas. We are so near to this, without realising it. For instance, cooking apparatus is being sold in Dublin, Cork and elsewhere with a note on it to the effect that it can be adapted to the use of natural gas. Already, in Britain, they are attaching adaptation gadgets to this type of cooking apparatus for sale here on the off-chance that natural gas may be found in the Irish Sea.

The protection of our rights is very important. How shall we protect an oil deposit many miles off our coast? This time, we must depend not on gunboat diplomacy but on the people to whom we give the right to explore these areas. There are no poor oil companies or oil interests. If our areas are leased to these people, I think they will take good care that their rights are respected. Otherwise, it would mean building up a big naval force, which we just cannot afford to do. That is only a very small point.

When God made this country, he endowed it with very few natural resources. Perhaps here is the answer to many of our economic ills. I believe that a discovery of gas and/or oil in the seas around us could change the whole economy of our country.

This very slender Bill gives us a chance of getting into the thick of things with the British, the Dutch, the French, the former colonies, and so on. The introduction of this Bill is a tremendous step forward. If we discover oil and/or gas we shall become a fairly rich country. If we do not succeed, we shall at least have the satisfaction of knowing that we tried to find these natural resources. If they are not there, it is not our fault. We cannot be faulted for not having tried.

As I anticipated, there is a general welcome on all sides for this Bill. I shall endeavour to clarify a few of the points which were made. First of all, there seems to be some doubt about the definition of our area of jurisdiction, if we may so call it. Let me repeat what I said when introducing the Bill, that we are not getting full sovereignty over this area which is outside our territorial waters and within the limits laid down in the Convention. We are getting such rights as are necessary to explore and exploit the resources. In defining the area concerned, somebody asked whether maps were drawn up when the Convention was being worked out in Geneva. No: maps were not drawn up at that time. The definition covers, in our case, halfway across the Irish Sea and, as I have said, 165 miles off the west coast and about 200 miles off the south-west coast. Deputies will note that the definition laid down in the Convention relates to depth, that is, 200 metres, but it goes on to say "... and further where the resources involved may be exploited even beyond a depth of 200 metres..." This lends a certain amount of ambiguity about the extent of our area of the continental shelf, but it seems that the areas in which exploration is likely to take place in the next few years, at any rate, are within very closely defined limits and that we will not have any great problem in that regard.

The Convention also provided that in delimiting the boundaries of the shelf, if we were to produce a map showing the area which we claim, any lines drawn on this map must be defined with reference to charts and geographical features if they exist at a particular date and reference must be made to fixed, permanent identifiable points on land so that all will know where they stand in this regard. However, as I say, we believe that the areas which are completely ours are the areas in which interest would centre for some years to come. In so far as there may be any doubt about the area to which we would lay claim, as between us and other coastal States, this would be a matter for negotiations between us and them, and as for the distance out in the Atlantic to which our area might go, this to some extent depends not only on the technological development of methods of exploring under the sea but also on an interpretation of the Convention.

Under one interpretation, we could end up claiming an area half way between here and the United States of America, and we may well do this, but this is not an immediate problem for us. Another interpretation of the Convention would prevent us going that far, but the Convention may be revised in 1969, just five years after it entered into force, and the matters about which there is some ambiguity may well be clarified at that time. But, as I said, the areas where there is no ambiguity at present are the areas of greatest interest as far as we are concerned.

Another matter that was raised was the question of the protection of the area which we do claim. It seemed to me that some Deputies were tending to think of this as being analogous to fishery protection, and of course it is not. This is not the kind of operation where people can go about operating suddenly and then disappear in a matter of hours or days. The greatest protection we have in this regard is that any operation of this nature is extremely expensive and takes a lot of time and a geat deal of technological expertise, and it is reasonable to assume that no individual, or no company composed of individuals in their sane senses, are going to embark on this kind of substantial expenditure and run the risk that the results of their efforts will be lost to them because they do so without a licence from the Irish Government. Therefore, the actual risk involved of doing some exploring of the resources without permission is very remote for the reasons I have mentioned.

Furthermore, even if somebody in this remote circumstance were to embark on this kind of operation, it would usually require a fairly permanent structure in the sea which would, at least at the present stage of technological development, be quite sizeable, and we are not quite entirely dependent on the corvettes to know what is going on in these areas; we have other methods available to us, including, of course, the planes of the Air Corps and some other methods. I do not think we will find ourselves having any difficulty in regard to the policing of our area of the continental shelf in connection with this kind of exploration and exploitation.

Another point raised was: supposing there is a substantial find, what benefit will this be to us? Well, the first benefit would be that in order to explore in the first instance the company concerned have to have a licence from us, and then if they think they have a strike, they would look for a lease and the lease, of course, contains various provisions including royalties to be paid to the Exchequer here from the produce of their strike. In addition, we can impose conditions which would compel the delivery of the finds, be they oil or gas or whatever, to specific ports. We would be entitled to make such conditions. This kind of approach, therefore, is in fact the legal framework that we apply to mineral exploration on land at the moment.

We can be satisfied that in this Bill we are giving ourselves all the powers we need to derive the full benefit to which we might lay claim in the event of any find in our area of the continental shelf, having regard, of course all the time to the fact that the people who carry out exploration of this kind are expending a great deal of money and, indeed, may try in a number of areas and spend a great deal of money without any result, and therefore would claim, in the event of making a satisfactory strike, a fairly substantial return. This is a risk which we take and which they take in this type of operation, but Deputies can be satisfied that we are taking sufficient power here to ensure that in the event of any discoveries of substantial resources in the continental shelf area, this country will benefit substantially from any such discovery.

One other point was raised by Deputy Esmonde. He referred to some ships which were surveying off the Wexford coast. I should say in that regard that preliminary surveys may be carried out by anybody without permission but any detailed investigation requires licence from us and detailed investigation cannot be carried out, as I have indicated, without a great deal of expenditure of money and time and resources. If he did see ships carrying out some surveys, these were merely preliminary surveys which they were carrying out and do not entitle the people concerned to any rights within our area of the continental shelf.

Question put and agreed to.
Committee Stage ordered for Thursday, February 29th, 1968.