Wednesday, 8 November 2006
Dáil Eireann Debate
Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources (Mr. N. Dempsey): The amendments proposed are a re-arrangement of the text. On advice from the Parliamentary Counsel, I am satisfied that the text should remain unchanged. It does not need any further clarification. The section states:
This provides for the making of an order by the Minister appointing a day on which the INPC will transfer its shareholding in the agency to the Minister. It is very straightforward and it does not need to be changed.
I will not press this amendment but what the Minister says is debatable — doctors differ and patients die. Draftsmen will disagree with their next best colleague or legal adviser. The amendment is well-intentioned, the idea being to address a specific issue. However, I do not propose to press it.
Amendments Nos. 8 to 10, inclusive, concern an issue not addressed hitherto. I can anticipate the Minister’s reply but, at the same time, I respectfully suggest that the text be amended in that fashion.
Mr. N. Dempsey: It is always a great pleasure to surprise the Deputy. Although the change is not necessary, as he will recall from our discussion of grammatically and legally correct commas, I am pleased to inform him that I will accept amendments Nos. 8 and 9.
I cannot accept amendment No. 10. Section 32 of the Bill provides that a direction may be issued by the Minister to NORA requiring it to hold oil reserves at a level higher than international obligations dictate. NORA does not have the authority to determine the level of stocks that it should hold. It is the duty of the Minister to determine the level of stocks held by NORA and advise the agency in that regard. Therefore, inclusion of the amendment proposed by the Deputy is unnecessary.
In light of that explanation, the Deputy will see that this is the one area for which the Minister is directly responsible and on which he may be queried in the House. I recall the long discussion we had regarding being answerable to the House and suggest that, on further consideration, the Deputy might like to withdraw that amendment. It remains a ministerial obligation.
Mr. Durkan: I feel obliged to respond positively to the Minister’s magnanimity. I thank him for taking amendments Nos. 8 and 9 on board and I am happy not to move amendment No. 10. I tabled it because the situation can change dramatically in a very short space of time, something that would be particularly true if there were an energy crisis. For that reason, I felt that it might be useful to the Minister and agency if it were possible to plan for a crisis situation. In such circumstances, it might be desirable to overshoot the targets slightly, thereby reflecting the international energy supply situation. That amendment has several connotations, but I am happy not to move it.
Mr. N. Dempsey: NORA’s function is to maintain strategic oil stocks in line with international stockholding obligations. While NORA purchases oil to meet them, it is not a commercial body and its core business is not trade in oil. The Irish oil industry is fully privatised, liberalised and deregulated and there is free entry into the market. It is not appropriate that NORA’s role extend to monitoring the Irish oil market. That is a matter for the Competition Authority, whose powers include the examination of acquisitions and mergers. It is a statutorily independent body with a specific role to enforce Irish competition law. The authority’s role is to ensure that the competition works well for the benefit of customers throughout the economy.
In that regard, the authority may, from time to time, seek specific information from public bodies and in such a situation, I assure the House, NORA is legally obliged to co-operate with the authority. CER is an independent body responsible for overseeing the liberalisation of Ireland’s electricity and gas sector and has no role regarding the oil industry. I oppose the amendment on the basis that what the Deputy is trying to achieve is already present in the legislation and the obligations imposed on NORA.
It is necessary to take account of market indicators. That is not second-guessing anyone, since it is a simple fact that projections must have due regard to market indicators regarding purchasing and sales. To insert it in the section in this way is effective and necessary. I would like to hear the Minister’s views.
I support amendment No. 12. Many issues have arisen over the past year, particularly the last six to nine months, regarding the oil industry and its distribution network. At present, we do not seem to have any agency other than the Competition Authority to take account of the market’s competitive nature. The past year has seen substantial increases in oil prices and petrol forecourt prices. There was a major development in the market whereby Topaz Energy Limited effectively took over a very large segment of the market — I believe over 40% — through ownership of Shell and now the former Statoil market. In that context, the Competition Authority did not carry out its requisite public duty in respect of the timing of the takeover and, unbelievably, missed the day on which it should have made a particular comment. If a Member of the House missed an important deadline of that nature — for example, in respect of the five-week date that applies to local authority planning applications or with regard to An Bord Pleanála — it would be considered a grave error by our constituents. Action has not, however, been taken by the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment in respect of the matter to which I refer.
We are discussing amendment No. 12 but amendment No. 11 in my name, which was dealt with previously, sought to add a role for NORA in the invigilation of the oil industry. Under that amendment, NORA would have been obliged to be aware of the levels of stocks held privately within the industry and to play a key role in assessing both the forward pricing of oil and the purchasing of oil. It was stated recently that Mr. Michael O’Leary of Ryanair seems to have a particular skill in respect of the forward purchasing of kerosene stocks for his company’s fleet of aircraft. This seems to be one of the reasons, as announced in recent days, Ryanair’s six-monthly profits increased by €100 million. It is also why Mr. O’Leary appears to have a great deal of success in that area. I profoundly disagree with the latter’s way of conducting his business and dealing with his company’s workforce, but he appears to possess a particular skill in respect of forward purchasing.
Amendment No. 11 sought to add to the functions outlined in the Bill another role for NORA. The Minister will state that it will possess a narrow role and that the CER would be best equipped to deal with matters that arise in this area. However, the CER has, to date, not been given a statutory role in respect of the liquid fuels market. In a debate on previous energy legislation, somebody referred to the great competition that exists in that market and contrasted it with the position relating to the gas and electricity markets. As any comparison of forecourt prices throughout the country will clearly show, however, there appears to be little competition.
There is a great deal of merit in bestowing a role, particularly in respect of the collation of information, upon NORA. The latter could also work with the CER, perhaps under future legislation, to introduce proper invigilation of the market. The Minister will be disappointed that the Competition Authority failed to discharge its statutory duty in this regard in respect of the Topaz takeover, which is an astonishing state of affairs. Perhaps he will agree that the only way forward is to consider granting particular roles to NORA and the CER in this regard.
Mr. N. Dempsey: The objective Deputy Durkan is trying to achieve in amendment No. 12 is already incorporated in the Bill in the objectives of NORA. The primary objective of the latter is to maintain oil reserves for the purpose of meeting Ireland’s international oil stockholding obligations. As stated earlier in respect of amendment No. 11, NORA is not being given a role in respect of the internal market, which is free and liberalised. The Competition Authority is, as the Deputy observed, charged with dealing with that matter.
The acquisition of oil stocks by NORA must take account of its own financial resources, the costs involved and obtaining the best value for money at all times. The Bill proposes that NORA will continue to have responsibility for the holding and maintenance of oil reserves to allow Ireland to meet its international oil stockholding obligations. To achieve that, the objective for NORA will be to continue to build up oil stocks. It is in the best interests of the agency to ensure that it obtains value for money when purchasing oil. Amendment No. 12 could actually fetter the agency in respect of making such purchases. I accept that the latter is not the Deputy’s intent but the suggested wording “in accordance with market indicators” is extremely imprecise. What he is seeking to achieve is already covered in the objectives of NORA, namely, obtaining the best value for money at all times.
Mr. Durkan: I understand what the Minister is saying but my intention is to give the agency an edge somewhat similar to that which applies to the NTMA. The role NORA will play in the fuel industry is similar to that played by the NTMA. The amendment merely seeks to sharpen the focus in respect of the provisions of the Bill and the functions of the agency. If the country had adequate storage capacity, a number of weeks ago we could have bought enough gas to last for a year because there was so much available on the international market. The markets can change quickly and it is the agency’s function to respond accordingly. Perhaps greater emphasis could be made in that regard.
The amendment was drafted in a hurry. One often does not have adequate time to draft amendments and sometimes they do not look great when they appear in print. If the Minister is of the view that the amendment is unnecessary and that the intention behind it is already contemplated in the Bill, I will withdraw it.
Mr. Broughan: It is important to include a reference to the market. I am seeking to strengthen that in amendment No. 18, which was discussed earlier and which relates to the maintenance of the optimum level of stocks. We engaged in a lengthy discussion on Committee Stage regarding the level of stocks held on the island. If I recall correctly, the Minister indicated that 108 or 109 days’ worth of oil are currently held here. The European Union introduced a 90-day rule and it is possible to hold as much as 120 days’ worth of oil. In the interests of ensuring that the optimum level of stocks held on this island — either by NORA or the oil companies, such as Topaz and others — are catered for under the key objectives and functions of the agency, Deputy Durkan’s amendment is important.
Each of these are technical amendments. Amendment No. 13 is the usual type of technical amendment that the Minister likes. Amendment No. 15 is somewhat similar — a change of words with a resulting change of emphasis. Amendments Nos. 13 and 14 are self-explanatory, while amendment No. 15, likewise, is an improvement on the wording.
Mr. N. Dempsey: To be magnanimous to Deputy Durkan, I will accept the insertion of the two commas as proposed by him in amendments Nos. 13 and 14, but I cannot accept the amendment proposed as part of amendment No. 14 to insert the word “appropriate” in line 20 of section 8. As this word is unnecessary, I have tabled an amendment to amendment No. 14.
On amendment No. 14, leaving aside the comma which we are accepting, the amendment which I am rejecting proposes that NORA’s powers to construct, operate and develop works, plant, equipment and storage tanks should be qualified by the insertion of the word “appropriate”. That is not warranted. One just cannot go willy-nilly putting stockholdings into storage tanks, plant or equipment that is not appropriate.
The same applies to amendment No. 15. The amendment proposed by Deputy Durkan is that NORA’s power to hire or engage ships, vehicles and other means of transportation should be qualified by the insertion of the word “appropriate”. In this case also, we are satisfied that the text as it currently stands adequately and comprehensively provides for those day-to-day operations for NORA and for it to make the decision, and that NORA has an obligation to ensure that any of these means of transport that it hires or buys is appropriate for the functions.
|Boyle, Dan.||Breen, James.|
|Breen, Pat.||Broughan, Thomas P.|
|Connaughton, Paul.||Connolly, Paudge.|
|Costello, Joe.||Cowley, Jerry.|
|Crawford, Seymour.||Crowe, Seán.|
|Cuffe, Ciarán.||Deasy, John.|
|Deenihan, Jimmy.||Durkan, Bernard J.|
|English, Damien.||Enright, Olwyn.|
|Ferris, Martin.||Gilmore, Eamon.|
|Gogarty, Paul.||Gormley, John.|
|Gregory, Tony.||Hayes, Tom.|
|Healy, Seamus.||Higgins, Joe.|
|Higgins, Michael D.||Hogan, Phil.|
|Howlin, Brendan.||Kehoe, Paul.|
|Lynch, Kathleen.||McCormack, Pádraic.|
|McGrath, Finian.||McGrath, Paul.|
|McHugh, Paddy.||McManus, Liz.|
|Mitchell, Olivia.||Moynihan-Cronin, Breeda.|
|Naughten, Denis.||Neville, Dan.|
|Noonan, Michael.||Ó Caoláin, Caoimhghín.|
|O’Dowd, Fergus.||O’Shea, Brian.|
|O’Sullivan, Jan.||Pattison, Seamus.|
|Penrose, Willie.||Perry, John.|
|Quinn, Ruairí.||Rabbitte, Pat.|
|Ring, Michael.||Sargent, Trevor.|
|Sherlock, Joe.||Shortall, Róisín.|
|Stagg, Emmet.||Stanton, David.|
|Timmins, Billy.||Twomey, Liam.|
|Ahern, Noel.||Ardagh, Seán.|
|Blaney, Niall.||Brady, Martin.|
|Brennan, Seamus.||Browne, John.|
|Callanan, Joe.||Carey, Pat.|
|Carty, John.||Cassidy, Donie.|
|Collins, Michael.||Cooper-Flynn, Beverley.|
|Coughlan, Mary.||Cowen, Brian.|
|Cregan, John.||Cullen, Martin.|
|Curran, John.||Davern, Noel.|
|de Valera, Síle.||Dempsey, Noel.|
|Dempsey, Tony.||Dennehy, John.|
|Devins, Jimmy.||Ellis, John.|
|Fahey, Frank.||Finneran, Michael.|
|Fitzpatrick, Dermot.||Fox, Mildred.|
|Grealish, Noel.||Hanafin, Mary.|
|Harney, Mary.||Healy-Rae, Jackie.|
|Hoctor, Máire.||Jacob, Joe.|
|Keaveney, Cecilia.||Kelleher, Billy.|
|Kelly, Peter.||Killeen, Tony.|
|Kirk, Seamus.||Kitt, Tom.|
|Lenihan, Conor.||McEllistrim, Thomas.|
|McGuinness, John.||Moloney, John.|
|Moynihan, Donal.||Moynihan, Michael.|
|Mulcahy, Michael.||Ó Cuív, Éamon.|
|Ó Fearghaíl, Seán.||O’Connor, Charlie.|
|O’Dea, Willie.||O’Flynn, Noel.|
|O’Keeffe, Batt.||O’Keeffe, Ned.|
|O’Malley, Fiona.||O’Malley, Tim.|
|Parlon, Tom.||Power, Peter.|
|Power, Seán.||Roche, Dick.|
|Smith, Brendan.||Smith, Michael.|
|Wallace, Mary.||Walsh, Joe.|
|Wilkinson, Ollie.||Woods, Michael.|
|Boyle, Dan.||Breen, Pat.|
|Broughan, Thomas P.||Connaughton, Paul.|
|Connolly, Paudge.||Costello, Joe.|
|Cowley, Jerry.||Crawford, Seymour.|
|Crowe, Seán.||Cuffe, Ciarán.|
|Deasy, John.||Deenihan, Jimmy.|
|English, Damien.||Enright, Olwyn.|
|Ferris, Martin.||Gilmore, Eamon.|
|Gogarty, Paul.||Gormley, John.|
|Gregory, Tony.||Hayes, Tom.|
|Healy, Seamus.||Higgins, Joe.|
|Higgins, Michael D.||Hogan, Phil.|
|Howlin, Brendan.||Kehoe, Paul.|
|Lynch, Kathleen.||McCormack, Pádraic.|
|McGrath, Finian.||McGrath, Paul.|
|McHugh, Paddy.||Mitchell, Olivia.|
|Moynihan-Cronin, Breeda.||Murphy, Catherine.|
|Naughten, Denis.||Neville, Dan.|
|Noonan, Michael.||Ó Caoláin, Caoimhghín.|
|O’Dowd, Fergus.||O’Shea, Brian.|
|O’Sullivan, Jan.||Pattison, Seamus.|
|Penrose, Willie.||Perry, John.|
|Quinn, Ruairí.||Rabbitte, Pat.|
|Ring, Michael.||Sargent, Trevor.|
|Sherlock, Joe.||Shortall, Róisín.|
|Stagg, Emmet.||Stanton, David.|
|Timmins, Billy.||Twomey, Liam.|
|Upton, Mary.||Wall, Jack.|
|Ahern, Noel.||Ardagh, Seán.|
|Blaney, Niall.||Brady, Martin.|
|Breen, James.||Brennan, Seamus.|
|Browne, John.||Callanan, Joe.|
|Carey, Pat.||Carty, John.|
|Cassidy, Donie.||Collins, Michael.|
|Cooper-Flynn, Beverley.||Coughlan, Mary.|
|Cowen, Brian.||Cregan, John.|
|Cullen, Martin.||Curran, John.|
|Davern, Noel.||de Valera, Síle.|
|Dempsey, Noel.||Dempsey, Tony.|
|Dennehy, John.||Devins, Jimmy.|
|Ellis, John.||Fahey, Frank.|
|Finneran, Michael.||Fitzpatrick, Dermot.|
|Fox, Mildred.||Grealish, Noel.|
|Hanafin, Mary.||Harney, Mary.|
|Healy-Rae, Jackie.||Hoctor, Máire.|
|Jacob, Joe.||Keaveney, Cecilia.|
|Kelleher, Billy.||Kelly, Peter.|
|Killeen, Tony.||Kirk, Seamus.|
|Kitt, Tom.||Lenihan, Conor.|
|McEllistrim, Thomas.||McGuinness, John.|
|Moloney, John.||Moynihan, Donal.|
|Moynihan, Michael.||Mulcahy, Michael.|
|Ó Cuív, Éamon.||Ó Fearghaíl, Seán.|
|O’Connor, Charlie.||O’Dea, Willie.|
|O’Flynn, Noel.||O’Keeffe, Batt.|
|O’Keeffe, Ned.||O’Malley, Fiona.|
|O’Malley, Tim.||Parlon, Tom.|
|Power, Peter.||Power, Seán.|
|Roche, Dick.||Smith, Brendan.|
|Smith, Michael.||Wallace, Mary.|
|Walsh, Joe.||Wilkinson, Ollie.|
|Woods, Michael.||Wright, G.V.|
An Ceann Comhairle: Amendment No. 26 arises out of Committee Stage. Amendment No. 27 is a technical alternative to the same part of the Bill. Amendments Nos. 26, 27, 29, 30 and 38 are related and will be discussed together.
An Ceann Comhairle: They were discussed but not moved. I will make a point because at least one Whip is present. Due to the level of noise at the end of a vote it is almost impossible for the Chair to be heard and that can lend itself to confusion. The last vote was a short vote, but some Members thought it was a long vote because there was a lull between the two amendments being put. I say that for the benefit of Whips in particular, to draw attention to the need to be aware of the problem.
These amendments relate to the board of directors. Section 14 specifies that the board of directors will consist of not more than five directors but it includes the chief executive as one of the directors. We had a lengthy discussion on this matter on Committee Stage and I raised the issue of corporate governance and the best modus operandi for an important State body such as NORA. I made the point that in former times a board was thought to operate more efficiently with a managing director. In more recent times, in my experience, a chief executive has reported to a board of directors and acted to some extent as its secretary and that is the modus operandi of a number of institutions.
The Minister replied that there were examples across the State sector where the chief executive was also a member of the board as a sine qua non, unlike many companies, agencies and community bodies. I propose a provision that only the chairperson be included as a director. Recently there has been an increase in executive chairpersons, where the chair takes on an executive function and operates as the final operational officer for the company. The chief executive reports to that chairperson, who represents the chief executive on the board.
Amendment No. 27 seeks to include a provision that 40% of the composition of the board be male and 40% female. That is similar to the proposal in amendment No. 38, introducing a new subsection (11) requiring that the Minister ensure not less than 40% of the board be women and not less than 40% men. This is a tradition of my party. The Government of Fianna Fáil and the Labour Party in the early 1990s introduced legislation to ensure that women were equally represented in State agencies. A fundamental principle of the Labour Party advocates gender equality as far as possible. At political level we have always tried to promote women candidates and we are proud that one third of our parliamentary party is made up of women, though that is much smaller than we would like it to be. As my party’s spokesman on enterprise, trade and employment, social and family affairs and in my present portfolio I have always tried to insert this requirement in Bills relating to State agencies.
On Committee Stage the Minister said that, given the technical nature of the oil industry, it would be problematic to tie the hands of a Minister by insisting on gender equality on the board. There are broader issues. The Financial Times commented recently that, while there was an upsurge in the appointment of women throughout the late 1980s and 1990s, since the turn of the century, instead of more women at the upper levels of public companies there seemed to be fewer female chief executives and directors. The Financial Times investigated the reasons this new glass ceiling seems to have appeared, leaving aside the historical difficulties women have combining their devotion to families and children with work, a difficulty men also face. It is important to put forward this modest amendment throughout the public service and for semi-State bodies to ensure we have the best expertise, in men and women, available at the highest levels of a company.
The Minister has appointed women to senior positions within his own portfolio, for which I commend him. He said he did not want to issue prescriptions in this regard but we should make such provisions the norm. I remember being with the Ceann Comhairle, or a predecessor of his, in the Parliament of Finland. The Parliament, he might remember, is shaped like our own and has a statue of a man and a woman where our Press Gallery is, though the press gallery is not in such a prominent position in Finland — it is in a bullpen behind the members. The thing that struck one about the Finnish Parliament was its gender equality, and men and women were scattered throughout the parties in the assembly, particularly our sister party. That is a good aspiration. The Minister should bite the bullet and insert it in the legislation from day one.
I am sure expertise exists among women not just in Ireland but across the world. We discussed the oil conference the Minister opened today and his comment that Ireland was an exciting oil province of the future. It is an area where our most talented men and women will be active. In that context I want to make a strong case for amendments Nos. 27 and 38. I also make the case for amendment No. 29 which seeks to insert the phrase, “but not withstanding any involvement in these sectors which may cause a conflict of interest to arise when carrying out their duties as a NORA director”. This refers back to previous discussions and asks that the Minister would require a high level of experience and competence in the oil industry, whether experience of distribution or exploration. The person selected should have gained experience throughout the industry. We want to add that this experience should preclude any continuing involvement which might allow a conflict of interest to arise. Clearly, directors of the NORA board should not have a direct conflict of interest related to the industry. The Minister referred to these areas in section 3, but I wish to clarify the issue with this amendment.
Mr. N. Dempsey: Amendment No. 26 proposes that the CEO should not be a member of the board. The text of the Bill as it stands proposes that the NORA board should comprise of six persons, including the chief executive in this instance. Notwithstanding what the Deputy says, there are various practices in various boards. In this case, and for the same reason as we talked about with regard to the 40% ceiling, it is better that we maintain the Bill as it is.
A number of bodies under my aegis have the CEO as a board member, including the ESB, Bord na Móna, Bord Gáis Éireann, Eirgrid, Sustainable Energy Ireland and Digital Hub. With the exception of the chief executive who will be appointed by the director, the Bill provides that all other directors are to be appointed by the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources, with the consent of the Minister for Finance for a period of five years with the possibility of reappointment.
Amendments Nos. 27 and 38 propose that at least 40% of the NORA board should be women. As I said on Committee Stage, I appreciate the thinking behind this. I try to ensure we meet that 40% in all the appointments over which I have control and have appointed a number of women to the chairs of various bodies under my aegis. I have no problem with the concept and was probably the first Minister to introduce it in legislation. I do not have a principled objection to the provision being part of legislation, but these matters must be judged on a case by case basis. However, this is a specific sector. The Deputy raised this matter on Committee Stage and I checked with experts in the area and am not inclined to enshrine this proposal in this legislation. Under the circumstances, having a legal obligation to ensure 40% women could seriously compromise the NORA board and result in the appointment of individuals, not on the basis of merit but on the basis of whether the board needed a male or female member at a particular point.
The same goes for amendment No. 29, which I cannot accept. The concern in making appointments to State boards is that the board should contain people of the highest calibre who are capable of making a positive contribution to the company. The provisions in regard to disclosure of confidential information by directors are set out in section 24 and provision is made for the code of conduct in section 25. I am satisfied that those provisions are sufficient, as they are with the provisions of the memorandum and articles of association of the company.
With regard to the other amendment, the Bill as drafted provides for appointments to the board of NORA based on experience and competence in one or more of the areas, including finance and economics. Persons from this background may include persons with experience of the stock market and, consequently, they are eligible to be considered for appointment to the NORA board. Therefore it is not necessary to include the proposed amendment.
Mr. Broughan: This is a rehash of our Committee Stage discussion. Amendment No. 26 is interesting because there are different and changing models of corporate governance. I notice, for example, the new chief executive of An Post is around the House today. An Post had a chief operating officer, but that position seems to have been removed recently. People utilise different models for different companies.
There appear to be central policy directions which the board must set and because of that the model I suggest would be best. However, I accept what the Minister has said. I still feel the gender requirement is a basic aspiration. While I understand the Minister’s point, he should lay down a standard for the gender requirement in some kind of legislation to ensure that in general terms this criterion would be met throughout the public service. Perhaps I should have framed the amendment differently and perhaps I will do so when the opportunity arises in another Bill.
Mr. N. Dempsey: This arose on Committee Stage and I undertook to consider the Deputy’s amendment regarding the removal of directors of the board and to return to the matter on Report Stage. The wording of the provision in section 14 of the Bill is a standard text used in legislation for the removal of directors. We considered the Deputy’s proposed amendment and with the benefit of the advice of the Attorney General’s office I am satisfied that acceptance would present practical difficulties in the event that I, as Minister, wished to remove a director from the NORA board. The Deputy will appreciate that the confidentiality of a doctor’s relationship with his or her patient would prevent a board director’s doctor from disclosing information about his or her patient’s state of health without the patient’s consent. In the context of removal from office there is no inducement for the director to provide the necessary consent. The standard text is provided in the legislation setting up agencies such as Sustainable Energy Ireland and the Digital Hub development agency. Accordingly, the amendment is not accepted. It would not be practical.
Mr. Hogan: The reason for the amendment in the name of Deputy Durkan is to give absolute satisfaction to the evidence required to remove a director. There is no evidence in this section as to what would constitute the director becoming incapable of performing his or her duties through ill health. On whose suggestion or evidence is that required to be brought forward to the Minister, who would have to get the consent of the Minister for Finance to discharge a director from his or her duties? The purpose of this amendment is to give certainty to the position in law. It would have to be confirmed by a medical practitioner that the person who was a director was suffering from ill health and that there was evidence to suggest why that person was being removed in the event of a dispute about the person’s suitability to discharge his or her duties as a director. Perhaps the Minister will have another look at the amendment.
Mr. N. Dempsey: I appreciate what the Deputy has said and the motivation behind the amendment. We had a good discussion on this on an earlier Stage. I was of a mind to have another look at it to see whether it could be facilitated. At the end of the day the very practical advice I was given was that it would be quite impossible to get a person’s doctor to confirm to another medical person of the board that the client was not well. If the client did not want that to be done the doctor would not be able to do it. It could happen that a person would be on a life support system in a hospital and clearly unable to continue with his functions. A person could have a brain tumour or be in a vegetative state following a stroke and everybody would know it. Somebody could say the person was in that state and, obviously, he or she would not be medically fit to carry on. If the Minister of the day was put in a position where he or she had to go to the person’s physician to confirm that, the person may not be in a position to allow his or her physician to do it. If for one reason or another the person does not want to leave the board and is not quite in the state referred to, all he or she has to say to his or her physician is that he or she is not authorising him to disclose any information about him or her. In that event it would be impossible to remove the person from the board. On balance, while I tried to facilitate this amendment, gave it careful consideration and took advice on it, it is not practical to put it into the legislation. For that reason I ask the Deputy to withdraw it.
Mr. Hogan: The Minister is of a mind to accept the amendment but the Attorney General’s advice is that it might create a precedent elsewhere. We have legislation here where we are trying to establish that procedures are laid down to ensure fairness in the system in the event of a person falling into ill health and that he or she is discharged because of ill health and for no other reason. If a person is suffering from ill health the Minister will need evidence. What evidence would the Minister require to discharge the person from their duties due to ill health? Under the section in the legislation one does not need any evidence. On what basis will a director of a company be discharged on grounds of ill health?
Mr. N. Dempsey: The answer is I do not know until the circumstances arise. I presume the Minister would not make a decision off his own bat. Presumably what would happen is that a person would have missed six, eight or ten board meetings because of ill health and would probably have made it known to the board.
Mr. N. Dempsey: I know, but the Minister would not suddenly decide that a person was in ill health. What would happen is that, for one reason or another, the person would miss a number of meetings or may have acted erratically at a board meeting or meetings. There could be circumstances of which the Minister would be advised. On the basis of the advice and evidence given to him, perhaps a doctor’s certificate if a person was willing to leave the board, at that stage the Minister would make a decision on medical grounds that a person should be removed from the board. That is one example I can think of.
The other example would not work because of the nature of the client-doctor relationship. If the person did not want to leave the board he or she would refuse to give the information and the Minister would be bound by the amendment and would have to get the medical certificate from the person’s physician. That would not be practical.
Mr. Durkan: Deputy Hogan very adroitly pursued the amendment and its meaning. What I was trying to ascertain was how the Minister would determine the board member was suffering from ill health. Would it be on the basis of missing a number of board meetings at which major decisions could and should have been taken? Coming to the conclusion that the person was suffering from ill health because he or she had missed a couple of board meetings might be a dangerous area for a Minister to delve into, notwithstanding all the powers conferred on Ministers. The reason I tabled the amendment was that in the event of a dispute it would be no harm for the board member to be able to say he or she was or was not suffering from ill health. There is no necessity to get into the minutiae of it. It should be quite simple to explain or to verify the decision a Minister has arrived at, based on whatever evidence has been provided. For example, there could be a row on the board, a dispute within the board or somebody could say a particular member is suffering from ill health and should not be on the board. That may or may not be a correct assessment. It might be helpful if the Minister was to have another look at the amendment. I do not know if it can be incorporated in the Bill. That is what we were trying to do. We were not suggesting that the Minister would take on the work of the general practitioner.
Mr. N. Dempsey: The Bill as it stands embraces the intention of Deputy Durkan’s amendment. The provisions of section 14 are comprehensive in regard to the appointment and removal of directors. The directors of the NORA board, who will be in situ when section 14 is commenced, should continue in office under the terms on which they were appointed and the expertise of board members should remain available to the agency as it becomes an independent State body.
With regard to amendment No. 37, it is not appropriate to include references in this Bill to possible future amendments to other legislation. Accordingly, references to any future amendments to the Ethics in Public Office Act 1995 are not appropriate to the Bill and the amendment is not acceptable. If the Ethics in Public Office Act is amended at some point in the future, it can be made to incorporate NORA, or new legislation can be introduced in that regard.
Amendment No. 41 is not warranted because the Bill as drafted will allow ministerial direction to be given to NORA regarding the manner in which a strategy statement should be prepared and will take account of any legislative provisions underpinning the submission of such documents.
Amendment No. 46 is unnecessary because directions given by the Minister will be in accordance with legislation and have regard to the common good. It is assumed that all legislation is drafted for the common good.
Deputy Durkan’s purpose in introducing these amendments was to ensure certainty in respect of aspects of the Bill. The Deputy can accept my assurances that the caution he advocates in the amendments is catered for in the Bill as it stands.
An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Amendments Nos. 42 and 43 are related to amendment No. 40 and are technical alternatives to the same part of the Bill. Amendments Nos. 40, 42 and 43 may be discussed together.
This group of amendments refers to the strategy statement of NORA. Subsection 15(1) provides that, as soon as the agency is established as an independent State body, a statutory statement will be submitted to the Minister for an initial five-year period. Amendment No. 40 proposes that subsequent statements of strategy be brought before the Houses every three years.
The timeframe for this is important, given that the oil market is extremely volatile. Oil prices have increased from $25 per barrel in late 2003 to $74 per barrel a few months ago. Just as we were becoming accustomed to high prices on the forecourts, the price fell to approximately $60. That is an indication of the speed at which circumstances can change with regard to oil stocks.
The majority of the world’s oil resources are located in politically volatile countries. Iraq, for example, is in a state of civil war and on the point of collapse. The country used to equal Saudi Arabia and Iran in petroleum output but since the invasion of Kuwait, its production levels have been severely curtailed. All attempts made since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein to restore output have failed. At the beginning of this year, controversy arose with regard to gas supplies from Russia to Ukraine, although the situation seems to have since calmed, with agreement now reached on gas supply from Russia to the EU.
As the Minister noted, different State bodies operate according to differing timeframes. I have noted the long timeframes that govern the introduction of reforms and competition to electricity generation. An argument could be made that NORA should be faster in responding to general developments. Debate is currently raging on the extent of global oil reserves and the rate of depletion. Oil companies such as Exxon Mobil speculate that 3 trillion barrels of oil remain in the ground and that peak oil will not arrive for another 30 or 40 years. Other specialists believe the tipping point will be reached in 2008. The first strategy policy document would need to take this into account as early as the year after next. It would be a very difficult challenge for the incoming Government if it needed to respond to some definitive information that we are about to reach the moment of peak oil some time in 2008, based on the estimates of the so-called “early toppers”— the late toppers put it off for some decades. Some people point to speculation over the past 100 or 150 years that we would run out of oil and that many trillions of barrels remain to be explored. In that context I felt that NORA should have a faster response. If the next Government has a Department of energy, representatives of the agency would appear before an energy committee and would be responsible to the Minister. A strategy statement forming the basis for public discussion should also exist.
During questions to the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government earlier today, Deputy Gilmore and others discussed climate change and the cost to the country of carbon credits, which are very closely related to this matter. As the security of oil stocks is vital, it should be dealt with on a shorter timeframe — perhaps even a three-year period is too long and an annual report might be better. In the past two days the International Energy Agency issued its yearly report, which envisaged an enormous increase in the daily demand for oil from the current 84 million barrels to 116 million barrels in 2015. In that context our demand of in excess of 200,000 barrels per day is very significant. We will need to ensure that as we move towards renewable sources of energy and biofuels in the case of oil, we have such security on which to fall back. While the Minister might suggest a timeframe of less than three years, a review of strategy should take place earlier and should be specified.
Mr. Durkan: I support the amendments, which represent an attempt to identify the direction of the agency and the issues it needs to address. The statement of strategy is important. As Deputy Broughan has said, we live in a very volatile time and the market can change dramatically. We must be led by the information presented to us. We are not often in a position to challenge the information because it is poured at us from all angles, almost as fast as the gas and oil come. In those circumstances it would be helpful to have a short-term strategy statement that could roll over every three years or so, which would cover the immediate foreseeable future, taking account of the ambient conditions at a particular time, and would be able to adjust itself in accordance with market requirements and consumer demands.
It would be no harm to incorporate these amendments. Amendment No. 42 requires that the draft strategy statement be laid before the Houses of the Oireachtas for approval. The approval is important because, as we know, we have on numerous occasions objected to the presentation of a document before the House without debate. Some approval by the Houses of the Oireachtas should be required, which goes back to what we discussed earlier today, the primacy of the Houses of the Oireachtas. This is not an attempt to undermine the Minister or his authority. The Minister has a job to do and in future the regulator will have a job to do. However, in the event of something going radically wrong, it all comes back to the Minister whether he or she likes it. The Minister is accountable to this House. Of course every Minister would simply like to go through the formalities. Why not stay at home and press a button on the computer and get approval that way? However, the approval needs to come in this fashion and it would be good for the industry, for protection and for the regulator. Most importantly it would be good for the industrial and domestic consumers as it would ensure that the representatives of the voters had some view to express on the short-term strategy which can roll over.
Amendment No. 43 seeks that the Minister should arrange for a short debate on the strategy statement. The proposals in the strategy should come before the Houses of the Oireachtas not just for rubber-stamping but also for some kind of approval. Earlier the Minister suggested that we might not have particular expertise in these areas. Members of a House of Parliament are supposed to develop expertise and not necessarily on just one portfolio or area. I believe in the old-fashioned concept that Ministers and budding Ministers should have a reasonable working knowledge of all Departments and portfolios and should be able to question those who are experts. Many experts throughout the world have not been all that expert when closely questioned even by fools like us. In honour of the concept of transparency and accountability, Members should be allowed to dispute the short-term strategy, which may be completely wrong. We may have a different vision and may have other information that may be of benefit to us in reaching a decision.
Mr. N. Dempsey: The Bill as drafted provides for the submission of an initial strategy statement to the Minister covering a five-year period. In the case of a subsequent strategy statement, the Bill does not specify the precise period to be covered as it will be specified by the Minister at the appropriate time. The flexibility that the Deputies seek is contained in the Bill as it stands. It is wise and prudent to commence the operation of NORA on the basis that it creates its business plan and strategy for a reasonable period of five years or longer. As Deputy Broughan has said, it is equally reasonable to ensure that it subsequently has flexibility. It may be that a three-year period would be more appropriate at that stage or it may be that a seven-year period might be more appropriate. The Bill covers what the Deputies are trying to achieve.
Even in the initial five-year period it would be a very foolish organisation — we would probably be talking about dismissing some of the directors or the CEO — if it did not keep its strategy under constant review as circumstances change. That is a normal part of doing business. An example to which Deputy Broughan adverted is that the price of oil changes and will impinge on the national oil reserves agency’s ability to purchase oil. Review is required on a constant basis and will take place as a matter of routine.
I accept the thrust of the Deputies’ argument. The process should not be so rigid that it will be unable to respond to market forces. The specification of the initial five year period is welcome because it will make people focus on a slightly longer term but there is nothing rigid about that. After two or three years the company could decide it would do another three or five year strategy, or change its strategy completely.
The flexible approach that is adopted meets what the Deputies want. It will allow the Minister of the day to prescribe the period to be covered according to the demands at the time. The second strategy statement required of NORA will specify a two year or three year period. As it stands, the Bill is along the same lines as most corporate governance requirements imposed on similar bodies. I ask the Deputies to accept that the Bill reflects the spirit of their amendments in that it allows the flexibility they require.
Mr. Durkan: I accept that nobody goes out to do other than the best that can be done, identify what needs to be done in advance and make the necessary strategic decisions in such a way as to be of obvious benefit to the agency. However, there is never any harm in adding the belt and braces, to use an expression that has developed in this House over the years. It also brings the changes into public focus in a way that would not ordinarily be made known to the Houses of the Oireachtas. Many decisions that happen now regarding legislation, which often is governed by statutory instruments, ministerial orders or whatever, one reads about it in newspapers and so on. That is not always appropriate. We, as legislators, should keep ourselves up to date with what is happening and be more informed. That is the reason I pursued this amendment but if, as the Minister suggests, everything is covered in that regard I do not wish to delay the House. I will not press my amendment.
Mr. Broughan: I have set out the argument in favour of my amendment No. 40. My amendment No. 42 echoes the raft of amendments Deputy Durkan tabled on the Dáil and the Seanad aspect. Many statutory instruments and various reports and statements have been laid before the Oireachtas but were not discussed here; the odd report is discussed. We had a dispute yesterday over the request from our colleague, Deputy Gilmore, to have an important report discussed on the floor of the Dáil. One must constantly ask the Taoiseach, as Leader of the House, to arrange a debate on a particular document. Given the importance of our oil stocks and the role of NORA, it would be appropriate that the strategy statements would be approved by the House and it would be an opportunity to discuss these matters. We have an opportunity during Question Time, albeit limited, to deal with a huge portfolio which the Minister has been battling with for the past three years or so. I hope he wins that battle.
Mr. Broughan: We are doing our best with the huge amount of information that is required but it would be a good opportunity to have documents discussed in the House. Our Green Party colleagues had a useful debate earlier in this Parliament on having reports on climate change put before Parliament on a regular basis to give us an opportunity to address that issue. This is a key element in the lives of our people and it would be an opportunity to have a discussion. The Dáil, in its wisdom, could indicate approval on the Order of Business and we could move on to legislation or whatever. It should have that choice which we currently do not have. In common with many of the amendments put down by my Fine Gael colleague, that would be a useful one to leave to the jurisdiction of the Oireachtas.
This amendment might be useful. The Bill states: “A direction that relates to the disposal of any assets or surpluses of a subsidiary may only be given with the consent of the Minister for Finance”, subject to conditions pertaining at the time. We discussed this amendment earlier and my colleague, Deputy Broughan, felt that might interfere too much in the internal affairs of the agency.
I tabled the amendment to add another tier of safety, so to speak, and to try to ensure the conditions pertaining at the time are borne in mind. In 1987, another State agency, the IDA as it was then called, was given instructions to dispose of property throughout the country. I felt that decision was wrong and that the property would have to be bought back at some later stage. That decision was taken for cogent reasons, just as another decision had to be taken in 1981 to ensure the solvency of the country. That is the reason my amendment states “subject to conditions pertaining at that time” and because an evaluation of the conditions prevailing at any given time can have two possible outcomes. First, one could read the situation incorrectly and, second, one could read it by anticipating conditions in three to five years, or in the short to medium term. Without wishing to get involved in the day-to-day running of the authority, I must say I can remember a number of instances during my time in this House in which assets were disposed of by subsidiaries. This did not always work out as desired.
Notwithstanding that we are only ordinary legislators and have no expertise in any particular area, we learned from the hard school of life and saw many decisions taken at certain times that may have had regard for some of the relevant circumstances pertaining but which may have missed a vital clue. This happens regularly and this is the sole reason I tabled my amendment. It merits consideration and I am interested in hearing the Minister’s response.
Mr. N. Dempsey: I understand the Deputy’s reason for tabling the amendment but it is unnecessary because any direction given by a Minister must take into account a range of factors, all of which constitute the conditions pertaining at the time in question. I cannot recall any Minister who totally ignored the conditions pertaining at any particular time and directed a State company accordingly. It cannot be done and should not be done.
As is the Deputy’s intention, the conditions at any given time must be taken fully into account, as must Government policy and legislation. I assure the Deputy it is not possible to make decisions such as those in question or to give directions without taking into account the circumstances and conditions of the time.
By way of further comforting the Deputy, let me say I know enough about the semi-State bodies under my Department’s aegis to know that if I gave a direction to the chief executive of one in respect of a particular matter without taking into account the conditions of the time, I would have great difficulty convincing him or the board of directors, which would ultimately have fiduciary responsibility for the body. The Deputy is suggesting the Minister would make a decision according to whim. I assure him that his amendment is not needed as what he proposes must be taken into account in any case.
Mr. Durkan: I accept and respect the Minister’s view but I tabled my amendment having due regard to certain occurrences. I will give some examples. The country was in financial crisis in 1981 and measures had to be taken to ensure the international monetary people did not start to run the country. Decisions had to be taken that were subject to conditions prevailing at the time. Had they not been taken, we would have had a serious problem.
In 1987, when there was a need to curtail public expenditure, a direction was given by several Ministers to dispose of assets, including assets of the IDA and Iarnród Éireann. Conditions prevailing at the time were such that a major industrial site in my constituency had been earmarked for disposal. It disappeared from the agenda and I remember creating a terrible row about it, as one normally does in such circumstances. It was restored to the agenda by none other than the current Minister’s former colleague, John Bruton, who was the Minister with responsibility for this area at the time. Intel is now located on the site in question. The conditions appertaining in 1987 were such that we knew it was only a matter of time before a major company would locate on the site. If the property had been disposed of, account would not have been taken of the prevailing conditions, which were known locally but perhaps not at a higher level.
A direction was made to dispose of assets of Iarnród Éireann. Given that we were trying to develop the commuter rail service in my area, it was felt locally that it was totally counter-productive to sell them. However, all the land owned by Iarnród Éireann in my home town of Maynooth was sold for housing, thus leaving insufficient car parking space for present requirements. We knew that if all the conditions pertaining at the time had been taken into account, there could have been no sale of assets. Perhaps a limited amount could have been sold but a significant amount of the car parking space would have been retained. Such car parking space is required not only at Maynooth station but also at every other station in the commuter belt, including counties Kildare, Meath and Dublin. The whole area is affected in a similar way.
I am not at all attempting to stymy the ability of the National Oil Reserves Agency or to question the integrity of the Minister’s decisions. I am really saying that, in certain cases, circumstances pertaining at a particular time, if taken into account, might change the view of the Minister or make it unnecessary to make a decisions of the kind to which I referred.
This amendment alludes to an earlier discussion. The Minister stated it is not appropriate to do what it seeks and that we should seek to establish the agency to which my amendment refers independently. I ask that one of the subsidiaries of the National Oil Reserves Agency be an oil exploration agency, thus facilitating an holistic approach to Ireland’s oil and energy security.
Under section 16, the agency, with the consent of the Minister and the Minister for Finance, has the power to establish agencies under given conditions. I ask that an exploration agency be included in this provision. This is in many people’s minds at the moment, obviously. It certainly occurred to me in the early days of the Corrib dispute, when a number of motions about the matter were discussed in the House. The Minister took a number of private notice questions on the dispute, particularly when four citizens from Rossport were in jail for 94 days. The crisis blew up when the jailing continued after the Dáil resumed in the autumn of 2005. The Minister agreed with me at that time, when I felt the petroleum affairs division of the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government had a dearth of information about the issues that needed to be resolved by the people of County Mayo, and Shell and its partners, Statoil and Marathon. The various reports on the matter, which have been sanctioned by the Minister, have made it clear that there was a dearth of information. There was some controversy about the basis on which the various consents were given by the Minister’s predecessor, Deputy Fahey, between 2000 and 2002, as well as the basis on which Mayo County Council was able to give planning permission for the pipeline and the refinery proposal. I remember having meetings with the Minister and the Labour Party leader, Deputy Rabbitte, about these matters in the autumn of 2005, at the height of the imprisonment problem.
I have mentioned twice that the Minister opened a oil and gas exploration conference in the Burlington Hotel this morning. The subtitle of the conference refers to Ireland as an exciting oil province for exploration.
Mr. Broughan: Until five or six months ago, the Minister and his predecessor, Deputy Dermot Ahern, used to say in the various debates we had on this matter that very little could be done because few resources had been found. They used to refer to the record of exploration in this country. They would point out that over the previous two and a half decades, companies were not prepared to explore our waters year after year.
Yesterday, Deputy Cowley kindly e-mailed me an interesting report that was to be submitted to the conference in the Burlington Hotel this morning. The key point that seems to be made throughout the report is that technology has changed. It seems that bringing ashore significant gas resources from 70 km off our offshore shelf, through 3,000 feet of water, is not as daunting as it once was. It was once a nearly impossible prospect, but amazing engineering advances now allow sub-sea infrastructure to be placed in situ. It is now possible for a stream of oil and gas to be brought ashore over ten or 15 years.
I had been representing my party in this portfolio for a short time when I met representatives of Ramco. It was before the Minister’s time in the portfolio. I was interested in the forms of technology the company used at that time to further explore tranches of sub-sea geological structures. I was told that the technologies in question had previously led to good oil and gas discoveries. The officials from Ramco told me their little company was prepared to try to extract such substances on a profitable basis. While it did not work out for Ramco, it was clear that significant deposits were available.
We know there has been much greater interest in the Slyne-Erris licensing round over recent years, particularly this year. An interesting case was made by an Irish oil company, Grianán, which has been established by a group of young men from County Donegal. Grianán was prepared to give 10% of reserves to the State, as a first gesture, to indicate that it hoped to reorganise how licensing business is done in this country. We have heard Mr. Gavin O’Reilly’s exciting reports about the Dunquin prospect and the surrounding seas. Reference has been made to trillions of cubic feet of gas and substantial oil reserves.
I have told the Minister many times that we have to follow the example set in Norway by Statoil. In particular, we should consider the formula adopted by Statoil when it was trying to develop resources in the North Sea between 1968 and 1971. When Statoil was in this country trying to find a resolution to an earlier phase of the Corrib crisis in north Mayo, it explained that it had successfully adopted a strategy of demanding expertise and knowledge from the oil companies. It was prepared to proceed with licensing arrangements after it got what it wanted.
We have all read about the interesting history of DONG Energy, which is the exploration company in Denmark. It supervises the exploration of oil and gas in that territory and gives it self-sufficiency. We are also aware of the exciting developments in this regard in Canadian provinces like Newfoundland and Labrador, and more recently in the Faroe Islands. It seems that Ireland is one of the few countries with possible tremendous oil and gas reserves which has not been prepared to take the basic step of establishing a dedicated agency to search for such reserves. We have to follow the Norwegian and Danish examples.
The licensing and taxation arrangements for oil and gas around this country’s coast have had an unfortunate history over the past 30 years, since the time of my great predecessor, Justin Keating. When he was the relevant Minister in this area, he established a regime that was very much in line with the regimes in place in countries like Norway and the Netherlands. If one considers the Corrib issue, particularly the controversy about the refinery in Erris, one will have to reflect on the immediate issue of the location of the refinery and the earlier problem of the location of the pipeline. The background problem that has to be considered is the failure to deal in a transparent and equitable way with the exploration that is necessary to find any gas and oil reserves which may benefit this country and its people.
The charge that is continuously made against the Minister, Deputy Noel Dempsey, and the Taoiseach is that they gave away Ireland’s patrimony — gas, in this instance — without a penny or cent of return to this State, with the exception of corporation tax returns. There has been a scandalous abnegation of responsibility on the part of the Minister, his predecessor, Deputy Dermot Ahern, the former Minister, Deputy Fahey, and all the other Fianna Fáil Ministers in this area. I refer in particular to the performance of the Taoiseach and the former Minister, Bobby Molloy, in 1992. They totally dismantled the basic licensing regime that had been put in place to give our people a reasonable interest in the resources off our coast. That is the record.
In recent weeks, the Taoiseach has been talking about his legacy over the past ten years. The extraordinary decisions taken in this regard will form part of his legacy. It has been alleged that Enterprise Oil was significantly involved in trying to influence the Government’s approach to the terms of the licences and the royalties. The former Minister, Ray Burke, and the Taoiseach dismantled our royalties and licensing regime, which resembled in a basic way the manner in which the Scandinavian countries and other normal democratic countries chose to administer their resources. The Minister, and the other two Ministers, Deputies Fahey and Dermot Ahern, have failed to pull back that ground. The Minister said on a number of occasions he would review the licensing terms, that he was preparing a review and that he feels there are reasons to take a more pro-active role on our oil and gas resources. Will there be any fruits of that review in the forthcoming budget or in anything the Minister does before the general election? The Minister is often referred to as a man who is prepared to address very difficult issues, but does he have the courage to look at the licensing and royalties regime again? Will he try to emulate the best and most transparent regimes in the world, such as those which exist in Denmark and Norway?
If the Minister is not prepared to do it in this Bill, he should publish another Bill to establish an agency with the skills and the experience needed. In the past, I commended my constituency colleague, Deputy Woods, when he was Minister and established the Marine Institute. That institute gave us some kind of basic information on fisheries stocks and the ecology of the seas off our coasts for the first time. Prior to that we had practically no information worth debating, although much more still needs to be done on fisheries. I hope the Marine Institute and the new agency to be established after Christmas will make up for that. I urge the Minister to set up a centre of expertise before the next election which could ensure the dearth of information on our coastal resources will never cause problems again as it did in north Mayo. An exploration agency can be set up like that which exists in Denmark and Norway.
Last Monday morning, I walked some of the road with the people of Rossport and Erris. Of the 100 people who showed up every morning from 6.00 a.m. to 7.00 a.m., many of them were ordinary people of the district such as farmers, fishermen — including salmon fishermen upset about last week’s decision — teachers and women on home duties doing their bit for their community before they took their kids to school. It seems the people want face-to-face negotiations between themselves and Shell and its partners, without preconditions. Efforts to remedy the situation failed before in that respect, perhaps due to the position of both sides. There should be face-to-face meetings to try to look for a resolution. Various polls have been carried out by TG4 and others, while I read into the record a poll carried out by Shell and which was sent to me by the CEO of Shell, Mr. Andy Pyle. Whatever poll we examine, it seems a significant part of the population of Mayo is still very unhappy about the location of the refinery and about the process in which this development took place. Dr. Mark Garavan and his colleagues put forward a proposal for a commission as a starting point which could lead to a face-to-face meeting between the two sides and which might bring about a resolution.
We have spoken about the slow nature of energy development, but ten years have passed since the Corrib deposits were discovered. Mr. Egan told me recently that with the best scoping possible, the gas will come ashore by autumn 2009, but it would be best if we could get past the scenes witnessed on the haulage road from Belmullet last Monday morning and if we could bring the resource home by agreement. We had lengthy discussions on Committee Stage about ensuring the towns of Connaught would enjoy the benefits of gas. The Minister must be commended for the decision to extend gas supply to a large number of towns, although I have been told to remind him about Belmullet and Ballinrobe which should be added to the list. Bord Gáis Éireann was not prepared to use criteria which would have permitted a cost-benefit analysis to enable the development of the pipelines across north and central Connaught. Deputy Durkan, Senator McSharry and I argued that Bord Gáis Éireann’s point of view was nonsense and that we should ensure the people most affected by this infrastructure should absolutely get the benefit. I warmly welcome the decision that has been made, but we need to go a step further.
People were very unhappy with the Minister when he made references to the dispute in the context of the dispute in Northern Ireland. He should withdraw those remarks and should take a central role in trying to resolve this matter, because this is a key transitional fuel. Most of us suspect that we have far greater resources off our coast and we may well even be like the Norwegians or Russians and this will be a huge asset for our country in the next few decades. We may be well placed to help the rest of Europe and the world in this area, but we can only do that if we get past this stage. There is goodwill among the people of north-west Mayo. The Labour Party representative in the area, Councillor Harry Barrett, indicates that a resolution of this matter can be brought about if there is good will.
We must not be kept in the dark about the resources of this country off its coast. We owe it to the Irish people to make sure we get that information. We should take a very pro-active role and not leave it to two or three civil servants. We should set up an agency to carry this out. I urge the Minister to try to prevent the necessity for the kind of scenes I witnessed last Monday morning. I urge him to try to get the two sides to come together for face-to-face discussions and to bring about a resolution. That resolution could be easier than he thinks. This energy is for our people and not for any multinational company.  Fintan O’Toole made the point last year that the children of Norway will benefit more from our resources in north-west Mayo than our own children. That is a diabolical state of affairs and the Minister should be prepared to address it.
I urge the Minister to set up this agency or at least to give us a commitment that he will bring forward a Bill to do that. I also urge him to bring forward a review on the licensing terms and not to close his mind to this straight away. Deputy Cowley and I were at a press conference at 2.00 p.m. We received a note from the Minister at approximately 3 p.m. stating he had rejected the proposal made by the protestors on behalf of the people of north-west Mayo out of hand. He should instead have worked to resolve the issue, something that is possible and in which he should play a central role.
Mr. Durkan: This amendment is timely, constructive and workable, taking into account everything to which Deputy Broughan has referred, having regard to recent experience. I do not wish to create problems for the Minister regarding the situation at Bellanaboy. Neither do I wish to equate the Corrib gas field with Norway, since such a comparison would be unfair. However, it would be of great benefit if the Minister could call on an expert agency of the nature described in the amendment for its advice and use independent technology. I do not ask that they drill test holes but merely that they avail themselves of the most modern technology in assisting the Minister to reach decisions.
I have said many times before that no area has more myths surrounding it than energy. Depending on whom one consults, one hears all kinds of versions of where we are going, where we are coming from, and what we must face as we proceed. In oil exploration generally, we need a policy that is fairly transparent, so that it is seen as sustainable. The public must be able to see that there is a gain for the State from it.
It must also be geared to encourage exploration. There is no sense in our having a regime that will discourage it, since in those circumstances, companies will go to areas such as Norway that have the best strike rate. They will calculate that they have a one-in-five, one-in-ten or one-in-20 chance if they go to a lucrative area. In another area, the chances might be one in 50. Obviously, finances being what they are, a commercial decision will be made.
Notwithstanding all that, with the introduction of more modern technology it may well become possible to identify promising locations more readily than hitherto. I do not attempt to compare us with Norway, since I know it has massive resources that have not even been tapped. I am told that given modern, clean-coal technology, it has five to seven times the world’s known reserves, a massive energy resource. We also know they have gas and oil, also converting the latter to the former for very good reasons.
This is apropos of another discussion we will have later this evening, which we also had last night. There is a notion in this country that we should increase the price of energy from fuel and oil and that it will then be lucrative for everyone to get on board in development and distribution. I do not accept that crazy notion at all; we must develop alternatives. It is absolutely critical that we avail ourselves of what natural resources we have, exploring and exploiting them to the country’s benefit to meet energy requirements.
We must also bear in mind that we are currently very much dependent on overseas energy imports. Gas is one of the cleaner sources of energy. There is no question that it is in the national interest to develop the Corrib gas field with the agreement of the various bodies to which Deputy Broughan has referred to ensure the country exploits its natural resources, and is internationally recognised as doing so, in order to benefit its economy.
If we fail to do that, we do ourselves a disservice and disadvantage ourselves in the international arena. We have been reasonably successful as an economic entity in recent years, although it is true that we had a long way to go. Many people say it all happened in the last ten years, but that is not so. We came a long way and had far to go. The motion is sufficient to meet the needs that have emerged in the most recent past. That is no bad thing, since it is not a question of closing the door when the horse has bolted; rather it is a matter of addressing those issues that have arisen. It goes without saying regarding the Corrib gas field that if one were starting again, one would not do so from here.
Why not introduce a new element into the equation by doing as Deputy Broughan suggests and setting up the agency with the required expertise? Ultimately, having done all that, one must recognise that not everyone will always agree on everything. There will come a time when everyone has to sit down and say they will either sing together or swing together. International financial agencies will not tolerate nonsense. I compliment the work of such people as Peter Cassells, who made Trojan efforts to resolve the issues.
We live in a time when the development of our natural resources is critical. We are told that prices will rise further, something of which I have no doubt. However, if I owned a gas field or oil well, I would love to hear about that. Every time I picked up the newspaper, I would love to read about it. Every time someone mentioned it, I would love to say the resource was running out and that it would get more expensive in future. In such circumstances, I would cap it and let it sit there until it got extremely expensive, afterwards sitting back and enjoying the income.
However, that is not why we are here. Many people have said that we should become involved in oil exploration directly as a State. That would be unwise, involving the State in massive losses, since everyone wants to be associated with the gain. Everyone would love a share if one struck gold, never mind oil. It would be great, but there would be no great clamour to share in the losses. We must keep our feet firmly on the ground when it comes to determining how we go about it. The method suggested in the amendment is as good as any to bring on board independent experts.
Notwithstanding the eminence of the expertise, there will always be people who disagree, meaning that someone must ultimately make a decision. However, I hope that such a decision can be made after investigation of a project so it might fairly be said all the procedures had been followed and everything necessary done. Ultimately, they should be able to say that they have produced something fair.
My initial point regarding oil exploration and licensing regimes in general was that there is a need to make exploration attractive enough for people to become involved. At the same time, it must be transparent enough to ensure the general public is conscious of what is happening and that it accepts its fairness. Thereafter, let us proceed to do the best we can to explore and exploit our resources for the benefit of this country.
Dr. Cowley: I agree with everything Deputy Broughan said and I strongly support his proposal. This matter was debated in the context of a private Members’ Bill introduced by Independent Members some time ago. At that time, the Minister, Deputy Noel Dempsey, stated that he would conduct a review of the exploration and production terms. I welcomed that development and I understood the review was to be available by the end of October. The Minister may clarify the position but, to date, we have received nothing in respect of it.
I am concerned that the Minister continued to issue exploration licences. He referred earlier to people saying that our natural resources are being given away. As far as I am concerned, that is the case and such resources continue to be given away. It is difficult to understand how the Minister can defend giving opportunities of this nature to people who have already made massive money in this area. Tony O’Reilly, through his exploration company, Providence Resources, has already made a killing. Mr. O’Reilly obtained an option that covers the Dunquin prospect. Having secured the licence, he sold off 80% of it to Exxon Mobil, one of the biggest companies in the world, in return for a 16% stake, which he retains, and a commitment from it to carry out whatever exploration is necessary. That deal was worth millions of euro, before any exploratory work had been carried out.
The Minister, Deputy Dempsey, continues to give away our resources. Last week, while he was defending another of our natural resources, namely, salmon, he again granted Providence Resources an option in respect of more than 1,500 square miles of the Goban Graben and Goban Spur basin, which are supposed to include very promising geological structures of the type likely to contain oil or gas. The option is for three years and relates to an area the size of counties Dublin, Meath and Louth combined. The Minister has effectively given the oil company a lien over the area for that period. In return, the company has undertaken to carry out a relatively low-cost seismic survey. It would need to do so in any event because it needs to discover what is there before applying for a full exploration licence.
It is amazing that the Minister has continued to act in this way, even though the review of the exploration and production terms is imminent and overdue. I do not understand his behaviour. He stated earlier that nothing will change until 2007. I would like him to confirm that he will give nothing else away in the meantime. We cannot afford to give anything away because we get nothing from such transactions. We are giving our resources away for free. The Minister was anxious to encourage the industry earlier today and stated that he was not surprised that there is a keen interest for high-quality exploration opportunities. Why would there not be an interest when the price of oil has increased to such a degree and when such great opportunities exist?
The industry has stated that recent assessments relating to opportunities in the Irish sector of the north Atlantic are phenomenal. Documentation from the industry indicates that while only nine wells were drilled in the past ten years, there have been two major finds at Corrib and Dooish and that it is estimated that there are in excess of 10 billion barrels of oil equivalent in Atlantic Ireland waters. The Minister commented earlier on the quality of the digital surveys. Such surveys show that, at $50 or $60 per barrel, 10 billion barrels of oil equivalent would be worth $600 billion. That is the amount of our natural resources on offer for free. Where else would one come across such a situation? What I have just outlined is somewhat different to what the Minister said about the poor opportunities that exist for unfortunate multinational oil companies that are, out of the goodness of their hearts, spending millions drilling off the coast of Ireland. Such companies do not do anything for nothing. As one can see from the actions of Providence Resources, they are doing very well for themselves.
Shell is not prepared to spend a couple of million euro on an offshore platform for the Corrib gas field and it is getting all the gas contained therein for free. The amount required for such a platform would represent only a small proportion of the massive profits the company would make. That money would go a long way towards helping the people of Mayo and this country. Shell cannot really be blamed because it must make a profit and satisfy its shareholders. As Deputy Broughan indicated in clear terms, the blame lies fairly and squarely on the shoulders of Ray Burke, the Taoiseach, Deputy Bertie Ahern, and others.
The people of Rossport are upset that 400 acres of land in their area are being taken over to facilitate the future development of a petrochemical industry. Deputy Kenny stated that he hopes everything envisaged for that 400 acres happens. His view is regrettable because, for the sake of 50 permanent jobs, a pristine area will be completely and utterly destroyed. How can the Minister rationalise that situation, particularly when he considers the massive wealth involved? As he is aware, the company merely wants to siphon off the natural resources in the area and is establishing a structure to do so. As Deputy Broughan indicated, the gas and oil contained in the Corrib field could be brought ashore using modern technology.
The Minister may contradict what I am saying. However, the documentation from the industry’s conference relating to this matter, which is being run in association with the petroleum affairs division of the Department, states:
Words such as “frontier”, which we associate with the wild west and cowboys, are used in the documentation to which I refer. There are many cowboys around and the Minister is doing everything in his power to help them. He is certainly not rounding up the cowboys who are responsible for cashing in on so much of a giveaway. We owe a great debt to people such as Colm Rapple, who is never slow to comment on these matters. One rarely reads about such matters in the newspapers because the Department does not make announcements in respect of them.
I do not understand why the system relating to this matter cannot be open and transparent. If Deputy Broughan’s amendment was accepted, there would be openness and transparency and we would be in a position to know what is happening.
Deputy Durkan referred to the security of supply and stated that we need the Corrib gas. I am glad that an announcement was made regarding the supply of gas to Mayo towns because, for the first time, the idea that the pipeline was built to take the Corrib gas away from Mayo — which was the intention — has been decoupled. The pipeline can now be used to distribute gas throughout the county. Thank God for that. However, we do not need the Corrib pipeline to bring gas to Mayo because, thanks to the Langeled pipeline — the longest pipeline of its type in the world — which runs from Norway, there is an abundance of supply.
These matters have come to pass as a result of the stance taken by the people of Mayo and me in respect of the Corrib gas pipeline. We are being presented with trinkets but we want some real benefit from the gas brought ashore from the Corrib field. In that context, the Minister must bite the bullet and retain as many of our natural resources as possible until such time as we are in a position to exploit them for our benefit.
The Minister referred earlier to Irish companies. As Deputy Broughan stated, Grianán Energy, even though it submitted a large number of applications, was not granted a licence. The multinationals obtained licences but Grianán Energy, even thought it was prepared to give 10% of its reserves to the State, did not.
I greatly welcome the fact that my fellow parliamentarians came down to Mayo, which is more than the Minister ever did although I hoped he would. Deputy Broughan, who is Labour’s spokesperson, came to Mayo, as did Deputies Michael D. Higgins and Costello, Deputy Sargent, the Green Party leader and Deputies Joe Higgins, Catherine Murphy and Healy. This was greatly appreciated by the people. Since people have come to Mayo and seen for themselves there is a new understanding of the situation and I hope that gets through to the Minister.
As Deputy Broughan stated, the Minister was quick to reject the initiative that was announced. It was disrespectful of the Minister to reject an independent public commission of inquiry. What is wrong with adopting a reasonable and sensible way by which the Corrib gas conflict can be resolved? As everybody states that they have community support, let us test it now. Why should anyone have anything to fear about this open, transparent and democratic method for determining how the Corrib gas project can be developed?
The Minister might state again that this has been through the planning process but that was a flawed process. The pipeline, which determines where the refinery will be, was not put through that process. This is a 9 km inshore pipeline carrying unrefined gas, which is unique. If it were coming in from Clew Bay, it would be like locating it in Islandeady, where Deputy Kenny comes from, which would go right past Westport and that would not be acceptable to anybody. When one thinks about it, it is ludicrous.
There are issues such as cold-venting which have not been addressed at all. There has been no consent for this development. When I went to Norway last year the Norwegians told me this could not possibly happen there because at least there would be community consent. I do not see why the Minister would not revisit the Shell to Sea proposal and reconsider his stance on it.
Dr. Cowley: Surely the Minister must do something about this situation. This is a matter we raised on private Members’ business and we hope the Minister will have some news fairly soon. We will become the laughing stock of the world and some day there will be a tribunal into how we managed to give away so much for nothing.
I hope the Minister will look at this, and particularly revisit the Shell to Sea proposal. I reiterate how much I appreciate the visit of my parliamentary colleagues to Mayo and I hope that the Minister might follow suit at some stage.
Mr. N. Dempsey: I thought Report Stage was to deal directly with the amendments before us. It gets a bit tiresome listening to the same type of contribution, time and time again. I was tempted to ignore it all and just address the amendment before us, but seeing as though people have got such latitude it would be remiss of me not to respond to some of the stuff to which I have had to listen for the past 45 minutes.
I was asked why was I so dismissive of the proposal from Shell to Sea. It was suggested that within an hour or thereabouts I had responded to the proposal. Shell to Sea is not too slow at responding quickly and being discourteous to Ministers, mediators, experts in pipeline safety and various other people who put much time and effort into trying to resolve this difficulty over the past 18 months to two years. I seem to recall that barely before the Atvantica report was published it had been rejected by Shell to Sea. Within a half an hour of Mr. Peter Cassells — who spent seven months meeting with, speaking to and listening to people — producing his report it was dismissed out of hand. In fact, I suppose it is more accurate to state that before he even produced his report it was dismissed out of hand by spokespersons for Shell to Sea.
The proposal that Shell to Sea has now made shows quite clearly that it does not accept the Government’s authority to legislate. It does not accept the EPA as an environmental agency. It does not accept An Bord Pleanála or the county council as planning authorities, and it does not accept their decisions. It will not accept world experts in pipeline safety and would not accept the bona fides of Mr. Cassells, who gave such time to try to resolve this difficulty and who did his best to get Shell to Sea to sit down in the same room with Shell. The company was willing to do that and Shell to Sea would not do it. Shell to Sea would not accept his bona fides despite the fact that it agreed to his appointment, accepted him as being neutral and accepted him as somebody who could possibly move this forward.
When things do not suit Shell to Sea, it changes very quickly. Now it wants more commissions or bodies to sit down. It wants work to stop again — anything to delay, anything to stop. It does not have a notion of changing from the position it has taken. I am speaking about Shell to Sea. I know that residents had concerns and continue to have concerns. We have done everything we possibly can to meet those and we cannot do anything further in that regard.
Deputy Cowley quoted me on poor multinationals or insinuating that maybe multinational oil exploration companies are acting out of the goodness of their heart. I never said that either inside or outside of this House. Multinational companies are involved in oil exploration to make a profit and because it is their business. They will try, in so far as they can, to get the best possible deal for themselves. I am old enough, experienced enough and have been long enough in this business to know that. I will not be fooled by them if they come in and tell me that they are considering seeking permission to explore for oil or gas off the west coast of Ireland and they are doing it for the good of my health or that of anybody else. As a Minister, my job is to try to ensure that we get the best possible deal.
There is much nonsense being spoken. Listening to some of the contributions, I could not help thinking that it sounded quite like a press release from the central office of somewhere or other. The phrases being used were quite similar to phrases that I have seen over the weekend in anonymous newspaper articles to which people do not have the courage to put their name. No doubt we will see it on Phoenix or somewhere else before too long — the transfer of licences, the possible benefits of licences, and me, as Minister, granting Providence a transfer of a licence. The licence is not worth a curse unless one discovers something and there is nothing discovered in these cases, of which Deputy Cowley spoke and in the newspaper propaganda of which he has spoken. All of these mythical profits of companies are not made until there is a discovery and until the gas or oil comes ashore.
Deputy Cowley spoke of us giving away the entire benefit to the Corrib developers. They have been in the field for ten years and no gas has been brought on shore yet. No company that engages in exploration is guaranteed to discover gas or oil. Taxing the turnover of companies at various rates was mentioned but 25% or 50% or 100% of nothing is still nothing. Exploration can involve significant expenditure before a discovery is made and, at the end of the day, of 120 wells sunk in Irish waters since 1970, approximately 115 were plugged without generating a return. There is a 30/1 chance of discovering oil or gas off the west coast. That is the ratio of success thus far. If Deputies are seriously suggesting the Government allocate hundreds of millions of euro in my Department’s budget to drill wells for oil and gas, my response is “No, thank you”. However, if gas is brought ashore from the Corrib or Slyne Head-Erris Head fields and the current optimistic projections about them come to pass, it will be a totally different ball game because we will then know for definite that abundant resources, as has been suggested, are available. The companies will also know that and that will leave the Government in a strong position to say, as Deputy Broughan outlined, “Hang on a second. We know there is ten trillion cubic feet of gas or oil in the field and we want a cut of this. We need a greater share”. That is perfectly legitimate, as a number of companies will have benefitted from the current regime but they have taken all risks by engaging in exploration without knowing oil or gas will be discovered. It is important to bear in mind always that they will not bring oil and gas ashore for nothing. When gas is brought ashore, a corporation tax rate of 25% will apply. Based on the figures quoted in newspapers and so on, that will generate approximately €2 billion for the Exchequer at current prices. We do not give gas and oil away for nothing.
I refer to Deputy Broughan’s political point regarding the behaviour of the Taoiseach when he was Minister for Finance, former Deputy and Minister, Ray Burke, Deputy Fahey when he was Minister for the Marine and me. It is strange if this issue was such a scandal and a giveaway, that when his party was in power between 1992 and 1997, it never felt the need to do something about it.
Mr. N. Dempsey: The Minister of State with responsibility for energy policy at the time was a member of the Deputy’s party. It is strange that he did not do something about that because of the so-called scandalous deal done in 1992.
Mr. N. Dempsey: It should have been fresh in the minds of Labour Party members when they went into power with Fianna Fáil that this was a terrible scandal and a terrible giveaway with the people being abandoned. Why did they not do something about it? The files on the terms for oil and gas exploration were not even opened by the then Minister of State. It is a poor reflection on Labour Party Members if they thought this was a scandalous deal that they did nothing about it when they had the opportunity.
Mr. N. Dempsey: They can write off expenses relating to wells. If a company discovers gas or oil and brings it ashore, as will happen with the Corrib gas field, the expenses relating to the discovery can be written off with the balance taxed at a rate of 25%.
Indecon is conducting the review mentioned by the Deputies. The Department conducted an internal review, which will also form part of the review by the external experts. I never indicated that it would be finalised by the end of the October. I hope Indecon will have delivered the report and I will have everything finalised by the end of the year. It will certainly be made public before the election.
The amendment calls on the Minister to establish a subsidiary oil exploration agency to facilitate a holistic approach to Ireland’s oil and energy security. It is interesting that Members are arguing out of both sides of their mouth at the same time. They accuse us of lacking expertise and say we are being kidded up to our eyes by the oil exploration companies because we do not know what is happening. However, Members would benefit from a briefing session with departmental officials who could explain to them the processes involved in granting exploration and prospecting licences. One of the conditions of such licences is that companies must share the data and information they gather with the Department and they must commit to provide seismic data to the Department during the exploration phase. Much of the data is published by the Department after a period and we emphasised the availability of that data at the conference earlier. Given that the price of oil is currently $60 a barrel, much of the information provided at the conference indicates it will be more profitable to explore in the kind of waters we are discussing. However, that information is available and it is not the case that we are totally blind to the possibilities and potential involved. We do not allow companies to get information without sharing it with the Department. We are not totally dependent on the companies because we use the expertise of the Department and the GSI’s experts to check and recheck information. The Marine Institute can also be helpful in this matter. People should be aware of these facts because they seem to wrongly believe that we take the small amount of information we get from the companies, but do not have the ability or expertise to check it.
The Bill concerns the National Oil Reserves Agency, the stockholding of oil and oil reserves. It ensures that in the event of a catastrophe, we have stocks to prevent the economy grinding to a halt. NORA will have no expertise in oil exploration and extending the Bill to allow for such is not the way forward. If we decide to go down that route, it will be done via substantial primary legislation, not an amendment to an irrelevant Bill. I am surprised the amendment was tabled.
Mr. Broughan: The tenor of the Minister’s statement suggests that we may take this type of action in four or five years time depending on the information we will then have. However, it will be too late. Unless we change the Constitution or the Minister emulates President Vladimir Putin, we cannot change the terms of the licence awarded to Shell and its partners. The Minister might be compared——
Acting Chairman: The Chair has allowed Members significant latitude. The issue before the House is the establishment of a subsidiary oil exploration agency. I ask the Deputy to co-operate with the Chair and keep his comments relevant.
Mr. Broughan: Apparently, President Putin is changing the terms and conditions applicable to Shell and Total in the region of the Russian Federation, including the island of Sakhalin. The famous Shell company is under the spotlight again because President Putin is prepared to change the terms. Since the mid-1990s, the Yeltsin Government has been regarded as giving away the vital natural resources of the Russian people. President Putin is prepared to reverse that situation. The Minister seems to be saying that while he would like to do something similar, he will not do it yet.
It has been my experience from dealings with the Department, in so far as Departments deal with the Opposition, that there was not much expertise. Otherwise, why did the Advantica and the Centre for Public Inquiry reports describe such disturbing issues in respect of the transport system for this resource? If the Department had that expertise, we would have known about that issue beforehand and, as Deputy Cowley stated, we would not still be examining the issue of cold venting. We would have known in advance that such was part and parcel of a large refinery and needed approval.
Mr. Broughan: In this matter, the Labour Party is prepared to stand on its record. Our Minister, Mr. Justin Keating, first established a fair and honourable regime in line with international comparisons. In the mid-1980s, our great party leader, Mr. Dick Spring, continued the regime. I accept the Minister’s comment that people in the mid-1990s, including the subsequent Government’s Chief Whip, took their eyes off the ball, but most of our party members are determined to have a fair and equitable oil and gas regime. First and foremost, we need knowledge and information, which is the purpose of this amendment.
Mr. Durkan: I agree with the Minister’s comments on the GSI. In recent weeks, I submitted a question on the GSI, but the question was transferred to another Department despite the GSI being under the Minister’s aegis. It is a clear indication of things that go wrong from time to time.
This is a critical matter. Modern technology has improved significantly and geological mapping is more forensic than previously. For example, it would have been unheard of 25 years or 30 years ago to suggest that the types of resources we are discussing were available because there was no evidence to support it. In the interim, we have progressed to such an extent that we can with a reasonable degree of accuracy identify the location and the nature of the resources, which is beneficial.
That notwithstanding, as we move further from our shores, we will incur greater expenditure. That people have shown interest in this level of exploration is welcome, but our nation must come to grips with the situation. We cannot argue every toss of the coin and second guess everything. We must establish a common ground. I support the amendment because it would present the Minister with the opportunity when taking that route——
Mr. Durkan: Accepting the amendment would not be a bad idea, as it would give everyone a fair opportunity, including the Minister, to draw on available expertise and it could solve many problems. Given that it may be necessary to do so anyway and despite the Minister’s statement that the provision must form an integral part of a major Bill, it would be no harm to include it in this Bill. The production of a subsequent Bill could refer to this section, which could then be amended.
Dr. Cowley: The Minister spoke about a 25% tax. He can correct me if I am wrong, but 20 years is a long period of time in which to write off operational costs. How long before the Exchequer gets a penny from the Corrib gas field?
The Minister mentioned intransigence, but it was indecent of him to compare the intransigence of people in Rossport to that of Dr. Paisley and Mr. Adams. The Minister wrote off the Shell to Sea announcement within an hour of its being made and Shell stated that it was impractical to consider anything other than the Bellanaboy site. Perhaps this is where the problem lies. The Minister talked about Mr. Peter Cassells and the Advantica report but he must admit the problem lies in the fact that they were not allowed to examine anything other than the pipeline option.
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