Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Dáil Éireann díospóireacht -
Tuesday, 11 Jun 2013

Vol. 806 No. 1

Other Questions

Hydraulic Fracturing Policy

Timmy Dooley


57. Deputy Timmy Dooley asked the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources when he will issue guidelines relating to hydraulic fracturing; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [27838/13]

The current position in Ireland with respect to the use of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is that my Department has not approved any application for, nor licensed the use of, hydraulic fracturing in the Irish onshore.

Notwithstanding this position, however, I understand there are genuine concerns about the potential environmental considerations which may be associated with such activities. For this reason in October 2011, I asked the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, to examine the whole issue of fracking and its potential environmental implications with particular reference to Irish geological conditions.

The EPA is in the process of finalising terms of reference to engage the appropriate expertise in this regard. These draft terms of reference have been the subject of a public consultation process. Over 1,000 submissions were received under this process and these are being examined. It is anticipated that, following the engagement of the relevant experts, the study will take considerable time to complete, leading to a potential publication date in 2015. The key questions to be addressed by this research are if this technology can be used while fully protecting the environment and what the best environmental practice in using this technology might be.

Any environmental guidance issued with respect to the conduct of fracking activities in Ireland would be informed by the findings of this research, were the research to find that such activities could be undertaken in an environmentally compliant manner. From a safety perspective, any proposed fracking activities would come under the remit of the Commission for Energy Regulation, CER. The regulator has already published statutory guidelines on the submission of safety cases relating to designated petroleum activities which will come into effect in November of this year.

We are heading into uncharted territory with fracking. The EPA’s report will be crucial in this regard. The Minister expects the report to be published in 2015 but there are significant concerns in communities that have been identified as sites with the potential for fracking exploration. It is important the correct messages are given out regarding environmental compliance and that nothing will be done until the EPA’s report is published. Is the Minister satisfied the EPA will have a report by 2015? It is important we wait until the report is published, irrespective of what is happening in other parts of the Continent.

We should wait until the EPA comes back to us with a scientific report, in which we can have all aspects investigated to the nth degree, before we proceed.

I call on the Minister to reply. I will then call a number of other Deputies.

I accept what the Deputy has said, namely, that there are genuine concerns about the environmental and public health implications of the technology known as hydraulic fracturing. I accept that we have to get the science right and that any decision made in the future will have to be made on evidence-based conclusions. It is for that reason I have commissioned the EPA - I do not think anyone would question its independence - to cause this study to be delivered. It parallels many similar studies being undertaken in other member states of the European Union. The British Government recently brought forward tax advantages to encourage hydraulic fracturing in Britain and, generally, across Europe similar studies are being engaged in. There has been some exploratory drilling in Poland, but the results have been deemed disappointing so far. I presume there are many people in Poland who would say if shale gas was safe, that it would be a big step forward on the use of coal which is their country's main energy source. Europe cannot ignore the implications of the revolution in the use of shale gas in the United States. It has had a dramatic impact on the price of energy. Gas is between four and five times more expensive in Europe than in the United States. I need not point out to the Deputies the competitiveness implications of this for Europe vis-à-vis doing business with the United States. It is also something the European Commission and Heads of Government have to take into account.

I call Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett who will be followed by Deputy Michael Colreavy.

I ask the Minister to watch the documentary film "Gasland" about the impact of hydraulic fracturing in some states in the United States. What it details is terrifying. Whole swathes of agricultural land have been poisoned and become unusable. The consequences of such activity for a much smaller country like ours where agriculture, tourism and the environment are extremely important could not but help the Minister to conclude that hydraulic fracturing is definitely not for this country, if it is something that should be pursued anywhere. If we have to find cheap energy sources, let us find them in renewables. Fracking is a no-no and would be a disaster for this country.

The Minister is increasingly appearing to be a champion of hydraulic fracturing. I would not pin all my hopes on the economics of fracking because evidence is coming forward that three times the number of planned fracking wells are needed in order to hit the projected targets. That would have an impact on the cost of shale gas. Even more importantly, we of all nations should have learned that we cannot fully trust regulators and systems of regulation. When the Taoiseach was in Pennsylvania, he spoke in glowing terms about the shale gas effort there. I presume in Pennsylvania that there is the US equivalent of the EPA which undertook reports and so on before the work was done. The Department of Environmental Protection in Pennsylvania wrote a letter to many people in this regard.

The letter stated that there is a physical danger of fire or explosion due to the migration of natural gas into water wells or through soils into dwellings where it could be ignited by sources that are present in most homes and buildings. It also stated clearly that the departmental investigation indicates that gas well drilling has impacted the water supply.

The worrying thing is that it was not the regulators who picked up on these problems but people who insisted that the Department of Environmental Protection carry out the tests. They were lucky enough to have baseline information, otherwise they would not have a leg on which to stand. It was up to the people. The companies will not notify and the regulators are not doing what regulators should do and we of all people know the consequences of that.

I have explained that any decisions down the line will have to be evidence based. I do not know how Deputy Colreavy can draw the conclusions he has drawn. I would say to Deputy Boyd Barrett that I have very limited time these days to watch horror movies.

The Minister should watch this one.

However, there are plenty of experts who will say that what is on display in that particular horror movie is no longer up to speed in terms of the technology.

I am not a scientist and I do not have to make this decision. The reason we create agencies, like the Environmental Protection Agency, is that we, as policymakers, have expert advice available to us from people who are qualified to make these judgments. I share any concern there is about damage to the water tables in Ireland or to public health but I repeat again, because apparently there is a necessity to do so, that there is no fracking going on in Ireland.

Deputy Boyd Barrett should relax. His tap is perfectly safe. It will not go on fire until we at least get the EPA report. When get the report, we will discuss it.

Broadband Service Charges

Willie O'Dea


58. Deputy Willie O'Dea asked the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources the way the EU Commission’s proposals for reducing the cost of broadband will be transposed here; his views on the way Irish broadband costs for both business and personal customers compare to other EU countries; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [27846/13]

On 26 March last the European Commission published its proposal for a regulation of the European Parliament and of the Council on measures to reduce the cost of deploying high-speed electronic communications networks. The Commission also submitted its proposal to the Council of Ministers and the European Parliament as it is required to do as a preliminary step in the EU legislative process.

The broad aim of the Commission's proposal is to allow investors planning to install next generation broadband infrastructure to identify and negotiate access to useful spare capacity within the infrastructure of other utilities operating in the electricity, gas, transport and water markets and to reduce or remove other identified barriers.

Following publication of the proposal, the Council and Parliament, acting independently of each other initially, must consider the Commission proposal and adopt any amendments they deem necessary.

Transposition within member states will not occur until the Council and Parliament reach agreement and publish a binding legislative text. It is only at that stage that any supplementary requirements, arising at the national level, to give full effect to the EU regulation can be assessed. It is my understanding that formal consideration of the Commission's proposal within the Council will commence in the coming weeks and a timeline for reaching conclusions on the proposal has yet to be set.

In terms of international price comparisons, I would advise the Deputy that ComReg, the market regulator, operates an online call-costs website which allows the public to compare the broadband packages marketed by the competing broadband services providers in any country. It is then a matter for customers to decide the most advantageous package available. ComReg also publishes quarterly statistical reports, which include international comparisons of retail broadband prices for residential and business customers.

The most recent report up to end 2012 shows that retail broadband prices in Ireland available to business users for fixed line broadband access and retail prices for pre-pay and post pay mobile broadband users are less than the EU average. The fixed line broadband charge for residential users exceeds the EU average.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House

In the case of fixed line broadband access charges it should be noted that the comparisons do not take account of bundled services. There is an increasing trend of customers migrating to bundled service which provide some combination of fixed telephony, Internet access, TV and mobile telephony services. At the end of 2012, 44% of fixed line broadband customers in Ireland had contracted for a bundled service.

The Minister concluded his reply by suggesting that broadband costs in Ireland are almost on a par with the EU average. Some reports have suggested that the cost of broadband to households, businesses and services in this country is 27% higher than the EU average and 7% higher than the OECD average. Broadband is a fundamental issue for Ireland. I think it will define our society into the future. Over recent generations, we have seen a huge movement of people from the west coast to the east coast. The policies of successive Governments, including policies that are ongoing, seem to favour the east coast rather than the west coast. If we do not get our broadband policy right very soon, there will be a huge divide within Irish society. Any fair assessment of the policies to which I refer will conclude that they have been detrimental to society and will continue to be detrimental to society. That is a completely separate issue, however. The point I am making is that reports have suggested that broadband costs in this country are 27% higher than the EU average and 7% higher than the OECD average.

I agree with much of what Deputy Moynihan has said. I can tell him that the figures he has mentioned are wrong. He will have to trust me on that. I will give him the accurate figures. In Ireland, the average monthly cost of residential fixed-line services is €28. The EU average is €22. The average monthly cost of fixed-line services to businesses is €22, compared to an EU average of €30. The average cost of mobile pre-pay is €17 per month in Ireland, whereas the EU average is €18 per month. The average cost of mobile post-pay is €16 here and the EU average is €17.50. I agree with what the Deputy has said about the importance of telecommunications infrastructure. The issue for us is the quality of the service, rather than any comparative cost disadvantage vis-à-vis Europe. It is not the case that there is any such disadvantage. The broadband plan that I published acknowledges that State intervention is necessary because the broadband service in some less densely populated areas is basic. There is fierce competition within the private sector in urban areas. One sees that on television all the time. The State must intervene in less densely populated parts of the country where the service is basic. We have committed some €300 million for investment in that third tier. Approximately three weeks ago, we commissioned consultants to prepare our State aid application. We have to go through the state aid process if we are to be allowed to invest taxpayers' money in bringing the system up to par. That, rather than any comparative price disadvantage vis-à-vis the bulk of the countries in Europe, is the area we are focusing on.

Petroleum and Gas Exploration

Michael Colreavy


59. Deputy Michael Colreavy asked the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources when he will carry out a review of the fiscal terms of petroleum licensing here; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [26711/13]

At the commencement of the Dáil debate on the report of the former Joint Committee on Communications, Natural Resources and Agriculture on offshore oil and gas exploration, and in deference to the work of the joint committee, I outlined my intention to seek independent expert advice on the fitness for purpose of Ireland’s current oil and gas exploration fiscal terms. I also said I proposed to listen to the views of Deputies through the course of the debate before initiating the process of seeking such expert advice. I believe such expert advice should focus on the level of fiscal gain that is achievable for the State and its citizens and the mechanisms best suited to produce such a gain. Certainty regarding fiscal terms is a prerequisite to attracting oil and gas exploration investment to Ireland with a view to establishing the true oil and gas potential of the Irish offshore. In that regard, and particularly in the context of planning for the next licensing round, I intend to bring my consideration of this matter to a conclusion before the end of this year. That will ensure the next licensing round can be launched against a backdrop of regulatory certainty and thereby encourage much needed new investment in exploration in our offshore.

I will be brief because I know the Leas-Cheann Comhairle is under pressure. I welcome the Minister's decision to open a review of the fiscal terms of petroleum licensing in Ireland. I think we need to get away from setting the terms of production before exploration has been done. I do not think there needs to be an intrinsic link between one and the other. The terms of production should be set when we know what is there to be produced. The cost of exploring Irish waters should be written off over 15, 23 or 25 years - it should not be an upfront cost that has to be recouped to the companies before this nation takes in 1 cent in revenue. I assume the Minister will accept submissions from interested parties as part of all the work that is going on.

I will begin by responding to what the Deputy has said about "interested parties". The Oireachtas committee spent six or seven months on this issue and prepared a report. I am taking the recommendations in the report as the basis of the way to go forward. The entire thrust of policy is to generate more offshore economic activity and increase the offshore exploration rate. We need certainty for that reason. Up to now, we have simply not attracted the level of economic activity one would expect. The expectations of the early 1970s have not been realised. We have not had an oil find. As I said in response to Deputy Boyd Barrett earlier, I find it difficult to understand why I am accused of giving away our oil, given that we have not found any yet.

What about Barryroe?

There would be no putting up with the Minister if we found oil.

The Minister is a gas man.

If it is considered that our fiscal terms are a giveaway, I ask Deputy Colreavy to explain why our coastline is not black with ships exploring the Irish offshore. If our tax regime is so favourable to those who engage in prospecting and exploring, why is that work not under way? We have been drilling less than two wells per annum, on average, for the last dozen years. At that rate of drilling, it is like looking for a needle in a haystack.

It is a shocking record.

The Minister needs to up his game.

Has the Minister not heard about Barryroe?

We do not have the State investment for a State exploration company. Therefore, we have to attract companies that can carry out such work. For that reason, we have to pitch the fiscal regime broadly in line with the situation in similar member states. There is no point in comparing apples with oranges. There is no comparison between this country and Norway, which has a particularly different geological structure and a hit rate of approximately one in four. Since the early 1970s, we have had four gas finds and no oil finds. I hope the signals from Barryroe continue to be encouraging as they are at the moment. Another couple of wells will have to be drilled before we know for sure whether it is commercially viable - whether the oil that is undoubtedly there is commercially extractable.

We have to get it shovel-ready.