Skip to main content
Normal View

Dáil Éireann debate -
Thursday, 6 Apr 2006

Vol. 617 No. 6

Energy (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2006: Second Stage.

I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

It is particularly appropriate that this Bill is being considered by this House, given the renewed debate at European level on the need for a common European energy policy and the changing energy landscape internationally. The Bill, when enacted, will provide an important component in driving forward the Government's progressive energy agenda. Given Europe's dependence on a small number of external suppliers, and security of supply issues, this Bill is timely. Increasing demand on fuel resources, and concerns about long-term availability of supplies are driving forward the need for consensus on a wide range of energy issues.

This Bill forms a key part of the Government's priority legislative programme. It is the result of ongoing consultation between officials of my Department, the Commission for Energy Regulation, CER, and key market players. For the convenience of the House, a detailed explanatory memorandum has been published which provides a synopsis of the Bill's provisions. The Bill proposes to assign additional functions to the CER, which is the independent body responsible for regulating and overseeing the liberalisation of Ireland's energy sector. These new responsibilities include participation in the development of an all-island energy market, regulation of the activities of electricity and gas installers and the regulation and promotion of natural gas safety.

Other provisions of the Bill include amending the definition of combined heat and power, CHP; the conferral of power on the Minister to issue policy directions to the CER; provision for the full opening of the natural gas market; and provision for the taking of emergency measures by the Minister in the event of a sudden crisis in the energy market.

In order to contextualise the various provisions of the Bill, I propose to speak briefly on the important role played by the CER in discharging its statutory functions. Established as the independent regulatory body with responsibility for electricity under the Electricity Regulation Act 1999, the CER's powers and responsibilities were extended under the Gas (Interim)(Regulation) Act 2002 to cover regulation of the natural gas market. As the independent regulator for the electricity market, the CER facilitates competition by authorising the construction of new generating plant and licensing companies to generate and supply electricity. The CER also has responsibility for the regulating of prices charged to customers by the ESB, in its capacity as public electricity supplier. Within the gas sector, the CER grants licences to suppliers and other market players and has the power to regulate prices charged to certain gas customers.

The CER assumes an active regulatory stance with regard to the operation, maintenance and development of the electricity and gas transmission and distribution networks. Partnered with this role, it also has responsibility for the approval of tariffs for third party access to these systems. In carrying out its various functions and responsibilities, the CER has a statutory obligation to exercise its powers in a manner which in respect of electricity, does not discriminate unfairly between holders of licences, authorisations and the Electricity Supply Board, or between applicants for authorisations or licences; with regard to gas, does not discriminate unfairly between holders of licences or consents and Bord Gáis Éireann, or between applicants for consents or licences; and protects the interests of final customers of electricity or gas or both.

Given its already wide-ranging knowledge and experience of both the gas and electricity markets and its statutory responsibility to carry out its activities in a fair and impartial fashion, the CER is evidently best placed to tackle the additional functions and responsibilities proposed by the provisions of this Bill. I shall now address these provisions in more detail.

Section 3 of the Bill amends the Electricity Regulation Act 1999, hereafter described as the 1999 Act, by providing that it shall be a new function of the CER to participate in the development of an all-island energy market. Currently, policy on such a market is encapsulated in the all-island energy market development framework published in November 2004 by the Minister and his then Northern Ireland ministerial counterpart, Barry Gardiner MP.

The framework, produced in consultation with the two regulatory authorities and with energy stakeholders, sets out the commitment of both Governments to achieving a single energy market that will contribute to a more secure and cost efficient service for all consumers. It includes a high level development programme setting out goals and timeframes over the next few years for an all-island approach to electricity, gas and sustainable energy.

In order to further this commitment to an all-island energy market, section 3 provides that the CER will also be granted the power to arrange for the establishment of a "single market operator" which will, when established, operate a system of contracts and arrangements for trading in electricity on the island of Ireland. This measure will serve to underpin the ongoing co-operation between the CER and its counterparts in Northern Ireland in developing the all-island energy market.

The resulting integration of the energy markets on the island as a whole will, overtime, result in a number of positive benefits, which include the removal of market distortions and the minimisation of the upward pressure on wholesale electricity costs. It will also create a more attractive location for investment in new electricity generation within the island of Ireland and serve to improve overall security and reliability of electricity supplies throughout the entire island.

Whereas section 3 provides for the development of an all-island energy market, sections 13 and 14 of the Bill amend the Gas Act 1976 to provide for the full opening of the natural gas market. The section provides that any person shall be entitled to switch his or her natural gas supplier if he or she so wishes. It further provides that a natural gas supplier acting on behalf of any person may be granted third party access to gas pipelines or facilities. The upshot of these provisions is that the benefits of liberalisation previously enjoyed by industrial and commercial consumers will be extended to all natural gas customers, allowing them to shop around for their supplier and to obtain the best value for their money. The market will then be fully contestable.

It is important to note these sections include a commencement provision, which serves to ensure the market will be fully open no later than the 1 July 2007 deadline set by the EU directive requirements. However, so as not to delay matters unnecessarily, and should the necessary administrative and technical measures be in place prior to this date, provision is also made allowing the Minister to make an order or orders to open the gas market either in part, or in whole, in advance of this deadline.

Turning to the new powers and responsibilities to be allocated to the CER, sections 4 and 11 of the Bill amend the 1999 Act by providing for the regulation by the CER of electrical contractors and gas installers, respectively. These sections, in conjunction with section 8, which provide for the taking of emergency measures in certain specified circumstances, and section 10, which covers the issue of natural gas safety in general, demonstrate that central concerns in the drafting of the Bill were the issue of safety and security of supply in so far as they relate to energy matters. It is with this in mind that I am particularly pleased to put forward these provisions for the consideration of Members of the House.

Sections 4 and 11 provide that the CER may establish standards of training for both electrical contractors and gas installers in regard to safety in their areas of work. Under the provisions of the Bill, the CER will have the power to designate persons to be electrical or gas safety supervisory bodies, which will be required to operate in accordance with criteria and procedures published by the CER. Under CER oversight, these bodies will be allocated responsibility for the registration of electrical contractors and gas installers, as appropriate. They will have the power to inspect work carried out by their various members, monitor and review the training of their various members and suspend or revoke the membership of one of their members for certain specified reasons, including where work carried out by that member is unsafe or of an unsatisfactory standard.

In order to ensure fairness and transparency in the activities of any such body, and between such a body and its various members, any fees or charges imposed by any such body will be subject to CER approval. Furthermore, any decision by such a body to suspend or revoke the membership of one or more of its members will be subject to appeal to the CER.

Both sections also provide that the CER shall have responsibility for the following associated measures relating to the activities of electrical contractors and gas installers. It will have the power to appoint authorised officers for the inspection of electrical or gas works; the designation, by means of regulations, of certain works as being solely the province of electrical contractors or gas installers, as appropriate; the designation of the requirement for completion certificates for specified works carried out; and the power to prosecute rogue installers or contractors.

Section 11 also provides for a natural gas transmission system operator and a distribution system operator to appoint a gas emergency officer, with powers to enter land and take emergency measures, where there is a danger to a person or property arising from natural gas. This reflects the particularities of the use of gas as a source of energy, such as its combustible nature and the means by which it is transported, as well as the multi-operator environment envisaged for the market. The CER will also have the power to appoint a gas safety officer to assist in the carrying out of its new gas safety functions.

Section 12 is an enabling provision, which acts as an addendum to section 11, allowing the Minister to make an order to extend certain of the Bill's natural gas safety provisions such as regulation of installers to include liquefied petroleum gas, LPG. Whereas sections 4 and 11 focus on the activities of individual tradespersons in order to provide for proper regulation of their activities, the purpose of section 8 is to take account of the probability, however remote, of a sudden crisis taking place in the energy market. Its provisions are, therefore, designed to ensure the physical safety and security of persons and energy infrastructure, as well as the integrity of the transmission and distribution systems for natural gas or electricity, are protected. Under the section's provisions, the Minister can, where there is such an evident cause of major concern within the energy market, by order, direct the CER or certain electricity or natural gas market players to take whatever safeguard measures the Minister considers necessary with regard to the circumstances. It is important to note, however, that this is not a carte blanche provision. ln making such an order, the Minister will be obligated to ensure that, whatever action is taken under this section, the potential impacts to the gas and electricity markets are kept to a minimum. Also, any direction given must not go beyond what the circumstances of the particular crisis dictates. A standard revocation-amendment provision is included to allow for the fact that such crises are likely to be, by their nature, short-term. These provisions are in line with EU requirements on security of energy supply.

As previously outlined, section 10 of the Bill serves to expand the functions of the CER to include the regulation and active promotion of natural gas safety. ln this context, the CER will be required to consult the National Standards Authority of Ireland regarding standards and specifications relating to gas safety. The purpose of this provision is to copperfasten Ireland's continued success in meeting with international best practice. Similar to section 11, section 10 also takes account of the nature of gas as a source of energy. Towards this end, the section imposes certain obligations on the CER as to how it will regulate natural gas safety. Under the section, the CER, having consulted with the Minister, will be required to establish and implement a natural gas safety framework. This framework must include, but is not limited to, inspection and testing regimes for downstream transmission and distribution pipelines, and for storage and liquefied natural gas facilities. Any such framework must also focus on the regulation and certification of natural gas installers and provide for procedures for the investigation of complaints against them.

Furthermore, in the interests of transparency, the CER will be required to report to the Minister on an annual basis on the functioning of this framework. The CER will also have the power to direct natural gas undertakings to advise their customers and the public as to natural gas safety. By providing for a gas safety framework, for reporting mechanisms to be in place, and for the power to issue directions, a more comprehensive and holistic approach to natural gas safety will be achieved. Apart from issues relating to safety and security, the Bill also serves to rectify an impediment in current legislation. It goes without saying that east-west and North-South electricity interconnection are critical planks of the Government's energy policy. Both can provide strong physical links with Northern Ireland and mainland UK, and will serve to integrate Ireland into wider European markets.

Section 7 amends the 1999 Act for the purpose of providing for an electricity interconnector owned by a person other than the ESB to be subject to authorisation and licence granted by the CER. For technical reasons relating to the definition of the electrical transmission system, the section also provides that such an interconnector shall not be part of the transmission system except where it comes to the issue of calculating and imposing charges for the transmission system's use. Under the provisions of the section, the CER may also, with the consent of the Minister, secure the construction of an interconnector by specified means, including by competitive tender; by authorisation granted without a prior competitive tender, but which must be seen to be necessary and in the long-term interests of final customers; or directly, by requesting the transmission system operator to provide for its construction as part of the CER's development plan.

Provision is also made to ensure an interconnector operator shall offer access to the interconnector on the basis of published non-discriminatory terms, which will be subject to the approval or, if deemed necessary, the direction of the CER. To ensure fair play between interconnector operators and applicants for access to the interconnector, a dispute appeals mechanism is also provided for with the CER as final arbiter.

While concentrating in the main on new functions to be allocated to the CER, the Bill also provides for the improvement of its inner workings and administration. Towards this end, section 9 provides for an acting chairperson to be appointed to the CER by the Minister in circumstances where the chairperson is unavailable to perform his or her duties or functions. This allows for a degree of flexibility in the inner workings of the CER and takes account of the various contingencies which can occur outside the normal day-to-day operations of any organisation.

Further flexibility in the internal workings of the CER is provided for by allowing the chairperson to have a casting vote where a difference of opinion has not been resolved through the usual decision-making process. Such a mechanism is a standard provision, in this case modelled on similar mechanisms governing the workings of the Commission for Communications Regulation, ComReg. To enhance the accountability of the CER to both the Minister and the Oireachtas, while also reflecting the reality of the day-to-day business operations of any publicly accountable body, the appropriate timing of the submission by the CER of its annual accounts and work programmes is provided for.

Again, using similar provisions governing the activities of ComReg as a template, section 6 provides that the Minister may, in the interests of the proper and effective regulation of both the electricity and natural gas markets, give general policy directions to the CER relating to the exercise of its statutory functions. It is important to note that such powers would be used sparingly and always in the public interest. Any policy direction which the Minister may wish to put forward will be subject to a public consultation process. Such a process can serve to improve upon the modus operandi of the CER by increasing its awareness of public concerns and issues.

Section 5 amends the Act of 1999 by replacing the definition of combined heat and power, CHP, with a new definition of CHP as set out in Directive 2004/8/EC, and by providing for the methodology through which the various forms of CHP can be calculated. CHP is the simultaneous generation of useable heat and electricity in a single process. It makes use of the heat produced in electricity generation instead of releasing it into the atmosphere and has a less detrimental effect on the environment than if heat and power were produced independently. It is not strictly a renewable energy but contributes to general energy efficiency and can make considerable energy savings for businesses and industry.

The new definition will facilitate the establishment of a guarantee of origin system for high efficiency CHP, establishment of appropriate support mechanisms and reporting to the European Commission as required by the directive. It is an important step in ensuring that support for CHP in Ireland can be targeted to achieve optimum energy efficiency and environmental protection. Section 5 also provides for the appointment by the Minister of a person who will be allocated responsibility for the calculation and certification of power-to-heat ratios of specific CHP units.

Section 15 deals with a further legal lacuna by providing that a 10% capital stockholding in the ESB be vested in the Minister to give him or her the same legal entitlement as other capital stock shareholders. The Minister, the person to whom the ESB normally reports in a shareholding capacity, does not have any shareholding representation in the company and, accordingly, does not have the rights and obligations of other stockholders, such as voting rights at annual general meetings. At present, the issued capital stock in the ESB is apportioned between the Minister for Finance — 95% — and the employee share ownership plan — 5%. Following consultation with the Office of the Attorney General and the Department of Finance, it was agreed to rectify this matter through the divestment by the Minister for Finance of 10% of the capital stock to the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources.

The Bill is an important measure in the delivery of the Government's developing energy policy. By focusing on the issue of safety while also taking account of the need to progress the integration of an all-island market for energy, the Bill will, on enactment, have considerable benefits for all electricity and gas consumers, be they industrial or domestic. The Minister and I look forward to working closely with the CER on ensuring the speedy implementation of the Bill's various provisions following enactment. I therefore look forward to listening carefully to the views of Members of this House on this important legislation and their assistance in progressing the Bill into law.

I welcome the Bill for what it contains, which is not very much. That is not a criticism of the Minister of State. When so much attention is focused on the energy industry, not only here but throughout Europe and worldwide, I would have expected the Bill to contain some earth-shattering proposals to deal with future energy requirements, to recognise the instability of energy markets and supply, especially arising from developments in eastern Europe, and to recognise the need to provide to a much greater extent, from within our own resources, by one means or another, for alternative energy production and for research and development into such production. Unfortunately the Bill does not contain any of those, although it refers to them. It deals with what are largely housekeeping issues which essentially should have been dealt with about four years ago.

Hear, hear.

Four years ago would have been the time to introduce this Bill, and over the intervening period we could have developed the industry to the extent to which we now require it to be developed. I notice that one section of the Bill allows for the Minister to take emergency action, as it were. When one gets to the stage of emergency action it is too late. If Ministers and the various agencies do their job, the requirement for emergency, fire-brigade action should not arise. I emphasise that especially in the energy industry. Everyone knows that a major blackout or power failure is an emergency. That is when things start to hop and when everything begins to boil except the kettle. That is when everybody will realise it is too late. It should not come to that juncture.

The flaws are as I have already outlined. The Bill does not provide for the development of the alternative energy sector. It merely refers to energy in general. It does not take account of the fact that in Ireland we have a 90% dependency on imported fossil fuels for energy. Although the legislation could and should address that issue, it does not.

The Bill takes account of the need to give more powers to the Commission for Energy Regulation. I am sure the regulator needs increased powers to supervise the industry. However, the Bill also refers to the fact that in the regulation, there is a necessity to pass on to the consumer the benefits of deregulation. I question what the benefits to the consumer have been. Since deregulation was thought of, the regulator has devoted most effort to suggesting increases in energy prices to the consumer. I do not know how that comes about but the consumer has begun to pay through the nose. The Minister remains coy on this issue, does not want to get involved, and never will want to get involved. The Minister does not want to come to the House and seek permission to raise the price of electricity to the consumer. This will be done by the regulator in the future, as it has already been done over the past three years by the regulator in respect of electricity and gas. The Bill as it stands merely gives legislative effect to the powers the regulator already has, or should have and should have operated, to the benefit of the consumer.

Let us consider other matters to which the Bill does not refer. It only refers in passing to EU energy policy. As we all know, the European Union, like the rest of the world, has taken time out to focus on the issue of energy, or lack of it as the case may be. Suddenly, great emphasis is now being placed throughout Europe and the world on how to allow countries become less dependent on imported oil or other fuels. In the rest of Europe, a different situation prevails. Whether we like it or not, they have access to other energies. They have a much higher level of hydro energy, research and development and work done in developing alternative energy sources throughout Europe and they have nuclear energy. The Bill should have obtained an analysis of the right marriage of fuels to be used in the future energy industry. I emphasise that simply because it is being done in Europe over our heads. We have only two parts of the equation: we have hydro to a limited extent and wind energy to whatever extent we want, depending on the degree to which we can contain it within the grid. We do not have nuclear energy. That is not an option for us. We are out of that part of the equation altogether and we must remain out of it. However, we have to develop some other element that will ensure we can avail of the maximum amount of wind energy and biofuels and at the same time ensure continuity of supply, all of which requires a fair amount of ingenuity.

Has anyone asked Mr. David McWilliams where we will put the nuclear reactor?

That is the old story.

Will it be in Wexford?

Absolutely. Could it be like the incinerator for Ringsend where one Minister said it shall not be in Wicklow and another Minister said it shall not be in Ringsend? In that case we could be treated to the unthinkable spectacle at the next general election of two Ministers up the same pole, at the same time, one telling the people of the benefits of incineration and the other with a placard saying, "I will defend your right to say no". I am not suggesting the Minister of State will be part and parcel of that type of hypocrisy. This whole area will have a huge impact on our economic development side by side with our European colleagues.

There has been virtually no research and development into alternative energy here or into how we break from our dependence on fuel imports. We have one or two notable exceptions. The University of Limerick, Dundalk IT and University College Cork have spent a considerable amount of time and expertise in this area. However, it needs much more support and a huge impetus that can only come from Government, not from CER or anywhere else. If it gets that support we can identify the optimum mix of energy that will be required for the foreseeable future while maintaining our economic independence.

The Bill refers to the all-island energy market. That is desirable and I welcome it. It is important for Ireland. We all support that concept. The market in Ireland is not the biggest market in the world although it has improved. We need to produce energy as competitively as other European mainland countries otherwise our economic position will be affected. The Bill should have identified as its first objective how to deal with the optimum mix of energy. The Minister referred to combined heat and power and so on, and that is part and parcel of the evolution of the energy industry but did not refer to the optimum mix of energy. That indicates a lack of forward thinking.

We need short, medium and long-term dove-tailed energy plans, so that in quickly changing circumstances it is possible to adapt policies and adopt new policies capable of meeting the requirements of the market. I refer to both the industrial market and the domestic market. As the market grows we become more vulnerable if we are dependent on outside sources. I would like to see a huge emphasis in the area of research and development and a special effort being made to identify the optimum marriage in terms of the mix of fuels used and the whole area of research and development progressed to a much greater extent.

An issue that comes to our attention from time to time is that the regulator will be used as a shuttlecock. If something nasty has to be done, out will come the regulator. If there is to be an increase in energy prices the regulator will appear. However, if there is good news a Minister will be out on the plinth to make the announcement.

It was mentioned earlier that the ESB no longer reads meters on a bimonthly basis. Meters are supposed to be read four times a year but they are not in many cases. Recently I received a communication from a lady in the greater Dublin area whose meter was read once in two years. In that case the consumer receives a bill incorporating arrears that occurred since the previous estimate was taken. If the meter was read in mid-summer an average assessment would be made of the bill based on that. However, two years later, the arrears which have accrued are calculated at the price of electricity at current costs not as it was charged two years ago. I am sure the Minister of State will get hurried notations stating that is incorrect. However, it is correct and that is what is happening. There are consumers who argue against having to pay the current price, inclusive of increases that have taken place over the past two or three years. In his reply I am sure the Minister of State will deal with that issue and I will refer his reply to all those who have complained to me, and there are many. I am sure the Minister of State received one or two such complaints.

As I have not had an opportunity to do so until now, I welcome the Minister of State to the Department of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources. Though he is in the Department only a short time I have no doubt he will receive a baptism of fire in that area.

He was in that Department before.

He is welcome back.

It is a return to the hot seat.

It is. Ministers should take an interest in that area. It should not be up to a regulator, notwithstanding the fact that the regulator has been busy in recent years ensuring that electricity and gas prices have been increased. The price increases relate to worldwide energy prices. We had this argument many years ago with Bord na Móna when prices increased from £16 per tonne to approximately £60 per tonne, which was quite an increase. The reason for this was the international fuel scarcity and fluctuations in the market. It was probably good from the point of view of Bord na Móna in respect of its viability but it was not good for the consumer. Likewise, in the case of the increases in recent years the poor unfortunate consumer has been left to the elements.

The Bill correctly deals with safety regulations in respect of installers and instructors in the gas and electricity industry. Those involved in installation in either industry must be top-class professionals who observe the rules and regulations. The key element is the level of inspection, as this dictates the degree to which standards are observed. Although I had doubts about some of these issues in the past, I welcome these aspects of the Bill.

A well-known installer of central heating informed me that a similar requirement, above and beyond standards applied heretofore, is in force in the central heating sector for reasons of energy efficiency and safety. Safety is an issue because there have been cases of boilers exploding. The domestic central heating sector has made considerable advances in the past ten years, with significant increases in efficiency achieved and stricter safety standards in place. As a result, significant savings can be achieved by homeowners and the owners of commercial premises, provided the highest possible safety and efficiency standards are applied.

I presume the health and safety regulations will address circumstances such as those that have arisen with regard to the Corrib gas pipeline, an issue which has occupied the minds of many people in recent years. As I have stated on previous occasions, it is essential that the highest possible health and safety standards apply to the extraction and conveyance of natural gas. Irrespective of the companies involved in transporting this product, they must all comply with the spirit and letter of the law, as every other citizen must do. No exceptions should be made and no corners cut in the provision of the infrastructure required for natural gas production and transport. Any attempt to do so would have a negative impact on the community at large and the development of the energy industry, particularly the natural gas sector. I am not apportioning blame but pointing out that some actions taken in the past were not carried out in the proper fashion or sequence. If they had been, we would not have reached the impasse in which we have found ourselves in recent years.

In the event that further major gas resources are identified, it would not make sense to repeat the nonsense of digging up trenches and laying pipes and then taking them up again or welding pipes together and then cutting them into shorter pieces. We must never again rush ahead without regard to compliance with regulations before admitting that it may have been preferable to have taken option X, Y or Z. We all know what should have been done.

Incidentally, the areas of mining, prospecting and oil and gas exploration are no longer new. These activities have taken place many times the world over and Ireland is no exception. For this reason, it is no longer excusable to argue that Ireland is in the early stages of developing these products. They are in development worldwide and we must avail of worldwide technology and observe optimum health and safety requirements when volatile products such as natural gas are being developed.

The merits of conferring further powers on the Commission for Energy Regulation are debatable but I will address them at a later stage. In general, however, the more power that is devolved from Ministers' offices to outside bodies, the less power the House has and the fewer the number of opportunities Members have to raise questions and have Ministers answer them in the House. It also gives the poor, over-worked Ceann Comhairle more opportunities to tell Members the Minister has no responsibility for certain matters. I could paper the walls of my house with the number of letters I received from the Ceann Comhairle in recent days informing me that certain questions I have raised are matters for the Commission for Energy Regulation. I have since discovered that this Bill confers powers on the CER which the Ceann Comhairle believed it already enjoyed. Is that not a quare conundrum? How would the Acting Chairman, Deputy Cowley, deal with that matter?

The Ceann Comhairle often makes up legislation.

It is unfortunate when it transpires that the Ceann Comhairle mistakenly believes a body has powers it does not possess. The legislation before the House confers on the Commission for Energy Regulation the same powers the Ceann Comhairle believed it already held.

I suggest Deputies refrain from referring to the Ceann Comhairle when he is not present. Perhaps the Deputy could raise the matters with the office of the Ceann Comhairle, rather than in the House.

I do not accept the Chair's suggestion.

Deputy Cowley is a loyal Chair given that he has suffered at the hands of the Ceann Comhairle.

I am certain the Ceann Comhairle would be energised and delighted to learn that I raised this matter.

The Deputy will be reprimanded next week.

When I raised this issue on the Order of Business this morning, the Tánaiste informed me I would have an opportunity to raise it during the debate on this Bill. I have received six items of correspondence from the Ceann Comhairle indicating that the Minister has no official responsibility to the Dáil for matters I raised because they fall within the remit of the Commission for Energy Regulation. The issues in question concerned procedures regarding liberalisation and deregulation to enable easy access to the electricity market for alternative energy suppliers. I am informed I cannot raise these matters with the Minister in the House but must write a letter to the Commission for Energy Regulation. Perhaps I would then receive an answer at some point, much like the position with regard to questions on the health service.

The worst aspect of this is that the energy regulator cannot come before the House to answer questions. We must face up to this problem. An Opposition Deputy would have received an answer to virtually any question 20 years ago when a plethora of highly competent officials in the various Departments were ready, willing and able to provide good and accountable answers to questions. More important, they were accountable in and to Parliament.

The Joint Committee on Communications, Marine and Natural Resources, of which the Deputy is a member, can call in the Commissioner for Energy Regulation at any time to ask him questions.

It is unfortunate the Minister of State has raised that matter because I am sick to my teeth listening to people giving advice that issues should be discussed at committee meetings. This is the national Parliament, the place where these issues should be thrashed out in the first instance. Minor details can be dealt with by the committee but here, in Parliament, is where the job is done or not done. The day the Minister delegates his authority to anywhere other than Parliament is the day he will be sorry. More importantly, it is a day the population will regret because that is the day accountability will recede from the people, which is a serious development.

I will not go through the list of functions for which the CER is already responsible. The kind of crimes the CER could be accused of, the areas in which the CER has been unable to deliver and the things it should be delivering are so many and varied that I am glad the CER does not have to run for election. If it did, it would be in deep trouble. Its remit ranges from energy prices to access to the grid to the provision of various services, such as telecommunications to the Black Valley and such places.

There is probably a need for a regulator. It is a European concept. How did we manage before regulators were invented?

The Government did it.

Regulators were introduced after the American Civil War to ensure everything was regulated. However, markets have a tendency to regulate themselves. Unfortunately, in this country regulation appears to have regulated prices for the consumer in an upward direction. Although 2007 is approaching, with the prospect of full deregulation, there appears to be a great difficulty——

It is a general election year as well.

It will be May 2007.

I am glad the Minister had the temerity to raise that issue. It is grand to see those who are condemned speak openly about the execution. I do not mean that in the literal sense, of course, but some type of retribution will be exacted by the population who have been waiting patiently, in every hole and corner——

We will see.

——for the Government to emerge and give an account of its stewardship over the past number of years. Woe betide the Government.

It will be three in a row.

I would not go that far. Do not mention the war. I advise the Minister to go carefully in that context.

When did Wexford last win three in a row? It was during the First World War.

In 1914, 1915 and 1916. We won in football as well.

The Bill is welcome as far as it goes. It puts in place a statutory basis for what regulators are supposed to do effectively. We have yet to see evidence that deregulation will be of benefit to the consumer. I look forward to that because it is not obvious yet. I hope it will be. The Bill does not contain any short, medium or long-term plans for the provision of an energy sector that will be self sufficient, will reduce dependency on overseas energy and ensure continuity of supply.

The Bill does not deal with the future of the ESB. The Government could have mentioned the ESB somewhere in it. The ESB is the biggest energy provider in the country. It has economies of scale which other providers do not have. It is the pivotal provider so it has advantages over others. It does not have the right to prevent others from entering the market. It also does not have the right, nor does anybody have the right, to hike the prices to make it more attractive for others to enter the market. The consumer should not be screwed to the wall as a result of the necessity to include other operators in the marketplace.

The Bill could have included some reference to the Deloitte & Touche report, which is fundamental to the energy sector at present. There is not a word about it. I cannot understand how a Bill could be introduced at this stage that does not contain a reference to the Deloitte & Touche report. It should have contained such a reference. The Bill makes countless references to the CER. It reminds me of the boy in school who was offering excuses. He said: "Sir, Sir, Sir, Sir", but there was nothing else. It was a series of "Sirs".

I hope the Bill means something and that it is the forerunner of something more fundamental. Hopefully, we will get an indication, which we do not now have, of how this country will be provided with cost effective and reliable energy which will take account of the ingredients that are likely to be required in the mix to ensure we can enjoy a secure energy supply in future.

I welcome a number of the key provisions of the Energy (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill. The amendments to the 1999 Act in Part 2 extending the functions of CER to the all-island market are important, if belated. Sections 4, 10, 11 and 12 relating to electrical safety and the regulation of electrical contractors serve functions relating to natural gas safety, the regulation of gas installers and the introduction of gas emergency officers and gas safety officers and are useful and important legislative provisions. Likewise, sections 6 and 8, dealing with ministerial directions to CER and Government emergency powers relating to energy, are also timely in the context of the dramatic and rising importance of public energy policy in every state. Section 5, which implements Directive 2004/8/EC on combined heat and power, is another useful step to improve energy efficiency in this country.

However, there has been a long wait for this legislation and, for that reason, the extremely modest nature of the Bill is surprising. In fact, there is a strong suspicion that this legislation has been precipitated by recent threats from the European Commission regarding the failures of national governments, including Ireland's, in their energy markets. Ireland is one of the 17 countries now being processed for legal action in this regard due to the failure of the Minister, Deputy Noel Dempsey.

It is clear from the indictment by the European Commission on Tuesday that the Minister, Deputy Noel Dempsey, and his predecessors have failed to facilitate competitive markets for Irish consumers and householders. Irish energy prices remain among the highest in the EU and, despite repeated Government spin, no real options have been provided for householders in either electricity or gas.

The EU Commission believes that the three principal elements of modern market regulation and initiatives to guarantee competition are not being developed in this country. These are the extent of market opening, a real possibility of changing supplier and the emergence of new market entrants, with non-discriminatory access guaranteed by strong independent regulators. The Commission has also called for stronger consumer protection and the universal right to receive electricity. Given Ireland's poor performance so far in sustainable energy, it is no wonder the EU Commission is always extremely critical about our performance on biofuels and the use of renewable energy sources.

The response from the Government to the changing and increasingly difficult energy situation has been seriously inadequate and lacks focus. Energy legislation has been brought through the House in a haphazard and ad hoc manner. Not only did we have to wait an unacceptably long time for this updated legislation but it is also striking how we lack a coherent, overarching energy vision. Necessary energy legislation is being brought forward in a piecemeal and disjointed manner. In fact, the status of a further two Bills, the electricity Bill and the single energy market Bill, is still unclear, as is the timeframe for their return to the legislative programme. Should not one or both of these Bills also be before the House today so we can examine this important issue in a more consistent and coherent way?

Yesterday, I asked the Taoiseach on the Order of Business about the protracted and paltry Government approach to the new energy and climate era. I asked him whether the Minister, Deputy Noel Dempsey, should have introduced a comprehensive new energy Bill, incorporating the limited Bill before us, the equally long promised single electricity market Bill and the electricity Bill which was on the Order Paper last year but now appears to have disappeared.

It has slipped away.

The latter Bill was intended to turn the ESB into a plc under the Companies Acts. We are all aware of the long timeframe in developing energy infrastructure, but surely the Government should not have taken almost ten years to reach the modest platform provided by this Bill.

We learned recently that more than €1.2 million of taxpayers' money has been spent on commissioning a report by the consultants Deloitte & Touche that will not be published or presented to the House, even though select journalists and publications appear to have obtained detailed knowledge of various aspects of the report and of the future of the ESB. Unfortunately, the energy spokespersons in the House have not received the same information, which is undemocratic.

The Government appears to be sleepwalking on the issue of energy and has been for the past few years when most of our EU partners presented major energy reviews and policies. The United Kingdom is in the process of presenting its second major energy review of the past three years, but no comprehensive energy document has been published by our Government over its nine years in office. The British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, said that after physical security, energy security is the most important task of any government.

Although energy matters have gained unprecedented public attention in the past six months, the past week has seen some particularly important issues brought to the fore. In a new international survey published on Monday of countries in which it is most attractive to invest in renewable energy technology Ireland dropped from sixth to 12th place. According to the new quarterly renewable energy country attractiveness indices from the consultants Ernst & Young, Ireland is ranked in 12th place, having dropped six places over the past year. This league table is based on an assessment of national renewable energy markets, especially the fiscal supports and tariffs that are in place, the state's renewable energy infrastructure and the potential renewable resources a state possesses.

Ireland's ranking in the long-term index is particularly disappointing as that index reflects the unexploited resources of a state. Ireland has significant sources of untapped wind and wave power. The Labour Party believes Ireland can and should become an exporter of renewable energy. The recent report indicates the mechanisms in place to facilitate the development of renewable resources are not currently in place to allow greater investment in the renewables sector. The report shows that Spain and the United States remain at the top of the long-term renewables index for attracting investment in the renewables industries as both continue to show strong growth in the renewables sector and attract the bulk of capital investment. We are all aware of the achievements of Spain in the area of wind power.

In contrast to the dismal Irish performance on attracting investment in renewables let us look at how different it is abroad. I wish to mention four exemplar nations, Austria, Sweden, Scotland and Denmark. Although each of these states has excelled in developing different renewable technologies, they have in common a proactive approach by government on energy policy which concentrates on the natural strengths and advantages of each state in the advancement of alternative energy resources and the diversification of the fuel mix. These nations are surging ahead with increasing the role of renewable technologies in their energy mix. For example, in Sweden in 2003 approximately 43.9% of electricity was generated through renewable sources, including hydro, wind and biomass.

The work of the Scottish Executive has been outstanding, despite the fact Scotland is not yet fully independent. The Labour-led Executive, led by Jack McConnell, has much power over Scotland's future and has taken some remarkable initiatives in the area of wind and wave power. The focus on renewables research and development undertaken by the Scottish Executive in the few short years of its existence puts to shame the measly time and resources our Government has devoted to the same issue. Scotland has declared the wish to become the "Saudi Arabia" of renewable energy.

Austria, a densely forested region, has shrewdly become a world leader in the development of bioenergy, especially biomass. In 2003, approximately 70% of Austria's domestically produced power was generated through renewable sources and biomass alone was responsible for 11.2% of Austria's total primary energy supply and 21% of heat production. I know this subject is close to the Minister of State's heart and I commend him for his initiatives in developing the use of biomass in the forestry industry in his previous Department.

Denmark, with its significant wind resources, claims it is the leading wind power nation in the world. The Danes were pioneers in developing wind turbine technology and they manufacture almost half the wind turbines used all over the world. The Danish wind industry employs approximately 20,000 people and generates almost €3 billion for the Danish economy. Approximately 5,500 gigawatts of energy was produced by wind turbines in Denmark in 2003 and this provided electricity power for approximately 1.4 million Danish households.

These four countries are examples of the route Ireland could take. It is important to discuss these issues coming up to a general election so a new government will go forward with a coherent and consistent policy, based on increasing the development of renewable, biomass and biofuel energy.

There have been numerous warnings in the past two weeks of how much our failures in dealing with energy change could end up costing in the next ten years. Under the new emissions trading system businesses and industrial users will have to cut their level of emissions or purchase carbon credits on the open market. Currently the cost for one year's credit is approximately €27 per tonne. However, recent analyses in the media and scientific journals have predicted a sharp escalation of these prices that could end up costing Irish industry between €500 and €1 billion between 2008 and 2012.

Recently we had a debate on this portfolio and the Minister, Deputy Noel Dempsey, warned us not to waste taxpayers' money. Not alone is the Minister one of those primarily responsible for the waste of taxpayers' money — approximately €15,000 a week will be spent on minding and protecting his voting machines which are basically junk, having wasted €70 million on them — we are now faced with a bill of approximately €1 billion. Where is the guilty Minister now?

More ominously, taxpayers will have to purchase carbon credits if as a nation we exceed the national limit of greenhouse gas emissions as agreed under the EU-wide national allocation plan. Eirgrid has stated that the emissions trading scheme will have an effect on the cost of electricity generation. Therefore we will pay more and not just through our taxes. This is money the Minister for Finance could spend elsewhere. It is ominous that in the most recent budget the Minister had to allocate some of his precious funds towards carbon abatement, which is an astonishing development. Now we are told electricity prices will definitely rise because of the Government's failure over the past nine years to take climate change seriously. We dealt with a Bill earlier on which a group of Government Deputies stated the proponents of the Bill, the Green Party, were mad because they wanted an annual debate on climate change in the House.

Carbon credit purchase is the first obvious financial impact of climate change policy on taxpayers and without serious changes to our energy mix, it will be the first of many. From 2012 onwards, the burden of climate change policy will be enormous. We need a radical shift in mindset by the Government on energy policy. We must start taking it seriously and discuss it, not just in the House but in every forum around the country. It is interesting that the people we represent are deeply interested in the area, which is hopeful.

I warmly welcome the sections of the Bill that will facilitate the moves towards an all-island market. Part 2 of the Energy (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill proposes critical new functions for the enhanced role the Commission for Energy Regulation will perform. How will the relationship between CER and the Northern regulator be teased out? Should this issue not be included in the Bill and will we need amendments on this?

The question for the longer term is what the future will be. Will the next Government introduce a single all-island regulator Bill? In other words will we have a single regulator and will the roles of our and the Northern regulator be merged? We have heard from Europe and Commissioner Piebalgs visited us recently and gave us a pep talk on the importance of this issue. However, he seems to talk about a two-island market with Britain in which we will be part of a regional market. The implication is that we will have significant interconnection and must provide for this. Does the Bill go far enough on this? There are some questions to be answered with reference to interconnectors.

Earlier in the year there were reports from Brussels that France, Germany and the Benelux are in talks to set up a single electricity market as a first step towards a common energy policy. What are the implications of that development for us? Will we become part of a new EU electricity club?

Currently, the ESB is the dominant operator in the Irish market and enjoys a market share of more than 60%. It is hoped that in July 2007, when the all-island market is fully implemented, its share will fall to approximately 43%. A great deal of discussion has taken place, mainly in the media, about the future role of the ESB, as a key public policy instrument in the energy market. However, there is virtually nothing in this Bill that gives us any idea as to what that role might be in the future.

Not a word.

We were so burned and scorched by the Eircom experience — and Deputy Durkan will pose questions later this afternoon on that issue and the Babcock and Browne situation — that there is an almost visceral fear among the people we represent, who believe we should not allow our key electricity transmission, distribution and generation assets to become the playthings of venture capitalists.

Energia, which is part of the Viridian Group, is the most significant independent operator in the newly liberalised electricity market, although it operates solely in the non-domestic sector. At present there are seven independent electricity suppliers in the market providing electricity to an estimated 42,000 customers. This represents approximately 30% of the total annual electricity supply. The outcome of market opening has been very disappointing so far, especially in the domestic sector. Several weeks ago, for example, Airtricity announced that even though it had more than 8,000 domestic customers, it was leaving the domestic sector completely. Airtricity blamed the Commission for Energy Regulation for "regulatory failure" because the price the company had to pay for top-up power was, it alleged, unjustifiably high. Although the commission rejected this allegation, it launched its own investigation into electricity pricing and tried to explain why electricity market prices were higher from August 2005. Airtricity had also criticised the wind moratorium, which was lifted in early 2005.

So far, the promise of the all-island market has proved extremely disappointing for consumers. One of the key reasons put forward for liberalising the gas and electricity markets and the basis for the entire single European market project, was that increased competition and market opening would benefit European consumers and businesses in the form of lower prices and more choice. However, the Irish experience has been the exact opposite, with consistently increasing prices and little choice, especially in the domestic sector. Electricity prices have increased by an astonishing 61% in the past five years, the highest rise of any EU country. Prices for industry have increased by 41% since 2000 and many commentators have said that these sky-rocketing prices will threaten the competitiveness of the economy. Similarly, gas prices have increased by more than 35% for domestic users since 2003. Almost no natural gas users, apart from those in five or six towns in the west, have a choice of natural gas supplier.

Unfortunately, this Bill holds out no promise of lower electricity and gas prices from the summer of 2007 because it contains no provision for assessing consumers' needs and addressing the energy poverty that affects up to 750,000 citizens. This is an area to which I will return on Committee Stage.

At a recent meeting of the Joint Committee on Communications, Marine and Natural Resources I questioned members of the Commission on Energy Regulation. The only hope given by Commissioner Finn was that "prices in an all-island market would be lower than they would be if there were two separate markets operating independently". As I said at the time, and I hope my colleagues will forgive me, that was a response worthy of Dr. Garret FitzGerald. I remember being in Dr. FitzGerald's economics class years ago where he referred to the fact that the rate of the increase in unemployment was falling.

The proposal that the Minister will issue ministerial directives to the regulator and energy industry appears to offer little to consumers, given the reference to "general policy direction", which is very vague. If this proposal is modelled on the Minister's performance of directing the other main regulator, ComReg, the new power of direction for the Commission for Energy Regulation will be totally inadequate.

Recent media reports have shown that many families are now scrimping to pay key household bills, such as for heat and light. A survey in the Irish Independent showed that people are finding energy bills more difficult to meet and this is also made clear to Members who speak to their constituents. People in very poor households are forced to go to the Health Service Executive to seek supplementary benefit or to agencies like the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul. The estimates for Irish households which experience some level of fuel and energy poverty are frightening, ranging from 225,000 to 750,000 people. The Labour Party believes it is unacceptable for so many people to have to live without adequate access to basic provisions such as heating and lighting. Therefore, I will table amendments to Part 2, section 3 to ensure that serious measures are put in place to tackle this pernicious and often hidden form of poverty.

The President of the United States, Mr. George W. Bush recently described America as being "addicted to oil" in his state of the union address. If that statement is true of America, it is even truer of Ireland. We have exceptionally high, and increasing, levels of dependence on imported sources of oil and natural gas. Ireland's rate of total import dependency is extremely high, at 87%. What has the Government and the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources, Deputy Noel Dempsey, done about this? Nothing.

Forfás published a report this week on the problem of Ireland's oil dependency. It is clear from that report that Ireland has one of the highest rates of import dependency in the EU. Our per capita oil consumption increased by more than 50% between 1990 and 2002. Forfás is very critical of the absence of proper energy planning under the current Fianna Fáil, Progressive Democrats administration. The report also valuably reflects on exemplar countries like Sweden, to which I referred earlier.

With regard to section 8 which refers to emergency measures, oil is excluded. Why is that? If this is dealing with emergency energy, why does it only refer to gas and electricity? Where is the reference to oil, given that we hold so much of our oil stocks abroad? Perhaps we can return to this issue at a later stage.

There are clear advantages to natural gas over oil. It is a cleaner fuel source for generating electricity and is not set to peak and decline as early as oil. It has often been described as a "bridging fuel", bridging the gap between the decline of the current oil-based energy system and the development of a more diversified one. Our consumption of natural gas is increasing rapidly but in 2004 an estimated 81% of our natural gas was imported with only 19% produced from indigenous sources. In that context, Part 3 which deals with natural gas safety is very important and welcome. Sections 10 to 12 clearly define and provide for new functions for the Commission for Energy Regulation to regulate and invigilate natural gas installers, promote the safety of users and the public generally with regard to natural gas and certify natural gas installers, as well as outlining complaints procedures for installers and the relevant sanctions. We have had recent warnings about the dangerous inefficiency of the invigilation of natural gas and electrical installers. During the recent debate on the Stardust tragedy, it was pointed out that the electrical system in the Stardust was installed by unqualified people. More than 25 years later we are only now inserting this provision into law, which seems astonishing.

The European Commissioner for Energy, Mr. Andris Piebalgs, who recently gave a very interesting presentation to the Joint Committee on Communications, Marine and Natural Resources, has strongly urged the Irish Government to establish natural gas storage facilities to increase the security of our energy supply. In a recent reply to a parliamentary question that I tabled on 25 January 2006, the Minister stated that "The CER is in discussion with Marathon Oil Ireland Limited regarding the development of natural gas storage facilities at south west Kinsale." That is something I welcome but there is no reference to it in the Bill. There is also the possibility of storage at Kilroot in Belfast, when the all-island market is established. These are issues that should be pursued, given their importance to the energy security of the country.

It is also critical that the gas in the Corrib gas field is brought ashore, but this must be done in an agreed, safe and acceptable manner. By some estimates, the Corrib field has enough reserves to supply more than 60% of Ireland's natural gas needs for a decade or more. Mr. Peter Cassells, who has an excellent track record as a mediator and negotiator, is currently in charge of the negotiation process. It is hoped that a breakthrough which will be acceptable to the people of Rossport and the brave men who spent so much time in jail, will be brought forward so that this vital energy source can be secured, giving us a window of opportunity. It will allow this and the next Government a chance to put in place an all-round energy policy. Last year I introduced the Petroleum and Other Mineral Developments Bill which sought to ensure greater accountability to the Dáil in the regulation of exploration and production of natural resources. I hope the Minister will consider the Bill again for the regulation of other energy sectors.

The Bill proposes to allow the Minister to give ministerial direction to the Commission for Energy Regulation, CER. I welcome any mechanism whereby a Minister can issue policy directions to a regulator on important issues such as energy production and climate change. However, the track record of the Minister and his predecessor, Deputy Dermot Ahern, has been dismal with the CER and ComReg. The proposal is modelled on the Minister's performance of directing ComReg, making the new power of direction for the CER inadequate.

Although the new policy direction functions are being introduced, when I question the Minister on critical issues he has declined to answer on the grounds that it is within the CER's remit. Yesterday, I raised with the Ceann Comhairle the fact that a raft of parliamentary questions seeking to understand how the CER is invigilated were ruled out of order. It seems the regulator is an independent body with no reporting responsibilities to the people.

In the present volatile energy situation, I welcome the Minister's decision to introduce emergency measures in the event of a sudden energy crisis. Oil, critical to the transport sector, must be included in these measures. It makes up one third of our energy production and I hope Ireland can diversify from it as Sweden is attempting. In the meantime, contingency plans are needed.

The Minister claimed the electricity supply demand balance for the winter was tight but that the CER continues to monitor the situation closely. It is of some concern in light of the warnings being issued in Britain and our overwhelming dependence on gas imported through the British market that similar contingency plans were not in place in Ireland last winter. Considering the recent events between Russia and Ukraine over gas supply, Ireland is exposed to supply problems.

In recent years serious electricity disruptions have occurred in Birmingham, London, California, the north-east United States, Canada and northern Italy. These were primarily due to problems in the deregulated power markets. Keeping the lights on and powering and heating our homes and hospitals is the most critical service any Government can provide for its citizens. In light of the serious difficulties experienced in Britain and the wider European energy markets, it is imperative the Minister ensures adequate and sufficient measures are in place to cope with any sudden and potentially destabilising energy crisis.

I have some concerns about the measures in the amending of Part VIA of the Electricity Regulation Act 1999 that allow for the implementation of emergency measures. They do not provide for sufficient clarity that in the event of an energy crisis, the Minister will assume the direct leadership necessary to deal with the crisis. In reality, this appears to give the Minister power to direct the CER and the energy industry in the same manner as the policy direction sanctioned for the CER or ComReg. It seems vague and imprecise and does not spell out the lead role the Minister must take in the event of an energy crisis.

There are concerns that section 7, on the provision of the interconnector and the insertion of a section 2A in the original Act, allows for the involvement of merchant construction, competitive tender and the long-term interest of customers. We need to avoid the situation in which Britain is embroiled. Over recent winters the wholesale price of British gas was profoundly affected by the deficiency of the interconnector to Belgium. The British market was increasingly at the mercy of traders trying to get the best possible spot prizes. Ultimately, British households suffered with higher prices.

I welcome the belated appearance of the Bill, the all-island functions for the CER and the key safety provisions in electricity and gas. I especially welcome the provisions on combined heat and power and liquified natural gas. The Bill, however, is an overall disappointment. On the Order of Business, Opposition spokespersons have constantly asked about the Bill's progress. We were led to expect a fundamentally new vision for energy policy with targets on energy consumption efficiencies, renewable energy and the challenges of climate change and the depletion of oil and gas resources. None of these issues is tackled by the Bill.

The Green Party spent much of its recent conference criticising the Labour and Fine Gael parties for not espousing a joint energy policy with the Government parties. Obviously, there are strategic difficulties in that the Government has had nine years to prepare a fundamental energy policy but has not. Why should the good ideas from our parties be the saviours of the Government? I hope the Green Party will work together with the Labour and Fine Gael parties to put forward a sustainable and alternative energy vision and to present it to the country in the early spring of next year. Whatever happens in the next general election, I hope all parties recognise the realities of energy production and work together in that regard.

I wish to share time with Deputies Crowe, Catherine Murphy and Finian McGrath.

Is that agreed? Agreed.

I concur with Deputy Broughan. I would be happy to join him and our Fine Gael colleagues in lambasting the Government for the utter failure of its energy policy.

Yesterday, I was on radio with our beloved Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Roche, who told us how all things were going green and swimmingly in the energy area with renewable this, that and the other. The commentator asked me was it not the case that other political parties were stealing the Green Party's clothes. Last night, thinking about it, the only image I had was of Deputy Roche standing on a Wicklow mountain on a cold and windy day, stark naked with nothing other than a fig leaf to cover his modest green credentials.

The Government has failed us in energy policy. We need no greater example of that than the presentation of yesterday's Forfás report. The report contained some examples of our dangerous energy position. IBEC has described it as an energy crisis. The Government cannot blame the rainbow Government for the situation. In 1997, when the Government came to power, Ireland had the same oil use per capita as the EU 15. In ten years, Ireland has gone to being 50% above the European average. In recent years commentators have said oil production is about to peak and a low dependent fossil fuel economy must be prepared. Despite this, Ireland’s dependence on fossil fuels has risen in electricity production and transport. The Government has been a disaster for the country’s energy policy.

Ireland has not had an energy policy for 20-odd years. We have had no political leadership in the energy area. Instead we have had an inadequate, timid and bureaucratic response which has failed us. I hear our bureaucrats on television saying that we have a target for 2010 and we might achieve it. That is not the long-term vision needed in energy policy. That is why the Green Party seeks a cross-party approach on the issue. We need political change in the area quickly.

The Energy (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill is simply not good enough. It is an example of that same bureaucratic, timid, inadequate and unambitious thinking. If the Green Party were in Government, the Bill would be radically amended. No one could disagree with the all-Ireland energy market but we do not know how it will work. We do not know how both regulators will engage nor how the six or seven institutions involved in the negotiations will come up with a real solution. We should be ambitious and brave in this regard, however, because we need an all-Ireland energy market.

In fact, we need a wider energy policy which recognises that we are inextricably connected to the neighbouring island. The oil and gas we have been dependent upon is depleting at approximately 10% per year. That is why we have a crisis. In addition, there is no connection to continental Europe so the gas upon which we are now inextricably dependent because of Government policy will not be secure for us. I welcome the Bill's provision for such an all-Ireland development but it is not sufficiently ambitious nor does it go far enough.

One cannot disagree with section 4 which contains the second main provision concerning electrical safety. It is a necessary mopping up of the complete lack of control which exists and which the Government seems to have been happy to oversee for the past ten years. As long as the Celtic tiger was booming and buildings were being erected, who cared about the standards involved? Who was checking the building standards, including electrical installations? Who cared if the work was undertaken by subcontractors who were not properly registered? The Government did not care for the past ten years and neither does it care now. If this provision in some way compensates for that lack of concern for what is built, then I welcome it.

Section 5 deals with combined heat and power. One could not get a better example of the disaster concerning the implementation of what is required than our utter failure to develop proper amounts of CHP. The gas we are dependent upon from the North Sea and from our dwindling Kinsale field is a precious, finite resource which is being depleted. It makes no sense whatsoever to burn it in a power station and dispense one third of it as heat into the air. That is of no value to the people. It would make much more sense to use the remaining gas we have in a highly efficient and intelligent manner to produce both heat and power in the one source and thereby obtain approximately 80% or 90% efficiency, rather than 30% to 40% as at present. We have done nothing in that regard, however. We have failed utterly, as the European Commission recognised in its damning indictment by the action it is taking against the Government for its failure to develop renewable power.

Section 6 deals with policy directions, which have been missing. The regulated model has not worked because a regulator or bureaucrat based in the Department of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources or the Commission for Energy Regulation cannot take on the political responsibility to lead. Such a person cannot take decisions or say something awkward, difficult or risky. In our democratic system, only politicians have the power to do that. We have had no leadership from the top down. I blame the Taoiseach personally for that. We know this Government will do nothing about market dominance in the next 18 months for fear of scaring a union in advance of a general election.

We know the Government, ultimately from the Taoiseach downwards, is looking after developers' interests. As long as we are building and have power for the moment, who cares about tomorrow? That is the ethos one gets from the Taoiseach, Deputy Bertie Ahern, down. The Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Dermot Ahern, did nothing about energy in his former portfolio of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources. The current Minister, Deputy Noel Dempsey, is too busy looking after fish and broadband wires to think about energy.

And the electronic ballot boxes.

We need policy directions from the CER and the Department which recognise the crisis we are in.

Section 7 concerns interconnection and there could be no better example of the incompetence and delay that has occurred in this regard. Just about everyone agrees that we need an interconnector. We have gone around the houses as regards whether it should be a merger or built project but no one knows. No one has made a decision and the dawdling has been going on for about three years and is still continuing. People say we should build a 500 MW interconnector first and then think about a second one. We need two interconnectors now. It is hugely important infrastructure, although not for the reasons Forfás seems to believe.

We have a State agency which says we need nuclear power so we will buy it off the English and ship it in or we will build our own nuclear power station and ship the power out. That is not why I want an interconnector. I do not believe the logic that Forfás is coming out with, which is that recognising that we have a transport disaster with depleting oil reserves, we need nuclear energy to power electric rail lines. Will someone tell the Minister for Transport that we need electric railways? Do we have to build a nuclear power facility to run our public transport system? I do not think so. It is not justified and it is not clever long-term thinking.

Purely on energy grounds it does not make sense to go nuclear but we do need interconnectors for the alternative vision. That comprises an interconnected European grid connecting up the offshore wind farms in whose raw material we are abundantly rich. Both interconnectors could feed power back into Europe. That is why we need such a decision today rather than tomorrow. I heard an official from the Department state the other day that such long-term wind projects are for the future, but they should be for today. Until we start getting that urgency into energy policy thinking we will be going nowhere.

Section 8 deals with emergency provisions. Deputy Broughan is right in saying that we need to consider oil as well. Oil and gas are interconnectable so, as a regulator, the CER should examine the whole energy area.

Section 10 concerns the national gas supply. We have a problem in that at European level there is no fluidity in the European gas market on which we are utterly dependent. We are becoming more dependent on it. All the regulator can say is that rather than developing CHP, which would provide a multitude of small CHP sources, we are going the same old way, which the boys in the ESB think is the right thing to do — the big 400 MW power plants. They say that is the way the Westinghouse lads do it, so it must be the right way. I am afraid it is not. It is leading us to a dependence on gas although we are at the very end of the pipeline. We need to be active at European level but the Minister did not even turn up to the European Council meeting on this issue. He was in Sacramento with the Ancient Order of Hibernians.

He was with Arnold Schwarzenegger.

That was ridiculous. This is the most important Council meeting we have had, yet the Minister was drinking shamrock drinks somewhere on the west coast of America.

Nice drink.

That shows how much the Government lacks a sense of urgency about this crucial issue.

The Bill contains a proposal concerning the ESB's shareholding. I will table an amendment in this regard. I have many things to say about the ESB but, first and foremost, the obvious one and the one of which the European Commissioner will probably inform the Minister shortly by way of a legal notice is that we need to unbundle the transmission grid from power generation and the supply company. Why is the Minister presenting this Bill but not making that obvious, urgent, immediate and uncontroversial change? That is an example of the lack of any vision in this Government. It is an example of the Taoiseach, Deputy Bertie Ahern, saying that whatever else, we should not rock the boat or do anything controversial. That is an example of why this Bill is not worth the paper it is written on. It does not give a sense of urgency to the people about what needs to be done in this vital area.

My party certainly welcomes some of the objectives outlined in this Bill. In particular, we support the aim, as outlined in section 3, to promote the development of an all-Ireland energy market. However, we also believe that such an objective will be best served by developing such a market under a company that is in public ownership and for the public good.

On this side of the Border that entity is obviously the ESB and we will strongly resist any attempt to privatise this company. Our position stems not from purely ideological reasons but because we believe that the ESB has served its function well and that the original aspirations and reasons for establishing a publicly, rather than a privately, owned company still stand.

It is vital that such an important area as the provision of energy supplies should be under national control. That is why we have major difficulties with what appears to be the thrust of the recently announced European Commission policy of promoting an EU energy market, with national operators forced into competition with transnational corporations. It is one of the reasons we will question the provision in section 3(1) for an all-Ireland energy market to involve operators from outside the country.

Regarding the provision in section 4 for the Commission on Energy Regulation to monitor the regulation of private electrical contractors in the industry, we have no problem with the general intent of the proposal and recognise the need for strict supervision of a sector that has such serious implications for people's safety. This has been recognised by the industry itself, which has established the register of electrical contractors in Ireland, RECI. This body, with more than 2,000 members, has built up considerable credibility. Probably most private users of electrical services would employ a member of RECI. It is important, therefore, that RECI is involved in any proposal to change the system of regulation and that its views are taken into account. Likewise, trade unions whose members are employed in the sector must be given a say in how working and safety conditions are observed within the industry.

With regard to the policy aspects of the proposed Commission for Energy Regulation, I note that these will continue to be made by the Minister and that the commission will be obliged to implement whatever decisions are made. It would be a good idea, however, in light of the growing debate on future energy needs for the commission to include experts from the relevant areas who would have a more direct input into the policy debate. The need for such a wide-ranging debate, which would be able to influence policy at departmental level, is indicated by recent EU announcements on the future structure of the European energy market and by the recently published Forfás report on the future availability of oil and the implications it will have for the provision of energy supplies in this country. The report raises a number of issues, all of which have implications for the future of the energy market in the general aspects referred to by the Bill.

The media picked up almost exclusively on the proposal that nuclear energy might have to be considered as a possible alternative on the basis of the peak oil theory which the authors believe will curtail future supplies of oil. I do not believe that nuclear energy is necessary and the major issues regarding safety which surround it have not been adequately addressed.

Hear, hear.

Other energy sources provide possible alternatives. Forfás refers to wind and wave power and we certainly support research and development in those areas with a view to expanding the proportion of energy needs supplied from those sources.

One of the other areas of more immediate importance, especially in the light of the Bill's reference to the all-island energy market and the gas interconnector, is how best to utilise and control the gas reserves which lie off our coast. The Corrib field is the best known through its connection with the ongoing struggle of the Rossport community regarding the safety of the proposed pipeline there. Issues of revenue are also raised, but a more important matter is who will have control over such an important and potentially valuable resource in terms of both supplying future needs and economic value. It has long been our belief that such a resource, along with other reserves and exploration fields off our coast, must be subject to national control. This requires a radical overhaul of the licensing and revenue conditions which govern the sector. This must be seriously debated in the context of future energy policy and we will seek to build it into this legislation on Committee Stage.

Another key area in the future will be biofuels. At present, the EU has issued a number of directives which set targets for the proportion of vehicle fuels to be supplied from this source. Although the targets are relatively small, the ability of this State to meet them must be questioned. This is despite the advantages this country has in terms of domestic production and distillation of energy crops. This issue was raised by my colleague, Deputy Ferris, in the context of the shameful betrayal of the Irish sugar beet sector and the possibility that beet and the surviving processing plants at Carlow and Mallow could be redirected from the production of sugar to the production of biofuels. This, along with the promotion of growing other energy crops, would present not only a means of establishing a significant national source of future energy supplies but also represent a potentially significant new area of growth for both farming and the industrial processing of such fuels.

I urge that the proposed commission should also include as one of its responsibilities the examination of fuel poverty. A number of reports have shown this to be a serious issue for those on social welfare and low incomes. A series of price increases have added to the difficulties of many households and addressing this would represent a significant contribution to lessening the burden on those living in poverty. I urge that proposals for an all-Ireland energy market and the provision of gas interconnectors would lead to the provision of cheaper energy to domestic customers throughout the island rather than provide another opportunity for profits.

I am grateful for the opportunity to speak on the Energy (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2006. This important debate allows us the opportunity to see which way this country will go on energy. It is up to us and the wider community to be creative, radical and green in our thinking. In planning on energy issues, people, health issues and the environment must be at the centre of policies. We must also consider this from an all-Ireland perspective and approach. I urge all political leaders on the island to open their eyes to the huge potential for economic growth and work together in the interests of all the people.

This debate is relevant on the day the Taoiseach met the British Prime Minister, Mr. Blair, to progress the peace process. On examining the main issues and details of the legislation, one sees the main provisions of the Bill are to expand the functions of the Commission for Energy Regulation, CER, to underpin its work on an all-Ireland energy market, to remove legislative constraint to facilitate regulated electricity interconnection not owned by the ESB, to provide for the taking of emergency measures by means of ministerial order in the event of a sudden crisis in the energy market, to confer power on the Minister to issues policy directions to the CER, to provide for the regulation of the electrical contracting sector by the CER, to make provision on gas safety in the context of the new multi-operator environment and to facilitate gas market opening. I urge the Minister to be creative, radical and positive in the energy debate.

I want to promote biomass as an environmentally, economically and socially sustainable indigenous energy resource and promote its non-energy related benefits. Public awareness of biomass as a realistic option for energy supply must be improved. We must influence policy makers, as we are doing today, to promote the development of bioenergy and the implementation of bioenergy projects. Those interested in bioenergy development must network and share information. We must promote these issues and bring the people with us.

It is relevant as we discuss energy to mention the topical case of the Rossport five. I wish the men well in their legal case tomorrow. This matter is not just about a group of five brave families standing up against multinational industry and supporting the need to respect our energy and the gas and oil off our coasts, which is important. This is also an environmental issue. I compliment my colleague, Deputy Cowley, on his work on this case in Mayo. These people must be supported and listened to carefully. It is all part of the energy debate and is related to it.

Another aspect of the energy debate is the issue of nuclear power, about which I have major concerns. Yesterday we debated Sellafield. One must consider what is stored at nuclear power stations, such as the high level of liquid waste. A total of 21 tanks, each containing 1,500 cu. m. constantly need to be cooled and seven different cooling systems are in place. A number of tanks contain 2,400 kg of caesium-137, the main cause of off-site radiation exposure from the Chernobyl accident. The total amount released from Chernobyl was 27 kg, almost 100 times less than the potential release from the facility at Sellafield. Its stockpiles of plutonium, the raw material for nuclear weapons, amount to 60 metric tonnes, or 60,000 kg, 6 kg of which could be used in nuclear weapons and would amount to 10,000 bombs. These places are very dangerous. One must also consider the amount of spent fuel used there.

I raise these issues because we must be radical. We must also consider the issues of solar energy and the use of wind power. It is essential we do so in the broader debate. I urge the Minister and the Government to be radical, creative, green and environmentally friendly in their policies.

This Bill attempts to do several things, many of which are requirements under EU directives. It is reactive in that sense. Much of the Bill is about the extension of functions. I welcome the mechanism for an all-Ireland approach to energy which is sensible and meaningful. However, I wonder whether it is an academic exercise given the looming energy crisis. We may have great institutional arrangements and high safety standards but no gas to put in the pipelines. That is the key issue and the Bill does not address it.

This Bill allows for the regulator to determine price. That should not give comfort to anyone because the price will be determined by the amount of gas available and, consequently, the amount of electricity available. Producing electricity from gas is probably not the most efficient form of generation. If supply is insufficient, the regulator will tell us how much the increases are rather than determining the price.

The 25% increase in gas prices last winter is having a knock-on effect on families. Only when it starts to affect industry and competitiveness, however, will the penny drop because the economy is centre stage. Many families are strapped because these increases have significantly affected their finances.

Ireland and Europe face an energy crisis. The February newsletter of the Association for the Study of Peak Oil and Gas, ASPO, stated that western Europe uses 50% more gas than it produces. European imports of gas increasingly depend on Russia which earns five times as much by exporting gas as it would on the domestic market. This in turn causes significant problems in Russia which is not a guaranteed and stable source. For example last winter there was a cold spell of approximately -40° C which interrupted supplies of gas to western Europe. The writing is on the wall. The ASPO newsletter makes stark reading and gives an insight into the problem we face.

The Bill extends the function to the Minister in the event of a sudden crisis but we need to anticipate a chronic crisis because that is predictable and will lead to a sudden crisis. Although the Bill does not cover oil supply, most of us recall the 1974 oil crisis when lines of cars queued for a few gallons of petrol. Given the increase in the car population and the inadequate public transport system, a similar crisis today would not only affect domestic supplies, industry would not be able to function. This is predictable.

We need to get real about supply and the first area to address is energy conservation. We can act on that today but we need a strategy for reducing waste. We also need to identify new energy sources. Renewable energy must be the first object of our attention. The possibility of harnessing wind energy has already been pushed into the future. Agriculture too has a role in providing fuel products for industry. We need to continue to explore for offshore gas but events such as those in Rossport cannot continue if communities near those finds are to feel satisfied and safe about the finds. It is important that this issue is concluded satisfactorily.

We have a culture of creating a crisis, not only in respect of energy but in many different ways. We seem to like creating a crisis then trying to resolve it.

Without a doubt.

We have been told that bigger, wider roads will give us more cars, as has happened everywhere else, and we need to counterbalance that with public transport, but we ignore that saying it will not happen here. When it happens, we try to resolve it. That approach seems to be almost a national pastime. We need to plan for a crisis but I see no evidence of that happening.

An article in The Independent in the United Kingdom last January referred to what “they” do not want us to know about the coming oil crisis, namely, soaring fuel prices, rumours of winter power cuts, panic over gas supply from Russia, and abrupt changes to forecasts of crude output because the reserves seem to be understated. The writer of the article asked whether there was something sinister going on. Not long afterwards the British Government announced a public inquiry into the country’s energy situation. It has recognised that its oil and gas production from the North Sea is in steep decline and facing depletion and it is starting to plan for this.

We also need to recognise what is happening elsewhere and how exposed and dependent we are, and to start planning. In ten years' time when someone asks what we were doing in 2006 when this was predictable, let us not say that we were talking about institutional arrangements and other matters instead of dealing with the fundamental issue of supply. We need to deal with that issue.

This is a wide-ranging Bill which, when enacted, will have a vital role in driving forward a progressive energy agenda in a new global energy landscape with increasing demands on fuel resources. Key features of the Bill include a move towards all-island markets. The Bill also deals with electricity interconnections. East-west and North-South electricity interconnections are significant elements of energy policy. Both provide strong physical links with Northern Ireland and the United Kingdom and will integrate Ireland into wider European markets.

The Bill removes an impediment in law by facilitating regulated electricity interconnection not owned by the ESB. It also empowers the regulator, with ministerial consent, to secure interconnector builds by various means, including competitive tendering, direct authorisation or by the transmission system operator.

This Bill will provide the legal basis for the energy regulator, the Commission for Energy Regulation, to engage in the development of an aIl-island energy market with a milestone of 1 July 2007 for a single electricity market North and South. The aIl-island market will remove market distortions and minimise the wholesale cost of electricity. It will also create a more attractive location for new electricity generation investment and help to improve the security and reliability of electricity supplies throughout the island.

It is vital to ensure that both communities and economies on the island have access to safe, secure and sustainable energy supplies obtained through competitive energy markets. There is no doubt that this challenge can be met more effectively and to our mutual benefit if we work together.

This is especially fitting when considered in the context of the regional approach to the development of energy markets being pursued as part of the European Union's drive to create an EU-wide internal market in electricity and natural gas. The creation of an all-island energy market involves collaboration on issues ranging from improved interconnection, competitive markets and harmonised trading arrangements through to generation adequacy, security of supply, sustainable energy and energy efficiency measures.

A key priority is to establish all-island wholesale electricity trading arrangements. Other priorities will include the establishment of an all-island gas market in line with the commissioning of the infrastructure. It will also be vital to maximise the benefits of environmentally sustainable energy, from rapidly maturing wind generation and the combined heat and power business through to the growing rural biomass energy industry and the future promise of substantial energy from the sea.

There is no doubt there is extensive and wholehearted support for the all-island energy market. The issues involved are intricate and sometimes competing and not all of the benefits will be immediately achievable. However, the long-term reward will be a market that is much better placed to meet the future energy needs of the whole island. Given that a cross-Border energy market already exists, albeit in an nascent form, there is an acknowledged requirement that we ensure policy developments North and South are progressed in ways which advance the goal of improved economic and energy supply benefits for both parts of the island.

We must also act to ensure policies are developed to exploit opportunities for enhancing the value of the energy industries on the island through external links with Britain and continental Europe. The energy policy agenda must be widened beyond traditional market development issues to take account of national and international concerns with combating climate change. More particularly, there is a requirement to follow renewable energy and energy efficiency opportunities where the benefits can be enhanced by acting on an all-island basis.

Market structures need to be integrated and infrastructure investment secured to improve islandwide efficiencies in the sector. We also need co-ordination in the activities of the regulatory authorities and transmissions system operators. This must lead to unified regulatory and system operator arrangements for the island as a whole which are geared to the delivery of measurable benefits. Energy issues are complex, frequently interconnected and often related to long-term investment decisions. There are also differing stages of development between the electricity and natural gas markets and infrastructure. This means that achieving the most advantageous outcome for the entire range of energy policy issues will be a protracted process requiring the support, dedication and active co-operation of all stakeholders if the benefits of the all-island market are to be secured.

I know that Ministers North and South have confirmed that any policy, legislative, structural, institutional or resource issues that may unfavourably affect the development or effective functioning of the all-island energy market and which may arise in the course of implementing this strategy will be carefully examined and addressed, in conjunction with the relevant agencies. The aim will be to pursue complementary actions as far as possible.

Clearly, the test by which the value of a fully integrated all-island energy market should be judged is that energy users in both parts of the island are better off than they would be in two smaller markets which are mutually supportive good neighbours but which trade together opportunistically rather than systematically. The potential benefits of a mature all-island energy market should include a larger single market with competitive energy prices. There should be open and transparent competition at all levels in the marketplace and for all energy sources, including combined heat and power and renewables. It should also mean a more stable and attractive investment location and provide a boost to the competitiveness of the wider industrial sector.

There will be greater security of supply, an integrated infrastructure and the sharing of a more diverse energy mix. Greater energy efficiency will undoubtedly result in longer term savings through rationalisation of functions in regulation, system operation and transmission asset planning and ownership. It will also facilitate greater consumer choice of supplier of energy or energy services and enhanced organisation of energy research through the emergence of an all-island network of academic and industry expertise.

The Bill includes provisions to further enhance the safety of energy consumers and the public, ensuring Ireland continues to meet with international best practice in respect of electrical and natural gas safety. The regulator has been given robust new safety functions, which include the regulation of electrical contractors and natural gas installers. The regulator has also been granted additional powers to ensure rigorous enforcement, including, for the first time, the power to designate electrical and gas safety supervisory bodies, as well as the power to establish standards for training and registration, introduce certification schemes and prosecute rogue installers.

Other key features include the provisions enabling the Minister to introduce the full opening of the gas market by ministerial order in advance of the EU deadline of 1 July 2007. This will extend the benefits of liberalisation previously enjoyed by industrial and commercial consumers by enabling all natural gas customers to shop around for suppliers and get the best value. The Irish gas market has been undergoing a process of liberalisation since the enactment of the Energy (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1995. This process is being driven by both Government policy and developments at EU level. The enactment of the Gas (Interim) (Regulation) Act 2002 in April 2002 saw the establishment of independent regulation for the sector. That Act provided for increased competition in the natural gas supply market.

In July 2004, the then Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources, Deputy Dermot Ahern, liberalised the natural gas market by making all non-household customers eligible to switch suppliers.

How many switched?

This move had a dramatic impact on the number of customers eligible to switch supplier. While previous rounds of market opening impacted on a small group of approximately 250 high volume customers, this move meant that more than 17,000 industrial and commercial customers were eligible to switch supplier or source their own natural gas. Overall, market opening by volume increased by 86%. This was another important step towards the full opening of the natural gas market.

The benefits of liberalisation, which were previously enjoyed by large customers, will now be extended to all industrial and commercial customers. This will assist our economic competitiveness. Subsequently, the then Minister introduced a customer charter for the market, which provided for increased levels of consumer protection for natural gas customers and household consumers. The statutory instrument also contains provisions relating to natural gas licences, accounting procedures, the gas capacity statement and the functions of the Commission for Energy Regulation. These regulations continue the process of meeting Ireland's obligations under Directive 2003/55/EC.

Another statutory instrument signed into law last December imposed a legal obligation on Bord Gáis Éireann to unbundle its transmission and distribution system operators. Bord Gáis is taking measures to comply with this through the establishment of an independent system operator subsidiary. Thus, the conditions for competition are being created through progressive liberalisation of the electricity and gas markets. Liberalisation of the electricity market has proceeded on a phased basis since February 2000 under the regulatory oversight of the CER. In accordance with the Electricity Regulation Act 1999 (Eligible Customer) (Consumption of Electricity) Order 2003 on 19 February 2005, the market opened fully to competition. From that date, all customers have been eligible to source their electricity from any licensed supplier and the entire market became contestable.

No one is contesting it. That is the problem.

Scope now exists for all customers, household and non-household alike, to seek out keener prices in the competitive market. This is well in advance of the July 2007 deadline set down in the EU Directive 2003/54/EC on electricity. The opening of the market has benefited customers by broadening customer choice and already some 42% of the market by volume is supplied by independent suppliers. I commend the Bill to the House and compliment the Minister of State at the Department of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources, Deputy Browne, and the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources, Deputy Noel Dempsey.

It is good to speak opposite the Minister of State again as it has been some time.

I thank the Deputy.

I welcome the opportunity to speak on Second Stage to outline some of my ideas and concerns in respect of the energy market, of which some the Minister of State may already be aware. I hope he and his advisory team will take note of my contribution.

My first criticism has been outlined by other Opposition spokespersons, that is, the lack of a Government energy policy document setting out targets and requirements for the energy market in the short, medium and long terms. Instead, we have piecemeal policy development. In 1999 in the alternative energy sector alone, there was a Green Paper on sustainable energy and, in 2000, there was a consultation document entitled Options for Future Renewable Energy Policy, Targets and Programmes. In 2004, we set up a renewable energy development group to essentially start all over again. We have had consecutive alternative energy requirement or AER programmes, of which any realist would recognise that the first four were absolute failures. They did not result in the type of wind energy development anticipated. I accept the recent AER programmes have been successful. Most recently, there has been a welcome development in subsidies for domestic grant schemes for greener homes, but it is a piecemeal approach.

More broadly within the energy sector, consultations have taken place with a range of different bodies and interest groups. However, nine years after the Government entered office, there is still no overarching policy document. Ireland must be the only country in Europe that does not have one and is certainly the only country in Europe that has a nine year old Government without a coherent overarching energy policy. It remains to the CER to deal with all of the complexities and significant challenges of the marketplace. I accept there are no easy answers.

The energy climate is constantly changing and, while some issues remain consistent, the factors influencing any overarching policy document for Ireland are also changing. Two years ago, I was Opposition spokesperson in this sector and, even in those two years, the goalposts have shifted somewhat. Energy is a policy area of discussion in the European Parliament and has rapidly moved up the priority list. A number of factors affect all states within the European Union. In the past three years, we have moved from $35 per barrel of oil to almost $70 per barrel and the price is fluctuating between $60 and $70. In the long term, it will really only move in one direction. Security of supply is perhaps the most significant political issue relating to energy in the European Parliament at present.

Countries such as Poland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are exerting tremendous pressure to try to reduce the European Union's existing reliance on Russian gas. At present, the European Union imports 55% of its energy fuels and by 2025, it is estimated that this figure will be closer to 75%. This is movement in the wrong direction. EU policy encourages member states to become more self-sufficient in energy and to move away from the importation of carbon fuels, particularly oil and gas. Moreover, all member states have commitments under the Kyoto Protocol and I intend to discuss Ireland's lack of response in that regard shortly. In addition, environmental commitments have led the European Union to discuss and support alternative fuel sources and to find ways in which it can provide direct financial support to them.

Factors specifically affecting the Irish market are somewhat more complex. First, there is a lack of competition. Deputy Kelly spoke as though we have successfully opened and liberalised the Irish marketplace to the extent whereby every energy supplier in Europe wishes to compete here. That is an extremely naive position to take. While we have gone through the motions and have made an effort to open up the Irish market to competition, it has not come. Although consumers and particularly businesses have some choice, it is still limited. In effect, the ESB still enjoys a monopoly of supply of electricity and power in Ireland. Moreover, the restrictions imposed on the ESB in an effort to try to promote competition mean that potentially, we have the worst of both worlds. As we do not permit the ESB to expand and increase its generational capacity in an effort to introduce competition, we are in danger of having insufficient capacity. Potentially, we may not provide sufficient power to the growing Irish economy as a consequence of failing to attract competition to fill the space which would be filled by the ESB, if it was allowed to so do. High demand has led to high prices and that factor, combined with the increased cost of gas and oil has meant that costs are rising dramatically for Irish consumers and business operators. This makes Ireland less competitive than it ought to be, relative to other parts of Europe.

As an island, Ireland is an isolated marketplace and I welcome this Bill's attempts to create an all-Ireland market. It is an obvious step and has not happened before time. However, even with the creation of an all-Ireland market for energy, Ireland will still be a small player isolated by the sea. The interconnection capacity between Northern Ireland and Scotland is small and insufficient. If we seriously intend to significantly expand wind energy projects in Ireland, our grid can only handle significantly more power from wind generation if we have significant interconnection capacity. This is because by its nature, wind is an inconsistent source of supply and although better wind speeds and consistency can be achieved in Ireland than in most other European countries, one still needs a substitute source of energy when the wind is not blowing.

Until such a substitute source of energy can be obtained through interconnection and until that interconnection is used to export green energy produced in Ireland — it has a natural competitive advantage to so do with its wind speeds — we will never maximise our potential as far as wind energy is concerned.

Ireland is incredibly vulnerable to imported fuel inconsistency and at present, it imports approximately 87% of its fuel requirements. It is the end of the line in the European Union, with respect to gas pipelines and, potentially, the supply of oil. Ireland is on the western coast and most energy comes from eastern Europe. Hence, if the supply runs out, Ireland will probably be the first country to suffer. Although we should be aware of this, little is being done to address this issue.

From a positive perspective, as I stated earlier Ireland has a significant natural competitive advantage as regards renewable sources of supply in that its wind speeds are better than anywhere else in Europe. From an efficiency perspective, approximately 40% can be achieved from wind turbines here. In other words, 40% of the time, one can take acceptable amounts of power from wind turbines in Ireland. In most other European countries, that figure is closer to 35% and falls to 30% in some regions. Ireland also has an advantage in that at present, the EU, of which it is part, actively tries to support renewable energy and has encouraged the Irish Government to take initiatives in this regard. Unfortunately however, Ireland has not acted on this encouragement.

Moreover, one can point to a change in the Irish mindset. People are more aware of our responsibilities regarding the environment and are more aware that alternative and renewable energy sources are no longer pie in the sky. This is no longer exclusively concerned with the environment as it is also about economics. Hence, groups such as IBEC, as well as business leaders have become engaged in pushing alternative energy sources. It is no longer simply a Green Party issue. While I intend no disrespect to the Green Party, from a policy perspective, this is the area on which it focuses.

What is the way forward for Ireland? I wish to discuss interconnection in more detail because it is critical in a wide range of areas. Despite Deputy Crowe's comments, we are moving towards a common European energy market, and rightly so because we live in an internal market in which jobs, people and goods move freely between countries and borders. This is encouraged to promote more competition, opportunities, business activity and so on. Hence, energy should also move between European countries. If Ireland is to participate in this regard and is to have the security which this would provide, it requires proper interconnection.

Hence, from the perspective of security of supply, this is absolutely essential. The Government would claim that several years ago, it announced that it was open to the development of an interconnector between, for example, Wicklow and Wales and that it invited private sector interests to build it. This should be built and paid for by the State. It is fundamental infrastructure like roads, airports and railway stations. Moreover, the present electricity grid in Ireland is also fundamental, and should be kept in public ownership if the ESB is ever privatised. We cannot afford to wait for an entrepreneur to finance this project. The State must do so immediately and regardless of whether it costs €200 million, €300 million or €400 million, it would be money well spent because of the significant costs to the economy if this is not done. Hence, we should invest in this project without delay.

We require a balanced energy mix in Ireland. I do not advocate the proposition that Ireland should be entirely energised by renewable sources. However, although gas and oil have roles to play, renewable energy should be part of the energy mix. Although some people may not agree, coal also has a role. It contributes to the security mix as the broader one's mix of sources, the more secure one's overall power generation will be. Nevertheless, we grossly under estimate the potential of renewable resources, particularly in the new, high cost environment for carbon fuels and for gas and oil in particular.

I will focus on wind power in some detail. Ireland's capacity to generate power for ourselves and for other parts of Europe is highly significant. Any economist would agree that it makes sense to concentrate on the areas in which one is competent. By any calculations, in the purest sense, Ireland should be very good at producing energy from wind. It has higher wind speeds, and more importantly, more consistent wind speeds on the west coast, than anywhere else in Europe. However, we do not appear to see this as the kind of opportunity that we should. Until the interconnector issue is sorted out, this discussion is futile as we can only reach a certain capacity within the Irish grid for an inconsistent source of supply.

We should be planning for other aspects such as the cost of grid connection. The Minister of State will be aware that the cost of grid connection for a farmer, or a consortium of farmers who are putting together an ambitious wind energy project is nothing short of scandalous. It could cost hundreds of thousands of euro after a landowner has put a similar amount of money into a planning application to get connection to the grid, which is sometimes not far away. People have asked the legitimate question whether ESB subsidiaries pay the same costs for advice and grid connection when setting up wind farms in parts of the country for which they have been given contracts.

Energy crops in Ireland are an exciting new opportunity for farmers. They can be a competitive fuel source. They are secure and predictable. They can be grown on a contract basis, as was the case with sugar beet, and they should be promoted. European Commissioner Fischer Boel wants to promote this area. She is willing to increase energy crop subsidies and change the rules so that they can be grown on set-aside land. However, there should be a response from the Irish Government on excise duty, as is the case in other European countries. We are being encouraged to do this by the European Union which is giving a definite competitive advantage to this industry. The Minister of State will get a very positive response from the farming sector if he provides it with a new crop which is financially viable.

The EU will require Ireland and all other countries to have a 5% ethanol content in all petrol from 2010. How is Ireland planning for this? Ethanol is not being produced in Ireland at present or, if it is, it is in pilot projects on a small scale. Are we going to start importing ethanol in 2010 even though it can probably be produced more efficiently here than anywhere else in Europe? There are existing ethanol industries in Spain and Italy that are growing and expanding, especially as a result of the demise of the sugar industry in Ireland. The Government has an opportunity to try to redeem itself by finding alternatives for arable farmers, whether they grow wheat or sugar beet to produce ethanol, after an appalling and misleading performance in the last months of the sugar industry. We should use our influence as a shareholder in Greencore, albeit a small one, to ensure that everything possible is done to try to facilitate the transition from a sugar factory in Mallow to an ethanol or energy crop processing plant.

The same opportunities apply to biodiesel through growing oil seed rape as apply to ethanol through growing sugar beet and wheat. We can make this happen by way of a combination of price supports from the European Union and tax incentives from the Irish Government. If we do not do so, it will be a huge opportunity missed for Irish agriculture and the Irish energy sector.

Wood biomass is another important area. I regret that the Minister of State has left the House because he knows a bit about this area as a result of his work in the forestry sector. Whether it is fast growing wood coppice plantations, forestry thinnings or wood and paper waste, these are viable fuel sources that are being used to significant effect in other European countries. However, they are not being used in Ireland to the extent they could be. New peat power stations were built here in recent years which are ideal to allow a gradual substitution from peat to wood biomass over a period. We should use this source for environmental as well as cost-effective reasons from an energy fuel point of view.

Tidal power, wave power and solar energy are all under-estimated by the Government. There is no reason a percentage of public housing projects cannot be powered through solar panels on the roofs. We should examine template projects in other European countries. It is not true to say that because we do not have very high sunshine rates, solar panels will not work.

It will take political courage to deal with the ESB, which I do not see happening before the next general election. It is not the ESB's fault that it is as dominant in the energy market. It is because it is good at its job that it retains this dominant position, and it is because of this dominant position that other players throughout Europe do not consider Ireland an attractive option to produce and supply power. This must change. Options should be considered to weaken the ESB's dominance in the marketplace. We must consider whether this would mean separating the generation, supply and grid management in a real way or breaking up the ESB. My preference would be not to break up ESB generation.

While there are some good provisions in the Bill, we are hopelessly unambitious in regard to the energy sector. We should work to our strengths. We should not be afraid to be proactive by providing tax incentives to kick-start industries, especially in the biofuel, energy crop and biomass sectors. As the farming sector is well educated and ambitious, it should be given an opportunity to produce energy crops so that Ireland can provide energy for its economy in the future rather than having to rely on inconsistent and politically controversial sources for gas and oil.

I welcome the Minister of State and support the Energy (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2006. It is very important legislation which governs one of the most critical parts of our infrastructure, namely, the energy sector. Energy is the core of any economy. To take it away would mean taking away one's ability to read, have light, cook or run factories and transport. Energy is at the core of the way people live and create wealth. This is why it is time the energy portfolio was taken from what has become too big a Department. The Department of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources is too big for any one Minister to handle, no matter how competent or from which party. The seriousness of the energy situation is such that it is time to have a dedicated Department of Energy whose sole focus is on the two sides of the energy coin, that of consumption, on the one hand, and production, on the other. I will come back to that aspect later.

The Bill has a number of important features deserving of support in this House. Section 3 is perhaps the most important section and concerns an all-Ireland energy market. That is consistent with the political progress on this island in the past ten or 15 years. We have developed North-South co-operation in waterways, tourism and transport links, and it is now timely and vital that we have an all-Ireland energy market where the increase in the number of consumers can only work to the benefit of the energy market and, I hope, reduce prices.

I also welcome section 4, which contains provisions for the standards of training for electrical contractors. Much work in this area has already been done because various institutes such as the AECI and RECI have already by and large brought a high standard into electrical contracting in Ireland, but I am glad there will be a function for the Department and the Commission for Energy Regulation.

I also welcome section 6, which allows for policy directions to be given by the Minister to the Commission for Energy Regulation. This is important and the section should be mirrored in other legislation. As a society, we are wrong to set up regulators in all aspects of our lives, such as telecommunications, education, energy and so on, and allow these regulators to lead what appears to be an independent life away from the authority of this House.

Nor do they have to stand for election.

It is high time we introduced legislation to ensure that all regulators appear regularly before committees of the Dáil and are fully accountable to the House for the way in which they regulate their industries. That would be a non-partisan approach to the issue. In general I welcome the fact that the Minister will be able to give policy direction to the energy regulator.

I also welcome section 8 which deals with emergency measures in the event of a sudden crisis. That is necessary. Ireland and the world face an energy crisis which may not have hit us yet. It is a little like the tsunami which starts in the middle of the ocean and takes some time to travel to shore. The energy crisis is complex and multifaceted and the only question we as legislators must ask, in an open and honest way, is whether we are doing enough to prepare for it. I do not believe that we as a society are doing enough to meet that incoming crisis.

The last large energy crisis was the oil crisis of 1973 which sent shock waves throughout the industrialised world. As we can see, it was a wholly unnecessary crisis in that at the time, there was no real shortfall in energy supply, but there was a decision, effectively by the oil cartel which still exists today, to increase the price of the oil supply radically. That could happen again and we should all pay tribute to OPEC for thus far, certainly in recent years, having responsibly increased supply where there was a threat of a spike in prices. Many of those countries have, to their detriment, increased supply, because they could have made a great deal of profit from increasing the price of oil but did not.

I think the Minister of State will accept there are two sides to the energy crisis coin. There is the question of supply and the question of consumption. With regard to competition, I will refer back to Deputy Coveney's contribution. I pay tribute to the Government for opening up competition in recent years. It is not true to say there has been a failure in this regard. I did not hear Deputy Coveney referring to all the new independent power plants built in Mulhuddart, Galway and Shannon. Companies such as Viridian have entered the market. We must accept there has been progress in that regard.

There has not been enough progress in the adoption of new technologies. We have not provided enough encouragement to the wind energy sector, for example. A few months ago I spoke to people involved in the wind energy industry and they were complaining about lack of encouragement for the sector. I appeal to the Minister of State to do everything he can to radically encourage a dramatic increase in supply from the wind energy sector. That may entail Government subsidy, and even though I believe completely in the market, when one is trying to encourage an industry there is a time for subsidy. We need more radical proposals before this House to encourage the wind energy, solar, ethanol and biofuel sectors.

I pay tribute to the Government and I criticise the contribution by Deputy Coveney who failed to refer to the positive moves the Minister for Finance has made in recent years.

About five years too late.

The House will be aware that in the Finance Act 2004, a relief from mineral tax was introduced by the Minister for Finance for pilot projects for the production of biofuel and for testing the technical viability of biofuel as a motor fuel. This relief was confined to pilot projects. In the Finance Bill of this year, the Minister significantly expanded this scheme to make it a five-year scheme for mineral oil tax relief to commence in 2006 and end in 2010. This will cost approximately €20 million this year, €35 million next year and €50 million in each of the following years. When fully operational, this relief scheme is expected to support the use and production in Ireland of about 163 million litres of biofuels a year.

In this year's Finance Act, the Minister also introduced a vehicle registration tax relief of 50% for flexible fuel vehicles. This scheme is intended to encourage the purchase of such vehicles which use bioethanol, a blend of a minimum of 85% ethanol and petrol. That is excellent work by the Government but it needs to go further. Large motor vehicles which consume a large amount of petrol or diesel should have very high rates of vehicle registration tax. They should be discouraged as strongly as possible. Smaller cars with engine sizes of up to 1300 cc or 1600 cc should be fully exempt from vehicle registration tax to encourage the majority of our population to buy such vehicles. That kind of radical measure is needed to shift the balance away from the large, fuel guzzling cars which in a time of energy shortage virtually amount to an obscenity. There is no excuse for such vehicles, and I take a very strong line on that.

With regard to bioethanol, I agree with other speakers that through the former sugar factories, we should encourage the creation of fuels from sugar beet. That should become a priority for the Government.

On the consumption side, is the Minister satisfied that enough has been done to reduce our dependence on natural fossil fuels? I am not so satisfied. This is a crisis that we should take steps to remedy.

It is time there was a major policy statement from the Government setting out initiatives and measurable savings in consumption over the next ten years. These targets should be the subject of regular debates here.

There is an obligation on all of us to assist those in the energy industry who are doing their utmost to bring energy into the country. I congratulate the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources, Deputy Noel Dempsey, who has done his utmost wherever a dispute has arisen to put in place reasonable mediation where people with genuine grievances can make their views known. There is an onus on everybody to be reasonable and to help the maximum amount of energy reach this country which, as Deputy Coveney said, is at the end of the fuel chain.

I welcome the Bill. While the Government is doing much in the competition sector it needs to do more in the consumption area and needs to encourage, by subsidy or otherwise, the use and production of alternative fuels.

I am pleased to have the opportunity to contribute to the debate. In his contribution the Minister of State said the new responsibilities of the CER include the regulation and promotion of natural gas safety. That is laudable. The Bill should also have provided for the safety of people, an issue about which I feel strongly. Five men from County Mayo spent 94 days in jail because of their fears concerning the safety of the Corrib gas pipeline. It is a retrograde step for the Government to be part of a process that does not take into consideration the safety of the people. Under the law people trying to ensure safety in their own homes are in fear of going to jail again through a process that has evolved. It is time to take stock and put people before profit.

The Bill provides for steps to be taken by the CER in the event of something going wrong. The circumstances of the five men from County Mayo could not have gone more wrong in that their entire future and that of their families was jeopardised. The Bill is about the regulation and promotion of natural gas safety but should include provision for people safety because homo sapiens matters also.

We have seen the provision of interconnectors and the Bill provides for more equipment for the distribution of natural gas. How often have those interconnectors been used not to bring gas into Ireland but to take it out of Ireland? In the case of Kinsale gas field, the oil companies played ducks and drakes with the Government and managed to manipulate the position. It is amazing that the interconnectors were built given that Ireland was running out of gas and would have to import gas for our needs. Is the interconnector being used to export our gas? As happened in the case of the Rossport five, the fear is that their rights will be trodden over for the purpose of bringing this gas to market. Instead of the interconnectors being used to bring gas into Ireland they will be used to export our gas.

The Bill should contain a provision for the regulation and promotion of natural gas safety and for the safety of the people. It should ensure that if the natural resources of an area are removed there should be some quid pro quo for the people affected. We heard before the last election the great promise made by the Government that gas would be provided to the towns of Mayo. We have been told that again and again but it is an election ploy.

The road from Castlebar to Belmullet is one of the worst dirt tracks in the area. One could hardly call it a road. If Ministers could visit the area more often and see what is happening and where the gas is being taken from they might understand the reason the people are so angry. The best road in the area is between two bogs, that is, the road between Ballinaboy and a bog a few kilometres down the road where it is intended to bring the peat to set up a 9 km terminal inshore, which is daft, and in the process bring this high pressure gas pipeline within a dangerous distance of people's homes. Children going to and from school and shops have to cross that pipeline many times a day. The best road in the area in the one between two bogs and it is for the convenience of Shell. That is a further indictment of Government.

While I agree on the need to regulate and promote natural gas safety, homo sapiens matters also. This is where the problem lies. As the independent regulator for the electricity market, the CER facilitates competition by authorising the construction of new generating plant and licensing companies to generate and supply electricity. In County Mayo many people were gainfully employed in Bellacorick, a turf fired electricity production station. Everything is all right if it is done elsewhere other than in the west. Two new turf based electricity generating stations are being provided in the midlands whereas Bellacorick will be closed with the loss of hundreds of jobs. There should be some provision in the Bill to ensure some degree of balanced regional development. The problem is that there has been a lack of balanced regional development and an inequality of treatment of the west compared to the rest of the country. Some provision should be made for Bellacorick. A questionable decision was made that Bellacorick should not be revamped because of insufficient peat to burn. That decision has been questioned by Professor Seamus Caulfield and others. The last census figures clearly show that west Mayo, which includes Ballina to Newport, is in serious decline. The Bill needs to take cognisance of the fact that there are people involved in this. While our energy needs are important the safety of the people is more important. It was utterly unacceptable that a number of individuals spent 94 days in jail. The right to bodily integrity under the Constitution, as affirmed in the Ryan case, does not appear to matter a whit when it is expedient to bring gas to market. While I have difficulties with regard to the benefits accruing to the State from the Corrib gas deal, my main problem is that lives are being jeopardised. This Bill does not address this issue.

It is regrettable that Shell has created a major pollution problem in Belmullet. What has the company achieved by its actions? Having been informed it would be impossible to build a pipeline facility on a bog, it proceeded with its daft plan to move thousands of tonnes of peat to another bog in an effort to establish foundations for the pipeline. This has placed people in jeopardy, for example, through leakage into the area's drinking water supply.

The underspend of national development plan funding in my area has been a source of great concern. I have raised this issue on many occasions in the House. I want a quid pro quo for Corrib gas to be included in the Bill. This should include provision for special incentive schemes for County Mayo, particularly the north-west of the county, the most socio-economically deprived region in the State. The region also requires greater investment in central infrastructure such as roads, rail and broadband and the front-loading of investment for projects such as the western rail corridor.

The Bill focuses on energy and speakers have pointed to the need to make proper use of resources. The loss of freight services in Ballina and the escalating use of roads for freight transport creates problems. The proportion of freight transported by rail compared to road is minuscule. The Government has lost the plot in this area with oil consumption continuing to rise. Expansion of rail freight services would be a much more effective approach to reducing energy consumption. Instead, however, we are witnessing the complete meltdown of freight services, notably from Ballina to the south east. The Government, if it is interested in the proper use of energy resources, must take urgent action to encourage a return to freight services.

A further problem is the unequal distribution of broadband and the refusal to sanction investment of €29 million for Knock Airport. The promotion of the east and south to the detriment of the rest of the country will result in gross inefficiencies as energies are focused on already congested areas. The possibility of building a third terminal for Dublin Airport will perpetuate uneven regional development. At present, 29 million air passengers fly into the east and south, whereas only 500,000 air passengers fly into the west, with perhaps a further 10 million flying into the North. Imbalanced regional development of this nature does not make sense as only balanced regional development can deliver proper use of resources and energy. Nothing will change until such time as the Government drops its refusal to provide the €29 million required by Ireland West Airport Knock to meet its infrastructural needs for 2006-07 and provides the €365 million needed for the western rail corridor.

Despite its decentralisation plans, the Government has failed to deliver in the west. The Minister for Finance, Deputy Cowen, preaches about the need for balanced development in every budget. The time for talk is over and urgent action is needed. The mid-term review of the national development plan showed an underspend of €3.9 billion in the Border, midlands and western region. Balanced regional development is necessary to achieve proper use of energy and development.

I have raised on other occasions the need for the IDA to work harder for County Mayo. I specifically called for the introduction of a special tax incentive scheme for the county but this has not materialised. There is a bias in the distribution of infrastructural investment which I hope the Government will address. I am aware the Minister for Finance has indicated it will be possible to draw down NDP funding until 2006 and 2008 for projects co-funded by Structural Funds. When I questioned him on the issue he was honest enough to admit there is no plan for the underspend in NDP funds, which is much higher in the BMW region than in the southern and eastern regions, to be distributed as intended. This is regrettable.

Under the previous Government, a group of western Ministers had regular contact with the then Minister of State with special responsibility for rural development and ministerial colleagues on matters of concern to the west and the Western Development Commission. I understand this group has been stood down. A concrete plan, separate from the national development plan, is required if we are to make proper use of our resources and draw down the funding intended for the BMW region.

I hope a serious attempt will be made to address the gross underspend in the BMW region as it is falling further behind. When I highlighted this problem more than a year ago I was led to believe the Government would take action to address it but nothing has happened. I am amazed it does not have a plan in place to guarantee the underspend will be tackled. This is an indictment of the Government.

The Government has squandered our natural resources, including natural gas. Ireland should look towards the example of Norway. Having visited the country, I was impressed by how it uses its natural resources and has managed, for example, to secure co-operation from the oil companies in ensuring the state received a proper return from its natural resources. In my discussions with the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources, Deputy Noel Dempsey, on this matter he indicated a windfall tax could be introduced if it transpires that the oil companies extract more gas or oil than originally envisaged. How much is the Government being told because the oil companies have played ducks and drakes with it in the past?

The folly of not utilising our natural resources to our maximum advantage is manifest in the Government's policy on granting exploration licences to oil and gas companies for a maximum of five years. I have raised this foolishness previously. We have all heard of the pantomime story of Jack and the Beanstalk. Like foolish Jack, the Government gave away our natural resources for a handful of beans believing it would not get anything from the deal. Unfortunately, this is not a fairy tale with a happy ending because we are deprived of adequate resources. We only need consider the energy and revenue benefits to the country of having natural gas. In the west, people are lying on hospital trolleys and, in some cases, waiting for eight years to be called for a urology appointment by which time they may present with advanced cancer. People are waiting four to five years for rheumatology appointments so they miss the window of opportunity within two years to avoid being crippled for life. Mayo General Hospital does not have a rheumatology or urology unit due to lack of money.

Think about what it would mean for this country if we utilised our energy resources as we should. BreastCheck will not be rolled out until 2009. Due to lack of funds it was not extended throughout the country in 2000 as it should have been. It has already been proven to reduce the death rate from breast cancer by 20% to 30%. At least 65 people in the south and west have died who should not have died. Before it is rolled out in 2009, a total of 250 people will be dead in the south and west unnecessarily. The reason given for not rolling out the service in 2000 was the intricacy and complexity of establishing such a service but that is balderdash. The service has been available in the North since 1993, where the death rate was cut by 20%. The rest of the country did not have the benefit of saving that 20% to 30% due to lack of money.

We could utilise our natural resources by securing the return of money from the oil companies. This money could be used to buy a temporary breast screening service from the private sector. I am not a promoter of the private sector but until the Government can roll out the service throughout the country in 2009 for all citizens, there should be a temporary service. It would save 250 lives. It is a matter of money. The profit from our natural resources could make a major difference in this regard.

Oil companies can hold a licence in this country for up to 19 years. That is a long time. The terrible reality is that we are giving the oil companies something for which they need not do anything more than promise to drill. In those 19 years they do not have to drill. That is ridiculous. Why not give the oil companies a licence for five years? At present, they do not have to do anything with the licence. I asked the Minister, Deputy Noel Dempsey, about this and he said there are 121 exploration wells but only four have been successful. However, we do not know what the oil companies are doing. The Government should consider establishing an oil exploration company to harvest our natural gas and oil. Why do we not have the same confidence in ourselves as, for example, had the Norwegians?

I am glad I had the opportunity to speak on the Bill. The House is now going into recess. Everything stops during the recess and that is wrong. There should be some means whereby we can ask questions. Parliamentary procedures should continue. I urge the Government to think about homo sapiens and to put people before profit.

One could be forgiven for not realising that we are discussing an energy Bill given the last speaker's tour through County Mayo, the west and every other issue. I admire the Deputy's energy and his ability to look after his constituents and to secure coverage on the radio.

What is more important than people?

This is a welcome Bill. Energy has shot to the top of the political agenda as a result of the crisis that arose over security of supply, particularly the conduct of Russia and Ukraine and the closure of the pipeline. The Minister's reference to the Government's evolving energy policy was a nice choice of phrasing. It is evolving and that is welcome. The provisions in the budget last year were particularly welcome and I look forward to more of the same in the next budget.

The Oireachtas committee is due to produce its energy document. We put a great deal of work into that. The Minister is also due to produce an energy document which we await with great anticipation. The Opposition has criticised the Government throughout this debate but I attended a conference yesterday on future energy and contributors to the conference commended the State for its foresight in preparing to deal with the issue of peak oil production and what that will cause. Only Ireland and Sweden have produced documents on peak oil production and how to deal with it. The Forfás report was welcomed as a testament to the forward thinking of the Government. It is one plank in the Government's evolving policy.

The most important aspect of this Bill is the redefinition of the role of the CER. I have been an active participant in the Oireachtas committee examining the energy issue and the single consistent issue we have encountered is criticism of the commission, from politicians on the committee, independent energy suppliers and, at times, the Minister. The provisions in the Bill which provide for the Minister to instruct the CER on policy are extremely welcome. Some of our problems arise from the moratorium that was placed on the wind industry by the CER in December 2004. We are only now feeling the results of that. At recent meetings of the committee, more independent suppliers have complained about this difficulty.

Indeed, when the committee asked the commissioner for justification for this, he was a little shy in telling why he had chosen to do this. He could often hide behind his role as it was defined in the 1999 Act so the new provisions in this Bill are most welcome. Members would prefer that somebody who is responsible to the House, in the person of the Minister, give the policy directions and give answers to the House.

I have been looking at the role and the function of the CER. In correspondence I have seen, the CER indicated that at times its responsibilities were sometimes in conflict with each other and the question was prioritising them. Political direction could not be given prior to this so, to be fair to the CER, the commissioner was doing his best. However, it is essential that there is political direction. It should come from a coherent policy and the ability of the Minister to direct the CER.

One issue that worries me with regard to how the CER has performed to date is that the choices it made about who got grid connections and so forth have left us exposed in terms of gas supplies. The amount of electricity produced from gas is alarming. It is not what it should be, namely, a moderate amount with a variety of suppliers providing the electricity. Over 50% of our electricity is generated from gas. This leaves us very exposed. When the North Sea gas supplies run out, Ireland, like the rest of Europe, will be dependent on Russian supplies. We are at the end of that supply line so we can hardly expect our needs to be looked after before those of other countries along the route.

The all-island market will deal, to a certain extent, with the dominance of the ESB. However, as we know from our recent deliberations with the CER, there is a long way to go in terms of how the two regulatory frameworks, North and South, will marry, as it were. I did not get the impression that the CER was confident that it would happen before the deadline. However, it will have to, so they will need to move on it and this legislation takes the right step.

Rather than just consider an all-island market, we need to consider a regional market for the United Kingdom and Ireland. An all-island market does not provide enough competition for suppliers and for that reason we need to expand the basis of a new market that would be available through the UK and Ireland. To do this right and to provide opportunities for our island, we need better interconnection facilities. I welcome the fact that the Bill provides that somebody other than the ESB can provide such an interconnector. Independent energy companies are keen to provide this and I hope the Minister is favourable to it.

All of us who have attended energy committee meetings know that the dominance of the ESB is a major hurdle to true competition in this country. We must take strong action and be very careful how we proceed on the question of dominance. Already we have seen Airtricity indicate the market is not viable. The question of regulation, which changes so often, and the lack of a coherent policy make it difficult for companies to conduct business here. Therefore, I hope that this Bill, by providing policy direction from the Minister, will facilitate progress in this area.

It has been said by independent providers that in the past the Commission on Energy Regulation has been hostile to renewable energies. A report in today's Financial Times answered the question on the cheapest source of energy by stating that wind power is the cheapest fossil fuel security. I hope this puts paid to the notion that wind energy is more expensive because of the issue of intermittency. I do not believe wind energy is the sole answer to Ireland’s energy supply needs, but it is a source that has not been sufficiently explored.

The Progressive Democrats Party has set an ambitious target of 30% of energy needs from renewable sources by 2015. Some people may say this is not achievable. However, it is if we have the vision and will to develop it. We must have the capacity to understand the problem and the vision to seize the opportunity and provide funds through Government and private sources. I do not like the notion that the Government should deliver this on its own. If private industry is prepared to be involved — this is what competition and a liberalised market is about — we should allow it into the market.

The energy question is as great a challenge to the country as was the economy in the 1980s. Look where we are today. Who would have said that our economy would be the talk of every other country? Someone said to me this morning that it is only in this country that people think the country is going down the tubes. People in every other country wonder how we got our economic miracle together. We must recognise that this is an extraordinary country and that the challenge we faced in the economy in the 1980s was dealt with successfully.

We can deal as successfully with the challenge presented by the energy question. We are in an isolated position but we need to recognise that we are in a country that is best placed, both geographically and otherwise, to harness wind energy. The Progressive Democrats target is 30% of energy needs to be provided by renewable resources by 2015. We need to see the issue of energy as a long-term issue. I was disappointed that Deputy Ryan's suggestion of an all-party group on energy issues was rebuffed by his supposed potential Government colleagues.

I am not surprised. I would not like to be in the same loop as those on the opposite benches.

Those who supported him were the Progressive Democrats and Fianna Fáil, because we have the vision and responsibility to see where the future lies in this area. It is sad that his colleagues who seek to form a Government are not coherent on this issue. I listened to what Deputy Coveney had to say and wonder whether he would have thought differently if he were the energy spokesperson and a committee member.

By and large, parties do not hold differing opinions on this issue and it is an opportunity missed when we do not come together on it. Members of the joint committee have worked well together and when the committee launches its energy policy, I doubt there will be many dissenting voices. We have a good basis on which we can move forward.

I would like to focus on research and development. On account of our location and the potential for wind and wave energy, many groups have commenced pilot schemes, for example, in Cork and off the Arklow Bank, where research is being carried out into new technologies. We need to seize this opportunity as we did in the information technology sector. The potential is enormous. At a future energies conference yesterday there was discussion on a possible €6 billion investment, almost equating to the pharmaceutical sector. We need a wise Government to seize this opportunity. I welcome the fact that the Government has started along this path. There is a long way to go, but more than anything we need a belief in this future.

Mention has been made of the biomass sector and the contribution transport fuels make to our CO2 emissions. Everybody talks in the same way about the opportunities. Our party held a conference in Portlaoise recently which was attended by 300 farmers who were keen to hear about the future of farming and biomass production, cellulose, miscanthus etc. We are all singing from the same hymn sheet. Why do those who dissent not join the committee?

We would just love to be condemned along with the Government, would we not?

I find it extraordinary that some Deputies do not want to work with their colleagues.

The word is that Deputy Charlie O'Connor does not want to be in the loop either.

The farmers were all gripped by the opportunity. We are living on the brink of a new era in terms of energy. The challenge for Ireland is to harness that energy and lead the way. Given the provisions of this Bill, the work of the committee on energy policy and the Green Paper, I believe the future is bright. We need to ensure we include all the necessary provisions and that we cut the red tape so that people can lead the way.

Debate adjourned.