Wednesday, 14 October 2015
Minerals Development Bill 2015: Report and Final Stages
Before we commence, I remind Senators that a Senator may speak only once on Report Stage, except the proposer of an amendment, who may reply to the discussion on the amendment. Each amendment must be seconded. I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Joe McHugh, to the House.
Amendment No. 1, in the name of Senator Mark Daly and other Fianna Fáil Senators, arises out of committee proceedings.
The Minister and I had a number of discussions on the amendment on other Stages and we are quite happy that there will be movement on this in the other House. I do not mean to delay the process any further so I will not be moving the amendment.
I move amendment No. 2:
In page 30, between lines 4 and 5, to insert the following:"(3) The Minister shall review all prospecting licences and retention licences every five years.".
We have discussed this amendment on previous Stages. Its purpose is to allow the Minister to review existing or historical licences on a five-year basis. Where there is a case where a licence holder is impeding the development of the local economy or misusing his or her licence, we feel the Minister should seek to revoke the licence and open up a fresh round of tenders. Sin an t-údar go bhfuilimid ag cur an leasú seo chun cinn. B'fhéidir go raibh am ag an Aire Stáit machnamh breise a dhéanamh ar an gceist seo idir an dá linn agus bheadh súil agam go dtógfadh sé ar bord é.
The proposed amendment clearly refers to prospecting and retention licences. As I said during the previous discussion, prospecting licences are already subject to a two-year review process. It is intended that retention licences will be treated the same. These reviews are not a box-ticking exercise. Work carried out in the period under review is scrutinised by professional experts on the staff of the Department to ensure compliance with best practice and meeting commitments. Work programmes for the next review phase are also revaluated. Quite apart from the formal reviews, of course, the technical staff of my Department maintain contact with the licencees throughout the licence term and keep apprised of developments. Site visits are also undertaken as part of this process.
Mining licences are also kept under review in accordance with the terms of the licences and, particularly for the main underground and surface operations, inspections by an independent qualified mining engineer are carried out twice per year.
The Senator raised a separate issue in regard to old operations which it is claimed are not being worked. I do not want to discuss particular cases here but I believe the issue here is not a licensing issue but, rather, relates to the question of excepted minerals. These are mines that were being worked in 1978 and which were registered by the Mining Board as excepted from the statutory vesting in the Minister of the right to work minerals that was contained in the 1979 Act. This Bill contains provisions that will automatically cancel all those registrations on enactment. If a deposit of formerly excepted minerals is still genuinely being worked, the operators will have an opportunity to apply once again to the Mining Board to retain the excepted minerals status, but this will be done only if the operator makes an application within the prescribed period and if the Mining Board is satisfied that the minerals are being worked, and worked efficiently.
We have had a discussion on this and I acknowledge the Senator's concerns. It is a question of trying to create the difference between prospecting and exploration licences in respect of drilling. The process is not the same as that for a mining licence. There are two issues, namely, that of excepted minerals and that of the application process. As I stated on the last occasion, where a prospecting licence is given, exploration might just be a matter of evaluating the different types of rocks or rock infrastructure in an areas. It also could mean drilling. One could compare it to drilling for water. It could involve equipment of the same diameter as that used to drill for water, perhaps 5 cm to 6 cm. There still has to be a screening process, which must take account of noise pollution and the impact on water tables. There are still screening parameters for a prospecting licence. My Department has the technical expertise to deal with those matters.
The corollary is the application for the actual mining licence. This is a completely different ball game, which involves going to the planning authority and taking responsibility. It requires environmental impact assessments and environmental impact statements by the company itself. A big part involves public consultation, whereby the public has an opportunity to make its voice heard in regard to potential applications.
I welcome the clarification on the other issue raised by the Minister of State, namely, the legacy licences that are not being used, or which could be used to block others from doing anything.
I accept what the Minister of State is saying in regard to the prospecting licence and the difference between that and the actual mining licence. However, it should be left open to the Minister to have the option to review the licences within the given period. I intend to press the amendment.
The amendment relates to section 82 of the Bill. We had a conversation on this on the last occasion. I shared the concerns raised on the sale of State assets. As discussed with Senator Ó Clochartaigh, it was never my intention to sell off any major deposits. We had a conversation on the definition on what is small and what is not small. We had a conversation following the Senator's intervention the last day and we considered the definition of "small" in this context. Having given the matter some further consideration, I am now prepared to accept the amendment.