Today the Dáil will vote on the Petroleum and Other Minerals Development (Amendment) (Climate Emergency Measures) Bill 2018, introduced by Deputy Bríd Smith. It is similar to a Bill the Green Party has put forward on this issue. That Deputy Smith's party and mine have produced these Bills indicates the groundswell of public support for a sea change in politics recognising the need to keep fossil fuels in the ground. The Minister of State might have noted today that the singer Cher has personally asked our Taoiseach, Deputy Leo Varadkar, to support the Petroleum and Other Minerals Development (Amendment) (Climate Emergency Measures) Bill. It is time to believe in life after oil.
To map the seabed for fossil fuel exploration, sonic cannons, also known as seismic airguns, are towed behind boats to create dynamite-like blasts, which are repeated every ten seconds for 24 hours per day for days and weeks at a time.
The blasts reach acoustic levels 100,000 times more intense than a jet engine. The tests are conducted every summer without ever being subject to a comprehensive environmental impact assessment.
In July 2017 when the Minister of State, Deputy Seán Kyne, granted consent to drill in the Porcupine Bank area, I spoke to the Seanad about how fossil fuel exploration was deadly for Ireland’s sealife and how drilling and seismic airgun testing led to deafness and disorientation among dolphins, whales and porpoises for up to 100 miles. A deaf whale is a dead whale. In fact, over Christmas I helped with the removal of a dead bottlenose dolphin which had been stranded on Tramore beach. We sent the remains to University College Cork for an autopsy to discover why it had died. The number of strandings recorded has increased by 30% since 2016 alone. I have spoken about how in June 1991 the Government made Ireland a whale and dolphin sanctuary. I inform the House that new research from the ObSERVE programme, commissioned in 2015 by the petroleum affairs division of the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment, shows that, as amazing as our seas were to warrant protected status, we have actually overlooked just how incredible they are.
A few days after making my speech and mere weeks after consent to drill in the area was given, Ireland’s deepest cold water coral reefs were found in the Porcupine Bank. Also in late 2017, UCC, from research commissioned by the Department’s ObSERVE programme, released information which showed that every summer 250,000 bottlenose dolphins came to Irish waters; that last year Ireland had the highest numbers of blue and fin whale sightings ever recorded; and that there were 50% more whales and dolphins in our waters than we had ever thought possible. The blue whale is the largest mammal on the planet, while the fin whale is second largest and they are both to be found in Irish waters.
To give an example of this incredible ocean wealth, let me focus on the Porcupine Bank area off the south west coast of County Kerry, near the Cathaoirleach's homeland. The Porcupine Bank is home to some of the deepest and most unique cold water coral reefs ever found. Along the cliff face in 2015 the Celtic Explorer found near vertical habitats full of species of coral, sponges, crab and fish. Last year the Granuaile found reefs at depths of 1,600 m in areas of the Porcupine Bank and continental shelf which had already been licensed for oil and gas exploration. Coral reefs are the building blocks of a healthy and flourishing marine ecosystem. They provide food and shelter and are breeding grounds and refuges for fish. They balance the ecosystem at a time of increased ocean acidification due to climate change. They are also essential in providing support for krill and plankton – the basis of the marine ecosystem. However, since 2013 the level of oil and gas exploration in the Porcupine Bank has intensified to the point where it is now the primary focus of fossil fuel exploration in Ireland. The surprise is that the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment in the first place risks seismic exploration or drilling in the Porcupine Bank area when it is the home of healthy mackerel spawning grounds and, formerly, large migrating tuna populations. Ireland’s biggest fishing quota and thus our biggest industry under the Common Fisheries Policy is for mackerel. As I have stated before, seismic testing kills 100% of krill, or zooplankton, larvae and 64% of adult krill for a distance of up to 0.7 miles. Fishermen are reporting a dramatic fall in the tuna and whale populations in the Porcupine Bank area and that certain species no longer live there. This is most likely due to the kill-off of krill larvae as a result of the five years of oil and gas exploration and seismic testing.
I ask the Government to carry out as soon as possible an environmental impact assessment of the area of the Porcupine Bank where it is conducting research to ensure we will have the evidence to prove to the Minister of State and the Government that we must keep oil in the ground. We have to support the Bill before the House today. I ask the Minister of State for his answer to that question.