Adjournment Debate. - Natural Gas Grid.

I thank the Chair for allowing me to raise this issue of importance to the region I represent.

If proof was needed that the Government's policy on the north-west is to turn it into a nature reserve with large tracts of forests, mountains and lakes and the odd human inhabitant living in a hut, the announcement by the Minister for the Marine and Natural Resources, Deputy Fahey, yesterday evening outlining the proposed extension of the natural gas pipeline from the Corrib field gas find off the Mayo coast that will service towns such as Tuam, Athenry, Galway city, Castlebar and Claremorris, with no proposal for a pipeline to service any area of the north-west, confirms the Government's total abdication of its commitment to the region. That decision and others taken recently show a total lack of commitment to the development of Counties Sligo, Leitrim and Donegal.

The road infrastructure to the region has failed to receive funding under the national development plan. The N4 will have dual carriageway status from Dublin to Mullingar and only single carriageway status, as currently exists, from Mullingar to Sligo. The proposed new signalling system for the Sligo-Dublin rail link has been postponed indefinitely due to a debacle of the highest incompetence shown by a semi-State body and the Minister presiding over it.

How can a region develop if the Government is not prepared to give a lead and provide the necessary funding for infrastructural development? How can the most isolated region in the country hope to develop when the Government discriminates against it? The Government has taken the region for granted and shown scant regard for the many families who are trying to eke out a living in the area. I have no doubt that the political arrogance manifests itself by reason of the fact that of the ten Deputies who represent the region, only three oppose the Government.

The statement by the Minister, Deputy Fahey, yesterday confirmed that he would pursue the building of a further pipeline from Pollatomishvia Ballina to Sligo, depending on whether Bord Gáis can provide the funding. I challenge the Minister's statement. BGE may have the administrative responsibility for the pipeline but it will be necessary for the Government to provide the financing for the project. The Minister for the Marine and Natural Resources should abandon his aspirational claptrap and convince his Government colleagues to provide the necessary funding to take the national gas pipeline to Sligo and the north-west.

My constituents do not want pious promises. They want the funding for the gas pipeline, the upgrading of the N4 from single carriageway to dual carriageway or motorway status from Sligo to Mullingar and the immediate improvement of the signalling system on the Sligo-Dublin rail track. This investment in the north-west is necessary if the people there are to see jobs brought to the three counties and to experience the necessary increase in population that will allow us to grow economically and socially.

I thank the Deputy for raising this matter. The extension of the natural gas network to various areas of the country and to individual towns is a matter for Bord Gáis Éireann in the first instance. All proposals for natural gas pipelines, whether they are to be built by BGE or private pipeline developers, must be submitted to me for approval under the Gas Acts. In approving those proposals I can attach certain conditions in relation to safety and environmental considerations, but I cannot determine what the route of the pipeline will be or what towns along its route are to be served by spur lines. This is a matter for the pipeline developers and will be made by them on the basis of commercial criteria.

Given recent announcements in the media, I understand the Deputy's concerns and am happy to explain the current state of developments regarding BGE's plans for extending the natural gas network. The main development in the extension of the gas transmission network is the proposal by BGE to build a new pipeline from Dublin to Galway and onwards to Limerick. As gas demand increases and as the Kinsale field comes to the end of its natural life over the next couple of years, there is a necessity to reinforce the gas transmission system to ensure that it is capable of meeting demand in the south of the country. The option of providing this extra capacity by building a pipeline to the west and on to the south has the added benefit of making gas available to areas in the midlands and the west as yet unserved by a gas supply. BGE is advanced in its plans for this pipeline and detailed engineering and the preparation of a full application for consent are well under way.

Many Deputies will be aware that the Taoiseach recently announced a joint venture between BGE and the consortium involved in the exploration of the Corrib field to build a pipeline from Pollatomish in Mayo to Craughwell in Galway to bring gas from the Corrib field to the main BGE onshore system in anticipation of a final decision on the commerciality of the field by the Corrib partners. In relation to this proposed pipeline, the House will be aware that my colleague, the Minister for the Marine and Natural Resources, announced yesterday that BGE has indicated that Castlebar, Claremorris, Tuam and Athenry will be among the towns along the route of the pipeline from Pollatomish to Galway that will receive a natural gas supply.

BGE is committed to connecting the natural gas network to all major towns in the country provided that this can be done in line with their commercial mandate under the Gas Acts. BGE has informed me that in addition to providing a gas supply to the towns mentioned earlier, the prospect of supplying gas to other centres of population in the north-west is under active review as part of a national study to determine centres that can be supplied with gas on an economic basis.

The question of gas supply to other towns in the catchment area of the proposed pipelines, or those in more distant counties, such as those mentioned by the Deputy, is a matter for BGE to examine in assessing the economics of extending the transmission and distribution networks into the north-west. When this assessment has been completed a fuller picture as to the viability of such extensions will emerge.

My outlook is to be as helpful and as positive as possible, but I cannot anticipate the analysis by BGE. I also have regard to economic realities and it seems to me that if a particular town cannot be served on a commercially viable basis, then serving it would trigger a need for external subvention. This in turn raises ownership issues and potential State aid issues which would have to be dealt with at that time.