Wednesday, 14 February 2018

Questions (22)

Bríd Smith


22. Deputy Bríd Smith asked the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment further to the vote in Dáil Éireann on the Petroleum and other Minerals Development (Climate Emergency Measures) Bill 2017, if no further licences, undertakings or leases for fossil fuel exploration will be awarded until the issues are dealt with at the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Communications, Climate Action and Environment; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7712/18]

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Oral answers (13 contributions) (Question to Communications)

Despite the Minister's man flu, I want him to address this very important question. Last July, quietly and without any notice to our committee or any notice on the Department's website, the Minister signed off on exploration licences for the Druid Drumbeg exploration field which is estimated to have 5 billion barrels of offshore oil.

Last week we passed Second Stage of a climate emergency Bill. I am now asking the Minister whether he is going to issue further licences, undertakings or leases for fossil fuel exploration before we deal with that Bill. It still has to go through committee and still has to be fully amended. Will the Minister respect the vote of the Dáil, which gave a clear indication to him last week, and desist from issuing any further licences?

The Bill referenced by the Deputy has been referred to select committee for consideration. As such, it remains a legislative proposal. Government policies in respect of climate action, energy and offshore exploration, and the application of such policies, remain unchanged.

The challenge to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is well understood by Government and it is reflected in our national climate action and energy policy. Ireland will, within the EU and UN climate frameworks, pursue and achieve a transition to a low-carbon, climate-resilient and environmentally sustainable economy, underpinned by a secure and competitive energy supply, in the period to 2050. Within that context, it is accepted that Ireland will continue to require and use some, but significantly reduced, fossil fuels to meet the needs of our people, farmers, industry and businesses. In contrast, the Bill proposed by Solidarity will not reduce Ireland's greenhouse gas emissions and will not help Ireland meet its 2020 or 2030 emissions targets. The strategy outlined by Solidarity during last week’s Second Stage debate is for Ireland to rely entirely on imports for all our future fossil fuel needs.

As well as failing to actually reduce Ireland's greenhouse gas emissions, the proposed Bill would have an adverse impact on Ireland’s Exchequer resources through the loss of exploration acreage rental fee revenues and the potential loss of taxation revenue under the Finance Acts from any future commercial discoveries. In the face of such a loss to the Exchequer, it is my view that it would not be appropriate for a Government to issue a money message for this Bill.

The Solidarity approach fails to recognise, in contrast to the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, that natural gas can play a role as a transition fuel in combination with variable renewable sources. The Government and the public are willing to tackle climate change but the Solidarity Bill will not solve climate change. As I said last week, the energy White Paper clearly states that natural gas will play a huge part in our energy security into the future.

I remind the Minister of State that the Solidarity-People Before Profit Bill is, in fact, a climate emergency Bill. We call it a climate emergency because that is exactly what it is, and the vast majority of Deputies in this House agreed with that - if they did not, they might try to explain why not. There is a real worry here that we are not getting what this means. If the Minister of State accepts the science, it states that 80% of known reserves have to stay in the ground if the earth is not to overheat by 2° Celsius, which will begin to threaten many of the species already existing on the planet and human life itself, and will wreak chaos, not just in this country but in many parts of the planet.

Gas emissions do not have a nationality but unless we begin to acknowledge the science and say this must remain in the ground, we are codding ourselves, and being on this committee, having a national mitigation plan and anything else we do will be absolutely meaningless.

I would like the Minister of State to comment on that.

The Deputy will have another minute.

Even the licence issued last year that represents 5 billion barrels would result, potentially, in releasing the equivalent of all our greenhouse gas emissions for the next quarter of a century. How in the name of God does that make sense while, at the same time, we are supposed to be tackling climate change?

As the Deputy knows, the results of the oil well drilling in Drumbeg did not yield any hydrocarbons and the well has been closed and capped, so there was no 5 billion barrels of oil.

I absolutely agree with the science and the majority of Members of this House agree with the science. Listening to the contributions last week, there is clearly an appetite for a larger debate at committee on this issue. Deputies Stanley, Dooley and Lawless in particular, while supporting the Bill on Second Stage, also acknowledged there needed to be a wider debate on the whole area. I hope the committee takes up the opportunity for that debate on energy security. We want to see a reduction in usage of fossil fuels and that should be the principle of the House. However, banning offshore will not reduce usage, which has to be achieved by a change in mindset, a change in policy and continued investment by the State in the whole area of retrofitting and so on, as we are doing. The Bill put forward by the Deputy will not change the usage.

There is no doubt that it will not change the usage, and I never said it would, but it might give a kick up the backside to this Government to get on with developing renewables and alternatives because we cannot continue to rely on fossil fuels. Last year I asked whether there is an automatic entitlement for these companies to renew licences and continue exploration, and the Minister got back to me and said that, in the context of his ability to decide based on the record of companies, there is no automatic entitlement for renewal of gas or oil exploration. Yet, we have a company like Europa Oil and Gas boasting this morning that it is very excited about the potential of realising its drilling for another 5 billion barrels of oil, the same amount that would cause us to exceed our emissions for the next quarter of a century. We are dealing with science here. I am asking the Department to please be logical in its approach to this, not aspirational, as the Minister of State would accuse us of being.

We are being logical. The logical issue here is that there will continue to be a need and a demand for hydrocarbons, whether it be oil or, in particular, natural gas, for the next period of time. While stating that we should not explore our offshore, we would still be importing oil and natural gas. Post-Brexit we will not have energy independence from any other country in the European Union. For example, we are developing a Celtic interconnector with France, where we will be importing majority nuclear-generated energy supply. The target and the ambition of both myself and the Minister, Deputy Naughten, is to reduce the usage of fossil fuels. That is the important thing, no matter what party one is in. We want to reduce the usage of fossil fuels in this country, and that is where the ambition needs to be. Clearly, the State itself is not investing anything in offshore exploration. These are private companies and it is a hugely regulated sector in terms of environmental assessments, appropriate assessments and so on. Any decision will be made in the best interests of energy security and the strict adherence to environmental policy.

There is no security in a planet that is overheating.