Thursday, 28 January 2016
Energy Bill 2016: Second Stage
I am pleased to have the opportunity to present this Bill for consideration by Seanad Éireann. Before I proceed to outline the detail of it, section by section, I would like to spend a little time in explaining its significant elements, namely, providing the Commission for Energy Regulation, CER, with powers to impose administrative sanctions, the renaming of the CER and providing for a wider definition of the existing single electricity market, SEM.
The Bill has been designed to revise, consolidate, update and expand energy legislation in various areas, one of which concerns the enhancement of the enforcement powers of the Commission for Energy Regulation. The Bill also provides for the renaming of the CER to reflect its current range of responsibilities. In addition, it addresses a wider definition of the existing single electricity market, bringing it into full EU compliance, known as the integrated single electricity market or I-SEM project. Another element restates the REMIT provisions currently included in secondary legislation. This relates to market-abuse offences in the wholesale electricity and gas markets and is required by the EU regulation on wholesale energy market integrity and transparency, otherwise known as REMIT. The Bill also contains various amendments to the Electricity Regulation Act 1999, the Gas Act 1976, the National Oil Reserves Agency Act 2007, the Sustainable Energy Act 2002 and the Registration of Title Act 1964. In essence, therefore, this is a miscellaneous provisions Bill and the amendments proposed will result in more robust energy legislation.
I will describe the background to the powers to apply administrative sanctions which it is proposed to give to the CER. The role of the CER has expanded considerably since its establishment in 1999. For a regulator to be effective in the performance of its duties, it should have available to it sufficient powers to ensure its decisions, properly taken in accordance with the law and the objectives of EU and national energy legislation, are implemented. The Forfás 2013 report on sectoral regulation stated regulatory sanctions were an essential feature of a regulatory enforcement toolkit and central to achieving compliance. Sanctions have a deterrent effect and demonstrate that non-compliance will not be tolerated. Effective enforcement, underpinned by an adequate sanctions regime, ensures non-compliance results in consequences that will put the violator in a worse position than those who have complied with their regulatory obligations. Additionally, the International Energy Agency, in its most recent review of Ireland's energy policy in 2012, stated Ireland should ensure the powers of the CER were enhanced, as necessary, in order to ensure market and competition rules were strictly adhered to and that the interests of consumers were protected.
The CER possesses a range of enforcement powers, including directions, determinations, fines in certain limited circumstances and licence revocation. However, it is missing an effective range of administrative sanctions beneath the ultimate measure of licence revocation. The Bill provides for enhanced powers of investigation by the CER and specifically for the imposition of administrative sanctions, including financial penalties, in respect of defined "improper conduct" by energy undertakings. The Bill sets out a defined and structured process, both for the investigation of improper conduct by energy undertakings and for the related imposition of sanctions. The CER will be empowered to carry out an investigation, as it considers necessary, in order to identify improper conduct by an energy undertaking. Inspectors can be appointed to carry out such investigations. The Bill empowers the CER to impose either major or minor sanctions, at the appropriate stage in the process, if it is satisfied that improper conduct, as defined, has been identified. A "major sanction" is a financial penalty, while a "minor sanction" means the issue by the commission of an advice, a caution, a warning or a reprimand, or any combination of these. The High Court will be involved in the case of imposition of major sanctions.
I will address the proposed change of name for the commission. The role of the CER now also includes the economic regulation of water services. In view of its expanded portfolio, it is both appropriate and timely to change its name from the Commission for Energy Regulation to reflect its current role. It is proposed, therefore, that the electricity, gas and water regulator will be known as the Commission for Regulation of Utilities, CRU.
I turn to the integrated single electricity market or I-SEM project. The Bill provides for a wider definition of the existing single electricity market. This will facilitate the North-South regulators' project, known as I-SEM. This is a project that brings the single electricity market into full EU compliance. Compliance with new EU cross-border trading electricity codes, to enable closer integration with European electricity markets, is the responsibility of the Governments of Ireland and Northern Ireland. The current rules governing the existing all-island wholesale electricity market, the single electricity market, are not compatible with these new EU trading codes. Therefore, both Governments have tasked the SEM committee with developing new market arrangements for the all-island wholesale electricity markets. As I said, the new market is called the integrated single electricity market, I-SEM. This project is well under way and expected to be completed by the end of 2017. The Bill, accordingly, contains a change to the current SEM definition in the legislation to encompass I-SEM.
I propose to outline the provisions of the Bill. For the convenience of the House, a detailed explanatory memorandum has been published and it provides a synopsis of the provisions of the Bill. The Bill consists of 27 sections. Section 1 in Part 1 contains standard provisions concerning the Short Title and commencement. Section 2 is also a standard provision which provides for a number of definitions for ease of reference.
Section 3 provides for the repeal of a small number of redundant legislative provisions. It includes the repeal of the Intoxicating Liquor Act 1946 which is an obsolete provision. The Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport is the "relevant Minister" with regard to this Act; however, that Department has requested that this provision be progressed via this Bill. Section 3 also provides for the repeal of section 27 of the Electricity Regulation Act 1999 and section 13(5) of the Gas Act 2002. These provisions are deemed to be obsolete.
Section 4 in Part 2 of the Bill provides for the renaming of the Commission for Energy Regulation. I have already explained how this is to reflect its expanded regulatory role.
Section 5 in Part 3 of the Bill amends the Electricity Regulation Act 1999. These amendments will enhance the commission's powers of investigation and allow for the imposition of administrative sanctions on energy undertakings for improper conduct. Consequently, a number of new sections are being inserted into the Electricity Regulation Act 1999.These new sections are as follows: a new section 55 is inserted into the 1999 Act, which provides for a range of definitions, including definition of improper conduct; a new section 56 provides for the appointment of an inspector to carry out an investigation on behalf of the commission; and a new section 57 sets out that the commission can carry out an investigation of the performance of any of the functions conferred on it by the Electricity Regulation Act 1999, or any other Acts of the Oireachtas. The commission may call such an investigation, as it thinks fit to be carried out, to identify any improper conduct by any energy undertaking. It also provides for the terms and conditions in regard to the appointment of an inspector.
A new section 58 sets out the powers of an inspector. These powers provide for the following: to enter and search premises and vehicles; to carry out examinations or inquiries; and to acquire the production of documents. An inspector may, if necessary, be accompanied by a member of the Garda, and may seek a warrant from the District Court to enable him or her to enter a relevant premises or private dwelling. Any person who obstructs or impedes an inspector is guilty of an offence. An inspector may, if he or she thinks proper, conduct an oral hearing on his or her own initiative, or if requested to do so by the energy undertaking.
A new section 59 sets out the actions to be taken by an inspector on completion of an investigation, including the drafting of the report following the investigation. Where the inspector is satisfied that improper conduct has occurred or is occurring, he or she cannot make any recommendation as to the sanction to be imposed on the energy undertaking.
A new section 60 sets out the action to be taken by the commission upon its receipt of the inspector's final report into the improper conduct. The commission must review and evaluate the inspector's report. The level of sanction to be imposed is a matter for the commission and not the inspector. Having considered an investigation report, and if it is satisfied on reasonable grounds that improper conduct is occurring or has occurred, the commission may impose either a major or a minor sanction. The commission may request the inspector to carry out further investigation or to take no further action, as it considers appropriate. Before making a decision, the commission may conduct an oral hearing or invite the energy undertaking to make submissions on the investigation report.
Factors to be taken into account by the commission in deciding the sanction to be imposed are set out in section 65. Any financial penalty imposed by the commission is subject to confirmation by the High Court, which can confirm or reject it, or impose a different sanction.
Sections 61 to 65, inclusive, to be inserted into the Act of 1999 deal with court procedures in regard to sanctions imposed by the commission. A new section 61 provides that a decision by the commission to impose a major sanction will not take effect unless the decision is confirmed by the High Court. Section 62 provides that a specified body may appeal a decision of the commission to impose a major sanction to the High Court. The High Court may confirm or counsel the commission's decision, or replace it with such decision as it considers appropriate. Section 63 provides that if the specified body does not appeal the decision of the committee to impose a sanction within the period allowed for such appeal, the commission must apply to the High Court to have its decision confirmed. Section 64 provides for an appeal by the commission or the specified body to the Court of Appeal on a point of law. It provides that any financial penalties imposed by way of major sanction shall be paid into the Exchequer, or disposed of for its benefit, in such manner as the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform may direct. It also provides that the commission may recover its costs, as a simple contract debt, in any court. Section 65 includes a list of matters that must be considered by either the commission or the Court prior to the confirmation of a major sanction. Section 66 provides that the commission's power to impose administrative sanctions is without prejudice to any other powers that the commission has under this or any other Act.
Section 6 inserts a new Schedule 4 into the Electricity Regulation Act 1999. This Schedule provides for the holding of oral hearings by both an inspector and the commission. Sections 7 and 8 of Part 4 provide for the amendment to the definition of the wholesale electricity arrangements in section 2 of the Act of 1999, as inserted by the single electricity market Act of 2007. These are the I-SEM elements that I have previously mentioned. They refer to the arrangements in this State and in Northern Ireland, as described in a memorandum of understanding signed by both Governments in December 2006, relating to the establishment and operation of a single competitive wholesale electricity market. This is referred to as the "gross mandatory pool". An additional transitional provision is also included in the Bill to allow the regulators to continue to operate under the current market definition, while developing the new, EU-compliant market rules, in preparation for the new market going live in late 2017.
Section 9 provides for the restatement of section 4 of the 1999 Act regarding the service of notices by the CER. The restatement provides for the service of notices by electronic means or by fax. Section 10 provides for a minor amendment to the existing provisions in section 6 of the 1999 Act in respect of timelines for the prosecution of offences under that Act. In line with other legislation, it is proposed to extend to 24 months, being the time for which summary proceedings for an offence under this Act may be brought.
Section 11 adjusts stated penalty amounts in the Electricity Regulation Act of 1999. It replaces the reference to a monetary amount with a reference to a "class A fine". This brings the legislation in line with the Fines Act of 2010. It also increases the existing penalty provisions for offences in relation to unregistered gas installers and electrical contractors.
Section 12 makes minor amendments to existing provisions in the 1999 Act regarding the terms and duration of the appointment of authorised officers by the commission. It also provides for replacement of the reference to a penalty provision of €1,500 and up to 12 months' imprisonment for obstruction, wilful non-compliance, and supplying false information with a reference to a "class A fine". This is in line with the Fines Act 2010.
Section 13 provides for the closure of the carbon levy account. The carbon revenue levy accounts, as audited by the Comptroller and Auditor General, were laid before the Oireachtas on 3 July 2015. The money in the account was dispersed by the CER on direction from the Minister, with the consent of the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, in March 2014. Some €35 million went to the energy efficiency fund, and the balance was returned to the Exchequer. The Comptroller and Auditor General suggested that the existing text of the Act did not appear to provide for the formal closure of the account. The proposed textual amendment to section 40(m) of the 1999 Act addresses this and provides for formal closure of the account. Section 14 places a statutory obligation on the CER to produce an energy strategy statement in respect of its energy remit.
Part 5 provides for the restatement in primary legislation of remit penalties. The EU Regulation on Wholesale Energy Market Integrity and Transparency, known as REMIT, is aimed at preventing market abuse in wholesale energy markets across the European Union. This regulation was given further effect in Irish law by statutory instrument No. 480 of 2014. The current legislation provides for offences in regard to contraventions, with fines on conviction of €50,000 for an individual and €500,000 for a body corporate. This is the maximum limit that may be imposed under secondary legislation. However, it is desirable that the current level of sanctions be replaced by a more robust and appropriate sanctions model that is on a par with penalties in neighbouring jurisdictions. The Bill now restates the penalty provisions in primary legislation. This allows for increased penalties of up to €250,000 for an individual and up to 10% of turnover for a body corporate. Section 15 provides for the restatement of penalty provisions. It provides for increased penalties of up to €250,000 for an individual and up to 10% of turnover for a body corporate, as I have indicated.
Part 6 amends the Sustainable Energy Act 2002. Section 16 provides that any reference in this Part to "the Act of 2002" is to be read as a reference to the Sustainable Energy Act 2002. Section 17 provides for amendments to the Sustainable Energy Act 2002 in respect of Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland, SEAI, board appointments. It removes the requirement that on 1 May of each year the three longest-serving members on the board of SEAI must retire. Instead, it provides that members may be appointed for a period not exceeding five years, subject to a maximum of ten years of service.Section 18 makes a minor technical amendment to the same Act in relation to the annual report of the authority. The Bill places an obligation on the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland to submit its annual report to the Minister within six months of the end of the financial year.
Part 7 amends the National Oil Reserves Agency Act 2007. It seeks to provide for greater flexibility by NORA in the administration of the biofuels obligations scheme. Section 19 provides that any reference in this part of the Bill to the Act of 2007 is to be read as a reference to National Oil Reserves Agency Act 2007. Section 20 amends the 2007 Act by the insertion of a new subsection 43A in the 2007 Act to provide arrangements between the Revenue Commissioners and the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources regarding the exchange of oil data. These data transfer arrangements will enable the Department to cross-check data received by it and, thereby, ensure that all oil importing companies are correctly paying the NORA levy in accordance with the Act.
Section 21 provides for minor amendments to section 44A of the Act to provide for a definition of a the term "reporting period" in the NORA Act 2007. Section 22 amends section 44G of the NORA Act 2007. The amendment enables the National Oil Reserves Agency to make a determination as to the deadlines in respect of each biofuel obligation period that are to apply to biofuel obligation account holders for submitting the relevant information to the agency; the closing date for receipt of applications for biofuel obligation certificates for an obligation period; and the timing and dates within an obligation period for biofuel obligation account holders to apply for certificates. It is provided that NORA shall publish this determination on its website.
Section 23 amends section 44H of the NORA Act 2007 to remove the specified deadlines for NORA to issue notices. Subsection 44H(2) of the Act is to be deleted. Subsection 44H(3) of the Act is to be amended to provide that NORA shall make a determination specifying the date by which it will issue a statement on any revised deadlines and that this shall be published on its website. Section 24 amends the 2007 Act to increase the deadline under section 44I, from 35 to 75 days, to provide for increased flexibility by the National Oil Reserves Agency.
The final Part of the Bill is Part 8which covers sections 25 to 27, inclusive. This Part provides for miscellaneous amendments to existing legislation. Section 25 provides for an amendment to the text of subsection 72(4)(b) of the Registration of Title Act 1964 to clarify that existing telecommunications deeds of easement shall have the same legal effect that section 72 of that Act already confers on deeds of easement for gas pipelines. Section 26 provides for a technical amendment to correct a numbering error that occurs within section 6 of the Continental Shelf Act 1968. Section 6 was inserted into the 1968 Act by the Petroleum (Exploration and Extraction) Safety Act 2015. Section 27 provides for the correction of a typographical error in section 13(1) of the Gas (Interim) (Regulation) Act 2002.
I look forward to working constructively with Senators and to an informed and meaningful debate, as is always the case in this House. The input from Senators on all sides of the House will help to advance the measures provided for in the Bill. I ask the House to note that I intend to bring forward a number of amendments on Committee Stage. I hope to introduce amendments to make provision for the imposition of a legal obligation on oil and energy companies to supply data to the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland and to the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources. This is to address reporting obligations by virtue of Ireland's membership of the International Energy Agency and other international organisations. I also hope to introduce additional provisions on the definition of improper conduct in the Bill. I look forward to working closely with the commission on ensuring the speedy implementation of the Bill's provisions following enactment.
I thank the Minister for coming to the House. We broadly welcome the Bill. Even though the EU brought this matter forward for regulation in 2011, we are now in the dying days of this Government. We were promised that there would be a revolution in the way we do business in this House. It is ironic the Minister is here today because he was here also when we recalled the House one summer to debate organ donation as an EU regulation had been put through by a Minister but had not gone through the Dáil, Seanad or a committee. We deal with legislation from the EU very badly; it is all very last minute. I have no problem regulating the energy sector but I have a problem with the manner in which we transpose EU directives into Irish law and doing so at this late stage is not the best way to do produce legislation.
I have a few questions for the Minister. The Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform said that regulatory impact assessments would be carried out when this type of legislation came forward. At one stage, after almost two years of Government, only four regulatory impact assessments had been carried out. I refer to all areas of legislation and not just the energy sector. Assessing the impact a regulation will have on a sector is part of the reform promised when it came to drafting legislation. Has the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform or the Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources carried out a regulatory impact assessment on this legislation, which deals with the energy sector?
Part 4 of the Bill refers to an all-island energy sector, which is welcome. I know the response the Minister will give to my next point. The Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade met to discuss COP21. Therefore, it is ironic that the EU has not introduced some provisions to tackle climate change when regulating the energy sector. The Minister is concerned about climate change and I am sure he will agree with me that the impact the energy sector has on climate change should be regulated as part of the remit of this legislation and the new body. The EU directive dates back to 2011, so why was climate change not into account? We will go through the legislation in finer detail when we debate the amendments.
I refer to the changes to the board. Honest to God, nothing ever changes. The fact the three longest serving members of the board do not have to retire and the period concerned has been increased from five and ten years is not appropriate. The energy sector is a powerful lobby, so one cannot have people remaining on a board for long periods of time. Following the publication of the banking report, we know that if the regulators, or the people in charge of oversight, are there too long, they get too cosy. I have an issue with board members having an over-extended stay. New people bring new ideas and vigilance, which is important for a board. I am sure the people already appointed to the board are great but that is not the issue. No one should serve on a State board for so long because Ireland is such a small country and one must deal with the same people all of the time. Therefore, new people would bring a fresh approach and new vigilance to an important position.
I welcome the Minister to the House to discuss this important legislation. Ireland is good at implementing European regulations. Is the Senator saying we should not implement European regulations in the dying days of this Administration? I congratulate the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources for bringing forward this legislation.
On the issue of energy not being incorporated into COP21, of course, it was. If one reads the climate change legislation, one will see every sector is charged with bringing forward a report, including the Minister's Department. Every sector must outline its targets in terms of that legislation.If we are asking for duplication of energy regulation, it is provided for in climate change targets that the relevant energy Department has to bring forward proposals and recommendations on how it is going to reach the target. It is incorporated in the climate change Bill.
The purpose of this Bill is to introduce a number of changes to existing legislation, as well as incorporating new legislation. I am amused that it refers to the Intoxicating Liquor Act 1946, which provided for the issuing of licences for certain premises in certain bogs. I see in the explanatory memorandum that a licence was never granted for such a premises and that provision was never used. I suppose the last place one would need somebody to be intoxicated would be on a bog, as he or she might fall in.
There are other places included as well. The provision is now gone and it was never used. Regardless of how thirsty people are on the bog, they will not be able to drink now in any event.
Section 4 deals with the amendment to the Electricity Regulation Act 1999 and renaming of the Commission for Energy Regulation to the commission for the regulation of utilities, CRU. That is in light of the fact that the commission is now responsible for the economic regulation of water services, as per the Water Services Act 2013. Water services may have been outside the scope of this regulation in the absence of the establishment ofl Irish Water. It is necessary for there to be proper implementation and economic oversight powers for the water sector as well. It is very welcome that the regulatory authority will oversee the provisions of the Water Services Act as well.
Sections 7 and 8 deal with the miscellaneous amendments to the single electricity market, as the Minister announced. This relates to definitions of the wholesale electricity arrangements in the Single Market in the EU relating to consumers of electricity and gas. It will enable cross-EU border harmonisation of markets and rules for the benefits of the consumers, which is important. We are all about protecting the consumer. In creating a single all-Ireland market with the UK Government, it will be by the end of 2017 a seamless part of the EU and comply with the EU third energy package legislation.
I welcome section 11, which amends sections of the Electricity Regulation Act 1999 relating to fines, bringing in references to "class A". The fines will go from €15,000 to €50,000, which is a major increase. It has to be done as it will hurt pockets. In the energy sector in particular, if fines are too low, there might be a temptation to do wrong. The class A fines are outlined in the Fines Act 2010 and can be applied in the case of dangerous work by installers, including gas and electrical installers. Such dangerous work may cost lives, so I congratulate the Minister for bringing forward this provision. It will bring a major benefit to the consumer and I urge every consumer, when he or she is employing somebody to do this type of work, to carry out the proper registration checks so that installers comply with the regulations laid down. It is important as we all know that gas and electricity are some of the most dangerous components in a house.
Section 15 increases penalty provisions to up to €250,000 for individuals and up to 10% of turnover for a corporate body. That is also welcome and will bring Ireland in line with the rest of the EU. Sections 16 to 18, inclusive, relate to changing the terms of office of members of boards. If somebody is performing badly we want to be able to get rid of that person but if somebody is well we want to be able to retain him or her rather than have a revolving door, with every new person having to learn on the job. This provision will help in that respect. I welcome that the annual report of the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland, SEAI, will have to be produced within six months of the end of its financial year. I congratulate the SEAI on its work. We have all taken advantage of its good website, as well as everything else. It is great for the ordinary householder to be able to check in and see what the authority is doing. It is a very valuable website and authority.
Section 5 deals with new powers for the regulator and the enhancing of investigative powers. The Minister mentioned regulatory sanctions. I welcome that the regulatory sanctions are incorporated into the Bill in section 56, imposing administrative sanctions for licensees who breach statutory regulations. Section 58 allows for the inspectorate to enter and search a premises and vehicles. It is a very serious and necessary power, although it cannot just go in willy-nilly. It may apply to the District Court to search private premises if the investigator believes evidence may have been moved off site. It is important to state that this must be done correctly, with the use of warrants from the District Court. Under section 59, the investigator must produce a report, with a draft report to be sent to the body that is being investigated. I welcome that provision because there is no point in an investigated body being told about it at the end of the day. It will have the opportunity to see the draft report and make a submission on it. It is only fair, as very often there are two sides to every story. It is a good provision.
Section 60 deals with the actions by the regulator and how to deal with the investigator's report. If it is found, on reasonable ground, that there has been a breach in the regulation, the regulator may impose a minor or major sanction. It may also hold an oral hearing, where what may not be written on paper can come out. Sections 19 to 24, inclusive, deal with amendments to the National Oil Reserves Agency Act 2007. The Minister referred to it as "NORA" and it is nice to see a woman's name on an organisation at last. This will enable the sharing of information between the Revenue Commissioners and the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources. I welcome that as the Revenue Commissioners should have shared information with every body or agency so it can have an all-encompassing picture of everything that happens with all companies. This will ensure that oil importing companies will pay the correct NORA levy.
I wanted to finish with the biofuel obligation but as the Minister mentioned it, I will not go into it. I support the legislation and I hope it will receive support throughout the House.
I welcome the Minister to the House and advise him that I may go on a tangent. It is one of the final opportunities I will have to address him on issues pertaining to his portfolio. We are dealing with a miscellaneous Bill that includes provisions for the single electricity market so I will use the opportunity to briefly discuss the North-South interconnector. An argument made for this project should be evaluated in a single integrated hearing, with a new body perhaps being set up to encompass both the North and South. The foundation of the argument is that the North-South interconnector, although it is an all-Ireland project, is being analysed independently in the two different jurisdictions, using completely different processes and regulations. It has been argued that it should be analysed using a single integrated assessment process, even if that requires the setting up of a new body. I know the EU has designated this is a project of common interest, so elements that concern the North are important to the South and vice versa. Currently, there is the potentially absurd possibility that the project could be approved in the South and refused in the North or vice versa. The question would then be what would happen.
From a practical perspective, there is a need for each submission, North and South, to use and rely on information from the other jurisdiction. Some examples have been provided to me. The 1 km route corridor for the South section covers a significant area in the North that is close to the Border. One of the photo montage sites for assessing the visual impact in the South is located in the North and some of the whooper swan nesting sites and flight path routes for the South's submission are also recorded as being in the North. The EirGrid traffic management plan for the southern submission includes a significant area within the North. Some of the archaeological and heritage sites impacted by the southern submission are again recorded in the North, close to the Border. A landholding in the North traverses the Border into the South and a residence in the South is only 44.1 m from the line, which goes into the North. Some of the maps used down here state the following, "Note: This material is based upon Crown copyright and is reproduced with the permission from the Controller of Her Majesty's Stationery Office".
One cannot do an environmental impact assessment and not consider the impact it will have on the North. That is equally true in terms of assessments done in the North and which impact on the South. What is the Minister's opinion on this and the feasibility of some all-island planning tribunal? It would be remiss of me not to use this, one of my last opportunities to address the Minister, to further tease out once more the issue of the North-South interconnector. I know we have done this before, it has been discussed in the other House as well, and it is one of the big issues dominating the political agenda as we come into the general election. Last Thursday, 21 January, An Bord Pleanála announced that it will hold an oral hearing into the resubmitted planning application by EirGrid for the North-South interconnector. As the Minister is aware, the original application had been withdrawn in 2010, seven weeks after the hearing had commenced. That particular application by EirGrid in 2010 sought approval for a 400,000-volt interconnector using around 410 pylon towers and overhead lines, stating that an underground option was not technically feasible. The resubmitted application in 2016 is seeking approval for that. An underground option is now feasible but is not considered desirable by EirGrid. The Minister is aware of the scale of the large public opposition to the North-South interconnector as it is proposed with the overground pylons. I am of the view that the project itself will be in jeopardy if an underground alternative is not forthcoming in the future. I recognise that the project is important in supplying electricity and would never be under any illusion that it is not but it is important to highlight the opposition that is there to the plan as proposed. Campaigns such as North East Pylon Pressure, NEPP, have raised concerns in respect of oral hearings. NEPP is requesting that anyone who has made a written submission should have an automatic right to participate at the oral hearing, irrespective of their submission request date. NEPP also has questions and concerns about the proceedings on the day. It is important that the Minister in his reply to the debate deals with the all-Ireland planning issue.
I welcome the Minister to the House. I am not the spokesperson on energy. This Bill was supposed to be taken by Senator Whelan, who is not here, and Senator Landy, who had to leave early. I have only just seen the contents of the Bill and, whereas I broadly welcome it, I have an issue with Part 6, section 17, which according to the explanatory memorandum, provides for the removal of the requirement that on 1st of May of each year, the three longest serving members of the board of the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland must retire. Therefore, instead of removing the members of the board after three years, they can now stay for five years and up to a maximum of ten years.
Since I was elected to this House I have been supporting the people of rural Ireland who are against the erection of wind farms too near to their homes. I introduced a Bill in 2012 with a provision for reasonable set-back distances. When Deputy Alan Kelly became Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, he broadly supported the contents of my Bill and has done everything in his power since then to bring about proper set-back distances. Yet, the Minister, Deputy White's Department has blocked him every step of the way. That is the sad reality of it.
I have also fought against the unnecessary pylons that are proposed for certain parts of the country. As I have said in this House on numerous occasions, the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland, SEAI, is pro-wind. I have rarely heard the organisation talk about any other alternative green energy projects. It is concerned with wind energy and in this respect, clear conflicts of interest within SEAI have been raised in this House. I do not want to get personal with the Minister, nor will I, but the people of Ireland generally believe that there is an agenda here, and since the Minister is a barrister and has good skills to argue the toss on this issue, I have no doubt he will do so with me, but he will not convince the people of rural Ireland that there is not an ongoing agenda here. This smacks totally of cronyism, and I will not support the Bill in its entirety unless that section is removed.
I thank the Senators for their contributions and particularly for their constructive input into the debate and I welcome the general support that I have heard for the Bill. I look forward to early consideration of the Bill on Committee Stage.
I wish to correct what I believe is a genuine misapprehension on the part of Senator Daly regarding the Bill. It is not about transposing an EU directive from 2011. What the Bill does is to give in some cases further effect to certain regulations, but it does not bring those regulations or any directive into Irish law because they are already in Irish law. We are therefore extending their application in some cases because of the requirements that have arisen in the years intervening. The situation is not at all that there was something that we could have done in 2011, 2012 or 2013 that we left to the last minute. I do not know where that misapprehension arose. I am not trying to say that there have not been delays for good or other reasons in bringing forward legislation, whether by this or previous governments. I take Senator Daly's general point about those matters and the importance of bringing forward legislation quickly and in a timely way but this is not an example of a situation where a government has delayed transposing an EU directive in the manner which he perhaps genuinely thought that it was.
Regarding the regulatory impact assessment, I can tell the Senator that one has been carried out regarding this legislation and was published on the website of my Department last year. Senator Keane made some reference to the issue of climate change generally, our approach to it and what we need to do. A very important piece of legislation was passed, as Senator Keane referenced, at the end of 2015 relating to the policy and legislative approach to the adverse impact of climate change and the need for a low-carbon response across public policy, particularly in the area of energy, but in other areas as well. The Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Kelly brought through both Houses that very important legislation, which will drive at a high, legislative level all of our efforts.
The Government published a White Paper on energy, which I produced, at the end of last year also, and that will be a big driver for our policy response in the energy sector. We are doing a lot. We have put in place many instruments and measures in respect of the response to climate change. Whereas climate change is never very far away from energy policy, I agree that it is lurking there all the time in terms of what we need to do and what responses we need to have in our energy policy. This is not climate change legislation. It contains specific provisions and the Senators will find elsewhere the more general policy response to climate change which I believe is taking place. We need to understand that climate change is taking place. I will return to the issue of wind energy but it is important we understand that if we do not take one approach then we need to take some other approach because climate change is a very real threat and a very real challenge for all of us.
I respectfully disagree with Senator Daly and Senator Kelly on their point in respect of the SEAI. I thank Senator Keane for her references to the SEAI, the value of the organisation, the work that it does and the information that it disseminates through its website and otherwise. It is a very important and progressive agency that reaches out to the public and makes information available to individuals, communities and business. It is very extremely important that it should do so. It is at the centre of our work of transforming our energy sector and I believe it has proven itself to be an enormously important body.
There is a relatively small change in the Bill to remove the unique provision whereby the longest serving members have to retire each year. It is hard to see the value of such a provision. There is something arbitrary about a situation where every year, three members of the authority are being lost, so no matter what one's perspective on energy policy or what the Government should be doing in that regard, it does not seem to make much sense to shuffle out three individuals every summer and replace them with three more.
I take Senator Daly's point regarding the importance of turnover and new people coming into organisations, not just the SEAI, but all organisations, public bodies and State agencies. He is right.There are provisions in legislation to allow appointments to be made at different stages in the cycle. I am thinking of some other bodies under my remit, for example, RTE. In those cases, people are appointed for up to five years, so it is open to a Minister, as I have done in some cases, not to appoint all the new people for five years but appoint some of them for three years, allowing the next Minister to have some new appointments after three years and then they or their replacements can be appointed for five years thereby staggering the appointments. That is probably good policy.
However, the provisions of the Act at the moment are quite arbitrary. There needs to be continuity in these organisations. It is not fair and I completely reject Senator Kelly's suggestion that the SEAI is in some way biased or there is cronyism at work or whatever phrase he used. There is no basis for that. The organisation has acted absolutely independently in accordance with its statutory remit. It is not fair to level that kind of unspecified criticism at the organisation or at any of its members.
We are bringing the SEAI appointment process into line with other State agencies. Sometime during the course of last year, the Government appointed a new chair and a considerable number of the members of the SEAI were replaced last year under the new PAS system. There were multiple applications under the PAS system and a list of suitably qualified persons, who had applied, was forwarded to me, as Minister. From that list, I forwarded proposals to Government for nomination for appointment to the board of the SEAI. The PAS system is working well, and it worked very well in the appointments to the SEAI in recent months and taking that approach will serve us very well in the period ahead.
I maintain my view, respectfully, that we should make the change we propose. Of course, there is a maximum of ten years, which is certainly appropriate. Two terms of five years is realistically enough for any individual to serve on any public body or State agency and that is what we propose to apply here.
Senator Reilly asked about the North-South issue. The obvious obstacle to her proposal for some sort of North-South regulatory institution is that we have two separate jurisdictions. Although there is quite a lot in common and we share the island together, we still have two separate jurisdictions. It is not really possible along the lines the Senator is suggesting in some sense to merge the planning process or regime, North and South, into one unified planning code. I say respectfully that I do not think that would be possible.
Having said that, there is a very strong case for the closest possible North-South co-operation, particularly in an area such as energy policy. We have it in terms of the all-island electricity single market. It is unique in Europe to have a cross-jurisdictional electricity market on the island of Ireland. It is a very valuable development economically and it is one we should nurture and maintain, which is what we are doing. The regulators, North and South, are working together on the rebooting into this new I-SEM that I mentioned in my earlier speech. It is aligning the all-island electricity market with EU requirements and looking at all the different technical coding systems and so on that are needed to ensure the all-island electricity market in Ireland is aligned with the legal context that we have to deal with in terms of the EU. That work is happening in close collaboration.
I will not comment in any substance on the North-South interconnector. That matter is before An Bord Pleanála and procedures for an oral hearing and so on are matters for the board. It deals with the planning application in accordance with the law and the regulations in place. It would not be for me to express any view on An Bord Pleanála's handling of that matter. It is in the planning application process and we look forward, ultimately, to a decision being made by the board. I reiterate in the strongest possible terms - in fairness to the Senator, she agrees although she has objections to some aspects - the critical importance of the North-South interconnector to the single electricity market and to the wider economic fortunes of the entire island. I am not exaggerating to express that view that the North-South interconnector is of such great importance to us all, North and South.
I believe I have addressed the principal issues Senators raised in their contributions. I again thank the Members for their contributions. This is technical legislation and perhaps not the most entertaining legislation Members have had to consider. I welcome their attention to it and their contributions. I look forward to engaging further on Committee Stage.
I have a short question on the regulatory impact assessment. Publishing last year a regulatory impact assessment of a Bill that we are discussing this year is putting the cart before the horse. Will the Minister ask his officials to send it on to the spokespersons?