We must press the pause button on issuing licences for oil exploration

In Blog by Denis Naughten

Over the last year I’ve had the opportunity to change Irish Government policy and to review other aspects of policy. As a result I’ve changed my mind on the Petroleum and Other Minerals Development (Amendment) (Climate Emergency Measures) Bill 2018 and I believe that Ireland should not issue new oil exploration licences in our territorial waters.


My view has been copper fastened in recent days by the announcement by my successor Richard Bruton TD that Ireland will get 70pc of its electricity from renewable energy sources by 2030.


This requires a radical overhaul of Industrial Development Policy in Ireland. The first steps along this road were the passage of the Fossil Fuel Divestment Act and the Government Statement on the role of data centres in Ireland’s enterprise strategy, last year, but much more is needed.


Energy security


I believe that the Government has a very strong argument that as an island nation we need to keep energy security to the very fore in any policy change that we make, but we need to ask ourselves the question “do fossil fuel reserves provide Ireland with that energy security in the future?”


The answer to this question is changing. Government policy must reflect these changes and the reality is that there have been significant developments over the last 13 months in this area.


Firstly, we’ve had Project Ireland 2040 which will see dirty fossil fuels (coal, oil, peat) taken out of electricity generation by 2027; the ban on the sale of new fossil fuelled cars from 2030 with fossil fuelled cars taken off the road completely by 2045; and to have dirty fossil fuels taken out of our heating systems, including our homes, by 2035.


So our dependence on oil is set to reduce significantly over the next 15 years, which is the likely timeline for landing any oil which would be found in the deep waters off our Atlantic coast.


Over this 15 year period we really need to address the use of petrol and diesel in our transport fleet. The fact is that 70% of the oil we import goes into the transport sector and the single biggest measure that we can take to address energy security is to move away from oil.


Natural gas is slightly different. It is accepted that over the medium term natural gas will be a transition fuel as we move from dirtier fossil fuels to clean renewable alternatives.


During my time as Minister, the Department of Communications, Climate Action & Environment commissioned a study to evaluate Ireland’s resilience to a long duration gas disruption. The study published last November reported that our gas and electricity network is largely resilient to cope with a long duration gas disruption but this could potentially be further secured by a Liquefied Natural Gas terminal and increased bio-methane production. So from a gas/electricity perspective the Department of Communications, Climate Action & Environment is of the view that energy security is not of concern in the medium to long term.



Gambling on a major oil find


We cannot and must not base our future energy security on a possible oil find. This is like playing roulette in the hope of a major oil or gas find as a solution to our energy security concerns. Over the last 40 years we have had just four commercial gas finds and we have had difficulty bring some of these ashore.


However, contrast that with the SEAI projected renewable electricity potential off our coast which at 50GW is enough to meet the daily electricity demands of France and Austria combined. There are still risks, with technology development, but with the first commercial floating wind farm already developed off the coast of Scotland and testing about to start off the coast of Mayo, it is a far surer bet than playing roulette on striking oil.


If we develop this valuable resource properly, by establishing an Offshore Renewable Development Authority, we can auction off the sites, and crucially the energy itself which is actually owned by the people of Ireland, to the highest bidder. This money can then be used to reduce the cost of clean electricity to families’ right across Ireland.



Offshore Renewable Energy


Ireland has a sea area of 900,000 square kilometres, 10 times as big as our island, and some of the best offshore renewable energy resources in the world. The Government’s Offshore Renewable Energy Development Plan (OREDP) was designed to provide a framework for the sustainable development of our offshore renewable energy resources (wind, wave and tidal) and while this was launched in February 2014 it has not progressed with the urgency that it should.


As a result the Government decided last year to prioritise the Maritime Area and Foreshore (Amendment) Bill, which is to be driven by the Department of An Taoiseach to ensure that we can tap into this huge economic and environmentally sustainable resource off our coast.


Offshore Renewable Development Authority


I believe we need to establish a statutory Offshore Renewable Development Authority that can drive a fully coordinated national action plan whose responsibility would range from research and development, through to supply chain development and commercial deployment, with a clear focus on:

  • Climate & Environment
  • Infrastructure
  • Job Creation


As Minister Bruton said earlier this week “to deliver this target (70% electricity from renewables by 2030) will require significant leadership from the Government”.


I believe this is the type of leadership that is now needed.




As I said earlier, we require a radical overhaul of our Industrial Development Policy if we are to achieve our climate goals.


The one thing we are good at in Ireland is producing food, and producing it in a far more sustainable manner than the vast majority of countries across the globe. But as we develop our green image in key markets over the coming decade it will be very hard to justify why we as a country are continuing to facilitate oil exploration, especially at a time when we are becoming the global leader in offshore renewable electricity production.


To support this green image, Government took a decision last July last year to enable Ireland to prohibit the cultivation of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs). This was a very significant development. I believe it is critically important that Ireland takes whatever steps are necessary to maintain our GMO cultivation-free status, which is a key element of our international reputation as a green, sustainable food producer.


Building on this decision Ireland is now looking to secure EU Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) status for Irish beef which I believe must by focused on Irish Suckler Beef. In tandem with this we need to develop a new marketing brand, along the lines of the ‘Kerrygold’ brand, to sell this unique product into premium food markets. Both of these measures must be focused for certified grass-fed, extensively reared, sustainable Suckler beef production.


Could we be forced to buy out oil rights?


I believe that oil exploration off our coast is no longer the measure it once was to potentially provide energy security and issuing more licences could actually impede the progression of the offshore renewable energy sector.


We could very well be in the dreadful position where other EU countries will wind down their fossil fuel industries as we begin to open up oil wells off our coast. The Government could even be put in a position where it might have to buy out the rights of exploration companies to these oil reserves.


We need to press the pause button now, not wait for new laws.


We need to fully develop our offshore renewable energy resources through the establishment of an Offshore Renewable Development Authority with the potential to reduce emissions, provide cheaper sustainable energy, as well as to create significant job numbers in our western and southwestern counties.