Dáil debates

Tuesday, 2 November 2021

Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate

Departmental Licences

9:55 pm

Photo of Marian HarkinMarian Harkin (Sligo-Leitrim, Independent)
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I want to raise the issue of what I believe is the Minister's intention to grant prospecting licences for base metals, gold and silver ores, in a significant number of townlands in Leitrim. The prospecting licences were initially given to Omagh Minerals but they expired in 2020 and new licences have been applied for by Flintridge, a new company. However, three of its four officers are former officers of Omagh Minerals.

The Minister's intention has come as a shock and a nasty surprise to the local community for a number of reasons. This community, including the farmers, tourism operators, fishermen, and across society in Leitrim and internationally, have campaigned vigorously to ensure that fracking would not be permitted.

They did so because they wanted to preserve their landscape, their clean air and water and public health. I am thankful that campaign was successful and I congratulate all those involved, including the former Deputy, Tony McLoughlin, who played an important role.

As I have said, many people are aghast at the idea that, after declaring a climate and biodiversity emergency in 2019, Ireland is considering issuing prospecting licences to the mining industry. During my last term in the European Parliament, some of the most important legislation we put through related to the establishment of the circular economy. This is now on the Statute Book and Ireland has committed to establishing a circular economy. Gold mining has no place within it. In the mining industry, a large number of harmful chemicals that can negatively impact air and water quality are used. These include mercury and cyanide. It is estimated that in order to produce enough raw gold to make a single ring, 20 tonnes of rock and soil are dislodged and discarded. Many people are concerned because they have heard first-hand reports from Omagh of the lived experience of gold mining and of the negative human, societal and environmental damage it has done.

The GeoScience Regulation Office has told us that these are prospecting licences and not mining licences, and that they do not confer any right to mine. Let us look at the reality of that. Companies apply for prospecting licences based on geological information. If such a licence is given, the company involved may then invest money in prospecting and there is a significant expectation that it will apply for a mining licence. This is all the more likely because, last year, global production of gold fell by 1%. Companies are now looking at those deposits that are more difficult to extract.

I mentioned first-hand accounts from Omagh, where a mine has been in operation since the early 2000s. The area in question is significant. One site covers 71 square miles while another covers 96 square miles. There are various ponds, Kearney trenches, polishing ponds and processing plants all in a pristine environment. That is the picture painted by the people of Omagh. If the Minister ever visited the glens of north Leitrim, he would be horrified at the idea that this was even a possibility.

To suggest that prospecting licences are just that and no more is like saying that people who do a driving test and then invest in buying a car are simply doing so to see if they can pass the test. The truth is they are doing it so they can drive a car.

10:05 pm

Photo of Eamon RyanEamon Ryan (Dublin Bay South, Green Party)
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My Department published a notice of intention to grant two prospecting licences in north Leitrim in a local newspaper on 7 October 2021. Submissions on these applications can be made to my Department until 12 midnight on 7 November. Details are available on the Department's website. All valid submissions will be considered before a final decision is made on whether to grant the two prospecting licences in question.

It is important that we all understand the difference between a prospecting licence and a mining licence or lease and the robust standards that are in place to ensure that both distinct activities meet the highest environmental standards and that people's concerns are addressed. A prospecting licence allows the holder to prospect for specified minerals in a defined geographic area. The majority of prospecting activities carried out under a prospecting licence are temporary and involve minimal disturbance. All proposed exploration activities are the subject of environmental screening by my Department. This ensures they will not give rise to any significant adverse effects on the environment. If a prospecting licence is granted, that licence does not confer the licensee with any rights which would allow it to undertake mining and no intrusive prospecting activities such as drilling or trenching can be undertaken without the express consent of the landowner or tenant. It is also worth noting that very few prospecting licences ever lead to mining.

Mining is a very different activity from prospecting in terms of its scale and potential environmental impact and is regulated accordingly. Mining requires three additional and separate consents. It requires planning permission from the local authority. This involves a full environmental impact assessment and public consultation. To emphasise again the point that a mining authorisation does not automatically follow on from a prospecting licence, I will mention that I am aware of examples of economically viable mineral deposits being discovered only for permission to develop them to subsequently be refused by the relevant planning authority.

An integrated pollution control, IPC, licence from the Environmental Protection Agency is also required. IPC licensing aims to prevent or reduce emissions to air, water and land, to reduce waste and to make sure that energy resources are used efficiently. IPC licensing also involves a full environmental impact assessment and public consultation.

A mining lease or licence is also required. This is sought from me, as the relevant Minister. I would not consider granting a mining licence or lease until after planning permission and an IPC licence have been granted. My Department is currently finalising a draft policy statement on mineral exploration and mining by considering the submissions made as part of a public consultation that concluded on 15 October last. The Government will consider the draft policy statement early next year. The draft policy statement highlights the role of minerals in our everyday lives and the critical role they will play in our transition to net-zero emissions and carbon neutrality by 2050. The draft policy recognises that we need to repair, reuse and recycle more minerals and metals but this alone will not supply the quantity of minerals required to decarbonise our energy system through solar power, renewable wind energy and batteries. Relying solely on imported minerals risks these activities being developed in parts of the world where less stringent environmental and human rights standards apply while also risking our ability to secure the minerals needed to make the green and digital transition a reality.

A key priority in the draft policy statement is to build public understanding of, and trust in, mineral exploration and mining activities. During the course of the public consultation on the draft policy statement, the consent of communities to mining operations and the provision of information that is easily understood emerged as key issues. These issues will be taken forward by my Department with the help of an advisory group on mineral exploration and mining which will be established shortly and which will draw on as broad a range of views as possible.

Photo of Marian HarkinMarian Harkin (Sligo-Leitrim, Independent)
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I thank the Minister. This week, every single member of Leitrim County Council supported a motion asking him not to grant a prospecting licence for gold mining. That is a very strong statement. Every single councillor from all the different parties and all independent councillors asked him not to grant this prospecting licence. I mentioned fracking earlier. It is worth noting that petroleum licensing options were granted by a Fianna Fáil-Green Party government. We are lucky that the then Minister, Pat Rabbitte, refused to sign off on a prospecting licence when Fine Gael and Labour were in power in 2011. His decision provided the space for a future Government to reconsider fracking as an option, which happened. The Government in question did the right thing. I now ask the Minister to do the right thing. I do not know how familiar he is with Leitrim. Its farmers will be expected to play their role in ensuring sustainable food production and in sequestering carbon. The burden may be heavier on farmers in this area. To be honest, it beggars belief that any decision the Minister might take could open the door to mining in Leitrim's pristine landscape. He seems to be saying that he would consider granting mining licences. I am shocked by this. He gave the example of conflict minerals, which is off the wall. I listened an earlier response from the Minister in which he mentioned COP 26. He said that this was an opportunity to do things in a better way and to act and think differently. That is what I am asking him to do now. I ask him not to make the mistakes of the previous Fianna Fáil-Green Party Government. I ask him to do things in a better way and not to give permission to companies to prospect for gold in Leitrim.

Photo of Eamon RyanEamon Ryan (Dublin Bay South, Green Party)
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I am very familiar with north Leitrim. The people and the place have a special character. I absolutely support what Tony McLoughlin did, which Deputy Harkin mentioned.

There was widespread cross-party support for the ban on fracking, which came from local communities and the Love Leitrim group. That has been significant.

There is a difference. We will need base metals in the low carbon transition we are going to make. Do we decide to import them from other parts of the world which do not have the same environmental standards and regulations? I do not think that would be the right policy. We have gone through a very open public consultation process where we were open to everyone sitting down together. How do we manage that conundrum? There are clearly local concerns. I do not think saying no to any prospecting for any minerals or base metals, including gold or silver, would be the appropriate policy approach.

The Deputy mentioned a metaphor that this is like buying a driver licence. For 50 years, people have been prospecting for gold all over our country and not once has a commercial deposit been found. We have to be careful and put this matter in perspective. There is a real difference between getting a driving licence and driving a car and 50 years of prospecting which has not resulted in a commercial find. The chances of there being such a find are so remote that we should be careful not to raise concerns that might be not be based in reality. If there is a find, it is only then that we need to consider what the licensing or other conditions should be. That would happen through three planning, licensing and ministerial departmental assessments in respect of the environmental circumstances. I do not expect that to be the reality because the experience over 50 years has been that it has not happened. I do not believe it would be right or appropriate for us to close the door completely on any prospecting for base metals in our country.