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Dáil Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 18 Oct 2006

Vol. 625 No. 5

Energy (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2006: Instruction to Committee (Resumed).

The following motion was moved by the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources (Mr. N. Dempsey) today:
That, notwithstanding anything in Standing Orders, it be an instruction to the committee to which the Energy (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2006 may be recommitted in respect of certain amendments, that it has power to make provision in the Bill to:
(a) provide for the conferring on Bord Gáis Éireann the power to create capital stock in amounts that are equal to the net assets of the board;
(b) provide for an increase in the statutory borrowing limit of Bord na Móna plc;
(c) provide for the treatment of lands affected by mines and former mines by rehabilitation of such lands and for the compulsory acquisition of lands for the purposes of such rehabilitation; and
(d) provide for the continued validity of planning or other consents for electricity, gas and other infrastructure developments upon commencement of the Planning and Development (Strategic Infrastructure) Act 2006;
and to change the name of the Bill to take account of these provisions.

It is deplorable that the Energy (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill has been amended so drastically after the Committee Stage debate. Earlier this year I criticised the shambolic introduction of the Bill in the House. It was first published in early March and was debated on Second Stage in the Dáil in April. Less than 24 hours before it was due to be discussed on Committee Stage, 36 pages of new amendments were given to Deputies by the Minister. These amendments altered considerably the nature of the Bill and introduced significant new sections on, for example, gas safety and the regulation of electrical contractors. In many ways, what was presented to Deputies was a new Bill.

At a meeting of the Select Committee on Communications, Marine and Natural Resources I urged the Minister to recast the Bill and reintroduce it in Dáil Éireann so that it could be properly scrutinised. Indeed, I called a vote on the matter which was unfortunately defeated. At that stage the Minister and the Taoiseach signalled in the Dáil that further additional sections would be added to the Energy (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill in late September and it is those sections which are now under discussion. As I said to the Taoiseach in July, this is no way to do the people's business. Other long-promised legislation in this area, such as the Single Electricity Market Bill, has not yet been published. The creation of the all-island market has been put back by over a year. That Bill was expected in the middle of 2007 but its publication has apparently been postponed for a further four months.

This type of behaviour is characteristic of the Department of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources and the Minister, Deputy Dempsey. Earlier this year we experienced the incredible mess the Minister made of the Sea Fisheries and Maritime Jurisdiction Bill. In that case, we began discussing one Bill but ended up effectively discussing another one entirely. When this Government's term ends in the next six or seven months, it will be interesting to determine which Minister was the most incompetent in terms of scheduling business in an efficient manner. The Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources, Deputy Dempsey, and the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Deputy McDowell, will be close-run contestants for that unfortunate title.

I generally welcome the changes the four major amendments will entail for Bord Gáis Éireann and Bord na Móna. However, I have some concerns regarding other amendments which I will raise later this afternoon. The general scope of the new amendments is encapsulated in the changes to the Long Title of the Bill regarding the power of Bord Gáis Éireann to raise capital stock, the increase in the statutory borrowing limit of Bord na Móna, the rehabilitation of mine sites and the safeguarding of the status of works already approved or under way prior to commencement of the 2006 Act.

The amendment of the Gas Act 1976 confers on Bord Gáis Éireann the power to create capital stock in amounts equal to the net assets of the board. This will facilitate the establishment of an employee share ownership plan which, in the absence of the introduction of plc legislation, I warmly welcome. The employee shareholding will comprise 5%. At the time of its 2005 annual report Bord Gáis Éireann had more than 700 employees, up from 694 in 2004. It is clearly the wish of those employees to have an employee share ownership trust in place. The group of unions working with management and the Ministers for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources and Finance will facilitate this shareholding through a transformation programme. However, following the Aer Lingus debacle, which we discussed earlier and will return to, hopefully at length, next week, employees of this important semi-State enterprise will be fearful of any attempt to use the development of an employee share ownership scheme as a first step in the privatisation of Bord Gáis Éireann.

Bord na Móna is now a plc and the Minister has indicated that he will introduce legislation, though not before the general election, to make the ESB a plc. How does the Minister envisage Bord Gáis Éireann's long-term future? Should we not have major legislation, as part of the Energy (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill, regarding the development of Bord Gáis Éireann? A study of the company would indicate that a new, comprehensive gas Act is necessary, given that 1976 is now a world away.

Recently we have seen the major EU directive requiring unbundling into the transmission system operator and the distribution system operator. Mr. Gerry Walsh told the Joint Committee on Communications, Marine and Natural Resources recently that he and his colleagues are promoting the concept of the ISO or the Irish system operator. Where is the legislation that will underpin such developments? Why has the Minister not drafted more comprehensive legislation for Bord Gáis Éireann?

Last year we had interim arrangements for full market opening but consumers do not really have a choice with regard to gas. This morning the Taoiseach read out a list of five or six operators in the United Kingdom and their price increases, which are lower than Irish gas price increases, but in this country there is no choice of operators. I generally welcome the provisions regarding capital development for Bord Gáis Éireann.

Amendment No. 101 raises the borrowing limit of Bord na Móna plc to €400 million. The upper limit had remained unchanged since the passing of the Turf Development Act in 1998. Bord na Móna is another semi-State company that has served this State with great distinction since its establishment. In particular, it maintained jobs and enterprise in the midlands as well as carrying out its core activity of harvesting and supplying peat to all parts of the country. I have followed with interest the expansion of this great Irish institution into other activities such as horticulture and, more recently, renewable energy such as wind, biofuels and, potentially, biomass. Bord na Móna has made clear its intention to expand into the waste management and waste to energy sectors. These are exciting developments, particularly the concept of co-firing generation using peat and biomass, which is in the national interest. Bord na Móna intends to take a progressive role in such a development and the legislation before us today will facilitate the company in that regard.

I warmly welcome the provisions in the legislation on the rehabilitation of former mines, especially as they concern Silvermines. In that context, I commend my colleague, Senator O'Meara, of north Tipperary, who played a dynamic and leading role in requiring the Government to meet its responsibilities to the communities around Silvermines and the people of north Tipperary generally. I commend her on the fact that her initiatives have been framed in law and are before the House today. Senator O'Meara also played a fundamental role on the Joint Committee on Communications, Marine and Natural Resources in bringing committee members and the chairman, Deputy O'Flynn, to north Tipperary to see the situation that pertains there. The provisions on rehabilitation, framed by our civil servants at long last, involve the spending of €10.6 million over four years and are to be commended.

A key power is the ability those provisions will give us to recover State expenditure where mining companies and licensees have not carried out their fundamental remediation role. This is an important aspect of the legislation which I warmly welcome. However, there is no reference in the legislation to former miners who are seeking compensation for severe respiratory and other disorders incurred because of the difficult conditions in which they worked, including the presence of substances such as asbestos. The British Government has introduced a new programme for the treatment of workers in the mining industry but the Irish legislation makes no reference to such a programme. Deputy Durkan has a particular interest in this area also.

The Planning and Development (Strategic Infrastructure) Act 2006 amends the Planning and Development Act 2000 with regard to major strategic energy infrastructure. The Minister stated that we need a new section so that no additional consent requirements will be superimposed on gas and other infrastructural developments which require an environmental impact statement. He further stated these are clarifying amendments that he is introducing on behalf of his colleague, the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Roche. However, as Deputy Durkan argued, it would have been better to have a major energy infrastructure Bill before the House dealing with all energy infrastructure, given the issues that will arise in the future, for example, microgeneration.

Deputies received a paper last week from the Commission on Energy Regulation on microgeneration, which is now firmly on the energy agenda. However, I have received complaints from constituents who want to develop their own power sources, such as windmills or solar pv structures, but who are coming up against all kinds of planning issues. In that context, a case can be made for new legislation in this regard. Will it be left, as is often the case, for the Opposition to bring forward a Bill?

I would like the Minister of State to address this in his concluding remarks, if he is to make any. Is it possible that this section of the Bill could be used as a plan B for Corrib gas? Various discussions have taken place with regard to daily protests now going on over Corrib. I have a letter from Mr. Andy Pyle of Shell detailing a new opinion poll carried out in Mayo which indicates that up to 70% of people are in favour of the project, although a significant number are not in favour, particularly in the north-west Mayo area.

Is it conceivable that this legislation could be used to fast-track a new refinery? I echo Deputy Ring's call, which I may have made first, for the Taoiseach, Deputy Bertie Ahern, to possibly become involved in this matter and try to resolve it. All of us in the House accept that Corrib is critical. It is the transformational energy we need to get us through perhaps the next 15 or 20 years while we develop renewables.

The Government has a key responsibility. As Deputy Durkan has always stated, this has gone on for ten years and it should be ended. The Minister of State present may not be personally responsible, but the Minister, Deputy Noel Dempsey, is and he should take responsibility for it.

The Deputy should conclude.

Is it conceivable that this legislation could be used to facilitate a plan B for Corrib?

I wish to share time with Deputies Eamon Ryan and Morgan.

Is that agreed? Agreed.

It must be stated with regard to the Corrib gas project, as indicated by a TG4 official poll, that 61% of people favour the proposed terminal being built at sea and 66% of the population supports the stance of the Rossport five. That is just by way of introduction. I am sorry the Minister, Deputy Noel Dempsey, is not here. I wished to ask him if he saw or was aware of the proposal made by the Independent Deputies when they arrived in Rossport last Monday. I believe the proposal could potentially form the basis for solving the current dispute. I ask the Minister to look at the proposal again.

It is clear Shell and the local community must come to a settlement. Otherwise, this increasingly bitter dispute will further damage the local community. The Independent group, consisting of Deputies Gregory, Healy, Joe Higgins and myself, called for a de-escalation of the dispute so that space can be provided for a settlement. We ask Shell to suspend work for a period of time and for protestors to agree to leave the terminal area during that time.

The Government as the party most responsible for creating this situation should engage in three-way talks with Shell and the community to find an agreed solution to this problem. All solutions should be on the table for discussion, including the location of the refinery and terminal. The five locations possible are at the well head, on an island, in shallow water, onshore or inshore at Bellanaboy. Once the Corrib gas project issue is resolved, the Government must plan the development of the oil and gas industry to include real benefits, such as the development of deepwater ports, helicopter facilities, related shore-based facilities and service centres to service the potentially massive gas and oil industry in co-operation with suitable and interested local communities. The ball is currently in the court of the Minister, Deputy Noel Dempsey, and the Government. The people of Rossport deserve a response.

The question should be asked why the local people feel so strongly that the refinery and terminal, with its related pipeline, should not be built at Rossport. The answer is because of local community fears that the refinery and terminal, with associated pipeline, provide a significant risk to health and life. Many also feel Bellanaboy will be expanded to meet the needs of any other finds that are made. The result will be to expose these people's families, environment and local water supply to pollution from a significant petrochemical facility in this pristine environment.

These are very valid and understandable concerns. Could it be the refinery and terminal are in the wrong location? If the correct location was to be found, the issue of the pipeline would be resolved.

A second question is why Shell and the Government feel so strongly that this refinery and terminal should be built in Bellanaboy. For Shell it is a simple matter of commerce. The Government, which has provided the site through Coillte and the gas field for free, believes that Corrib is good for Ireland and essential for a secure supply.

With regard to employment, 750 local jobs were created during construction. These are temporary jobs. In the long term there will be 50 jobs on completion. Corrib, as a long-term employer, is insignificant and equal in size to a small factory or social service.

The Irish people, through Bord Gáis Éireann, will purchase gas from Corrib at much the same price as they buy gas from the UK. Despite the recent 34% gas price increase, the Corrib gas find or any other gas found off the Irish coastline will not result in any price reduction for the Irish people, despite the Taoiseach's comments to the contrary this morning in this Chamber.

The Deputy's four minutes are concluded.

There are now two connections between the Republic of Ireland and the UK. A third connection in the North of Ireland is currently under construction. The UK is connected to Dutch, Danish, Russian, Norwegian and Algerian gas. Two weeks ago there was the completion of the world's longest pipeline from Norwegian gas fields, the Langeled pipeline. That is not a consideration. There will be no royalties in tax terms from Corrib.

The Deputy is taking time from his two colleagues. They will have less time than the Deputy.

In summary I ask the Minister, Deputy Noel Dempsey, to consider the proposal.

I wish to briefly comment on each of the four or five main items included in this special addition to the miscellaneous Bill. It truly has turned into a miscellaneous Bill.

I will first deal with the capital stock in Bord Gáis Éireann. It is appropriate and welcome that we are incentivising employees within State companies on a performance basis with regard to their work. I have a concern as to how employee share ownership plans have developed in this country. We have seen two recent examples, in Eircom and Aer Lingus, where ESOPs were introduced to smooth the way towards privatisation, and both cases have clearly been disastrous for the long-term welfare of the interests of the people.

I ask the Minister to be very clear in outlining the State's role with regard to providing ESOPs. It should not be something which would open the door, in the long run, to privatisation. It should be an end in itself to incentivise work.

What indication is there to the value of the capital stock of the company and the individual value to any worker? Bord Gáis Éireann is a company with very valuable assets and a relatively small workforce. How close does the Minister believe we will be to the €38,000 per employee limit, which has been set in giving a 5% shareholding to the company? If the Minister of State cannot provide any figures today, perhaps they could be provided in writing to me and to other Deputies on this side of the House. I would appreciate that.

I welcome the increased borrowing limit with regard to Bord na Móna. It is important to have companies like Bord na Móna, which have started to be creative and inventive in investing in new biomass and other renewable energy facilities. I lament that the company, for whatever reason, has been stalled over the five years I have been in this position, calling for action such as the co-firing of power generation. We must begin cutting out peat because of climate change and we should instead turn to burning biomass.

One of the symbols of the general inactivity in the Government in the area of development of renewable energies has been the failure to develop our biomass technologies. If this increased lending facility to Bord na Móna is to facilitate that, I support it.

In covering the area of energy in this Dáil session, one of the most memorable moments for me is standing on the tailing pond at Silvermines. It is a pond covering approximately 55 acres, which is still a liquid——

The Deputy's time is concluded.

It was a disgrace. The company which let the situation develop should be ashamed of its behaviour and its lack of concern for the local community, which suffered as a result. If we can solve that problem today in legislation, I would be happy to support it.

I am happy to take this slot on behalf of my colleague, Deputy Ferris. I will concentrate my contribution on paragraph (d) of the motion, which deals with the validity of planning consents. It is timely to remind people of the ongoing consequences made of the so-called consent given to the Corrib gas pipeline. I use “so-called” because it is clear the pipeline does not have the consent of those most affected by it. Most people polled recently favoured the proposal that the gas be processed at sea. The failure of the planning process and the less than forthright manner in which both the Corrib consortium and the State dealt with the legitimate concerns of the objectors has led to the situation that pertains at Bellanaboy, where the gardaí are forcing protestors off the road and employing deliberately menacing tactics, including the filming of colleagues of mine from the Technical Group who were engaged in an open public meeting in an open public place. I sincerely hope the gardaí do not adopt a similar attitude to the large crowds that are expected to arrive in Bellanaboy on Friday to demonstrate their solidarity with the local community.

Shell has been found time and again to be less than honest in all aspects of this project and is currently refusing to comply with an order of discovery by the High Court to make available the terms of the lease and other documents relating to the risk analysis and the plan of the development. What is it hiding? Why was this not thoroughly examined during the planning process?

I suggest that, instead of copperfastening current consents and facilitating the fast-tracking of large-scale and potentially contentious further developments, we need to allow the greatest possible scrutiny of all aspects of such projects. I ask the Government to review its position on the whole Bellanaboy affair, because it is atrocious that a small community is being hounded in the way it is at the behest of Shell Éireann, this huge conglomerate.

Question put and agreed to.