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Dáil Éireann debate -
Tuesday, 20 Sep 2022

Vol. 1026 No. 3

Ceisteanna Eile - Other Questions

I am substituting for Deputy Colm Burke.

I have checked with the staff and I am afraid I have received no such email about substitutions. I know that this is a matter to be discussed by the Business Committee this week on foot of a letter from Deputy Stanton. If he wishes to take this question, I will allow it.

I received an email stating that the substitution could happen. I am sorry about the confusion.

EU Meetings

Colm Burke

Question:

59. Deputy Colm Burke asked the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications if he will report on the emergency meeting of the energy ministers of the 27 member states of the European Union on 9 September 2022; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [45775/22]

What was decided at the emergency meeting of energy ministers of the 27 member states held on 9 September? Will the Minister inform the House as to what actions he intends to take as a result of that meeting?

I thank the Chair for facilitating the question and the response.

The extraordinary energy council meeting on 9 September in Brussels was to exchange views on the energy situation in the European Union. The meeting was split into two parts, with the first session covering policy options to alleviate the burden of high energy prices. The second session was on the state of play of the preparedness of member states for the coming winter.

In respect of higher energy prices, the council discussed in private session four main areas on which member states expected the Commission to act. These included capping the revenues of electricity producers that face low production costs, a possible price cap on gas imports, measures for a co-ordinated electricity demand reduction across the EU, and measures that would help to address the issue of decreased liquidity for market participants. The Commission has since published a draft regulation, which is under urgent negotiation by member states in order to have agreement by the end of the month. We are supportive of the overall approach being taken and will co-operate closely with other member states to get the regulation agreed swiftly.

Ministers also discussed the state of play of preparedness for this winter. EU member states have carried out several actions at both national and EU level. In particular, they have adopted a regulation to fill gas storage and to share gas in a spirit of solidarity, diversified supply sources and committed to reducing gas demand by 15% this winter. EU gas reserves have been filled to 82.5% of their capacity, well ahead of the 1 November deadline set in the gas storage regulation.

There was a fifth issue we discussed in the earlier session, looking at what measures we could take on global gas markets, particularly LNG markets, where we could use our purchasing power, perhaps in co-ordination with other countries, in Asia or elsewhere, to try to help reduce market prices that way as well. That did not conclude, or has not concluded yet, with a specific proposal, but we gave a clear mandate for the Commission to investigate what might be possible in that regard.

I thank the Minister for his response. I am aware of the points that were made. With respect to the proposal to reduce gas use by 15%, does the Minister see that happening here and, if so, how soon? How would he encourage that reduction?

While that was a key matter for discussion, there were different consequences for three members of the European Union: us, Malta and Cyprus. At an earlier meeting of the European Energy Council there had been agreement that we would not have to apply in Ireland the same mandatory reduction. It was also recognising the reality in our case that we are connected to the UK and Norwegian gas markets and are not dependent on Russian gas in the same way. Therefore, any requirement for us to reduce our gas use by 15% would not have material consequences in terms of the use or otherwise of Russian gas. As a result, I stated that we have committed very much on a voluntary basis to do everything we can to reduce our use. We need to do that for sound economic reasons in any case, but that mandatory 15% reduction in gas does not apply to Ireland in the exact same way as it does to other member states.

Another proposal was to reduce the revenues of inframarginal electricity producers with low costs of production. Does the Minister plan to take that on board as a proposal and, if so, how does he plan to put it into practice?

Since last year, I have been raising the need to end the crazy situation whereby sky-high gas prices set the price for all electricity, and the need to decouple electricity prices from gas prices.

Each time the Minister and the Taoiseach and the Tánaiste have dismissed it out of hand. It is unacceptable for the Minister to continually hide behind the EU. Energy policy is a shared competence between the EU and member states. It is simply not good enough for the Minister responsible for energy to take such little responsibility during the cost-of-energy crisis.

I want the Minister, here and now, to clarify his position on the decoupling of gas from the setting of the price of electricity. Has that changed since the Taoiseach said that it was not his analysis and since the Minister dismissed it before when I raised it in the Chamber months ago?

In response to Deputy Stanton, inframarginal pricing is the right measure and one which we are looking to implement. There are complexities involved in it. It will apply to the likes of wind farm or other generators that are generating without the impact of high-input gas price, therefore, it is likely that they are making a significant profit. Inframarginal pricing will not apply where they have a long-term contract or where a cap is in effect. It will not apply to the recently agreed renewables projects because they also have a cap on their system. It is measure we want to introduce, however.

In response to Deputy Conway-Walsh, if anyone thinks that it is easy and that there is a perfect market mechanism-----

I never said that.

-----I would love to hear it, because the complexity and design and development of energy markets is not something that one can be easily categoric about. It is complex. What was also considered by the energy Council, and what we are intricately and centrally involved in the European Council - the Deputy is right; it is a joint competence - is the conducting of a wider review, starting with recognising that it takes time. If anyone thinks that we can change the energy markets this winter at a click of a finger, they would not be doing the people a favour because that is not easily achieved. It is better for us to do the review in conjunction with other countries. There are different views. A categoric answer would not be an honest answer.

Energy Prices

Pádraig O'Sullivan

Question:

60. Deputy Pádraig O'Sullivan asked the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications the engagement he has had with the Minister for Finance regarding a windfall tax on energy companies’ earnings; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [45676/22]

This question was submitted prior to the EU meeting referred to by Deputy Stanton. What engagement has the Minister had with the Minister for Finance regarding a windfall tax on energy companies?

As the Deputy will know, I have to be very sensitive because we are in the middle of a budget process. My Department and the Department of Finance have been exploring the potential to collect a portion of these windfall gains with a view to using the proceeds to support energy consumers. Subsequent to this, there have been significant developments at EU level, which we just discussed. At the Council of energy ministers on 9 September, which I attended, the issue of windfall gains was discussed in some detail. Outline proposals were set out and the Council of energy ministers invited the European Commission to make formal proposals. On 14 September, the Commission published a proposed regulation, which included measures aimed at addressing windfall gains in the electricity sector and in fossil fuel production. These proposals are expected to raise additional revenues which will be used to reduce the cost of energy for households and businesses. It is important that this proposal captures the windfall gains and minimises negative effects on consumers. The proposal will be negotiated throughout the remainder of this month with a view of it being approved at a meeting of the Council of energy ministers on 30 September. I fully support the objectives of this proposal and am working to ensure it fully addresses the issue of windfall gains in Ireland.

I wish to make two further points. First, it will be very difficult to get proposals that exactly fit our circumstances, including on the rate that would apply. For example, the Commission proposed a rate of €180 per megawatt hour and that they would be on the supernormal profits above that rate. My personal view is that we should look for a lower rate. Similar technical issues revolve around many aspects of this, which will make it easier or more difficult in different countries depending on the circumstance of each country. Therefore, it is not an easy approach.

Deputy Fitzpatrick and other Deputies asked earlier why I mention the European Union so much. In this instance, we do have to work collectively because this is a temporary measure in response to a wartime event, where energy has been used in this way. We do not want to divide; that is what the Russian Government would like us to do.

I should have said from the outset that we all know the backdrop to the discussion we are having. Some people might paint the windfall tax as a panacea for all our woes, which it certainly will not be. Many commentators have more or less said that in the past few weeks. An article I read said that the best benefit of a windfall tax might be in the name of social cohesion. I am not so sure if that is why we should be making these types of decisions. Many people will argue that the introduction of a windfall tax would be negligible in terms of its benefit for us domestically in terms of reducing prices. That said, the backdrop is still the same. Profit margins are going up for all electric and gas companies. Profit margins have increased by 10% for ESB and by 74% for Centrica. Internationally, Shell and BP posted massive profits of $11 billion and €14 billion, not to mention SSE, the parent company of SSE Airtricity, which reported £1.5 billion in profit.

Notwithstanding the likelihood of a windfall tax coming in, are other mechanisms being looked at including those that are being considered in the UK, such as the 25% profit levy?

I agree with the Deputy in that the proposals coming from European Union are just one element. They are among the four pieces in the jigsaw of measures that we will need to implement, as I mentioned earlier. We will not have the full details on them by budget day. We will have a rough estimate of what implications it might have for Revenue but it is only one element of the response we must take.

What we need to do is to continue with last year's process, which included a combination of social welfare measures targeted at the most poor and those who are most vulnerable to higher energy prices. There must be continued use of energy credits, such is the high cost of energy that is hitting and affecting every house in the country. It is appropriate to have timely, quick, easy to deliver and low-cost solutions such as the energy credits that we presented, as well as supports for businesses that will now be at real risk because of the tenfold increase in prices.

It is an evolving situation. We are right to do through to early spring so that we can reassess the prices then. Even in the past three weeks, the international price of gas has fluctuated massively. These interim measures will give us the chance to get through the winter, with a review in the spring as to where we are then.

It was encouraging to hear other members of Cabinet and Government stating that in the event of the introduction of windfall tax, we would be looking at it over the totality of the year so that it would be retrospective. That is welcome.

I have another point in relation to something the Minister said at the end of August in an RTÉ "News At One" interview regarding such a measure being considered. He said that it would be done during the budget talks, which he has reiterated today. Has the Minister had meetings with the Minister for Finance addressing this in the budget? I know he cannot divulge their content, but will he confirm whether those meetings have taken place?

On the European solidarity windfall tax, who would be liable within the State in that regard? The Minister has spoken about how difficult it is to reform energy markets but we could all make the argument that perhaps we should have started this conversation earlier. We must do whatever we can at this time, however. The Minister has raised the fact that we are dealing with a wartime situation. It is fair to say that the biggest weapon Vladimir Putin has is the fact that we are all about to face absolute energy and financial carnage if the European Union and the wider western world do not get a handle on this and, at a domestic level, if we do not look after businesses, families and workers. It is absolutely necessary that we do all we possibly can. Otherwise, we will give Putin the win that he does not seem to be able to eke out on the battlefield.

I meet the Minister, Deputy Donohoe, every couple of days and, leading up to the budget, I am sure it will be close to daily, in my capacity as the head of two Departments and as the leader of my party. Last night, the Taoiseach, the Tánaiste and I met the Ministers for Finance and Public Expenditure and Reform.

We have had a series of those meetings where we consider all of these issues.

To respond to Deputy Ó Murchú, we need to get windfall taxes in. They are an important part of the process. It will not be easy and we will have to work with our European colleagues to make sure it happens. They will apply in particular to wind farms and other generators that are not burning gas. With regard to the solidarity contribution, the only large-scale company involved here is with regard to Corrib gas because it is the only one where we have at-scale fossil fuel production. The Deputy is absolutely right that the Russian Government is looking to divide. No market redesign will address this coming winter. I do not believe it is possible. Certainly, no one who has investigated and looked at this in real detail thinks we can do it in the six months through this winter during which we need protect people. We will have to have a series of measures as we look at market redesign. This is the approach were taking.

North-South Interconnector

Matt Carthy

Question:

61. Deputy Matt Carthy asked the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications if he has received a review of the North-South interconnector; when it will be published; and if he will commission a full independent assessment of the potential undergrounding of the project. [45767/22]

The Minister's colleague in government promised a full independent assessment of the potential to underground the North-South interconnector. Rather than deliver this, the Minister commissioned a review of previous reviews, something nobody had asked for. Has the Minister received the findings of the review? Does he plan to publish them? Importantly, will he now ensure we can move towards delivery of the North-South interconnector by delivering what communities have sought, which is a full assessment of the undergrounding of the project?

The new North-South interconnector, which will allow for the flow of 900 MW of electricity between Ireland and Northern Ireland, will be critical for improving the operation of the all-island integrated single electricity market. It will also help to facilitate the achievement of the goal of generating up to 80% of our electricity from renewable sources by 2030. A resilient and well-connected energy infrastructure is vital for Ireland's economic well-being and the ability to respond to the future needs of energy consumers.

The option of undergrounding the North-South interconnector has been comprehensively assessed on several occasions. Most recently, the key findings from the international expert commission's report of October 2018 was that an overhead line remains the most appropriate option for this critical electricity infrastructure. Notwithstanding this, it was deemed appropriate to carry out a further short review to assess if the overall finding from the 2018 report remained valid. Having requested tenders from a number of grid experts across Europe, two international experts were selected to carry out the study. Work is continuing on the report, which has taken longer than expected, but I understand it is to be finalised shortly. Following receipt of the report, it will be considered, with publication to follow in due course. I expect to receive it within a short few weeks and will then share it with Government colleagues, publish it and have a debate in the House on its contents.

I was at the ploughing championships today and the Minister's name came up quite an amount. I am not one for personalised attacks but he has become the figurehead for the perception that the Government does not listen to communities. The North-South interconnector is a good example of this. Communities have been very clear, as have we in the Opposition, that we understand the rationale for a North-South interconnector and we want to see it delivered. We have also pointed to Minister and his predecessors on several occasions that the principle of public acceptance and public engagement have not been met in respect of this project. We can proceed with this farcical situation whereby the Minister refuses to engage with local community. He has established a review to carry out a review of reviews. The elephant in the room is that undergrounding of this project has been deemed a credible option by the exact report the Minister has cited. What is the resistance to pursuing it in a way that will deliver the project in a more timely and efficient way than the current trajectory?

We listen acutely to communities. That is what all politicians do. We listen. I listen to a country where high energy prices are crippling people, as various Deputies said earlier. One of the benefits of having a North-South interconnector is that it would save Irish households significant amounts of money year in, year out. I hear people ask why we are so dependent on the distant fossil fuels that hold the country to ransom. An interconnector would also help us to develop and deliver our own power. I hear communities, particularly in Border regions, that have not had the same economic advantage and development that has occurred in other parts of their countries. I know an interconnector would also help to facilitate such economic development in the Border area. It is right and proper for us to try to get this economic development to these areas and not only in Dublin or the other cities. I hear communities who want an all-island approach in everything we do and who have a belief in national unity. I see no reason for us to break up our island with disintegration of the electricity market and not integrating our systems. What I hear is that communities in the Border counties want this united Ireland approach, which is what an interconnector will help bring.

I am sure the Minister's colleague in the North will be delighted to hear an interconnector is some clandestine mechanism to deliver Irish unity. To be quite clear, absolutely Sinn Féin wants to see an all-island integrated electricity network. That is why we want to pursue this infrastructure in a way that will have community support precisely so that we can deliver this interconnector. The Minister has told me he recalls his previous time in government when this issue was first mooted. He should also recognise we are no further on with the delivery of it almost 20 years after it was first mooted. My fear is the Minister's approach is simply to advocate what it is he thinks communities are saying rather than what they are actually saying. They are saying let us build this infrastructure but in a way that is credible, as determined by a previous report, and in a way that will have public acceptance. I do not know why this concept that we can deliver a key piece of vital infrastructure but with the support of local communities is so alien to the Minister and the Government. Without this support we will enter another period of prolonged delays and we will not see the end goal of this infrastructure in place.

I met the Minister the other day and earlier in the summer. It is very difficult because there is no Administration up North. There is keen interest in it even if there are no structures whereby a government up North can make a decision on this. We need a decision. I first started hearing about this 20 years ago when it was described as the most important and urgent project to deliver an effective all-island energy system. In the intervening years, all of the energy experts I have heard have said that we have to have it as part of a synchronised AC system, especially if we want industrial development in the Border counties. We could run a line up the Irish Sea from Belfast to Dublin but what we would then have is an island where economic development is only in Dublin and Belfast.

That is what we have under the Government.

That is what we need to change. That is what we need to get away from.

The Minister is missing the vital component of community acceptance.

We have a responsibility in government to think of the long-term development of the island.

The Minister has never answered my questions on community acceptance. Why is that?

It is an issue. I fully accept it is an issue.

How will the Minister address it?

I also believe-----

We are over time and we are eating into the time for questions.

National Broadband Plan

Ruairí Ó Murchú

Question:

62. Deputy Ruairí Ó Murchú asked the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications the status of the roll-out of the national broadband plan; the number of premises that have been passed; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [45632/22]

What is the status of the roll-out of the national broadband plan and what is the number of premises that have been passed? Are we are likely to make the target of 102,000 premises, realising we are much behind where we thought we would have been? In further questioning I will speak about acceleration.

We are ahead of where we expected to be at the start of the year when we were planning in February. Survey and design work for the new high-speed fibre broadband network under the national broadband plan is complete or ongoing by National Broadband Ireland, NBI, in every county in Ireland. I am advised by NBI that, as of 9 September 2022, more than 331,000 premises are design completed and more than 88,000 premises can order or preorder a high-speed broadband connection. NBI has further advised that more than 75,000 premises across 23 counties have been passed with a high-speed fibre broadband service and are available for immediate connection. Construction is under way across 26 counties, demonstrating that the project is reaching scale. The level of connections is increasing daily and is in line with or exceeding projections from earlier this year.

The Department has worked with NBI to agree an updated interim remedial plan, which recalibrated the targets for 2022 to take account of the knock-on effects of the Covid-19 pandemic and other delays to the programme. The revised target is 102;000 premises to be passed by the end of January 2023.

NBI is implementing a number of measures to help lessen the impact that delays have had on the roll-out. Those measures include increasing the rate of pole replacement and duct remediation per month; bringing in additional NBI resources; earlier procurement of materials used in the build stages and bringing in additional subcontractors. The focus will continue to be on ensuring that the NBI build programme is back on track and is gaining momentum month on month.

We all get the importance of remote working, especially in the circumstances in which we find ourselves, where it may be beneficial for people to reduce the amount of commuting they are doing - for multiple reasons at this stage. Those figures are definitely heading in a better direction than they have been. We just need to ensure that it is acceleration, acceleration, acceleration. I know that NBI has spoken about its need to either increase the amount of Eir make-ready products that they can use or that they would be able to use - what they have called a self-install product - which would enable it to finish more of this infrastructure. I ask for an update on that. We, at one stage, talked about acceleration from the point of view of this seven-year project becoming a five-year project. I think we are now talking about seven years becoming six years. The big question is about where we are on that.

I regularly meet with Eir, NBI, the contractors who do the work and everybody in between to make sure that the project is still running. I have met with the new chief executive of Eir and I am convinced that he will continue to improve the roll-out of this system. Deputy Ó Murchú mentioned Eir make-ready which is the preparatory work that Eir does in the year before it hands over the poles and ducts to NBI for its design work. At this stage, the bottleneck is not with NBI anymore, but with Eir. The availability of new connections is not constrained by NBI's work. It has now reached the speed where it is delivering as much as Eir can give it. I have asked Eir to prepare more of its network at a higher rate.

At the same time, Eir is delivering in the commercial area and has much of its staff deployed to bring fibre broadband to areas outside of the intervention area, along with two other companies, Virgin Media and SIRO. If the Deputy looks at the ComReg statistics, he will see there are 10,000 fibre connections in Ireland per month. Those are not homes being passed. They are connections to people's houses.

I welcome the fact that the Minister of State has an interaction with Eir from the point of view of delivering more at its end and the fact that NBI obviously has a serious capacity but, at the end of the day, this is all about ensuring that we accelerate this as much as possible, especially to reach areas that have been and will be waiting for broadband for a considerable length of time. When is Eir to come back to the Minister of State with a plan with regard to producing more of the Eir make-ready product? What is the status on NBI doing some of those works with the self-install product it is talking about? Does the Minister of State have any updates on where the targets for the coming years stand? When will we get that finalised plan for sixth-year accelerated delivery?

What does the Minister of State say to people in Mayo who, when they key in their postcode, find that they will get broadband in 2025 and 2026? What does he say to the people who key in their postcode and are excluded, because they are deemed to have a service, when they cannot do the very basics in downloading and uploading? Is he concerned that we have not future-proofed this plan and that 30 Mbps is not sufficient because of all the transactions and everything else that are necessary now and in the future of our broadband?

How many connections have been made to date under the national broadband plan? What are the projections under the national broadband plan per month? The Minister of State has given us the connections on the commercial side. Does he agree that there is sometimes confusion when somebody in one house, who is not in the commercial area, can get a connection and the next-door neighbour outside the area cannot? Does he have any way of resolving that?

I will start with Deputy Ó Murchú. By the end of this year, we will have agreed with NBI what its target is for next year. Some 102,000 is our target for January of next year and we will have agreed a new achievable target by the end of the year. That will involve working with Eir on their make-ready plans. The existing contract is for a seven-year roll out which completes by 2026. If we can do it faster, we will. Our focus in the past year has been on getting it back on track. We are now delivering the right number that we expected and are moving at scale. If we can do it faster, we will.

At the same time, I need to look at urban black spots and any areas that are not being met. I know there are 8,750 premises to be passed in Deputy Ó Murchú's county, Louth. Of those, 3,200 have been passed and more than 1,000 of those have connected. They only represent a small proportion because most of the homes in Louth will be connected by commercial operators.

Deputy Conway-Walsh asked about people in Mayo who would not be connected until 2026. When one has a seven-year project, that means some people are in years 6 and 7 and are very disappointed to see that. Unless we accelerate the project, it is very difficult to do better. However, it is better to give people that information in order that they can plan, and be honest with them and not promise them that it will be some time in the future, in order that people do know. There are broadband connection points and people can use hubs in community centres. All of the schools in Ireland will be connected in Ireland by the end of the year.

With regard to the people who have 30 Mbps and are regarded to be good enough, the national target has not been agreed, but it is likely to that everybody will have gigabit Internet by the end of 2028.

I know it is impossible to answer all of this in one minute. Additional speakers come in and it still has to be answered in one minute.

Natural Resources

David Stanton

Question:

63. Deputy David Stanton asked the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications further to Question No. 86 of 24 May 2022, the role of his Department in the decommissioning of the Kinsale and Seven Heads gas fields; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [45773/22]

What are the Minister's views on the decomissioning of the Kinsale and Seven Heads gas-fields-related infrastructure; the pipeline that is already under the sea and any other infrastructure that would enable gas to come from the now-depleted fields but that might now be used for other reasons?

The geoscience regulation office in my Department is responsible for the regulation of petroleum exploration and development in Ireland. Petroleum authorisations are issued under the Petroleum and other Minerals Development Act 1960 and subsequent Acts and include decommissioning operations of petroleum facilities. Decommissioning of petroleum facilities is subject to regulatory and environmental approval by the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications. Holders of petroleum authorisations are required to submit a detailed decommissioning plan to my Department, detailing how they will safely decommission the facilities with minimal impact on the environment. This plan is assessed and approved in line with international best practice. As part of the process, my Department engages independent specialist advice and liaises with relevant regulators such as the Commission for Regulation Of Utilities, the Irish Coast Guard and the Health and Safety Authority.

Two applications for decommissioning phases of the Kinsale gas fields were granted by my Department on 26 April 2019 and 26 February 2020 for plugging and abandoning of wells; the removal of the two platform topsides structures; the removal of the Kinsale alpha and Kinsale bravo platform sub-structures and all associated works.

An application for the next phase of decommissioning was received in October 2021. Public consultation on this application was held from 14 October 2021 to 17 November 2021. In July 2022, my Department completed environmental assessment of the application and it returned to the geoscience regulation office to make a recommendation on whether Ministerial approval should be given for the activities under application.

The Minister has already alluded to our living in very unusual times. I put it to the Minister that we have an infrastructure in place which is an undersea pipeline and associated infrastructure on land which was used to transport the gas from the now-depleted undersea caverns.

Has the Minister considered using this infrastructure for floating storage regasification units? These could be used to alleviate our storage issue, which was mentioned earlier as part of the recently published report. Has he engaged with any suggestion with respect to this? Has he been asked to engage by any company with respect to that proposal? Does he agree with me it is worth considering and examining acquiring a floating storage regasification unit attached to the end of the pipeline that could store gas that could be hooked into our system. It would be LNG that did not come from fracking. It would not increase the amount of gas we use but would give us some insurance in the event of the other supplies being reduced.

We consider a whole variety of different options and will still consider various options. Cork Harbour in particular has some real strategic advantages when it comes to a whole variety of different energy infrastructure. One of the storage options has always been looking at the likes of the Kinsale gas field, or the Ballycotton or Seven Heads fields as there is a network of fields there, to see whether they could have gas storage capability. One of the downsides of that is one requires a lot of cushion gas and that might affect the economics. Regarding the use of the pipeline from those fields back to the shore at the Inch terminal, we have to consider the age of the pipeline and the alternatives. A vessel of the sort the Deputy mentioned, if it were to be moored, I would expect to be moored closer and probably somewhere like Aghada, some part of Whitegate or a similar place where the original gas came ashore. One would not necessarily berth a ship that far out and the pipeline for that purpose would not make sense. We can look at all those options when it comes to the consultation on the energy security paper published yesterday but the pipeline now and the terminal at sea have been decommissioned and, therefore, I do not believe they will have a role in this process.

I thank the Minister for his response. This is quite a serious issue and I thank him for taking it seriously. The pipeline is there and the Inch terminal is there. My information is it can be used for floating storage regasification units. I am not talking about using the caverns under the sea at all. The proposal that has been sent to the Minister's Department involves a floating storage regasification unit moored at the end of the pipeline which could be filled on a regular basis as required. It would act as insurance. The infrastructure is already there so I am asking the Minister to consider it. He should have a look at it and examine it, bearing in mind what he said about the age of the pipeline, the material and so forth. It should be seriously examined because we do not need planning permissions, foreshore licences or anything like that as that has already been done. All we need to do is get the work done to moor this gasification unit onsite and allow the gas to flow if required.

As I said, the decommissioning of this started a number of years ago and it is my understanding the platforms are starting to be decommissioned. They have already been taken out.

Yes. They are not needed.

The pipeline has been displaced to seawater and the Inch terminal has been degassed. As I said, that was a very old pipeline in the first place and I think it was already 40 years on the seabed. Accordingly, I do not think that infrastructure will be used. The decision was made on good energy grounds and there was much detailed consideration. The Department assessed all the potential uses and came back with a recommendation for decommissioning, so that is what we proceeded with. However, as I said, there will be other infrastructure in the Cork Harbour area for offshore wind, the conversion to green hydrogen, the ongoing operations in Whitegate and Aghada and indeed at Marino Point and the Verolme Dockyard. They are the key strategic sites in Cork that have a real future in this new energy future and we must consider what that is. We should not look back to what was there at Kinsale but look forward to what we will build instead.

I fully agree with what the Minister has said-----

I think the Deputy was in-----

-----about green energy, hydrogen and so on. That is absolutely fantastic. However, I understand there has been no engagement with respect to companies that want to talk about regasification.

I am bending the rules to a third response. Deputy Stanton has been in twice.

I am sorry. I thought the Leas-Cheann Comhairle called me. My apologies.

I apologise if I did.

Always take the opportunity.

Several Deputies are not here so we move to an Teachta Cairns.

Questions Nos. 64 and 65 taken with Written Answers.

Energy Prices

Holly Cairns

Question:

66. Deputy Holly Cairns asked the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications the measures he is proposing to support SMEs struggling to meet rising energy bills. [45550/22]

Small and medium enterprise are facing into a bleak winter with rapidly increasing energy and operating costs. Shops, restaurants and many other businesses on main streets across west Cork and all of rural Ireland are looking at closing. We have seen this before and some of them might not reopen. That will have a detrimental impact on our towns and villages. How is the Minister proposing to support SMEs to meet these rising energy bills?

There is a wide range of grants, vouchers and training available to help SMEs to reduce their energy costs. Improving energy efficiency and reducing energy consumption helps to reduce emissions and ultimately improves competitiveness and saves on energy costs.

Supported by my Department and administered by the SEAI, current supports to SMEs include the excellence in energy efficiency design scheme. It is for all businesses, including SMEs, and helps in the planning of any major investment in energy efficiency. There is grant support of up to €1 million per project available. There is the support scheme for renewable heat. It supports the adoption of renewable heat by commercial, industrial, agricultural, district heating and public sector organisations. There is the support scheme for energy audits which offers €2,000 towards the cost of a professional, high-quality energy audit. Last of all, the SEAI's energy academy is an online resource that provides business with free access to high-quality energy training.

As part of the targeted milestones under the climate action plan and expedited as part of the national energy security framework, comprehensive reviews of all energy efficiency schemes have been carried out. Work between my Department and the SEAI continues with enhanced measures in streamlining processes and improved customer engagement already in place. The support scheme for energy audits, for example, has seen a significant increase in demand in recent months with €1 million in direct supports being provided to 500 SMEs. Furthermore, as part of the targeted measures in the decarbonisation of commercial building stock, a new, non-domestic solar photovoltaic support programme will be launched by the SEAI this month to add to the current ongoing development of a commercial retrofit support programme due to come on stream in 2023. The nationwide Reduce Your Use public information also gives practical advice on how people and businesses can save money by promoting and encouraging energy efficiency. It will focus on how we can reduce heating and electricity use in homes, workplaces and public sector buildings.

The Government is currently considering what additional supports could be made available to SMEs and other businesses in recognition of the significant increase in their energy costs this year. Decisions on this will be taken as part of budget 2023.

I appreciate all those schemes and am sure businesses will look into them but they are more long-term solutions. Many small businesses cannot go on at the moment. They need more immediate solutions given rising energy bills, operating costs, insurance, rates, food and the list goes on. The Minister knows shops, cafés and many other local enterprises are really fearful of the winter. Just as we are getting over the impact of the pandemic they face inflationary pressures, especially with energy prices.

I have so many examples I can give and think everybody does but I am going to go with examples from Bantry as I am aware it is a town the Minister is familiar with. Staff in Wharton's Fish and Chips were in the local newspaper showing their energy price hikes. The Stuffed Olive was on social media today with its bill and the owners of Organico, the health store and bakery, said in another newspaper their electricity bills went up 25% to 30% last year and have gone up 100% this year. To really emphasise where people are at, one of the proprietors summed it up by saying:

I don’t see how we can trade out of a situation where the cost of everything is increasing but the turnover is not. It’s going to close down businesses in the short-term.

What does the Minister say to her? I was speaking to a group who were saying the price of a pound of butter has gone up from €2.70 to €3.90.

I accept those businesses, and so many others across the country, as well as households, are finding the bills that are coming are absolutely critical and critical to their operations. Government will engage in this six-month period ahead to look to providing further supports targeted at small or medium businesses because those businesses may not have the ability to pass on the costs. They are the ones that are richest in employment and we do not want to see them fall to this crisis which is not of their making, or the doing of anyone else in this country, but is a function of energy being used as a weapon of war. We must help protect our businesses in that regard. As I said in reply to various questions earlier, we are working with Government colleagues to consider what sorts of supports might be possible.

It will not cushion the full blow, there are no two ways about that, but we have to try to help provide as much protection as we can, which is what we will do.

I just want to emphasise again that some of these businesses are literally weeks away from closing their doors without significant intervention from the Minister. Potentially thousands of people could end up on social welfare for the winter, not to mention the closure of businesses and confidence in our towns and villages. Even a temporary closure means less foot traffic, fewer people visiting the area and it has severe knock-on effects. The Minister knows one closed business in a small town or village has a really profound impact on the whole area. We need ambitious preventative measures now. I would be grateful if the Minister could explain in his answer how energy companies can be allowed to have record profits at this time. How is that permitted? Should they not be absorbing costs as small businesses seem to have to? We need an effective windfall tax that we can use to support SMEs.

I want to make the Minister aware of a problem with the SEAI and businesses applying for grants. Businesses that have applied for grants are not getting a response quickly enough. In some cases they are not getting a response at all. I know one business that has been told it will be informed in November. These businesses have laid out a lot of money, up to €180,000 in some cases. Could the Minister intervene with the SEAI and ask them to speed up and streamline the process so that money gets back into these businesses as quickly as possible? They are depending on it for cash flow.

In response to Deputy Conway-Walsh, I will commit to that. It is important that everyone does treat this situation as what it is, an emergency situation, the SEAI included. It is important for it to accelerate its communications with companies looking for advice or grants to make sure we act quickly. I agree with Deputy Cairns. It is not a functioning market. There are super-normal profits being made. The best way for us to target those is to work in conjunction with European colleagues because the more uniform and united our approach to this is, the more legally robust and effective it is in countering the Russian Government and what it is doing. We will do that. It will not be an easy process but we are committed to trying to redirect some of those excess profits to Irish consumers and Irish businesses.

Recycling Policy

Matt Carthy

Question:

67. Deputy Matt Carthy asked the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications his proposals to reduce the amount of polyethylene terephthalate, PET, plastic exported from Ireland considering options are available for the domestic recycling of that waste. [45768/22]

At present, the quantity of recyclable materials placed on the market by industry in Ireland is in excess of domestic recycling capacity and the waste management industry relies, in part, on the export market to meet its processing needs. As Minister of State, I do not have the power in an open market to direct waste to be kept within Ireland or that it be directed to a specific facility for recycling. That being said, Repak, the national packaging extended producer responsibility scheme is incentivising domestic recycling ahead of recycling abroad. That is because it is not a Government body. Repak's scheme promotes domestic recycling and maximises funding to operators that collect, separate and reprocess PET plastics in Ireland.

For household collections, an additional reprocessing subsidy was introduced in 2020 and is only available to plastic reprocessors with operations in Ireland. In 2022 this subsidy increased from €35 per tonne to €50 per tonne. For commercial collections there is a stepped system in place with the highest subsidy payable where material is recycled in Ireland, mid-range funding where material is recycled in the EU or UK, and a reduced subsidy for material sent outside Europe. The forthcoming deposit return scheme for plastic bottles and aluminium cans, when operational, will increase the quantity and quality of materials available for recycling in Ireland.

I welcome the recent visit by the Minister of State to Shabra plastics facility in my own constituency. Regardless of the constituency it is in, I am sure from his engagement as local Oireachtas Members will have heard that he is bound to have been astounded by the facts as they are. A company that is in Ireland has to import PET plastics in order to remain viable, while Irish waste collectors are exporting significant tonnes of that same product even though they are subsidised by the Irish taxpayer through Repak.

There are a couple of things the Government has the power to do. The first is to introduce a levy on the use of virgin plastics, something other EU states have done, but as with previous questions, the answer here is that we have to wait for an EU-wide response. In many cases when things affect ordinary individuals the Government has no problem acting unilaterally and swiftly but it seems that when things impact on big global companies there is a reluctance.

Indeed, at the invitation of Deputy Niamh Smyth I went up and had a look at Shabra plastics in Monaghan, one of many visits I have made to Monaghan. I could see it is importing plastic from all around the world and meanwhile Irish plastic is being exported all around the world in contravention of the proximity principle. The question is how do we address this. We are not waiting for European agreement on a common virgin plastic tax. There are countries that brought one in. My Department is examining what form that could take and it is part of our circular economy strategy at the moment. I have been in contact with the Department of Finance, which pays out the unrecycled plastic tax as part of its EU membership following Brexit, whereby that became part of our EU membership costs. There is an incentive in the country to reduce the quantity of unrecycled plastic that exists and to do everything we can to make sure it is reprocessed. Repak does have an objective of processing plastic and recycling it domestically. I will look over the agreement we have with it over the rates they pay for local recycling.

In a previous written response to me back in May, the Minister of State indicated that the data relating to the quantities of PET plastic that are recycled domestically and exported were not collated by his Department. Will he indicate as a first step that this has now changed and that he plans to provide the data? We are having a debate in the abstract if we do not know precisely how big of a problem we are dealing with.

In respect of the levy on virgin plastic, it appears to be a no-brainer in terms of the language the Government uses. Whenever we are talking about ordinary people using coffee cups, plastic bags or whatever, they are all measures that I support. There is never any issue. We never have to carry out years of analysis or wait to see what is happening at a European level. Virgin plastic being imported into Ireland is a source of pollution and therefore it would make eminent sense that there would be a levy on that in order to encourage the use of recycled material.

The unrecycled plastic tax on packaging waste is calculated by finding the quantity of plastic packaging put on the market and then subtracting out the quantity that was recycled. I will get the Deputy an answer for who the authorities are who calculate those statistics. If it is not my Department it is probably the Environmental Protection Agency, the Central Statistics Office or somebody.

On the question of a virgin plastic tax, we are looking into that. We do not have to wait for EU approval. What is being imported into Ireland includes large quantities of recycled material as well as virgin plastic. We have both coming in which hardly makes any sense. I am glad to see what Shabra is doing. It is an Irish company that is making a profit and one of the only companies that is reprocessing plastic in Ireland. We will do everything to make sure companies like that thrive in the future.

Is féidir teacht ar Cheisteanna Scríofa ar www.oireachtas.ie .
Written Answers are published on the Oireachtas website.
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