Estimates 1990 (Resumed). - Vote 43: Energy (Revised Estimate).

I move:

That a sum not exceeding £7,206,000 be granted to defray the charge which will come in course of payment during the year ending on the 31st day of December, 1990, for the salaries and expenses of the Office of the Minister for Energy, including certain services administered by that Office, and for payment of certain loans, subsidies, grants and a grant-in-aid.

On a point of order, as I understand it, the order of the House is that the main spokespersons will have ten minutes each and other Members will have five minutes. Can I have an assurance that our second speaker will get five minutes?

Acting Chairman

I will make a point of that.

The net Energy Estimate for 1990 amounts to just over £7.2 million. While the amount is small in the context of overall Exchequer expenditure, nobody could dispute the fundamental role which energy must play in securing the economic and social wellbeing of this country. In a speech such as this, it is appropriate that I should immediately outline to the House, on behalf of my colleague, the Minister for Energy, the overriding policy objective of this Government in relation to energy. Put simply, it is to facilitate the provision of energy at competitive cost with every possible regard and attention being paid to the security of supply, environmental and safety issues that go hand-in-hand with the whole energy business.

At the beginning of Ireland's Presidency of the EC, the Minister for Energy indicated that, as incoming President of the Energy Council, he would strive to achieve substantial progress on those measures proposed for completion of the single energy market. He also wished to move the debate on the energy-environment relationship to the top of the agenda. I know that he has been very encouraged by the positive and constructive way in which the Council of Energy Ministers have progressed this vital debate in the past few months. Conclusions were agreed which set the stage for the main objectives to be pursued in the energy area.

He was also pleased that the Energy Ministers' Council, at its meeting in May, took decisions which made very significant progress towards the development of the single energy market. Agreement was reached on a directive on Transparency of Gas and Electricity Prices and on a directive on Electricity Transit. Both of these proposals had been under discussion for some time and it is always a welcome development to bring the talking to an end and put agreements in their place.

An EC energy technology programme — THERMIE — was also agreed. This will provide financial assistance for the promotion of energy technology in the rational use of energy, renewable energy sources, solid fuels and in the hydrocarbons sector. It will play a key role in contributing towards the ecological challenge during its five year duration. Furthermore, for the first time a Council of Energy Ministers has agreed to a discussion on nuclear issues. The discussion will cover all aspects of nuclear safety, transport and waste, including waste from the decommissioning process. Overall the Presidency has been a successful one; a lot of progress was achieved.

At this point I would like to dwell a little further on the energy-environmental relationship and focus on the domestic measures which the Government have taken. It is of course a subject in which I have a particular interest myself. In recognition of the importance of the environmental dimension in energy matters, the Department of Energy will ensure that energy policy will be kept in line with the Government's environmental policy which is stated in the documentAn Environment Action Programme published last January.

Getting the fuel mix right from an environmental point of view will carry a price tag. There can be no element of luxury about paying this price. It will have to be paid.

The Government's announcement of a ban on the sale and distribution of bituminous coal in the Dublin area from the coming autumn will have direct repercussions for the energy sector. Given that the Minister for Energy has responsibility for energy supplies, I am aware that he is endeavouring to ensure that there will be adequate supplies of smokeless and low smoke fuels in Dublin this winter to meet demand. To this end he has invited the main coal importing companies to discuss their plans with him for supplying the market.

The ban has also provided Bord na Móna with the opportunity to expand their briquette sales in the Dublin area. The board succeeded in increasing their market share significantly last winter and, with the improved marketing surveying now being employed, further increases in market share in coming years can reasonably be anticipated.

Natural gas has been recognised as the least harmful of all the fossil fuels and will play a major role, domestically and internationally, in efforts to combat atmospheric pollution and to reduce the greenhouse effect. Bord Gáis will no doubt capitalise on this in their efforts to develop the natural gas industry in Ireland, as this decade progresses.

Energy conservation is acknowledged as a potentially significant contributor to redressing environmental damage as well as reducing costs to energy users. As part of the National Environment Action Programme, an additional £500,000 has been allocated to the Energy Vote in 1990 to launch new initiatives in the energy conservation area. In May an announcement was made on the projects to be funded from these extra resources. These include the installation of energy management systems in the Children's Hospital in Crumlin and in University College Hospital, Galway, a contribution to Energy Action, a charitable group engaged in draught-proofing the houses of the needy and elderly, the establishment of a conservation advisory group to make recommendations on energy conservation matters and a number of other miscellaneous projects.

Energy conservation helps the environment and it saves money too. It is a very simple message. Opportunities exist right throughout the economy to save energy and to save money, and our programmes are geared towards getting that message across.

I will turn now to the specific energy suppliers. The ESB are unlikely to require new generating capacity until after the middle of the nineties. This respite from large-scale investment affords the ESB an opportunity to improve their financial position. Comparisons with electricity prices in other EC countries have shown that both Irish domestic and industrial prices are now below the EC average. Since 1985 prices to industrial customers have dropped on average by nearly 19 per cent, commercial prices by 15 per cent and domestic electricity prices by 12 per cent. Furthermore, the ESB intend to hold prices at their present level until 1992 at least.

Too high a growth rate in electricity sales could, if sustained, have the undesirable effect of drawing closer the time when extra generating capacity will be required and also exacerbate the environmental problems that go with it. A major factor in curtailing this will be to maintain an electricity demand growth rate of 3 per cent per annum on average over the coming decade while at the same time not constraining national economic growth. It is the ESB's intention, as indicated in their latest strategic plan, to place demand management at the centre of their operational strategies.

Deputies may also be aware that on Friday last the Minister for Energy announced that the Government have taken steps to ensure that the western package electrification grants would be replaced despite the fact that the EC funds available for this scheme have now been fully taken up. This scheme, which provides 80 per cent grants, has proved its worth since its commencement back in 1981, and I have no doubt but that the new replacement scheme announced by the Minister, Deputy Molloy, will continue to improve the quality of living in rural communities. In 1990, a sum of over £2 million is being made available for these grants, an increase of nearly £1 million over last year's outturn. This increase takes account of the impact of increased demand for grants arising from a broadening of eligibility in 1988.

The discovery of natural gas off the coast of Kinsale in 1971 has necessitated extensive planning and investment by successive Governments to maximise its economic benefit to Ireland. Over 500 km of pipelines have been constructed since gas was first brought onshore in 1978, thereby extending the availability of this valuable natural resource to most major population centres and many industries throughout Ireland.

The Government are, however, conscious that our own natural gas reserves, though ample for our current needs, are finite. Since coming into office the Minister for Energy has given top priority to securing long-term supplies of natural gas. Such a high priority rating lead to his decision to investigate the possibility of strengthening our security of supply by interconnection.

The Government have decided that now would be the most opportune time to undertake the extensive planning which must precede a project of such a scale. A considerable amount of research and fact-finding has already been undertaken by the Department of Energy and Bord Gais Éireann. Meetings have taken place with British and continental interests and it is intended that we will shortly be in a position to enter into negotiations for supply and construction contracts with a view to having imported gas on stream during the winter of 1993-94.

The European Commission recently announced its decision to set aside a special allocation of 300 million ECU for specific energy projects, including a gas interconnecter between Ireland and Britain. This announcement is very welcome and, while it is too early to say what the precise EC contribution will be, this decision allows ample scope for substantial Commission support.

The current Minister for Energy is no less committed than his predecessors to ensuring that the drive towards improved safety in the natural gas industry will continue to be vigorously pursued. The Dublin Gas response time to publicly reported gas leaks has improved to 100 per cent on site within the hour compared to 70 per cent in 1987. On average, calls are now responded to in 30 minutes, and such standards are improving all the time.

Turning now, to Bord na Móna, the Government are anxious to ensure that Bord na Móna will provide viable and sustainable employment in the long term and will continue as a significant producer of indigenous energy. The House should be well aware of the board's crucial, economic and social role in the midlands and the mid-west regions. In this regard the question of the financial position of Bord na Móna is being comprehensively reviewed at present and the matter will be put before the Government in the near future.

The main feature of the world oil scene so far this year has been the weakening of international crude oil prices. Market commentators are projecting a strengthening of crude and product prices in the coming months.

I have already allowed the Minister a little latitude, but I am afraid her time is up.

I am sorry to have to say that I am very disappointed with the Estimate. Ireland has no energy policy worthy of the name. To crown that, the Minister announced recently his decision to abandon the promised production of a White Paper on energy policy for Ireland, although this was repeatedly demanded by the International Energy Agency in their reports on the sector. Indeed, the Minister's predecessor had promised that a White Paper would be produced.

The Minister seems to imagine that announcing his policy objectives absolves him of the need to find instruments to achieve them. We will pay a very heavy price for this in the years to come. We see the Minister stumbling from one issue to another; reacting to situations rather than shaping events. That is the sad state of the energy policy of this country.

The key issues in the sector are: the excessive price paid for oil products; the wasteful use of energy in the country; the environmental damage wrought by extraction; and use of energy products. None of these issues has been coherently addressed by the Minister. Whereas energy could be the engine of growth and recovery in the economy, it is the opposite.

The Irish public are well aware of the high price of oil; but it is as well to restate it, because the Government appear to have forgotten it entirely. Road diesel is the key to the commercial life of the country and is essential in getting goods to the European market. In Ireland the pre-tax price of road diesel is 30 per cent dearer than the EC average. In addition, the tax charged by our Government is 75 per cent higher than the EC average. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that manufacturers complain that access costs to the European markets are double those of our competitors. We are an island nation on the periphery and transport costs are a key element of the economy.

The last EC report on the costs of distribution of oil products showed that it cost almost two and a half times as much to distribute the product as the European average. This is a very serious problem for our economy, yet the Government have no strategy for dealing with it. There has been no move to harmonise the taxation on oil products in line with EC levels.

The battle talk of the previous Minister taking on the issue of distribution costs with the oil companies has fallen silent. The Minister for Industry and Commerce promised a new restrictive price order to increase competition in the retail trade, but it has yet to surface 12 months later. However, the promise of such an order is little more than a sham because the Director of Fair Trade indicated in his report that 11 out of the 12 existing restrictive practice orders cannot be enforced due to a lack of staff.

The Government also proposed to do something about Whitegate, but nothing has come of it after three years. Two years were frittered away in apparently fruitless negotiations with Nigerian interests. In fact, no application was made to the European Community for funds to assist the project. A task force was set up which was due to report within three months on the options open to the Government and now, 12 months later, we are glad to hear they have finally reported to the Minister. So much for the urgency of the report. The Minister seems to forget that Irish consumers, according to his own admission, have to pay an additional £25 million for the oil produced at the Whitegate Oil Refinery. The consumer has to bear the cost of the additional £25 million while the Government fritter away time without coming up with options for the refinery.

There is a lack of coherent thinking on our natural resources. Earlier this year the Dáil was asked to debate a Bord na Móna Bill which was little more than a mockery. Bord na Móna face a deep financial crisis. The value of their assets fall short of their debts by a margin of £73 million. Yet the company achieved a remarkable turn about in increasing productivity and are now trading profitably. However, we all know, on this side of the House and on the other side, that no company can diversify and grow with this scale of overhanging debt. Yet the Government have not responded to this need. Only last week the chief executive of Bord na Móna revealed that the company had to forego attractive business opportunities in the key diversification areas of horticultural peat and the smokeless fuel market because the Government had not moved on their request.

The debacle of selling off Tara Mines at a knock-down price, resulting in a major loss to the taxpayer, has not changed the Minister's policy on mining. No new terms for giving the taxpayer a reasonable share in the fruits of mining discoveries have been worked out. Although the Minister has talked a good deal about the environmental impact of mining — indeed, he intervened in the Croagh Patrick case, which is welcomed, but this was done on anad hoc basis — the Minister has refused to work out a policy which would build into prospecting licences some adjudication of the environmental impact of the second phase of mining. Major responsible environmental groups have called for these measures to be taken, but the Minister has rejected their requests.

The Minister's response to the 260 people who will lose their jobs in Arigna makes very dismal reading. The workers are being asked to have faith and be buoyed up by the Minister's promise that if anything useful comes up the Government will not be found wanting in funding it. I think the workers of Tuam, Thurles and Ballyforan can testify to the value of those assurances.

The Government have tried to be very "green" on Energy and the Environment, but the reality is different. Despite making a commitment to the Helsinki and Sofia Protocols on emissions, we find that no reduction is planned on our present level of emissions of either sulphur dioxide or nitrogen oxides. In fact, our Government stood in the way of an explicit target to reduce carbon dioxide emissions when the EC Council sought to do so. This is the real testimony to the Government's commitment to environmental issues. They are standing in the way of progress. The cornerstone of addressing the greenhouse effect is energy conservation, but we have made no application to the EC for funds for energy conservation and we have not set aside a penny for activity that potentially will shave £700 million off our energy bill. The Minister announced that he would provide a pathetic £500,000 for energy conservation but this money would not fund anything approaching what is needed.

Acting Chairman

I interrupt the Deputy to remind him that he has one minute remaining.

The reality is that this money will not fund any change in our conservation practices. We will remain the most wasteful user of energy in Europe, and we are 18 per cent worse than the rest of Europe.

Finally, I would like to deal with radiological protection. The Minister's protests about Sellafield are beginning to wear thin. He has thrown out the previous Government's commitment to take the British Government to court on the issue. He has abandoned previous attempts to bring this issue to the Paris Commission and seek international support for our proposals to close Sellafield. He has made no efforts to challenge the existing safety practices accepted by Euratom, despite the new evidence in the Gardner report. In addition, he has produced a Radiological Protection Bill which even the British Government would be ashamed to produce. The Minister wants to put the Radiological Protection Institute under his thumb entirely. The Minister of State knows that independence is the essence of an environmental protection agency's work, but sadly her colleague has not picked that up from her.

There are 35,000 houses in Ireland with excessive levels of radon gas. They suffer from 80 times the limit that would be acceptable in Sellafield and 100 deaths have been recorded each year resulting from the effects of the gas. Yet no action is being taken.

I want to refer to the statement made by the Minister that getting the fuel mix right from an environmental point of view will carry a price tag. The reality is that if the Government are not willing to fund an expansion in the gas grid, the consumers and householders will have to bear that price.

I too should like to voice my disappointment at this Estimate. The Minister did not state anything new in her speech this evening. The Government's attempts to put a good face on the EC Presidency have failed miserably. The Minister's speech did not show any achievements, rather it referred to what the Government hope to do. There were no positive developments during that period.

In my constituency we have the Leinster coalfields and I was very disappointed that the Minister did not refer to the problems in this area. I am aware that very active committees in the area have lobbied the Department, both directly and indirectly, through their public representatives. I am very interested in the area of energy but as time does not permit me to go through all aspects of it, I will devote my time to the problems in the Leinster coalfields.

The Minister referred extensively to the problems of the physical environment but did not refer to the other environment, that is, the social environment. The social environment in the coal mining areas has been devastated through emigration, abandoned and dilapidated houses and abandoned mines. There is ample evidence to suggest that if the Government undertook a positive approach to the development of our coal reserves this would substantially improve the social environment of many parts of the country, particularly the Leinster coalfields area where there are high levels of unemployment, emigration and poverty.

There are coal reserves in the Leinster coalfields and the need for this coal can be seen from the substantial amount of coal we import. However, because the Government believe that the mines should be run by private enterprise, who will want to get a quick and immediate return on their investment, they will not reopen them. If the Government were willing to give financial aid to the coalmines they could be developed. I again urge the Minister and the Government to undertake this task. The unfortunate unemployed workers who have devoted much of their time to putting proposals, through their unions, to the Government, deserve some response from them. However, the Estimate before us today does not contain any response to their proposals. This will be a severe disappointment and kick in the teeth to the people who have worked very hard on various committees, particularly those in the Leinster coalfields area, to get some recognition from the Department of Energy. I call on the Minister to give a positive reply to these people who have done more than anyone else in trying to rectify this problem.

I wish to refer to the problems caused by Sellafield. As we all know, Sellafield was the priority of the previous Minister for Energy. Having watched that Minister in action over the past few weeks, I believe he would have succeeded in abolishing Sellafield if he had put half the effort into it that he put into trying to abolish RTE. Obviously, he did not have the same determination to abolish Sellafield as he had to abolish RTE. There is only a passing reference to the continuing problem of Sellafield in the Estimate.

I got the impression from the Minister's speech that the new interconnectors will be used to import energy rather than export it. We should be more ambitious in this regard. I was disappointed to hear that the ESB are resting on their laurels, as it where, and they do not see the need for more capacity at present. We should aim in the development of these interconnectors to produce electricity with the purpose of exporting it. Ireland has probably more wind and tidal energy than any other country and we should develop a programme to export rather than import energy.

I again ask the Minister to expand, if at all possible, the conditions for qualification for grants under the western package electrification grant scheme. My constituency is regarded as a rich agricultural area but there are areas of extremely bad agricultural land there. Those people with no holdings do not qualify for grant aid under the present scheme and there is no way they can hope to get electricity. This is a very good scheme but, because of the few people remaining to get electricity, it should be expanded further.

I apologise for not being present for the Minister's contribution and that of the other Deputies. It is simply because I have a very heavy cold and there has been a dreadful draught all day long in the Chamber which I just cannot stand.

As other Deputies said, the short time available does not allow anyone to deal in an adequate way with the Estimate because so many areas are covered, from the effects of Moneypoint on global warming to gas and electricity interconnectors and the use of cutaway bogs. I have decided, like others, to concentrate on one issue, our lead and zinc resources. Will the Minister make a full public disclosure on the information available regarding the ore find at Galmoy on the Laois-Kilkenny border?

It is well known, certainly as far as the media are concerned, that there has been a major zinc discovery in the area but the Minister has not given any details. In response to a question I tabled on 3 July the Minister would not even say if a feasibility study, completed by the mining company, had been submitted to the Department. He would only say that no application had been submitted to him for a mining lease. The refusal of the Minister to supply the Dáil with information on the discovery is extraordinary becauseThe Financial Times, in referring to the Galmoy discovery, said that Ireland now seems certain to provide a substantial new source of zinc to replace some of Western Europe's rapidly declining output. The same article quoted the chairman and chief executive of Conroy Petroleum and Natural Resources as saying that he hoped there would be pilot production by the end of 1991 and that the mine would be at full capacity a year later. It is extraordinary. How can the chairman claim that, when the Minister said that the company have not even applied for a mining lease? If that is true, is all this information false? Has there not been any discovery? Is it all a hoax? If the Minister has information why does he refuse to give it?

My main concern is that the appalling mistakes made by previous Governments in relation to the Tara ore body — I hesitate to mention Bula — should not be repeated in the case of Galmoy. If the same mistakes are made, then the Galmoy ore body will make a lot of money for Conroy Petroleum and Natural Resources, whose chairman and chief executive is a Fianna Fáil member of the Oireachtas, but it will be of little value to the Irish people.

The Tara ore body, which was discovered in the early seventies, came into production in the late seventies and was probably even more significant than the Galmoy find, but inept handling by the then Fine Gael-Labour Coalition Government meant that the Navan find made virtually no contribution to the economy or to job creation. I came into the Dáil in 1982 and every six months since then I asked a question about royalties or tax paid by Tara. They did not pay one penny in tax or royalties for 12 years of production. The main reason for this was that the flawed lease granted by the Coalition Government provided for the payment of royalties based on the company's liabilities for corporation tax. As a result of good accountancy and our lax tax laws Tara were able to avoid paying any corporation tax or royalties. The issue of royalties was finally disposed of as part of the deal in which the Government sold their shareholding in Tara Mines. The Government accepted a paltry £16 million in respect of the full and final discharge of the previous 12 years and all future royalties due to the State. No matter what the production will be in the future, £16 million covered the lot. This was supposed to be a great deal. Surely it must be considered the sale of the century given the fact that Tara Mines, during the period from 1977 to 1989, exported ore concentrates to the value of £800 million?

The very extensive lesson learned from the Tara affair is that all future mining leases, including Galmoy — if there is a deposit and an application for a lease — must have as a central feature the payment of a royalty on every tonne of ore extracted. That is the only way you will get royalties and it was obvious, from the beginning, that Tara would never pay royalties. Unless royalties are based on ore extracted, nothing will come from Galmoy either.

The failure of the Government to ensure that a smelter was built in this country means that the ore from Tara, the ore from Silvermines Lead and Zinc Company and the ore from Tynagh Mines — both of which have left desolate areas in the south-west and west — was exported in its raw, unprocessed state and made no contribution to job creation, apart from a couple of hundred people digging it out of the ground. It will probably all be gone in ten to 15 years, leaving a huge hole in the Navan area.

As I said earlier, lead and zinc concentrates with a value of over £800 million have been exported, creating jobs abroad. If the Galmoy ore body, is as big as the media andThe Financial Times lead us to believe, we must reassess the whole use of our mineral resources and there is a stronger case than ever for the building of a smelter here. The IDA drew up plans for a smelter in the mid-seventies and Rio Tinto Zinc were invited to do a feasibility study. Naturally, since they had two or three smelters in Europe which were crying out for ore, their feasibility study decided that it was not feasible in Ireland since there were smelters under capacity in Europe. Tara have been able to supply about three of them from their production. If we built a smelter, with the amount of production from Tara, we would not be able to use it all in a year because the production of ore is huge.

The Minister said in her opening remarks that the ESB now have excess electricity which is a major requirement for a smelter. When a smelter was being assessed the ESB would not have been able to produce sufficient electricity to service it but it is now feasible, particularly as we will have an interconnector to the European gas supply from Siberia right across to this county. With cheap electricity, the feasibility of a smelter becomes much better. There is enormous job creation potential from smeltered ore and, given our appalling level of unemployment, it would be criminal if the Government failed to ensure that Galmoy deposits and the remaining ore from Tara were not used to create jobs here instead of abroad.

It is often asked why the Nordic economies — Norway, Sweden, Finland, etc. — are far more dynamic and powerful than ours. After all, the population of Norway is the same as our own State. One single fact stands out, they have industrialised on the basis of the resources which they had, whether it is fish, timber or minerals. That is why Finland have a State company, Outokumbu, controlling their mineral resources. When they run out of mineral resources for a particular smelter the State company purchase mineral resources abroad. We are in the embarrassing position that a State company from Finland, who have a smelter but no ore, take over our ore body and our Government hand over their share to them. They send our ore to Finland where they create not only jobs from it but whole industries. It goes into thousands of jobs keeping towns and factories going in the manufacture of various products from our lead and zinc. Therefore, I call on the Minister for a full assessment and information on the Galmoy find and I call again for the building of a smelter.

I thank all the spokepersons for their contributions this evening, and I apologise for the absence of my colleague, the Minister for Energy, Deputy Molloy, who could not be here to take this Estimate. I know that when he returns he will make himself aware of the Deputies' contributions and I am sure any matters I cannot deal with he will be more than happy to do so.

Let us respond first to Deputy Bruton in relation to the Government's decision to accede to the Helsinki Protocol. It is indeed the Government's decision to do that and that was outlined in the environmental action plan published last January. I am aware of the Deputy's concern in relation to the levels of nitrous oxide, sulphur dioxide and so on. As he is aware, the ESB are in the process of fitting nitrous burners at Moneypoint at a cost of £7 million and those burners are being fixed efficiently and effectively in order not to cause any disturbance of supply and so on to the consumer. The level of sulphur dioxide is about 135,000 tonnes per annum. When I was making regulations in relation to the banning of bituminous coal earlier this year——

A disastrous decision.

I know The Workers' Party would like the city to continue to be polluted.

People are going to die. They cannot afford not to under the Air Pollution Act.

The Deputy told me they were dying last year when there was smog. He cannot have it every way. I also set down very strict standards for sulphur content, a standard of 1.5, in order to ensure that we keep sulphur dioxide levels to a minimum. The Government's policy is that the ESB should use low sulphur coal——

Acting Chairman

Gabh mo leithsceal, I understand the interpretation of this is that the Minister is entitled to at least five minutes but cannot go over that time. Is that understood?

In order to allow us to accede to the Protocol, the policy of the Government is that the ESB should use low sulphur coal at Moneypoint and, if necessary, scrubbers will be fitted. Those matters are being examined, but we are determined to accede to that Protocol.

In relation to Deputy Bruton's comments on the Radiological Protection Institute Bill, the Minister for Energy has said in this House and elsewhere he is prepared to bring forward amendments and to consider very favourably any amendments brought forward by Opposition Deputies. He is bringing forward a number of amendments himself and his wish is that that Bill will be as effective as possible.

In relation to Sellafield, I have to take issue with Deputy Bruton, Deputy Pattison and Deputy Mac Giolla. The Government's policy is to pursue this matter in the most effective way possible and the Government's wish is that Sellafield be closed down. However, I think the Deputies will agree that it would be irresponsible for the Minister or the Government to take the British Government to court if there was not a very good chance of winning such a case. The Minister has said, and this has been accepted by many of the environmental groups, that on the evidence currently available we could not sustain a case that would have any reasonable possibility of winning. To take a case in those circumstances would be grossly irresponsible, a waste of taxpapers' money, nothing more than a public relations exercise and we would be rightly criticised if we were to engage in political opportunism of that kind. An action of that kind if it were to fail would have a damaging and long-term effect and may well be seen as a vote of endorsement for Sellafield.

Criticism was made of the level of expenditure on energy conservation. This year it is £790,000, the highest since 1983-84. In the 1983-89 period the average expenditure per annum was £250,000 to £300,000. It is now £790,000.

Scratching at the surface.

It is not a great deal but it is over 10 per cent of the energy budget. It is a good start.

It is not.

I think it is a very good start. Obviously, one has to improve on that start with a view to making a serious effort towards energy conservation.

Reference was made to Whitegate. As Deputies know, oil continues to meet about 45 per cent of our energy requirements. Any change in international prices obviously has a major impact on domestic energy costs. It is the Government's policy and the Minister's intention to continue to up-grade the Whitegate Oil Refinery which will play a major part in the continuity of our oil supplies. As the Deputies know, the task force have now reported and the report is being considered by the Department. The Minister aims to minimise any diseconomy in the supply of oil at the Whitegate refinery and eventually dismantle the mandatory off-take regime. Substantial capital investment will be necessary and the Government are committed to making the necessary investment. However, Deputies will agree that that investment must be carefully considered and any rushed decision, not fully considering the task force's complex and comprehensive report, would be unwise and a waste of taxpayers' money.

In discussing Estimates it is important that we not just provide moneys for various public utilities and so on but that we get value for money and it is the Government's intention, in line with our financial policy, to ensure the taxpayers' money is wisely and properly spent. That requires that full consideration be given not just to the task force report in relation to Whitegate but throughout Government Departments and the public service generally.

In relation to Tara royalties and the sale of the State's assets, this is an old chestnut which is always brought up in these Estimates debates by Deputy Mac Giolla. This matter was fully discussed during the Supplementary Estimate debate for this Department last December. The issues at that time were fully discussed. In relation to Galmoy, no application has yet been made despite the media reports and it is not the Government's or the Minister's policy to let companies lie on rich ore bodies, as Deputy Mac Giolla indicated in his contribution.

What is happening then? How does the Minister propose to get them off them?

If they are lying on rich ore bodies what can be done about them?

When an application is made the Minister, in conjunction with his Department, will give full consideration to that and the decision will be based on the best interests of the common good and the taxpayers. I might add in relation to mining generally that it is now a requirement, as a result of the introduction of the environmental impact assessment procedure, that all mining applications have to be accompanied by an independent environmental impact assessment. The Minister has said on a number of occasions that he will grant no mining licences until such an independent environmental impact assessment has been carried out by the developer. I know the Deputies are pleased with the Minister's decision in relation to Croagh Patrick. It is important that mining, which is necessary in order to exploit and explore our natural resources to the full and to generate wealth for this economy, is done in a way that is fully in consideration of environmental consequences.

I think I have responded as fully as I can at the moment to many of the points made by Deputies. I thank those who contributed. Other issues that may not have been dealt with in my response may well be taken up subsequently by the Minister on his return.

Acting Chairman

Go raibh maith agat, a Aire Stáit.