National Oil Reserves Agency

Questions (33)

Micheál Martin

Question:

33. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources his views on the recent announcement that the Whitegate Oil Refinery is for sale; if he is satisfied that the National Oil Reserves Agency will not be affected by any sale; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [35057/13]

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Written answers (Question to Communications)

Security of oil supply is central to the economy and to our economic and social development. While significant efforts are underway to improve energy efficiency and increase renewable energy, Ireland remains dependent to a large degree on imported oil. Oil comprised 59% of total final energy consumption in Ireland in 2011 and it is clear that oil will continue to play a pivotal role in the medium to longer term. Security of oil supply is therefore of central importance to the Irish economy and society and ensuring a robust oil infrastructure on the island is an essential part of our security of energy supply strategy.

Oil is either imported in the form of petroleum products or as crude oil. The crude that is imported into Ireland is refined in the Whitegate refinery. The refinery supplies about a quarter of the petroleum products on the domestic market. Some 75% of the Irish oil supplies are imported in final product form from neighbouring markets.

The Whitegate refinery was in state ownership for some years and was operated by Irish National Petroleum Corporation (INPC) who sold the refinery together with the Bantry Terminal in 2001 to a private company known as Tosco Corporation. Tosco subsequently sold on the refinery to Conoco Phillips and the day to day operation of the refinery and terminal is a matter for the current owners, Phillips 66. Under the terms of the sale from INPC to Tosco, the refinery and terminal must continue to be operated until 2016. This obligation applies also to Phillips 66 and any subsequent owners.

Phillips 66 recently confirmed that it commenced a process to market the Whitegate refinery, the storage terminal and the associated business. Phillips 66 has confirmed that it intends to continue operating the assets as usual during the marketing process which is expected to last for several months. My Department is maintaining close liaison with Phillips 66 in the context of the proposed disposal of the refinery. I can confirm that I attach importance to the availability of refining capacity in the State from a security of supply perspective.

More generally, discussions on the oil refining sector in Europe have been ongoing at EU and IEA level. In light of ongoing rationalisations in the EU refining sector and the expiry of Whitegate’s refining obligation in 2016, earlier this year the Government considered the strategic case for oil refining requirements on the island of Ireland. To inform its deliberations, the Government considered a report I commissioned on this topic, as well as evolving IEA and EU work on the refining sector. I intend to publish this report shortly.

This report, in addition to findings on refining, also includes important analysis and findings on the security of oil supplies on the island of Ireland. In particular, the report demonstrates that the improved motorway network and the robust capacity at Irish ports has enhanced the resilience of the oil supply infrastructure in recent years.

In relation to the National Oil Reserves Agency (NORA), I am pleased to say that it has made excellent progress in rebalancing Ireland’s strategic oil stockholding. In 2008, only 46% of NORA’s stocks were held in Ireland, with the remainder held abroad or in the form of stock tickets (short term contracts for delivery of oil in the event of an oil supply disruption.) Since then, NORA has worked diligently to increase its access to storage on the island of Ireland and has opened three new strategic oil storage facilities in Antrim, Dublin and Kerry. As a result, by April this year, NORA held 74% of its strategic oil stocks as physical stocks on the island of Ireland and had eliminated its dependence on stock tickets. This has considerably enhanced Irish oil security.

Under the terms of the original sale of the refinery and terminal by INPC to Tosco in 2001, two 15 year contracts with NORA were included as part of the sale - one of the contracts relates to delivery by the refinery over a 5 week period of a certain portion of refined product in the event of an oil supply disruption and the other relates to NORA maintaining a significant portion of Ireland’s strategic oil reserves at the Bantry storage terminal. The sale of the refinery by Tosco to Conoco Phillips and the subsequent transfer of ownership to Phillips 66 has not impacted on the holding by NORA of strategic oil stocks at the Whitegate and Bantry facilities and I do not foresee any immediate impacts arising from the current process.

I will continue to liaise with Phillips 66 on the proposed sale of the refinery, storage terminal and associated business.

National Postcode System Establishment

Questions (34)

Michael Colreavy

Question:

34. Deputy Michael Colreavy asked the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources the up to date position in relation to the introduction of postcodes; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [35021/13]

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Written answers (Question to Communications)

The procurement process to select a postcode management licence holder to implement a National Postcode System is currently underway. Intensive work has taken place on what is an extremely complex national project and the procurement process has now entered the final stage. I can say that the final tender has issued and the process is expected to come to a conclusion shortly.

The final decision to proceed with implementation of a National Postcode System will be for decision by Government and will be based on appropriate financial, technical and operational considerations. I cannot give a precise date on when this decision will be made but I intend that it will be no later than the third quarter of this year.

Job Creation Issues

Questions (35, 36)

Richard Boyd Barrett

Question:

35. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources his plans to consult stakeholders in any plans for job creation in the area of natural resources; and his proposals to progress such a plan; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [35076/13]

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Richard Boyd Barrett

Question:

36. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources his plans to utilise Ireland's natural resources for job creation; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [35074/13]

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Written answers (Question to Communications)

I propose to take Question Nos. 35 and 36 together.

I am committed to facilitating the exploration and development of Ireland’s mineral, oil and gas resources with a view to maximising their contribution to Ireland’s society and economy, including the provision of employment, whilst having due regard to any potential environmental impact.

Exploration and development of mineral, oil or gas resources is by its very nature a high cost and high risk activity, best suited to private sector investment. The key to attracting such mobile investment is a facilitative regulatory regime and the availability of exploration data.

In respect of mineral resources, the State’s regulatory regime facilitates exploration and development through the grant of exclusive prospecting licences to permit the search for new commercial mineral deposits.

Availability of exploration data, free of charge and on-line, using geographical information systems, also assists in attracting mineral exploration investment.

There are currently 600 prospecting licences in operation. In addition there are three main operating mines and one mine in closure mode. Ireland has been successful in the past in bringing deposits into production and in 2012 exploration and mining in Ireland supported over 1,300 full-time equivalent jobs distributed across the regions.

My Department has been working on a new Minerals Development Bill, to update and consolidate legislation for the sector from the 1940s through to the 1990s in order to provide a new legislative regulatory framework fit for the 21st Century. Subject to other legislative priorities, I hope to be able to publish this Bill in the near future.

As regards oil and gas, it is important that the State provides the right environment to encourage private exploration investment.

This is achieved through a number of mechanisms, including:

- offering attractive and innovative licensing opportunities, such as the 2011 Atlantic Margin licensing round;

- providing a fit-for-purpose, transparent and robust regulatory regime;

- deepening knowledge of our offshore petroleum potential, in particular through data acquisition and supporting key research projects and;

- actively promoting the opportunity to invest in exploration in the Irish offshore, in particular to companies not currently active here.

The job creation potential of a successful commercial oil or gas find in the Irish offshore is evidenced by the Corrib Gas field find. For example, over 1,000 people were employed at the height of the construction phase of the Corrib gas terminal, and even today the project continues to provide both direct and indirect local employment opportunities in North Mayo. A more active exploration and production industry would also encourage the development of a range of support services, in particular around key port facilities, thus facilitating employment creation in these areas and in the wider economy.

In addition, through the Geological Survey of Ireland, I have recently established Geoscience Ireland. This is a business cluster, involving Enterprise Ireland, where nineteen companies active in the Geoscience service sector have come together to collaborate in winning work overseas and creating and sustaining employment.

To date the initiative has carried out a marketing study, built the dedicated website www.geoscience.ie, appointed a business development manager based at the Geological Survey of Ireland, and engaged in trade missions and sectoral studies. The 19 companies involved in the cluster have reported a growth in overall staff numbers since the initiative commenced of 84, to a total of 1,078.

In facilitating the exploration and development of Ireland’s mineral, oil and gas resources, with a view to enhancing employment prospects, both I and my Departmental officials meet with stakeholders and consider their views.

National Postcode System Establishment

Questions (37)

Thomas P. Broughan

Question:

37. Deputy Thomas P. Broughan asked the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources the timeline for the introduction of a national postcode system; if he will report on the types of system being explored by his Department; and when it is expected to have the new system in place. [34719/13]

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Written answers (Question to Communications)

The procurement process to select a postcode management licence holder to implement a National Postcode System is currently underway. Intensive work has taken place on what is an extremely complex national project and the details of the procurement process are confidential. I can say that the final tender has issued and the process is expected to come to a conclusion shortly.

The final decision to proceed with implementation of a National Postcode System will be for decision by Government and will be based on appropriate financial, technical and operational considerations. I cannot give a precise date on when this decision will be made but I intend that it will be no later than the third quarter of this year.

Hydraulic Fracturing Policy

Questions (38)

Jonathan O'Brien

Question:

38. Deputy Jonathan O'Brien asked the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources when the Environmental Protection Agency will begin work on its report on unconventional gas exploration and extraction; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [35031/13]

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Written answers (Question to Communications)

Earlier this year the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), announced the draft terms of reference for the more extensive second stage of its research into the use of hydraulic fracturing, the final results of which are expected in early 2015. The key questions to be addressed by this research are,

-To establish if shale gas exploration and extraction involving the use of the fracking technique can be carried out in a manner that will not cause significant environmental pollution.

-To identify all possible environmental risks associated with the fracking technique and to ascertain if these risks are manageable; and,

-To identify best practice with respect to environmental protection for the use of the hydraulic fracturing technique for the exploration and extraction of shale gas.

The proposed terms of reference were the subject of a Public Consultation and I understand that in excess of 1,300 submissions were received. These are currently being assessed by the Steering Group established by the EPA to oversee the appointment of the appropriate experts to carry out in-depth scientific research into the potential environmental impacts of hydraulic fracking. It is expected that a call for tender will issue in this regard shortly.

Broadband Services Provision

Question No. 40 answered with Question No. 18.

Question No. 41 answered with Question No. 24.

Questions (39)

Pearse Doherty

Question:

39. Deputy Pearse Doherty asked the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources the level of broadband access in Gaeltacht area; the steps being taken to improve same; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [35020/13]

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Written answers (Question to Communications)

Ireland's telecommunications market has been fully liberalised since 1999 in accordance with the requirements of binding EU Directives. The market has since developed into a well-regulated market, supporting a multiplicity of commercial operators, providing services over a diverse range of technology platforms. Details of broadband services available in each County, including Gaeltacht areas, can be found on ComReg's website at .www.callcosts.ie.

The State can only intervene to ensure access to broadband services in areas where the competitive market has failed to deliver such services, as in the case of the National Broadband Scheme (NBS) and the Rural Broadband Scheme. Broadband services under the NBS are available since October 2010 from the NBS service provider, “3”, to persons with a fixed residence or fixed business in the designated NBS Electoral Divisions, including those Gaeltacht areas where broadband coverage, at the time of the mapping exercise prior to the launch of the Scheme in 2008, was deemed to be insufficient. The combination of private investment and State interventions means that Ireland has met the EU Commission's Digital Agenda for Europe target of having a basic broadband service available to all areas by 2013.

With basic broadband services widely available across Ireland, the focus is now on accelerating the roll out of high speed services. The Government's National Broadband Plan, which I published in August last, aims to radically change the broadband landscape in Ireland by ensuring that high speed services of 30Mbps are available to all of our citizens and businesses, in advance of the EU's target date of 2020, and that significantly higher speeds are available to as many homes and businesses as possible.

Since the publication of the Plan, investments by the commercial sector are underway in both fixed line and mobile high speed broadband services, particularly in urban and semi-urban areas. In tandem with these commercial developments, intensive work is underway in my Department to progress a State-led investment to secure the countrywide introduction of next generation broadband access. The National Broadband Plan commits the Government to investing with the private sector to deliver high speed services to areas, which are not commercially viable and will not be provided by the market alone.

In order to progress the State-led investment, a full procurement process must be designed and EU State Aids approval must be obtained. My officials have commenced a comprehensive mapping exercise of the current and anticipated investment by the commercial sector to identify where the market is expected to succeed and fail in the delivery of high speed broadband services over the coming years.

The results of this mapping exercise will inform the level of Government interaction that may be required and the areas that need to be targeted in the State-led investment as envisaged in the National Broadband Plan.

Intensive technical, financial and legal preparations including stakeholder engagement will be ongoing throughout 2013 with a view to the launch of a procurement process in 2014.

Through the implementation of the National Broadband Plan, we are committed to increasing the availability of next generation speeds significantly, with a view to ensuring that all citizens and businesses can participate fully in a digitally enabled society.

Question No. 40 answered with Question No. 18.
Question No. 41 answered with Question No. 24.

Post Office Network

Questions (42)

Denis Naughten

Question:

42. Deputy Denis Naughten asked the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources the steps being taken to support the maintenance of the post office network; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [34750/13]

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Written answers (Question to Communications)

Operational matters and the role of developing commercial strategies for the post office network are a matter for the management and Board of An Post and one in which I have no statutory function.

As shareholder, however, I have a strong concern in relation to the ongoing commercial position of the Company and I regularly liaise with the Company in this regard. An Post has many strengths and has the largest retail presence in the country. I have impressed on the Company the need to further exploit its unique position in this regard and have been supportive of its attempts to diversify its income streams and to win a wider range of commercial contracts offering higher margins.

I am also, however, conscious that An Post faces a difficult financial position. The efforts by the Company to generate new income streams are most welcome. Equally, An Post must ensure that it has a competitive costbase. In this context, I recognise the efforts of the Company, in co-operation with its workforce to ensure constraint in operating costs, especially payroll which is such a major component of the Company’s fixed costs.

In May this year, I addressed the annual conference of the Irish Postmasters’ Union and emphasised the intrinsic strengths of the network and the opportunities for new developments. Having invested in the computerisation of all post offices, An Post is well positioned to become the front office provider of choice for Government and the financial services sector.

I also recently addressed the Seanad and engaged in a lively discussion with Senators on the Joint Committee on Transport and Communications ‘Report on Promoting a Sustainable Future for the Post Office Network’, which I find both positive and ambitious. The Report’s recommendations reflect a common sense approach to improving the viability and sustainability of the network and I am pleased to say that many of the suggestions made have been adopted, at least in part, by An Post.

An Post has made much progress towards diversification with its enhanced arrangement with AIB and its agreement with Aviva for the transfer of Aviva Ireland’s branch offices personal insurance business book to One Direct. More recently the opportunity to pay the local property tax via An Post outlets was secured. An Post has also been selected as the preferred bidder, following a competitive tender process, for the cash element of welfare payments which augurs well for the future of the network.

In the context of the public sector transformation agenda I will continue to engage with my colleague the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform in relation to consideration, as appropriate, of the post office network for transactional elements of the business of Government Departments and Agencies and have stressed to my Government colleagues that the network is ideally configured for over the counter transactions.

Overall, it is Government policy that An Post remains a strong and viable company, in a position to provide a high quality, nationwide postal service and maintain a nationwide customer focussed network of post offices.