Tuesday, 7 February 2017
46. To ask the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources the reason for awarding the ObSERVE programme; the way in which its aim of surveying cetaceans such as whales, dolphins, and porpoises and sea birds offshore aligns with the programme's aim of supporting the sustainable development of the oil and gas industry; and the basis on which this programme was awarded a nomination for the Civil Service Excellence and Innovation Awards 2016. [5791/17]
Is it the Government's intention to save the whale in the North Atlantic or to save the oil and gas industry? The Department has commissioned the ObSERVE programme with significant funding of €2.7 million to monitor the presence of whales, dolphins and sea birds in the area. Is that done with the intention of excluding areas from exploration or from seismic testing, which is known to have an effect on such wildlife populations? Or is it to help and support the oil and gas exploration industry, which in my mind we should be exiting and divesting from rather than investing in long term and is what I fear behind this programme?
My Department, in partnership with the Department of Arts, Heritage, Rural, Regional and Gaeltacht Affairs, has devised a programme of targeted acoustic sound and aerial surveys of protected cetaceans - whales, dolphins and porpoises - and seabirds in the Irish offshore. This programme, which was nominated for a Civil Service Excellence and Innovation Award for its pioneering approach to the sustainable development of the Irish offshore oil and gas industry through its description of animal occurrence, distribution, density and abundance, has been given the title of ObSERVE. This is the first time in the EU that the authorities responsible for oil and gas exploration and for nature conservation have teamed up to find answers to complex issues of mutual concern. The quality and quantity of the data acquired from the ObSERVE project has surpassed expectations and Ireland’s international reputation has been considerably enhanced due to the foresight, concept and proactive nature of this project. The Energy White Paper, Ireland's Transition to a Low Carbon Energy Future 2015-2030, sets out a vision and a framework to guide Irish energy policy and the actions that Government intends to take in the energy sector from now up to 2030, aimed at transforming Ireland's fossil-fuel based energy sector into a clean, low carbon system by 2050. The White Paper identifies the long-term strategic importance of diversifying Ireland's energy generation portfolio and largely decarbonising the energy sector by 2050. The White Paper recognises that oil and natural gas will remain significant elements of Ireland’s energy supply in the transition period and in this context, the development of Ireland’s indigenous oil and gas resources has the potential to deliver significant and sustained benefits to Irish society and the economy. It is important to ensure that while petroleum activities are being undertaken that they are done in a way that is protective of the environment.
I take it from the Minister of State's answer that this measure is about developing the oil and gas exploration industry. There is a certain irony for those interested in the whole protection of nature that the very industry causing such damage, changing the North Atlantic, altering the feeding patterns and causing immediate harm to these creatures due to the exploration work, is now being wrapped in the description of it being a beneficial step forward. If he does find that there are certain areas where there are very large populations or specifically sensitive important feeding operations etc. for whales, dolphins or sea birds will the Minister of State exclude those areas from any future exploration? What is the purpose of this programme? Is it just to provide a baseline to help the oil and gas exploration industry do an environmental impact assessment or is it actually an attempt to reduce or stop the environmental impact assessment caused by those companies? Will it mean the Minister will say to certain companies, sorry but they cannot go into that area of the North Atlantic because it is sensitive and important for these other reasons?
Clearly, Ireland has an interest in developing its oil and gas resources. We are making the move towards renewable and sustainable energy but at the same time, during the transition phase, we are exploring and continuing to harness the resources of oil and gas. In that regard, all applications that come before me have reams and reams of scientific data on environmental impact assessments, screening and all measures and data surrounding the marine life present. The ObSERVE programme measures, protects and quantifies the amount of sea life there and ensures that any and all measures are put in place to protect them, when I get the numbers. Considering his background I would have thought the Deputy would support this measure. This programme has won international recognition for the State in the approach we are taking to reach oil and gas.
I am concerned for several reasons. First of all we must leave four fifths of the fossil fuels underground. I am concerned that the only investments being made by the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment are in fossil fuel scholarships rather than clean energy scholarships and that it is measuring nature so that those industries can go out and help to destroy nature. The Minister of State has still not answered the key question I have asked on three occasions. Will he answer it on the third time? On the basis of the ObSERVE programme, if there are certain areas where there are very large populations or where it is important for that natural world, will he exclude those areas from any future gas and oil exploration? Or is this just to measure what is there so when we ruin it with further exploration we will know what has gone?
It is not the intention to ruin any areas. All data that will be collected, that would be part of an environmental impact statement, is assessed by specialist consultants before coming to me for signing off on exploration licences. Deputy Ryan made reference to scholarships. This is an ongoing and longstanding programme and I know the Deputy was a Minister in the Department at the time. The 2017 scholarships which have been accepted onto the relevant MSc degree courses are in geoscience, petroleum engineering and environmental science and are starting in late 2017. We must recognise that there is a wide range of uses for oil and it is not just for running our cars. While over 75% of them are obviously around gasoline or aviation and jet fuel, there is a wide range of other resources that are utilised from oil including the medical device sector, a range of projects from aspirin, glue, trash bags, footballs, umbrellas, bandages, nail polish, pins, balloons and toothpaste.
I remind Ministers that they, every bit as much as Deputies, must comply with the times. It has not happened today. I invite Deputy Mick Barry and remind the House that we have three and a half minutes for the response and one supplementary question. Two minutes is time enough for the Minister's reply.