Minerals Development Bill, 1995: Committee Stage.

Friday, 7 July 1995

Seanad Éireann Debate
Vol. 144 No. 7

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Mr. Manning: Information on Maurice Manning  Zoom on Maurice Manning  It looks like being one of those days. The Minister has gone to vote. I do not know why. It was my understanding that all Ministers are automatically paired when they are in this House. However, the Minister has gone to vote so we will be delayed slightly. With the permission of the House I propose the suspension of the sitting for ten minutes.

Sitting suspended at 10.55 a.m. and resumed at 11.5 a.m.

Sections 1 and 2 agreed to.

Question proposed: “That section 3 stand part of the Bill.”

Mr. Daly: Information on Brendan Daly  Zoom on Brendan Daly  Will the Minister of State indicate the amount of validation which needs to be done? What is the general background to this section?

Minister of State at the Department of Transport, Energy and Communications (Mrs. Doyle): Information on Avril Doyle  Zoom on Avril Doyle  Section 3 comprises three parts which build on the amendment of section 8 of the 1940 Act, which is provided for in section 2. There are three subsections. The first provides validation of renewals of minerals prospecting licences effected at any time before this Bill becomes law as if the licences had contained valid renewal clauses. The second provides validation of renewal clauses contained in minerals prospecting licences granted before this Bill becomes law. The third is a standard technical provision which ensures the validations effected in the first and second subsections will have full effect in all cases except to the extent that they must be limited in order not to infringe any constitutional rights yet to be demonstrated in any particular case.

Mr. Daly: Information on Brendan Daly  Zoom on Brendan Daly  On Second Stage a great deal of reference was made to the report on minerals development, which indicated a number of changes in the legislation on minerals development which are necessary. The point has been made that this is a technical Bill and that much broader legislation is required. In the event of further comprehensive legislation on minerals development being introduced, will the sections of the Bill have to be changed? If this is the case, we will be duplicating work which will already have been done.

Mrs. Doyle: Information on Avril Doyle  Zoom on Avril Doyle  It is my understanding that there will not be a need for major changes but if there is such a need it will be tackled. It was felt necessary that the Bill should proceed at this point.

[623] Question put and agreed to.

Section 4 agreed to.

Question proposed: “That section 5 stand part of the Bill.”

Mr. Daly: Information on Brendan Daly  Zoom on Brendan Daly  As regards the application of fees for mining, there is a view that we should encourage further mining in Ireland. A considerable amount of work must be done in relation to the mining and exploration business. It is essential that the Industrial Development Authority, which for some reason is excluded from this type of activity, be involved in grant aiding, supporting and taking initiatives to open up the prospects for further exploration. Will the Minister satisfy us that the application of fees will not be seen as a disincentive to the exploration business?

The Minister will be aware that some exploration work was carried out in my constituency in the 1960s. I would like to put on record my appreciation to the Minister of State at the Department of Transport, Energy and Communications, Deputy Stagg, for information he sent me arising from comments I made on Second Stage. He indicated that there was further interest in the west Clare basin, which is the extension of an area of west Clare where some exploration was carried out in the early 1960s. I would like the Minister's assurance that this will be progressed as far as possible. In a climate where we are endeavouring to attract people to explore possibilities for further development and employment in terms of natural resources, the application of fees will be a disincentive rather than an incentive to such activity.

Mrs. Doyle: Information on Avril Doyle  Zoom on Avril Doyle  This is the only section of the Bill on which there has been considerable debate in the Dáil and here. As was said at the time, the practice has been to charge handling fees as part of a comprehensive fee in connection with the grant of a relevant State mining [624] lease or licence. To date, there is no clear statutory provision and without this there would be no guarantee of securing an appropriate handling fee in the event that an application for a State mining lease or licence is unsuccessful or is withdrawn after considerable expense was incurred by the Minister in processing it.

This is especially true where major complex projects are involved which require the engagement of external advisers fully au fait with specialist mining issues of long term importance and with best practice. Often independent advice is required in a specialist area and generally this is only available from abroad. We want to tie down in statute the right of the Minister to recoup expenses incurred by the State or his Department in properly assessing and analysing any application, particularly complex major applications for mining leases or licences which come before it.

Senator Daly may not be aware that amendments were made to this section in the Dáil and I hope they will allay any fears he may have. Subsections (3), (4) and (5) were added on Report Stage in the Dáil and are consequential to subsection (2) as so amended. I hope the Senator is satisfied.

Subsection (3) is a standard technical provision which makes it clear that regulations under this section to specify application fees may differentiate between classes of cases and different circumstances. Subsection (4) is modelled on section 94 (2) of the Environmental Protection Agency Act, 1992. Its purpose is to require payment of the application fee or the requisite part thereof where payment by instalments is allowed before the Minister can consider or, as the case may be, decide on an application.

Subsection (5) is a standard provision which requires presentation to the Dáil and Seanad of all regulations made under this section and giving each House 21 sitting days in which to annul those regulations if it should so decide. I hope the tightening up of this section [625] dealing with the charging of fees satisfies any concerns the Senator may have.

Mr. Cassidy: Information on Donie Cassidy  Zoom on Donie Cassidy  It is not good policy if the IDA cannot invite in or use its expertise to assist those making applications for these mineral licences. Why is the IDA excluded from the mineral development programme and funding? The IDA has a wealth of expertise all over the world built up over many years. There is an opportunity here for successes, similar to those in my own area of Ballinalack outside Mullingar, where Barrymine was located in the 1970s, and also of Tara Mines, which has been a great employer in my area and in the midlands generally.

Most of those who emigrated in the 1960s were able to return in the 1970s and give the benefit of their expertise. At least 300 people from north County Westmeath and north County Meath returned from Canada and have since been working at Tara Mines. We had high hopes in Mullingar that a similar development would take place. It would be a disincentive if, given its expertise in this area, the IDA were to be excluded from this activity. What plans has the Minister to ensure that the Government will address this problem?

Mr. Enright: Information on Tom Enright  Zoom on Tom Enright  The Minister must be careful to achieve a proper balance with regard to the granting of licences. It is important, largely for environmental purposes, that they be investigated thoroughly. The payment of fees is acceptable provided they are reasonable and the State is not at a loss. It is essential that a further examination takes place at Government level, not only on the issue of fees but also on the taxation of profits, which is more of a disincentive.

In the 1950s the late Seán Lemass granted mining rights off the coast at a fee of £500 for each of the different boxes, as they were divided at the time, because he was anxious that exploration work should proceed. We in this House and the Government should try to ensure that in whatever works are carried [626] out, care is taken to ensure that the environment — water supplies, air and so on — is not damaged or destroyed and that areas worked upon are left in a proper manner. However, at the same time we must make far greater efforts in this area. According to the Stock Exchange, only a small number of people are prepared to invest in exploration in Ireland. It is important, therefore, that we provide incentives.

Mrs. Doyle: Information on Avril Doyle  Zoom on Avril Doyle  I thank the Senators for their contributions. With regard to the question of the involvement of the IDA, my sympathy is on the side of the Senator. I am advised that this is one of the many items that are being considered in the context of the review group's report. If I can presume to read from the Senator's question, I hope, like him, that we will see greater involvement of our development and marketing agencies in mineral resources in this country.

There will always be a tension between development and the environment. This is healthy. It can be used to ensure that any development, especially in mineral prospecting, is done sensitively and with concern, not only for its environmental but its social impact. This is as it should be. However, because there is tension with regard to the environment and mineral development, this does not mean we should have a “softly softly” attitude to it from the Government. It does not mean that it should be a no go area or that we are almost afraid to get up front and sell our wares.

I am stepping a little beyond my brief as Minister of State when I say that I detect that several Governments have been afraid of this area in that they have not vigorously marketed an enormous potential in this country because they were not comfortable in handling any environmental backlash. We must face the problems up front and deal with them. When it is not environmentally acceptable to develop, you do not develop. In most cases, any of the concerns of the local people — many of [627] them real, more perceived — can be dealt with and their fears can be assuaged. I would like to see a more up front, transparent — if I dare use that word — attitude towards handling this area from now on. I would like to see the feel good factor put back into mineral development in this country, and I have said this before; if you do not grow it, you must mine it. Everything we use today in modern society is either grown or mined so when we have valuable natural resources, we must have a positive Government policy on how we develop them for the benefit of our people and for generations to come.

I am confident we can get right the balance between environment and development. We have an Environmental Protection Agency in place, we have excellent local authorities who know what they are about now and we have a Minister for the Environment who can co-ordinate the efforts of his Department and the Departments of Transport, Energy and Communications and Enterprise and Employment. Let us move forward positively. Let us get our regulatory and tax climates right. Let us be up front and let us move on this area. It has been a hush, hush, hands off, no go area for too long. People have been afraid of it, basically; that is my honest opinion.

I accept the points being made by Senators and I hope I have covered them sufficiently. With the changes that were made in the Dáil in relation to fees, this section has been strengthened. Anybody with a major mining project applying to the Department of Transport, Energy and Communications will understand that the Department must scrutinise it fully and it must have the expertise and experience to do so. It would not pay the Department or the taxpayer to have these experts sit in the Department day in and day out for two or three major projects per year, if we are lucky. There must be balance. We buy in expertise and consultants' advice as we need it. Any developer will only be charged the actual cost of fully assessing and scrutinising the application. [628] That is what this section is all about.

If we are quite clear and up front about our regulatory environment generally and if developers know where the Irish Government stands in relation to the regulation of mineral development, a fair and just fee for assessing any application will not put anybody off.

Mr. Cassidy: Information on Donie Cassidy  Zoom on Donie Cassidy  The Minister puts a lot of emphasis on the environment and we all share her concerns. Apart from land exploration, there is enormous potential in offshore exploration. There is an opportunity for the Government to create sustainable jobs from the expertise gained in various projects here over the last 25 years. I concur with the Minister that most Governments may not have addressed this problem in the past as seriously as we are calling for today.

While it is very reassuring to hear some of the Minister's views, we want an assurance that this problem will be addressed in the immediate future by her Department and the IDA. It is fine to talk of three or four experts in a Department in Dublin but, as far as my limited knowledge of the world of exploration is concerned, it is a small industry that controls an enormous potential for jobs. The people involved in the industry all over the world have specialised in these areas and if something happens in Australia, the Yukon or anywhere else, all these experts know each other; there may be only 5,000 people involved at that level of exploration because of its high risk nature. With that in mind, the opportunity and potential for jobs here is enormous.

There has been a lot of research here and many wells have been bored over the last 25 years. We heard Senator Daly speak of County Clare, which has a high priority in relation to drilling. The Ballinalack site in the midlands had enormous potential. It featured on the Irish Stock Exchange for a number of years. Now it is ready to be put into operation if incentives are given.

In relation to the environment, it need not involve above-ground exploration. [629] As far as I know, the Ballinalack site can be an underground exploration. Maybe at the end of the year we can come back and review the situation and the Minister can have another look at the problem, discuss it with Government colleagues and see what prospects can then be discussed later in the year.

Question put and agreed to.

Sections 6 to 9, inclusive, agreed to.

Title agreed to.

Bill reported without amendments.

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