I am very pleased to have this opportunity today to speak on Deputy McLoughlin's Bill on the prohibition of petroleum and extraction on the Irish onshore. I congratulate Deputy McLoughlin on having his Bill progressed this far. It is a considerable achievement for a Private Member's Bill to be debated in both Dáil and Seanad Éireann and I look forward to the progress of this, the first Private Member's Bill in this Government's tenure to proceed to enactment. The Bill has a clear focus, namely, to prohibit the use of hydraulic fracturing to explore for or extract oil or gas in the Irish onshore.
I would like to briefly reflect on the background of fracking in Ireland. As Senators may know, in 2011 three companies applied for licensing options to explore in onshore Ireland the possibility of extracting gas from tight shales by means of hydraulic fracturing. It was considered at the time that there was insufficient scientific evidence on which to base an environmental assessment as to whether this activity could be carried out in a manner that would protect the environment and human health. The Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, was therefore asked to carry out independent research to establish the potential implications in this regard and to make a recommendation as to the feasibility of fracking in Ireland. I am on the record as having raised concerns with regard to such matters as long-term well integrity, the potential release of toxic chemicals from the ground as a result of fracking and the significant and considerable potential implications by virtue of diverse housing that the use of this technology may have for people in rural communities. As I have already stated in Dáil Éireann, it has always been my view that consideration surrounding the use of new technologies should be scientifically examined and peer reviewed. The EPA-led joint research programme on the environmental impacts of unconventional gas exploration and extraction, which concluded in November 2016, has done precisely this.
Deputy McLoughlin's Bill proposes to prohibit exploration and extraction of petroleum in the Irish onshore due primarily to the concerns he has raised and those recognised and substantiated in the EPA-led research programme concerning the potential for this activity to cause pollution to groundwater and the associated potential impacts on human health, agriculture and tourism. Several amendments proposed on Report Stage of the Bill in the Dáil sought to extend the prohibition on hydraulic fracturing to the offshore. I want to make clear that none of the issues of concern relating to hydraulic fracturing in the onshore apply to the offshore where hydraulic fracturing is used only as a technological mechanism in certain circumstances that do not occur routinely in conventional drilling.
There is no unconventional exploration of offshore Ireland such as that found onshore in the United States of America. Due to the high density of wells required and the cost of development of such reservoirs, this is not feasible in an Irish offshore environment. If a prohibition on hydraulic fracturing on the Irish offshore were to be included in this Bill, it would limit the operator's ability to assess and quantify any petroleum volumes encountered and would likely place Ireland at a serious competitive disadvantage with the international petroleum industry.
On Report Stage in the Dáil two separate issues were conflated, first, the concerns about the impact on communities and groundwater resources and second, whether the continuation of exploration offshore was consistent with our climate change obligation. With regard to the first concern, the EPA-led programme of research was clear in its findings with regard to the legitimate concerns of potential pollution of groundwater and air quality, not to mention the lack of an integrated bespoke statutory framework governing fracking. The prohibition being introduced by this Bill adequately addresses these issues.
With regard to the second issue raised, I wish to clearly establish that the energy White Paper aligns energy policy, climate action policy and exploration policy leading the transition to a low carbon economy by 2050. It is important to note, however, that there will remain a significant role for natural gas, for example, as a transition fuel. If Ireland manages to benefit from the level of offshore exploration in the Atlantic margin in terms of another hydrocarbon find, that could have a substantial positive impact on the Irish economy such as reduced spending on imports, increased Exchequer resources for services and investment and more opportunities for employment and business.
The prohibition of hydraulic fracturing offshore has not been considered in the context of the EPA-led joint research programme nor is there any scientific research of this type of which I am aware relating to the offshore, or indeed any grounds for concern in this regard internationally. The findings of the EPA-led research programme, together with Deputy McLoughlin's Bill have been scrutinised by the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Communications, Climate Action and Environment, which has supported the introduction of a statutory ban on onshore fracking in Ireland. There is separate Private Members' legislation tabled with regard to the potential to introduce a prohibition on hydraulic fracturing offshore. This would be a more appropriate vehicle for discussion of this matter when the appropriate research has been done and proper consideration of this matter has been undertaken. I commend Deputy McLoughlin's endeavours and wish him well with the progress of this Bill.