Adjournment Matters

Petroleum and Gas Infrastructure

Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire. Tá mé thar a bheith buíoch de mar tuigim go bhfuil sé an-ghnóthach, ach is ceist iontach tábhachtach í seo. Tá mé thar a bheith buíoch den Aire as ucht an t-am a thógáil leis an ábhar seo a ghlacadh.

Tá mé ag tagairt don chrith talún a tharla coicís ó shin amach ó chósta Mhaigh Eo. Buíochas le Dia, ní raibh aon tubaist mhór i gceist leis, ó thaobh daoine a bheith gortaithe nó mar sin. Ach cuireann sé imni ar phobal Mhaigh Eo agus ar phobal na hÉireann go dtarlódh a leithéid de rud. Tá mé ag iarraidh a fháil amach cén idirbheartaíocht atá ar bun, nó cén plé atá ar siúl ag an Rialtas maidir le seiceáil a dhéanamh ar phíoblíne gáis na Coiribe le déanamh cinnte go bhfuil sé iomlán sábháilte, agus cén glacadh a bhí ann ó thaobh an staidéir tionchar timpeallachta a rinneadh nuair a bhí an t-iarratas pleanála á dhéanmh dó seo. Cén staidéar a déanadh nó cén chaoi ar cuireadh é sin san áireamh ins na meastacháin a rinneadh faoi na contúirtí a bhí ann maidir leis an bpíoblíne?

I raise the issue of the potential impact of the earthquake off the coast of County Mayo on gas and oil infrastructure off the west coast. We know that this is a very contentious issue and that the rigging is very complicated. There are many potential dangers associated with the industry. The earthquake was unexpected and not predicted. Was the impact of an earthquake taken into consideration when environmental impact statements were produced during the planning process for the gas pipeline in question? The Government needs to carry out an independent examination of the gas well structures, the offshore pipeline and the processing refinery at Bellanaboy to ensure no damage has been done, bearing in mind that the infrastructure is unique. It will be impossible to judge whether there has been damage without an independent inquiry or investigation. We certainly should not just take the word of the oil companies on an issue such as this, as is evident from what occurred in the Gulf of Mexico, etc. They oil can be economical with the truth when telling us how efficient their infrastructure is. Stating very quickly after an earthquake that everything is hunky-dory based on information given to us by an oil company is very dangerous.

Should a stability analysis be conducted on Dooncarton Hill, where there were large-scale landslides a number of years ago? I appreciate this may not be covered by the Minister's answer, but he might revert to me on it.

During an oral hearing by An Bord Pleanála on the gas pipeline, local residents attempted to refer to the potential consequences of an earthquake, in addition to the effects tunnelling under Sruwaddacon Estuary would have on the stability of Dooncarton Hill, for example. These concerns were dismissed and deemed unworthy of consideration. It appears that there are more occurrences such as earthquakes worldwide. The State needs to ensure the safety of the people is paramount. It should not put the wishes of large multinational companies before the needs and rights of citizens and ensure the oil and gas infrastructure is checked in order that we can be assured there is no potential for a disaster in the future. The planning process ought to take into consideration potential occurrences such as earthquakes.

The Minister should clarify again that the work being done had nothing to do with the earthquake happening in the first instance. It is a vague possibility, a long shot, but it is a question that must be answered. People in the local community are asking it.

Fáiltím roimh an Aire agus tá mé ag súil go mór lena fhreagra a chloisteáil.

I am grateful to the Senator for his contribution to this debate.

I am advised by the independent expert consultants engaged by my Department to monitor compliance with the conditions of the Corrib consents under the gas and petroleum Acts that pipelines are normally designed taking account of the largest loads they are likely to experience during their lifetime, including transport, loading, installation and operation. Operational loads include those due to the pressure and flow of the fluid they contain and externally imposed loads from the environment, both normal and accidental, such as earthquake loading. The normal practice is to design the pipeline to withstand the largest of these loads taking account of the likelihood of extreme events.

I am further advised that, in the case of the Corrib pipeline, the original design pressure of 345 bar and the forces imposed during the laying of the offshore section will have determined the strength and, therefore, material and wall thickness of the pipe. In the North Sea and north Atlantic regions these loads dominate over the environmental or accidental loadings and provide a margin of safety for loadings due to earthquakes experienced in the region. The risk of earthquakes of magnitude five or more is assessed by the British Geological Survey as less than very low, the lowest risk assigned to any area. I am advised that earthquakes of magnitude less than five in these low-risk areas will not give rise to forces on the pipeline greater than its design allows for. The Corrib pipeline design documentation states that as the area is categorised as less than very low for earthquake risk, in accordance with the relevant codes, the pipeline design incorporates no specific provision for seismic activity. The design documents also considered seismic events leading to a release from the subsea equipment and onshore in the qualitative risk assessment. However, based on the code criteria, these were screened out as being a non-credible cause for loss of containment. It should also be noted that the British Geological Survey reference on which this is based only addresses events of magnitude five and higher. The magnitude 4.0 earthquake that occurred 60 km off the north Mayo coast on 6 June was located in a geological fault system that drops the Slyne-Rockall basins down to the west of the Irish shelf. These naturally occurring faults, formed millions of years ago, have had a long geological history and are related to the continuing opening of the Atlantic Ocean. While the location and magnitude of this event were, as the Senator noted, unexpected, there is a clear geological reason for it. I am advised that future seismic activity along the fault system may be anticipated but not of significantly larger magnitude.

The magnitude was far below the threshold for generation of a seismogenic tsunami or to cause significant structural damage. Shell E & P Ireland Limited has informed my Department that the Corrib wells and manifold were inspected by a subsea support vessel after the earthquake and that it has confirmed there has been no impact on the facilities. A report will follow to confirm this, which will be reviewed by my Department in liaison with its independent consultants. Shell also has advised that the observations of the pipeline system confirm that there is no issue with the integrity of the pipeline. The Corrib pipeline is scheduled to be inspected this summer and survey reports will follow. These reports also will be considered by my Department and reviewed by the consultants. Before the Corrib gas project can commence production of gas, it will be the subject of a safety assessment in accordance with the Commission for Energy Regulation's recently published petroleum safety framework.

Fáiltím roimhe sin. During the development of this project one argument made has been that many opinions have been based on the information provided by Shell E & P Ireland. I imagine the data for the decisions taken or the conclusions drawn by the Department are based on data from Shell E & P Ireland. While I will not cast any aspersion on the company, it is known, on foot of disasters that have befallen this type of company worldwide, that sometimes some oil companies are not fully forthcoming with data and somewhat lenient regarding the truth. Does the Minister intend to have an independent assessment carried out by the Department on the pipeline to ensure he and his Department will be fully satisfied there is no danger to communities along the western seaboard in the event that there is a similar earthquake? Incidentally, it was reported by the media as being of a magnitude of 5.8 as opposed to 4.0, but will such an assessment be carried out to satisfy the Department that a similar event would not result in any damage and, therefore, be of concern to the people of north Mayo and the west?

Yes, it is the case that, in the first instance, the company will carry out this assessment and report to the Department. However, that report will be subject to analysis by the Department and independent consultants retained by it. This is important. As I have indicated to the Senator, the pipeline is scheduled to be inspected this summer and as a result, the survey reports will be given to the Department. Again, with the technical expertise available to it, it will assess them.

Water and Sewerage Schemes

I am glad to have the opportunity to raise the issue of the Gweedore sewerage scheme, or scéim séarachais Ghaoth Dobhair as it is commonly known. It is a scheme that should have been built many years ago but has not been to date. I recall reading archived notes dating back to the 1940s and 1950s, when the local Deputy at the time, Cormac Breslin, who was Ceann Comhairle in the Lower House, was raising the issue in the Dáil of the need for a sewerage scheme in the Gweedore parish area. There is no such scheme and even though it is a rural area, it contains the twin towns of Bunbeg and Derrybeg in which many people live. It is actually the most densely populated rural area in western Europe. Since before I became a member of Donegal County Council in 1994, the council was working on trying to progress a serwerage scheme through the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government for the parish extending from Gweedore to Glassagh. An Bord Pleanála and the Department ruled subsequently that the scheme would have to be much tighter than this and confined to the Bunbeg-Derrybeg catchment area.

I understand significant progress has been made by Donegal County Council which has submitted all or most of the required documentation to the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government and is awaiting approval to seek tenders for the construction of the Gweedore sewerage scheme. The urgency attached to the project cannot be over-estimated because if the septic tank legislation comes into force and inspections take place in the area of Gweedore around Bunbeg and Derrybeg, most of the septic tanks there will fail to meet the standards set down or proposed under the regulations to be published by the Minister under the wastewater legislation enacted. I fear that unless the sewerage scheme is put in place, people will face sanctions as a result. Moreover, this will be through no fault of their own because ultimately the State, in conjunction with the local authority, should provide the funding for the sewerage scheme. I hope progress is being made in the Department, which is the reason I have raised the matter on the Adjournment.

As the Senator is aware, I am responding on behalf of my colleague, the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, who is in Rio de Janeiro on Government business. I thank the Senator for providing me with the opportunity to clarify the position on the development of proposals for, and the procurement of, further wastewater facilities in the Gweedore area.

The Gweedore sewerage scheme is included in the Department's water services investment programme 2010-13 as a scheme to start construction during the lifetime of the programme. The proposed scheme will comprise one or two contracts providing for a treatment plant capable of dealing with effluent from a population equivalent of 4,550 and a sewer network of approximately 21 km, serving the core areas of Dore, Bunbeg and Derrybeg, and a 5.7 km outfall. The estimated cost of this work is €11.4 million. I believe progress has been made since the late Deputy Cormac Breslin was seized of the issue.

The scheme is one element of the Department's water services investment programme 2010-13 which consists of 340 contracts to be progressed to construction during the period of the programme, with a value of €1.8 billion, as well as a further 190 schemes, on which planning is being advanced. Following a review of the programme in 2011, a further 24 contracts, with a value of €57 million, were added. In Donegal, there are 15 contracts at, or due to start, construction during the lifetime of the programme, at a total estimated value of €80 million, including major sewerage schemes in Letterkenny and Killybegs. A further 11 contracts are at planning stage.

Donegal County Council's design review report for the Gweedore scheme is with the Department, as Senator Ó Domhnaill has said. However, the Department has sought further clarification on a number of issues and will continue to liaise with council with a view to progressing the scheme as quickly as possible.

Go raibh maith agat.

The Seanad adjourned at 5.30 p.m. until noon on Tuesday, 26 June 2012.