Wednesday, 7 March 2012
As Deputy Ferris knows, I have consistently welcomed the proposal by Shannon LNG to construct a liquefied natural gas, LNG, terminal near Ballylongford, County Kerry. Such a facility, together with the bringing onshore of Corrib gas would provide important security of gas supply for Ireland. I met the promoters of the project soon after taking office last year and both my Department and the Commission for Energy Regulation, CER, are in regular contact with Shannon LNG. The House will be aware from my replies to previous parliamentary questions of the meeting last December between the Taoiseach, the Minister for the Arts, Heritage and Gaeltacht Affairs, Deputy Deenihan, Deputy Spring and myself and company representatives from Shannon LNG and of the general discussion at that meeting.
The Commission for Energy Regulation has been engaged in an extensive consultation process on the matter over some time and has had considerable interaction with Shannon LNG and other stakeholders. Decisions on the regulatory treatment of the gas interconnectors and tariffing are statutorily a matter for the CER under the enactment of the Gas (Interim) (Regulation) Act 2002. The CER, as the independent energy regulator, is statutorily charged with a duty to protect energy consumers, ensure security of supply and support competitiveness. The regulator has a duty to ensure new sources of gas for the Irish market do not result in unwarranted increases in the price of gas to business or domestic consumers.
I fully acknowledge the complexity of the decision which the regulator must make and the need for various difficult balances to be struck. Together with all players and potential players in Ireland's gas market, Shannon LNG has a key commercial interest in the outcome of the regulator's ultimate decision on this complex regulatory question. Given the complexities, there are many different perspectives on this issue.
On 1 March the Commission for Energy Regulation held a further public forum for stakeholders. This followed publication on 17 February of its proposed decision paper on the issue of the regulatory treatment of the gas interconnectors. Stakeholders have a further opportunity to respond to the regulator by 16 March on the matters raised in the proposed decision paper. At the end of this period, the CER will assess all comments received and publish a final decision. I understand the regulator has indicated a decision will be made by the end of April.
As the Minister will be aware, this issue has been ongoing for more than 18 months. I do not know how many times I have tabled it as a Topical Issue Debate matter or raised it on the Order of Business. This is the second time I have raised it with him at Priority Question Time. He is also well aware of expectations in north Kerry which has been devastated by unemployment. The value of the project going ahead cannot be overstated. Communication seems to be a problem, which I cannot understand, given that on 21 December the Taoiseach said he would set up a meeting between Shannon LNG, the regulator and the Department. If we cannot get all of the stakeholders around the table, this issue will not be resolved.
I attended a meeting last Thursday morning which included a briefing session that involved the regulator. In answer to a question from the floor from one of the groups supporting the Shannon LNG project about who was responsible for policy, the regulator said he was. I assume policy is determined by elected representatives, not the regulator. Is it possible in the short term to facilitate a meeting between all of the stakeholders in order that this issue can be resolved to everybody's satisfaction?
I share the Deputy's view of the desirability of proceeding with a significant employment project in an area such as Ballylongford. I have, in so far as it is within my power, done everything to indicate why the Government wants to support and progress the project as quickly as it can. However, as I stated previously, we would have had a decision last October from the regulator whose task this is under statute if the promoters of the project had not decided for whatever reason to have recourse to the European Union. That has delayed the process. The consultation with stakeholders the Deputy has sought is under way as a result of the meeting held on 21 December to which he referred. All of the stakeholders were convened by the CER and invited to make submissions. They were further invited to make written or oral submissions before 16 March on the draft decision paper published. The regulator has promised to have a final decision by the end of April.
I still cannot understand why a person with the Minister's authority cannot convene a meeting of all the stakeholders around the table which is the only way he will resolve this issue. Making submissions is a delaying tactic that will push out the boat all the time. It is within the Minister's remit to convene such a meeting. If it happened, it would clear the muddy waters and people would be clearer. Will he pull the stakeholders together and initiate a meeting between the CER, the Department and Shannon LNG to resolve the issue?
I again draw the Deputy's attention to the statutory function and role of the regulator. On 1 March he convened a meeting of the stakeholders and everybody was invited to make a presentation. I refer to the article in today's edition of the Irish Examiner on this issue which deals with some of the complexities and pitfalls for the consumer and the national interest. It is being bruited in Kerry by the promoters that I can give a policy direction on the matter to the regulator. I want to make it clear that I can give a general policy direction, but I cannot intervene on behalf of, or in opposition to, a particular project.
I cannot be certain until I hear the decision. The CER has not made the decision, but staff in the office have pledged that it will be made before the end of April. The last time we had such a meeting, they pledged that it would be made before the end of October and the company went to the European Union, which was regrettable because it delayed the process. I am as anxious as everybody else that the project be given the green light and that we proceed with it as soon as possible. However, there has been misrepresentation in the ether about who performs the various functions.