That Dáil Éireann approves the following Regulations in draft:
Dumping at Sea Act 1996 (Section 5(12)) (Commencement) Order 2021,
a copy of which has been laid in draft form before Dáil Éireann on 3rd February, 2021.
I will share time with the Minister of State, Deputy Noonan. I thank the House for agreeing to debate this motion. The purpose of the motion is to approve the draft text of the order to commence the Dumping at Sea Act 1996 in relation to the decommissioning of offshore oil and gas facilities. As the Minister responsible for marine environmental policy, this falls within my remit. However, the Act requires that this function be commenced by Government order and that the text of the order be first approved in draft motion of both Houses of the Oireachtas. The Government has approved the making of the order in principle and I now seek the approval of the Dáil and Seanad for its text. I express my gratitude to our colleagues in the Upper House who approved the text of the order by motion last Monday, 8 February.
The Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications wrote to my Department last year, seeking the commencement of section 5(12) of the Dumping at Sea Act 1996, as amended, in order to facilitate the decommissioning of the Kinsale Head and Seven Heads gas fields. Section 5 of the Act sets out the dumping at sea permitting functions for which the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, is responsible. However, section 5(12) states that:
This section shall not come into operation as respects offshore installations until such day as the Government may by order appoint.
Section 5(13) of the Act states that the text of the order requires the approval of the Houses of the Oireachtas. It is necessary now to commence this function, which will allow for different options to be considered for elements of the decommissioning process of the Kinsale and Seven Heads gas fields. If we do not commence this function, the Attorney General's advice is that it will be necessary to remove every element of the Kinsale and Seven Heads gas installation, including pipelines and cables, regardless of what is the best environmental option and what options might be available.
The Dumping at Sea Act 1996 has been in operation for nearly 25 years in all respects save as it applies to the decommissioning of offshore installations. It was amended by the Foreshore and Dumping at Sea (Amendment) Act 2009 which gave the EPA full and independent implementation and enforcement powers under the Act. This Act also gives effect to the Convention for the Protection of the Marine Environment of the North-East Atlantic, the OSPAR Convention, of 1992 for the protection of the marine environment of the north-east Atlantic. The Minister of State, Deputy Noonan, will provide further detail on the OSPAR Convention and its importance to the environmental protection of our seas. It prohibits the deliberate dumping of any substance or material in Irish marine waters from any vessel or aircraft, or by deliberate incineration within the maritime area. Section 4 of the Act specifically prohibits the deliberate disposal of an offshore installation in the maritime area or any substance or material from such an installation. In certain cases, the EPA may grant a permit to applicants to dump materials at sea if it is satisfied that it is safe and appropriate to do so. However, this is not the case in relation to the disposal of offshore installations, as this function has not been commenced. If this function was commenced, it would allow the operator of Kinsale and Seven Heads the possibility of seeking a permit to leave elements of the offshore installations in place. They would have to demonstrate that this was environmentally appropriate or preferable to do so. It would then be a matter for the agency to determine whether or not to grant a permit considering the potential environmental benefits and impacts.
The Minster for the Environment, Climate and Communications, Deputy Eamon Ryan, advises me that the decommissioning process of the Kinsale and Seven Heads gas fields is being undertaken in three phases. The first phase requires the plugging of the wells and the removal of the top structures from the offshore platforms. The second phase requires the removal of the platform legs. The third phase relates to the decommissioning of the pipelines along with associated hoses and control cables, these being referred to as "umbilicals". The Minister further informed me that for the first two phases, the appropriate environmental assessments have been made and legal consents granted. The wells will be plugged and platforms and legs will be removed from the sea in their entirety. However, the Minister's Department has advised that the possibility of leaving the pipelines and their associated umbilicals has been raised by the operator and may be preferable from an environmental perspective. Were such an option to be considered, I am advised that this process would require three legal consents, two of which would have to be made by the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications. I understand that the Minister of State, Deputy Noonan, has been provided with more detail of these consenting processes by the Minister's officials and he will shortly outline them to this House. However, a dumping at sea permit would also be required from the EPA. As it stands, the agency could not consider such a permit application, as the necessary powers under the Dumping at Sea Act are not commenced.
The purpose of this motion is not to decide whether these pipelines and umbilicals should be left in place. It is merely to provide a legal basis for the possibility to be considered. Without this order being signed into law, the pipelines and umbilicals would have to removed, even if that is deemed undesirable from an environmental perspective.
Deputies may have noted that no date has been set in the order for the commencement of this function. The Office of the Parliamentary Counsel advised that it was not possible to include a date in the order as any unforeseen delay in obtaining the necessary approvals or in making the order afterwards could require the date in the order to be changed. This, in turn, would require resubmission for approval by the Houses as a change of date would be considered a substantial change in a commencement order. However, I can advise the House that the intention would be to commence the legislation at the earliest possible opportunity should approval of the text be granted.
I will conclude by asking the Dáil to approve this motion. Without the order being made, the operator will have no choice but to pull up the pipelines and umbilicals. This could potentially be a worse option. By making the order, the House would be allowing for other options to be considered and to see if they are more environmentally beneficial. It will also allow the best environmental options to be considered when it comes to the Corrib gas field's turn to be decommissioned.