Other Questions

Environmental Schemes

Timmy Dooley

Question:

91. Deputy Timmy Dooley asked the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources the role he sees for energy crops in meeting Ireland’s energy requirements; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [20217/13]

To meet our binding target of 16% of all our energy to be from renewable sources by 2020 as set out in the EU renewable energy directive, the Government is committed to increase renewable energy to 40% in the electricity sector, 10% in the transport sector and 12% in the heating sector. The Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland has modelled in its energy forecasts for Ireland for 2020 that energy from biomass, or bioenergy, in 2020 will account for approximately 5% of our electricity requirements, approximately 10% of our heat requirements and, in the form of biofuels, will contribute around 9% of the energy required in the transport sector. This will be a significant challenge and we will need to mobilise biomass from all available sources. This means making the best possible use of forestry resources and increasing the amount of energy crops available.

The role that energy crops will play in meeting renewable energy targets will depend to a large extent on the willingness of land owners to change land use, the availability of long-term markets and the revenue generated by energy crops compared to traditional farming on the same land. The REFIT 3 scheme is designed to incentivise the addition of 310 MW of electricity capacity produced from biomass technologies to the Irish electricity grid. It contains incentives for co-firing of biomass in peat powered generation plants with a premium for the use of energy crops. Also, since 2007, the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine has run the bioenergy scheme, which offers grant supports to incentivise new plantation of energy crops.

Before the end of June, I will publish a national bioenergy strategy which will set out in detail the actions required to facilitate as great a contribution as possible by the bioenergy sector to the 2020 renewable energy targets.

Will the recent decision by the European Commission to place a maximum cap of 5% of total transport fuel for biofuels have any impact on energy crops? Prior to converting the peat fired plants to biomass, a full cost-benefit analysis of the implications for the energy generation, cost and security should be undertaken. Has the Minister any plans to carry out such a study?

The matter to which Deputy Moynihan referred of the change from 10% to 5% on biofuels is not yet a decision of the European Union. He is correct that there is a proposal from the European Commission. The proposal, known as ILUC, indirect land use change, is being progressed by the Irish Presidency, jointly between myself and the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Hogan.

Deputy Moynihan is probably correct. It probably will ultimately get approval and will be the decision. He is also probably correct that it makes sense in that one would question whether land that is capable of producing, for example, other crops, ought to be tied up producing biomass. It also makes sense to ask how we can source the raw material for some biomass otherwise. That debate is ongoing. The NGOs, for example, have strong views on it. They have strong views about the implications for Third World development, etc. Even if there is no agreement at present between the various member states, it is likely to lead to a decision. Obviously, that must be taken into account by us. We are attempting to put together a bio-energy strategy and as I stated, the hope is that by the end of June we will be in a position to advertise that.

It is part of the programme for the Government that we would examine the possibility of the development of a bio-energy company in terms of the synergies that might exist between Bord na Móna and Coillte.

There are three Members offering.

I beg the Leas-Chathaoirleach's pardon.

I will take brief supplementary questions.

Are there advanced discussions or plans on the bio-energy company bringing the strengths of both Bord na Móna and Coillte, of which the Minister spoke?

Returning to the Minister's point, there is a significant issue of competition between poor people's food and rich people's fuel. Have any steps been taken to halt grain-based biofuel production because it is pushing up the price of food for the poor but also forcing up through the roof the price of animal feed? The extension into 2013 of the drought in the United States in 2012 is putting considerable pressure on grain production, some of which is going into biofuels and having a knock-on impact on the fodder crisis in this country because it is pushing the price of feed beyond the purchasing ability of many farmers. Wearing his EU Presidency hat, can the Minister ensure that the EU takes leadership on this issue and ban the use of grains in the manufacturing of biofuels, both in Europe and internationally?

The Minister stated earlier that he was meeting ESB or ESB Networks this afternoon. I ask him to ask them to outline, if they could, the criteria used to assess and set the price for a connection to the grid. I am aware of at least three good biomass projects which are stalled because of what appears to be an extortionate request in terms of cost for connection to the grid.

The answer to Deputy Moynihan's question is "Yes". The possible synergies between the two companies are being explored. It would be premature to state that final conclusions have yet been reached but I think I could also speak for my colleague, the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Coveney, in that we are probably agreed that the mooted privatisation of Coillte looks more unlikely every day.

A protest in this regard over the weekend was covered in the media. We are ad idem on this issue, but it is premature to draw any conclusion. The prospect of the two companies being used to create a serious bioenergy company is something with which we need to persist. There are definite possibilities there.

Deputy Naughten's convenient summary of poor people's food being sacrificed for rich people's fuel is a phrase I will remember in my discussions in Europe. This is a central feature of the debate and ongoing discussion. I have met representatives of the NGOs who have elaborated on the arguments Deputy Naughten has made and they seem to make a great deal of sense. In discussions in Europe, while I have represented the views of the NGOs, I do not believe I have expressed it in terms of banning grain in the granular way that Deputy Naughten has expressed it. However, it probably comes back to the same thing. Where there is arable land that is capable of producing the raw material for food or where there is land that is capable of being made arable to produce food, is that the best use for it? In fairness to colleagues, I have to say that is well represented in the Council of Europe.

I will take up the point Deputy Colreavy raised. Based on my meetings with biomass companies, I understand they are satisfied with the REFIT 3 scheme and that is not the impediment. I will be happy to raise the particular point he raised about the price of connection to the grid this very day.

Seismic Surveys

Niall Collins

Question:

92. Deputy Niall Collins asked the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources if the European Commission has asked him to explain the reason that seismic surveying, currently under way off the west coast, is not subject to the requirements of EU directives on environmental impact; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [20212/13]

I can confirm that a communication has been received from the European Commission seeking certain clarifications with regard to the implementation of the environmental impact assessment, EIA, directive and the habitats directive, in granting permission to carry out a 3-D survey over the Corrib field. The European Commission advised that it has received a complaint alleging a violation of the EIA directive by Ireland.

The European Commission operates an arbitration forum which attempts to resolve possible violations of EU law before cases escalate to the European Court of Justice. The arbitration forum is known as the EU pilot and this particular complaint is being addressed in that forum. My Department is preparing a detailed response to the specific questions raised by the Commission and I do not propose to deal with the precise content of the Commission’s letter. On a general note, the complaint made relates to the question of impact on cetaceans and this is a potential impact that is considered by my Department in the case of all seismic surveys.

In the case of the survey in question my Department’s assessment of the application had regard to the requirements of EU directives on environmental impact. The grant of permission for seismic surveys is always conditioned to ensure that the National Parks and Wildlife Service's code of practice for the protection of marine mammals during acoustic sea floor surveys in Irish waters is adhered to, together with other such mitigation measures considered necessary including a requirement to have a marine mammal observer on board the seismic vessel for the duration of the survey. I never knew that such things existed.

With regard to much development in not only the Corrib field, but also elsewhere, people are willing to add fuel to the idea that we do not comply with regulations or best practice on environmental issues. It is very important, if we are develop into other areas, that all environmental assessments and issues are taken into account so they cannot be raised as issues in other situations. The Minister outlined that the Department is compiling a response to the EU. Is the Minister satisfied no serious transgression of the environmental impact regulations and directives has taken place? One chink in the chain could be used against us in a raft of fields.

My advice is that there is no danger the country is in breach. One can never say so with certainty before one goes before a quasi-judicial authority, but this is not the only case where the Department has experience and it will continue to have experience as we try to accumulate a repository of knowledge on the seismic data around our coasts. The Department is insistent it has had regard to the requirements of EU directives on environmental impact and that it has had such regard in this particular case. I take the Deputy's point that it is a matter of some importance. I understand we are allotted 70 days to make our response to the Commission letter and we are in the process of preparing this. As is normal, we are liaising with the National Parks and Wildlife Service which has a great deal of knowledge in this regard.

This question is timely and opportune because this very day as I travelled here I saw a hastily handwritten sign on the N4 on the Leitrim and Longford border which stated a seismic study is ongoing. I cannot say for certain, but I do not remember reading anything in the local newspaper about a seismic survey in this part of the country. The community is fearful that the psychological grounds, if not the infrastructural grounds, are being laid for the introduction of fracking. There is great fear the first steps in this process are being taken. I intend to contact the local authorities in Leitrim and Longford to find out what is going on. Does the Minister have information on whether a licence has been granted for a seismic study on the border of Leitrim and Longford?

The question raised by Deputy Moynihan really relates to the Corrib field. I suppose what is afoot is that companies are presumably taking steps to establish whether there might be adjacent resources of the same order or similar if they make a strike such as the Corrib find.

As regards fracking, which is a different issue, I would be slow to take my knowledge from signs on the N4. My colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy O'Dowd, has made it plain on a number of occasions that, other than the limited surveys authorised by the previous Government in respect of desktop study, no licences have been awarded in the Leitrim-Fermanagh area. There is no fracking going on and that is a fact. There are reputed to be not insignificant resources of shale gas in the Leitrim-Fermanagh geographical area. We will see if that is the case but the Northern Ireland authorities were also examining the matter.

The shale gas phenomenon has had a profound and dramatic impact on fuel prices in the United States, which have dropped by almost 70% in some states. The product also contributes as a feed stock in the manufacturing sector, especially in petrochemicals. It is of huge significance. In terms of the particular question posed by Deputy Colreavy, however, there is no seismic exploration going on, to my knowledge, in respect of hydraulic fracturing in any of the counties mentioned.

Online Business Voucher Scheme

John McGuinness

Question:

93. Deputy John McGuinness asked the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources the position regarding the introduction of a business online voucher scheme. [20231/13]

A report commissioned by the European Commission estimated that traditional enterprises with a strong online presence grow twice as fast, export twice as much and employ twice as many people as those who do not. In Ireland, Irish consumers spend almost €4 billion per annum online and yet the proportion of SMEs trading online is estimated to be as low as 23%.

One of the key objectives of the forthcoming national digital strategy will be to address this challenge, and get some 2,000 small businesses trading online. As a first step, I intend to pilot a voucher scheme that will provide upfront funding for small businesses to help them develop an online trading platform. The proposal will support, in the first instance, an independent evaluation of the business’s online needs and capacity and identify what steps will be taken for that business to commence trading online. The voucher will be based on a competitive process and will be awarded to businesses which show a significant potential for developing a capability to trade online. It will support businesses where digital adoption has traditionally been weak and where the prospect for real gains in competitiveness and growth is established.

Working with Mr. David Puttnam, whom I have appointed as Ireland’s digital champion, I intend to engage with industry service providers with a view to assisting small businesses in realising the full benefit of this initiative. I am aware that the commercial sector has been actively working with the business community on a variety of online initiatives and I look forward to working together to help Irish businesses gain competitive advantage by maximising online opportunities for trade.

This is a vital initiative. Traditionally, there have been a raft of industries that would have worked very well but have been slow to move on to the digital age. There is also a generational gap. The younger generation, right up to middle age, go online to look for everything. It is vital to encourage this approach. It is the same in the marketplace. It is like the development in traditional rural communities from the fair to the mart in terms of getting one's name and business out there. I commend and support the initiative but a lot more should be done to get the message out there for small industries in order to have them completely fitted out from a technological viewpoint.

I thank the Deputy for that support, as it is important that Members are perceived to have a bipartisan approach in the House on this issue. As the Deputy noted, there is a digital divide but regardless of whether it is acknowledged, almost €4 billion in business was done last year through e-commerce. Moreover, approximately €3.7 billion of that goes outside the State and, in such circumstances, there is no point in complaining about the phenomenon. The small and medium-sized enterprise, SME, sector in Ireland must prepare itself to compete for the business. In this context, the fact that only 23% of SMEs are estimated to be trading online is a matter of concern. Consequently, as Deputy Moynihan has noted, the thinking behind the initiative I have just announced is it is intended to encourage businesses that could profit from trading online to so do. As I indicated, the figures show that small enterprises which have a strong online presence grow twice as fast, export twice as much and employ twice as many. This really ought to speak for itself.

Offshore Exploration

Brendan Griffin

Question:

94. Deputy Brendan Griffin asked the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources the measures he is taking to enable job and wealth creation for the people here from potential oil drilling off the County Kerry coast and at other offshore locations; if he will take a proactive approach to this matter; if job creation in the oil drilling and pre-drilling industries feature in his priorities; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [18346/13]

Brendan Griffin

Question:

102. Deputy Brendan Griffin asked the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources the specific measures he is taking to facilitate the soonest possible job and wealth creation for the Irish people from potential oil drilling off the County Kerry coast and at other offshore locations; the number of staff in his Department assigned to oil related matters; his views on taking a proactive approach to this matter; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [19953/13]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 94 and 102 together.

Ireland stands to benefit greatly from its natural resources of oil and gas both financially and through strengthened energy security of supply. In respect of financial benefits, taxation on profits from production clearly is the most significant means by which Ireland stands to benefit. Substantial benefits also would result from economic activity generated through the construction phase of any new development and the subsequent production phase. I understand that more than 1,000 jobs have been created in respect of the Corrib field.

As the Irish offshore is relatively under-explored, the potential benefits that might be realised from our indigenous resources of oil and gas are not yet known. The Government has a clear strategy to address this and is focused in the first instance on encouraging an increase in the level of exploration investment in order that the petroleum potential of the Irish offshore can be better realised. This strategy is being given effect by a combination of actions. These include the strong promotion of the petroleum potential of the Irish offshore with the aim of attracting new exploration companies to Ireland, the maintenance of an appropriate and adaptive licensing regime, the acquisition of new seismic data and facilitation of access by new companies to existing seismic and well data, and the development and support of research initiatives that deepen our understanding of the petroleum potential of the Irish offshore.

As for the number of staff assigned to this area in my Department, at present 12 people work in the petroleum affairs division, and this team is supported by a number of external consultants with expertise in a range of relevant disciplines.

While I thank the Minister of State for his reply, he is describing a situation I do not recognise. What will come ashore here will be controlled by the company using it and not by this country. It will do nothing for energy security, as it can be sold on the open market. The Minister of State can say nothing with certainty in respect of the number of jobs because companies are quite free to bring their own teams over here.

Thank you, Deputy, we are almost out of time.

This is precisely the point of which I spoke earlier. A strategy is needed to protect, preserve and promote our interests and not those of companies.

In response to the Deputy, it is clear that it will significantly increase Ireland's supply of natural gas that, for instance, will come from the Corrib. This is an absolutely undeniable fact and patently and clearly is the case. It also is a fact there is significantly increased interest in Irish offshore oil and gas. We must find the oil and gas to bring it ashore and must make it attractive to companies to invest here. In this context, I note our tax rate is pitched at approximately the same level as those of France, Portugal and Spain. Consequently, Ireland is getting increasing investment. A major regional seismic survey is about to start off the west coast, from which 18,000 km of new two-dimensional seismic data will be made available to the oil industry. This investment will cost more than €20 million and will come in here shortly. It will improve significantly the available science at which prospective companies can look. Finally, earlier this year a very important international conference was held at which new scientific data were presented on foot of collaboration between the Canadian, Newfoundland and Irish Governments in respect of the underlying geology of our countries formed many millions of years ago. These data are increasing significant interest in Ireland's offshore oil and gas potential.