Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Dáil Éireann díospóireacht -
Tuesday, 7 Feb 2017

Vol. 937 No. 3

Other Questions

North-South Interconnector

Niamh Smyth


40. Deputy Niamh Smyth asked the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment the amount the capital phase of the North-South interconnector project will cost the State; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [5421/17]

Niamh Smyth


558. Deputy Niamh Smyth asked the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment the amount the capital phase of the North-South interconnector project will cost the State; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [5393/17]

I welcome the Minister back to the House. It is great to see him here. I wish him a speedy recovery.

I thank Deputy Niamh Smyth.

These questions relate to An Bord Pleanála's recent decision to grant permission for EirGrid's contentious pylons on the east of the island. This decision will affect counties Cavan, Monaghan and Meath. Some of my colleagues from County Meath are present. There is huge opposition to this proposal in the area. Will the Minister make a statement on the overall cost of the project to the State?

I propose to take Questions Nos. 40 and 558 together.

EirGrid estimates that the cost of constructing the proposed North-South interconnector will be €286 million, with €180 million of this cost being incurred in Ireland and the remaining €106 million being incurred in Northern Ireland.

The proposed interconnector is a critical piece of energy infrastructure that will benefit all the people on the island of Ireland. Last November, the Northern Ireland Minister for the Economy, Simon Hamilton, and I confirmed our joint commitment to the ongoing development of the single electricity market. The new market arrangements will be in place in 2018 and will yield benefits for electricity market customers in the North and in the South.  The UK White Paper on Brexit, which was published last Thursday, noted that the UK is considering all options for its future relationship with the EU with regard to energy. The UK is particularly keen to avoid disruption to the single electricity market operating across the island of Ireland.

The North-South interconnector, which will further support the single electricity market and reduce costs for consumers, has received planning permission in Ireland and is in the planning process in Northern Ireland. This vital project, which will ensure the security of supply in Northern Ireland, is a further example of the interdependence of our energy systems. The interconnector will enhance competitiveness, bolster security of supply and remove a key barrier to the efficient operation of the electricity system across the island of Ireland.

It is envisaged that it will lead to initial savings of €20 million per annum, increasing to between €40 million and €60 million each year by 2030, shared between Ireland and Northern Ireland. Such cost savings will ensure there are benefits for every home and business in the State and will improve the competitiveness of businesses and the household disposable incomes of citizens. On this basis, I believe the proposed investment in our electricity infrastructure is a sound one.

The costs of developing the North-South interconnector are not borne by the Irish Exchequer. The project will be funded in the same way as other electricity and gas grid investments are paid for. These costs are approved by the regulator and charged by EirGrid, ESB Networks and Gas Networks Ireland to energy supply companies. The energy supply companies generally include these costs in customer bills.

Given that the overall cost of the North-South interconnector is €286 million, I suggest that it would be prudent for the Minister and the Government to put the capital phase of this project on hold until we know what impact Brexit will have on its financing and its viability. Given that the project is being presented as a key part of the EU electricity grid, what implications will the departure of the UK from the Union have for it? We are reading various contradictory reports on the possible reintroduction of a hard Border. It is looking very much like we will have a hard Border. There are questions surrounding the transfer of goods and services to the UK and through the UK to other European countries. The potential for associated tariffs is unclear. I suggest that this, when coupled with the concerns of those who are opposed to the project, means the Minister should put the interconnector on hold at this stage. I remind the House that €286 million is a phenomenal amount of State funds. There is huge opposition to this project at present. I thank the Minister for agreeing to meet representatives of anti-pylon groups in counties Monaghan, Cavan and Meath tomorrow. The bottom line is that people really want to see this project being developed underground. Brexit is the most recent issue to affect this proposal, which has been under consideration for ten years and which needs to be put on hold now.

I have heard what the Deputy has said, but I am a bit surprised that she is questioning whether we need the interconnector. I look forward to meeting representatives of the groups tomorrow morning. Having listened to many of them already, it seems to me that there is agreement across the board that an interconnector is needed, even if the question of how it should be connected might remain an issue for debate. The Deputy has asked a valid question about the implications of Brexit. The governance framework for the all-island single electricity market is based on legislation adopted by the Oireachtas and the UK Parliament. It is not based on EU law. The existing energy-trading and interconnection arrangements between Ireland and the UK, which ensure the continuity of mutually dependent energy arrangements, are based on co-operation and agreement between Ireland and the UK and do not depend on Brexit or on whether Ireland is inside or outside the EU.

Norway is currently in the process of building an interconnector with the UK. Of course, Norway is outside the EU.

There is no disputing the need for this. However, why do we not look at the Brexit situation as an opportunity? Two weeks ago, we attended a public meeting with over 300 people who are living in fear of what this will mean for their homes, their lives and their children, who may propose now to live in the area. We will see a mass exodus of young people from the area if this continues, however. I am asking the Minister to see this as an opportunity to either underground the project or to put it on hold.

I call Deputy Cassells and we will then hear from Deputy Thomas Byrne. I point out to Deputy Kelly that this is not favouritism. As two questions are being taken together, there is double the time available. Deputy Kelly will have some 18 minutes for his upcoming questions.

The Minister is right that it is a matter of how we provide the connection which is in question. This is my third time to discuss the matter in the Chamber with him. All I want to know is whether he accepts the figures that have been put forward by NEPP in respect of how much it would cost to move the project underground, which has been a huge point of debate. Does he accept the figures that have been put forward and that suggest it is viable? Does he also accept that, in the ten years since this project was first proposed, the logistics of providing this are not a threat to security of supply but are very much in line with current practice in continental Europe?

First, to say this is not related to Brexit or the EU is totally misleading and disingenuous. As the Minister knows, this is a project of common interest, as designated by the European Commission, so it clearly has strong European ties and links, regardless of the legislation.

Second, the Minister and EirGrid, as the semi-State body, must have regard to the fact it is now clear that a majority of Dáil Éireann does not support this project in the way it is envisaged. How can the Minister decide to stand over this when he knows the Dáil does not support it? Fianna Fáil has been extremely clear in its assertion that the underground option should be taken. I understand Sinn Féin takes the same position, as does the Minister's colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Regina Doherty. Clearly, there is no political support, so how can it proceed? At the very least, the Minister needs to obtain another proper, independent international study of this project in order to examine the merits of putting it underground.

I am told the only feasible way to underground a circuit with 1,500 MW capacity over a distance of 138 km is to use a specialised high-voltage direct current with conversation equipment at either end, not AC technology. For a DC link to act reliably with a synchronous network, it would be necessary to develop new and complex control systems that have not been tried before in order to replicate the functionality of an AC interconnector. I am told that it is not the same as undergrounding in regard to some other projects. The example that has been given in the past is the Aachen to Liège project, where there was undergrounding, but over a much shorter distance and with a lower capacity. If we take the cost of that project based on the bigger scale that is required here, the DC undergrounding cable option as applied there would cost in the region of €992 million, which is significantly higher than what is projected here. The argument is made by EirGrid, based on its research, that the underground option would be three times more expensive.

It has gone back up again.

I am meeting representatives from NEPP in the morning and I will listen to what they have to say.

We appreciate that.

There is also the Monaghan group.

I am quite willing to hear what people have to say. However, it is important for people to understand that a legal case has already been lodged with the courts and a planning process is ongoing. I have to be conscious of both of those issues.

Air Quality

Alan Kelly


41. Deputy Alan Kelly asked the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment the progress he has made on the national clean air strategy. [5696/17]

Alan Kelly


75. Deputy Alan Kelly asked the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment his plans to fully implement the nationwide ban on smoky coal; and if this will be in place for the 2018 heating season. [5695/17]

Alan Kelly


574. Deputy Alan Kelly asked the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment the status of his Department's national clean air strategy. [5412/17]

Alan Kelly


575. Deputy Alan Kelly asked the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment the date on which the nationwide smoky coal ban will come into effect. [5414/17]

I welcome the Minister back to the House. I want to know the progress on the national clean air strategy, which is an issue close to my heart. For the information of Deputies, more people die due to the quality of air in this country than die in road accidents. It is a huge issue, and one on which we have made major progress. I would like the Minister to give us good news in regard to the current position.

I propose to take Questions Nos. 41, 75, 574 and 575 together.

The ban on the marketing, sale and distribution of bituminous coal - the smoky coal ban, as it is commonly known - was first introduced in Dublin in 1990 and subsequently extended to the major cities. Following a more recent public consultation process in 2012, it was extended and now applies to 26 urban areas nationwide. The ban has proved very effective in reducing particulate matter and sulphur dioxide levels, and has had the effect of significantly improving public health.  Research indicates, for example, that the ban has resulted in over 350 fewer annual deaths in Dublin alone.

An all-island research study commenced in 2014 into policy options to deal with the problem of airborne pollution from residential fuel combustion, in particular, smoky coal. The study, undertaken under the auspices of the North-South Ministerial Council, was finalised in December 2015 and subsequently presented to Ministers.  The report supports the extension of the ban areas in the Republic and smoke control areas in the North. While I would like to see a joint approach by authorities to the introduction of an all-island ban on smoky coal, it is, of course, also a matter for authorities in the North to consider.

Notwithstanding the timing of decisions in the North and the position taken there, I am committed to extending a ban nationwide in this jurisdiction. The process necessarily involves discussion and consultation with a wide number of stakeholders, including the European Commission, relevant Government Departments and agencies, the residential fuel industry and the general public.  Preliminary discussions on issues that may arise in connection with the proposed nationwide ban have already taken place with some of these stakeholders.

My Department is currently developing a national clean air strategy which will provide the strategic framework for a set of cross-Government policies and actions to reduce harmful emissions, and consequential health impacts, by improving our air quality. The strategy will also address a wide range of other national policies that are relevant to air quality, such as transport, energy and agriculture. Residential home heating is a key source of air pollution, in particular heating generated from solid fuel and smoky coal. As such, there is a pre-existing commitment to extend the smoky coal ban nationwide by 2018. This issue will be addressed in the strategy and a consultation process on the strategy will commence shortly. I expect the strategy to be published by the end of this year and that it will, inter alia, confirm the timeline for a nationwide extension of the ban on smoky coal.

I have good time for the Minister but, to be honest, that is not an answer. In fact, the Minister did not answer the question at all. We have lost 15 months on this. The Minister knows it is an issue that is close to my heart and that I introduced the clean air strategy, but, 15 months on, nothing has happened. The smoky coal ban which was to be in place for the 2017-18 season has now been pushed back.

Children in Enniscorthy have a much higher risk of getting cancer than children in Dublin, as has been proven by research from UCC to which the Minister did not refer. We all know this is necessary. The officials who did all of this work have been left in the Customs House and have not transferred across to the Minister's Department. Has that caused the delay? I know what I am talking about because I drove this strategy, which is very close to my heart. Too many people suffer respiratory illnesses and there are 470,000 people with asthma in this country, which is the fourth highest rate in the world. This is a necessary strategy. The ban on coal in Dublin worked and saved thousands of lives. We cannot afford to have the children of Enniscorthy, and of other towns in parts of the country where there is no ban, go through another year without a ban. I ask the Minister to introduce a ban and also to put forward a clean air strategy across transportation and the other sectors. While we know this will take time, the issue in regard to smoky coal does not have to take any more time.

I acknowledge the work Deputy Kelly has done in this area. Part of the problem is that, effectively, we had no Government in place for the first half of last year. Since I became Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment this has been one of my priorities, especially now because the Department has responsibility not only for environmental issues but for climate change and energy issues as well. The clean air strategy dovetails into the policies covering these three divisions of my Department.

Deputy Kelly is right to ask whether the strategy will be in place by 2018. The intention is to have it in place by 2018 in respect of the ban on coal. The clean air strategy is going for public consultation within the coming weeks. I look forward to the engagement of Deputy Kelly in this regard. I have been engaging with the Environmental Protection Agency to determine how we can improve monitoring in this area. I have held several meetings with other bodies, such as the Asthma Society of Ireland.

Deputy Kelly is right. The reality is that four people per day in Ireland are dying directly as a result of poor air quality. This is having a great impact on admissions to our accident and emergency departments and congestion within the health system. That is why we have introduced the warmth and well-being pilot scheme. That is why I made an announcement in Ballymahon some weeks ago to deal specifically with the problem, especially in the midlands, where in approximately one home in four, the major source of heating is solid fuel. The idea is to look at how we can make a transition away from that. I am determined not only to implement the clean air strategy and to put in place the ban on coal but to make a transition from dirty fuels to clearer fuels to deal with this issue.

I do not doubt the sincerity of the Minister. I am raising this issue because people feel let down. They have come to me as the former Minister with responsibility in this area. The strategy was to be announced by the middle of last year, if not before. The Minister has committed to a smoky coal ban by 2018 on the record of the Dáil. Since notification must be made one year in advance to those selling the product, the process has to commence now. Otherwise, it will not be until 2019. The announcement is required one year in advance. Sellers have to get through their stock. It is already out there. I presume the Minister will announce his plan in the coming days because otherwise, it will be impossible for it to be in place in 2018.

The clean air strategy covers a range of different sectoral issues, including transport, agriculture, peatlands and so on. These are major issues and addressing them will take time, but this issue need not. Unfortunately, the problem affects children and adults throughout the country. I can visualise children playing on pitches. I referenced the town of Enniscorthy because it was one of the worst in the UCC study. Children in such places are going to get sick. Some will get very unwell. Unfortunately, people may die because this is postponed for another year.

I appeal to the Minister to do this. Everything was put in place. I do not accept the explanation about people not transferring from one Department to another when there was a change of ministerial responsibility. That is not a good enough excuse for the situation these families have been left in.

I have never given the issue of staff transferring as a reason. The staff are answerable to me and I am working closely with them on the matter.

They are based in the Custom House.

I have been working closely with them since I became Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment at the end of July.

It does not only apply to Enniscorthy. Enniscorthy has been flagged because we have an air monitoring station there. In fact, we have a poor network for monitoring air quality in the country. That is part of the problem. This was one of the issues I discussed with the Environmental Protection Agency last week.

The fact is that one child in five in the country suffers from asthma. Anyone who has seen a child gasping for breath knows how serious this issue is. That is why I want to see it prioritised. One of the first speeches I gave as Minister was to an Energy Ireland conference. I made the point that for me the issue of clear air and air quality is crucial. Deputy Kelly is right to say the coal ban is a crucial part of this.

I am keen to demonstrate my commitment. The renewable heat incentive scheme discussion document was published some weeks ago. I have specifically included in the document provisions relating to dealing with issues of particulate matter and nitrogen oxides. The provisions probably would not have been part of the document had the environment division not come to our Department. I am committed to seeing progress made.

I look forward to the Minister's announcement. It will have to be in the coming days to meet those timelines.

Questions Nos. 42 and 43 replied to with Written Answers.

Media Mergers

Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett has requested permission to have his question take by Deputy Bríd Smith. Permission has been given.

Richard Boyd Barrett


44. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment to outline his views on the future of media plurality here in view of the existing proposals with regard to the sale of a company (details supplied); and if he will make a statement on the matter. [5811/17]

I welcome the Minister back to the House. I hope he is feeling better. I assume his accident is the reason he is standing all the time. It is an awful thing to be knocked off the bike. Anyway, the Minister is in one piece.

I am sorry the Minister has missed the debates in the committee in the past week or so. The debates have been hot and heavy over our concern with the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland, BAI, and the proposed merger between Celtic Media Group and Independent News and Media. What is the Minister's position on this merger in terms of the plurality of regional media in the country?

Following approval by the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission, notification of the proposed merger referenced in the question was received by me as Minister on 21 November 2016. I had 30 working days from the notification deadline of 24 November 2016 to conduct an initial assessment, or phase one assessment, of the case on media plurality grounds.

The examination was guided by the relevant criteria laid out in the legislation and by the guidelines on media mergers. The document is available on my Department's website. The examination process laid out in the legislation and the guidelines considered several important criteria or measures, including diversity of ownership in the relevant media sector and in the wider media market, editorial management, governance structures and the financial standings of the parties to the proposed merger.

Following the examination, I had three options under the legislation: to allow the merger to proceed; to allow the merger to proceed with conditions; or to ask the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland to conduct a more in-depth examination, or phase two examination, of the proposed merger.

On completion of the phase one examination, I decided on 10 January 2017 to ask the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland to conduct a full media merger examination of the proposed transaction. Following the BAI examination of the proposed merger, the authority will provide me with a report detailing recommendations on the matter within 80 working days from the date of my request. Furthermore, in accordance with the legislation, I have established an advisory panel to provide an opinion to the BAI on the application of the relevant criteria in the legislation to the media merger in question. Following receipt of the BAI's report and recommendations, I must make a decision to allow the merger to proceed, to allow a decision to proceed with conditions or to refuse to grant my consent.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House

As part of the BAI full media merger examination and in accordance with the legislation, the authority has called for public submissions on the proposed merger. I invite any person who is interested in the proposed merger to write to the BAI and express his or her views. The deadline for submissions is 20 working days from the date of my request.

Once the BAI has made its recommendation to me and has provided me with its report, I have a further 20 working days within which I must make a final determination to allow the proposed acquisition to proceed, to allow the proposed acquisition to proceed with conditions or to refuse to allow the proposed acquisition to proceed.

Therefore, it would not be appropriate for me to comment on the case while the examination is ongoing.

I was going to ask the Minister if he had appointed the advisory panel. Can the Minister tell the House who he has appointed to the advisory panel?

The discussion on media plurality was really interesting despite the fact that there was some conflict, in particular, about the presence of Deputy Lowry on the committee. I seldom have seen the Deputy attending the committee but he was in attendance. Some of us, including academics who gave witness, expressed the view that he had a conflict of interest by being there.

This is really about the cross-ownership and control of vested interests in various communications companies, including Communicorp and Independent News and Media. Now possibly, Celtic Media Group will be subject to ownership to a large degree by Denis O’Brien. We believe there may be an excessive degree of influence and control on print broadcasting and online media in the country. We need to be serious in dealing with our recommendations. We have a difficulty at the moment with the question of whether the committee will issue a recommendation because of the varying views. It would be helpful if the Minister could tell us who he has chosen for the advisory panel.

I will set out the answer to that question. The names of the members of the advisory panel are as follows: John Horgan, former Press Ombudsman and a media academic at Dublin City University; Marie McGonagle, a retired academic from NUI Galway and Peggy Valcke, a Belgian media plurality and competition expert.

Mr. John Horgan has agreed to be the chairperson of that panel. I know that the committee has commenced hearings. There is a function and role with regard to the BAI process for the committee to participate in this. I look forward to the response from the committee on this issue. What I have to do in this process is laid out in law in black and white. I am waiting for the BAI to come back with its report. The decision will then lie with me on that. I have answered questions in the House in the past on the issue of media plurality and I am conscious of all of the issues that have been raised.

I thank the Minister for all of his answers. I am not advising the Minister but I do hope that he reads the submissions, particularly from the academics, because the stark reality of the takeover of media in this country is quite shocking. For example, between 2005 and 2016, there were 90 takeovers. This is the first takeover to actually be scrutinised. That is very serious. That is probably a consequence of the legislation that was passed quite recently, but it goes to show how these things can creep up and have quite a serious impact and serious consequences. Albeit the appeal this morning was to save the jobs in regional media, there are some on the committee who believe that while we should attempt to save the jobs, if necessary by some sort of public intervention, we should not compromise the role of media in maintaining local democracy, its plurality and its social and political role in Irish life.

I am trying to accommodate as many Members as possible. The Minister has one minute.

It is the first merger to be scrutinised. The reason for that is the legislation is very new. I am the first Minister to do that. The State will not be subsidising any media outlet or newspaper in this country. However, there is a broader issue with regard to how we encourage quality journalism. It is an issue I have addressed in the past and with which I am actively engaged at the moment. I believe it is important that we have responsible media outlets and that we can trust the output that comes from those outlets, particularly now in an era of social media and instant messaging. There is a broad area there of which I am very conscious.

Finally, I do not want it to be raised that I did not-----

I am trying to accommodate-----

A further merger has come before me. That is the BBC-ITV joint venture, BritBox. That was notified to the Department on the last day of January.

I do not think the journalists are the problem.

We are finished, Deputy.

The quality of journalism is not the problem.

Mobile Telephony Services

Martin Heydon


45. Deputy Martin Heydon asked the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment the status of the work by his Department to improve mobile phone coverage in County Kildare and nationwide; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [5801/17]

We have discussed many times the gaps in the provision of broadband around the country and particularly outside the larger urban conurbations. Similarly, we have huge gaps in mobile phone coverage. That is an issue and I think the Minister will agree it seems as though it is getting worse in certain areas. I seek a statement from the Minister on the matter because it is a prevalent issue for me in south County Kildare.

I thank Deputy Heydon and am critically aware of the frustration currently being experienced across Ireland, where mobile networks are not always delivering the services people expect.  Any customer, including those in County Kildare, who experiences service difficulties should raise the matter with the service provider in the first instance. If this fails to resolve matters, customers can and should refer a complaint to the Commission for Communications Regulation, ComReg, which will investigate the service provider's compliance with its contractual obligations. Mobile operators have invested significantly in rolling out improved services, following ComReg's multi-band spectrum auction. At least one operator now has in excess of 90% 4G population coverage. The rate of demand for data services has, however, increased by 500% in the last four years and this presents a continuing challenge for mobile operators, regulators and policy makers both in Ireland and internationally.

Recognising this challenge, I specifically included in the programme for Government a commitment to a mobile phone and broadband task force. In July 2016, I established the task force together with the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, which has identified immediate solutions to broadband and mobile phone coverage deficits and investigating how better services could be provided to consumers prior to the full build and roll-out of the network planned under the national broadband plan, NBP, State intervention. The report was published in December and is available on both Departments' websites.

In producing this report, the task force worked with Departments, local authorities, ComReg, State agencies, the telecoms industry and other key stakeholders.

The report contains 40 actions that will alleviate some of the telecommunications deficits across Ireland and the implementation programme on mobile phone and broadband access identifies 19 of these actions as areas where immediate and direct action by Departments and State agencies can ensure accelerated benefits to consumers. Included in the actions is a commitment made by ComReg to produce a mobile phone coverage map and another action for the regulator to carry out a mobile handset sensitivity testing programme.  Both actions will be of great value to consumers, including those in County Kildare.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House

The work of the task force will also assist local authorities in preparing for the roll-out of the new NBP network once contracts are in place.

In addition, I recently signed regulations allowing ComReg to proceed with an early 2017 allocation of spectrum in the 3.6 GHz radio spectrum band. This will provide an 86% increase in total spectrum available for mobile and fixed wireless services.

In my Department's Estimates for 2017, I have secured an €8 million provision for RTE to allow it to free up the 700 MHz spectrum band. ComReg in turn will make plans to allocate this spectrum to provide for significantly enhanced mobile coverage. The 700 MHz band is particularly suited to rural environments where the signal can travel long distances. 

These initiatives should assist in enhancing the quality of mobile phone and data services across Ireland and particularly in rural Ireland.

In parallel, the national broadband plan aims to deliver high-speed services to every city, town, village and individual premises in Ireland, through private investment and a State intervention in areas where commercial investment have not been fully demonstrated.

The management of radio spectrum is a statutory function of ComReg, which is the independent regulator of the telecommunications sector. Licences issued by ComReg impose terms and conditions on mobile network operators, including minimum population coverage obligations. ComReg monitors compliance in this regard by means of biannual drive tests. However, given ComReg’s independence, I have no statutory function in the matter of auditing mobile coverage.

I thank the Minister and I am glad to hear that progress has been made. We are all aware of areas near our homes or even in our homes where coverage is poor, calls drop out or are unable to be made and areas that we have to avoid. The progress the Minister has outlined for the key measures identified in the report is critical. I am particularly focused on the ones that are easy fixes and easily implemented. Three stand out for me. The Minister mentioned ComReg assessing the extent of black spots. That coverage map, similar to what we have for broadband, on which we identify where the black spots are, makes it easier for us to then engage with the providers to see where the black spots are. The operators will report quarterly to the Minister and I hope that starts immediately. By having that map, we can then work down and drill into the detail.

Similarly, recommendation 17, which is about ComReg developing a licensing scheme allowing for the use of external mobile phone repeaters, really needs to be progressed. I am aware of many buildings within which there is an impediment to mobile phone coverage either in business or residential areas. The licensing of phone repeaters has great merit in being pursued as soon as possible.

ComReg hopes to be in a position by the end of this year to have significant progress made with regard to that mapping. We have received a commitment from the mobile operators that they will provide us with the data on their coverage black spots across the country.

The Deputy is right about the repeaters. They will help to boost the signal in many parts of the country. What we are trying to do is assist the existing commercial telecoms companies in rolling out their networks. At the moment, they are spending on average about €1.7 million every single day and they have been doing that for the last four years. What we are trying to do is facilitate them in fast-tracking that investment in order that it will improve mobile phone coverage, wireless broadband coverage and both fixed line and fibre to the home for broadband.

Last October, I released the 3.6 GHz spectrum. That will be auctioned off in the next couple of months, which will assist in improving the quality of mobile coverage across the country.

As for the cost of some of these implementations, this obviously is a perfect example of the State engaging with the private sector and trying to encourage it along. Is there a budget within the Minister's remit to help to implement some of these measures? I know there is a 700 MHz band with RTE on which we need to expand. Is the Minister confident that the private operators are going to work with the Minister to address these issues? Does the Minister get a sense from the private operators that they accept that the issue has deteriorated and that mobile phone coverage has become an issue, particularly in rural parts of Ireland and in south County Kildare?

The quality of service is something I raised specifically with ComReg when I became Minister. It has not received the scale of complaints that it should have received based on what I was receiving as complaints in my own constituency. That is why I would actively encourage people to first contact their operator. If they are not satisfied with the response, they should contact ComReg about it and make a formal complaint, because that is important in order for us to progress these issues.

On the 700 MHz spectrum band, I have allocated €8 million in 2017 to allow RTE to commence the process of decommissioning the broadcast equipment that is on that spectrum. RTE will complete the work in 2018, which will release that spectrum to allow it to be auctioned off. It would be my preference that it would be auctioned on the basis of geographic coverage rather than population coverage.

Wildlife Protection

Eamon Ryan


46. Deputy Eamon Ryan asked the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment the reason for awarding the ObSERVE programme; the way in which its aim of surveying cetaceans such as whales, dolphins, and porpoises and sea birds offshore aligns with the programme's aim of supporting the sustainable development of the oil and gas industry; and the basis on which this programme was awarded a nomination for the Civil Service Excellence and Innovation Awards 2016. [5791/17]

Is it the Government's intention to save the whale in the North Atlantic or to save the oil and gas industry? The Department has commissioned the ObSERVE programme with significant funding of €2.7 million to monitor the presence of whales, dolphins and sea birds in the area. Is that done with the intention of excluding areas from exploration or from seismic testing, which is known to have an effect on such wildlife populations? Or is it to help and support the oil and gas exploration industry, which in my mind we should be exiting and divesting from rather than investing in long term and is what I fear behind this programme?

My Department, in partnership with the Department of Arts, Heritage, Rural, Regional and Gaeltacht Affairs, has devised a programme of targeted acoustic sound and aerial surveys of protected cetaceans - whales, dolphins and porpoises - and seabirds in the Irish offshore. This programme, which was nominated for a Civil Service Excellence and Innovation Award for its pioneering approach to the sustainable development of the Irish offshore oil and gas industry through its description of animal occurrence, distribution, density and abundance, has been given the title of ObSERVE. This is the first time in the EU that the authorities responsible for oil and gas exploration and for nature conservation have teamed up to find answers to complex issues of mutual concern. The quality and quantity of the data acquired from the ObSERVE project has surpassed expectations and Ireland’s international reputation has been considerably enhanced due to the foresight, concept and proactive nature of this project. The Energy White Paper, Ireland's Transition to a Low Carbon Energy Future 2015-2030, sets out a vision and a framework to guide Irish energy policy and the actions that Government intends to take in the energy sector from now up to 2030, aimed at transforming Ireland's fossil-fuel based energy sector into a clean, low carbon system by 2050. The White Paper identifies the long-term strategic importance of diversifying Ireland's energy generation portfolio and largely decarbonising the energy sector by 2050. The White Paper recognises that oil and natural gas will remain significant elements of Ireland’s energy supply in the transition period and in this context, the development of Ireland’s indigenous oil and gas resources has the potential to deliver significant and sustained benefits to Irish society and the economy. It is important to ensure that while petroleum activities are being undertaken that they are done in a way that is protective of the environment.

I take it from the Minister of State's answer that this measure is about developing the oil and gas exploration industry. There is a certain irony for those interested in the whole protection of nature that the very industry causing such damage, changing the North Atlantic, altering the feeding patterns and causing immediate harm to these creatures due to the exploration work, is now being wrapped in the description of it being a beneficial step forward. If he does find that there are certain areas where there are very large populations or specifically sensitive important feeding operations etc. for whales, dolphins or sea birds will the Minister of State exclude those areas from any future exploration? What is the purpose of this programme? Is it just to provide a baseline to help the oil and gas exploration industry do an environmental impact assessment or is it actually an attempt to reduce or stop the environmental impact assessment caused by those companies? Will it mean the Minister will say to certain companies, sorry but they cannot go into that area of the North Atlantic because it is sensitive and important for these other reasons?

Clearly, Ireland has an interest in developing its oil and gas resources. We are making the move towards renewable and sustainable energy but at the same time, during the transition phase, we are exploring and continuing to harness the resources of oil and gas. In that regard, all applications that come before me have reams and reams of scientific data on environmental impact assessments, screening and all measures and data surrounding the marine life present. The ObSERVE programme measures, protects and quantifies the amount of sea life there and ensures that any and all measures are put in place to protect them, when I get the numbers. Considering his background I would have thought the Deputy would support this measure. This programme has won international recognition for the State in the approach we are taking to reach oil and gas.

I am concerned for several reasons. First of all we must leave four fifths of the fossil fuels underground. I am concerned that the only investments being made by the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment are in fossil fuel scholarships rather than clean energy scholarships and that it is measuring nature so that those industries can go out and help to destroy nature. The Minister of State has still not answered the key question I have asked on three occasions. Will he answer it on the third time? On the basis of the ObSERVE programme, if there are certain areas where there are very large populations or where it is important for that natural world, will he exclude those areas from any future gas and oil exploration? Or is this just to measure what is there so when we ruin it with further exploration we will know what has gone?

It is not the intention to ruin any areas. All data that will be collected, that would be part of an environmental impact statement, are assessed by specialist consultants before coming to me for signing off on exploration licences. Deputy Ryan made reference to scholarships. This is an ongoing and longstanding programme and I know the Deputy was a Minister in the Department at the time. The 2017 scholarships which have been accepted onto the relevant MSc degree courses are in geoscience, petroleum engineering and environmental science and are starting in late 2017. We must recognise that there is a wide range of uses for oil and it is not just for running our cars. While over 75% of them are obviously around gasoline or aviation and jet fuel, there is a wide range of other resources that are utilised from oil including the medical device sector, a range of projects from aspirin, glue, trash bags, footballs, umbrellas, bandages, nail polish, pins, balloons and toothpaste.

I thank the Minister of State.

There is a wide range of uses from oil as a resource-----

Nail polish is very important.

The final question-----

-----but clearly the protection of the environment and the protection of marine resources are included very much in the environmental impact statements, in which there are huge volumes of data.

We have only three and a half minutes remaining for questions.

The Deputy would have seen them himself when he was the Minister when they would have come to him for signing off.

It is a big issue in Kilkenny.

I remind Ministers that they, every bit as much as Deputies, must comply with the times. It has not happened today. I invite Deputy Mick Barry and remind the House that we have three and a half minutes for the response and one supplementary question. Two minutes is time enough for the Minister's reply.

Climate Change Policy

Mick Barry


47. Deputy Mick Barry asked the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment if his Department has estimated the potential impact on the environment of the promised withdrawal by President Trump from the Paris Agreement; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [5800/17]

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, UNFCCC, held its 21st Conference of the Parties, COP 21, in Paris in 2015.  The major outcome of COP 21 was the agreement by over 180 countries to restrict the impact of emissions on global warming and to limit the temperature rise to 2° Celsius above pre-industrial levels, with an ambition of 1.5° Celsius. The Paris Agreement aims to increase the ability of countries to deal with the impacts of climate change through resilience and adaptation and to foster climate resilience and low greenhouse gas emissions development in a manner that does not threaten food production. It also aims to make finance flows consistent with the pathway towards low greenhouse gas emissions and climate-resilient development. The Paris Agreement will achieve its goals through a range of climate action plans, known as nationally determined contributions, NDCs, to be carried out by all parties and which will ultimately tackle 95% of the world’s emissions. These NDCs are required to be ambitious and to increase in ambition over time in order to achieve the peaking of global greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible and to undertake rapid reductions thereafter.

The policy implications of the overall goals of the Paris Agreement will be evaluated by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, IPCC, in a special report to be published next year. This report will assist the UNFCCC in establishing a system for measuring the effectiveness of the NDCs submitted by the parties. A facilitative dialogue in 2018, informed by the IPCC report, will evaluate the overall contribution of the NDCs to the goals of the Paris Agreement. Beginning in 2023, a five-yearly global stocktake of the efforts made by the parties to combat climate change will measure their effectiveness and drive the ambition of future NDCs.

The reality is that the European Union has been leading the agenda on this, and many other countries have followed suit. We intend, within the EU, to continue to play a leadership role in this area.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House.

The entry into force of the Paris Agreement required that 55% of parties, representing 55% of global emissions, complete their ratification processes. On 4 November 2016, those thresholds had been passed, triggering its entry into force. The agreement has now been ratified by 128 parties, including Ireland and the EU, with significant additional contributions to be made through the stated commitments by some of the larger parties, namely, China, India and the United States, all of whom have also ratified.

The Paris Agreement depends on the efforts of all parties to carry out ambitious climate action through their NDCs to achieve its objectives. The withdrawal of any party to the agreement would undoubtedly increase the already significant challenges facing the global community in taking appropriate action on climate change. However, I look forward to continued and positive collaboration, as required, with colleagues at EU level and beyond, as we work to advance the climate change agenda both nationally and globally.

Since taking power, Mr. Trump has given the go-ahead to the Keystone XL and Dakota pipelines, forbidden scientists from the United States Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, from speaking to the media and is insisting they must submit their work to the White House for review before it is published, and removed all reference to climate change from the White House website. His choice of Secretary of State is multimillionaire Rex Tillerson, former CEO of ExxonMobil. He has chosen for the EPA to be led by Scott Pruitt, who deems global warming a hoax. One third of Republican Members of Congress flat-out deny climate change is real. In total, these climate change deniers have received $73 billion in contributions from oil, gas and coal companies over the course of their careers. Does the Minister agree the environmental policies of this Administration and its El Presidente constitute a real and present danger to the future of our planet?

There are many countries across the world which do not come up to the mark on environmental matters. I have been criticised as Minister for the role I have taken on these issues. However, there is a determination within Europe, including in Ireland, to lead from the front on this, provide an example to countries across the globe and assist the least developed countries with both finance and technology to drive the agenda of reducing global emissions. At COP22, I had a meeting with counterparts from New Zealand, Argentina and Uruguay at which we discussed how our four countries can work together to develop agriculture in an efficient manner and share our knowledge with developing countries, particularly sub-Saharan African countries, in order that they too can utilise technology to reduce emissions globally.

Written Answers are published on the Oireachtas website.