Tuesday, 16 February 2010
Seanad Eireann Debate
An Leas-Chathaoirleach: I welcome the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Deputy Eamon Ryan. Before we commence, I remind Senators that they may speak only once on Report Stage, except for the proposer of an amendment who may reply to the discussion on the amendment. Also, on Report Stage each amendment must be seconded.
This amendment is self-explanatory and seeks to delete the words “sub sea” and use the composite word “subsea”. I have had protracted negotiations with a retired English teacher at Trinity College and his colleague from the INTO on this matter. On Committee Stage we pointed this out, but the Minister did not agree. In recent years many aspects of the alphabet and words——
Senator Michael McCarthy: It is. They are open to abuse. It would be unfortunate if, at senior Government level, we were to start abusing the alphabet. On Second Stage I suggested the word “sub” should be followed by a hyphen, but the Minister did not accept this. The alternative is that it should be a compound word, which is what we now suggest. The Minister took the same approach with the word “subsoil” on page 8, line 14.
Senator Joe O’Toole: I second the amendment. I ask the Minister to reconsider on the issue that arose on Committee Stage. I confess an interest in the matter, as for many years I have been a member of the protect the hyphen society. I am one of those who regrets the dilution and misuse of the hyphen which is vanishing. I have looked at the issue in terms of the point made by Senator McCarthy. “Sub” is definitely a prefix and usually followed by a hyphen, although one can use it to form words such as “subsoil” as mentioned. Its use in English in both ways is correct. To call a draw in the matter and keep everybody happy, will the Minister accept an amendment to the amendment to use the word “sub-sea”? It is appropriate to keep the English language intact and maintain its integrity. It is also important that there be a clear understanding of what it is we are about. Acceptance of the amendment would indicate the Minister’s flexibility and openness to deal with issues. I appeal to him to accept an amendment to the amendment to use the word “sub-sea”.
Senator David Norris: While this is not something that should hold us for a great length of time, I wonder whether the Minister has carried out research to find out if he has contributed a new word to the English language. I have never come across the word “subsea” before, although I have come across “subsoil”. In any case, it is a bastardisation of two languages, English and Latin, and is neither one nor the other. Why this devotion to Latin? As “sub” means “under”, why not just use the word “undersea”?
Senator David Norris: That might be misconstrued. While it is not worth wasting much time on, I am curious to know if this is a word or if it has been recently coined by the Minister, or what is the difficulty.
Deputy Eamon Ryan: I wish we had James Joyce to help us. He would have made great play out of this. I intend to accept the Labour Party amendments for the sake of consistency in the use of technical language. There may well be a debate on the use of a hyphen, the Latin origins or on whether the word is correct. However, the intent is clear. The advice I have received is that accepting the amendments will lead to the use of proper and consistent technical language. As such, I am happy to accept them.
Senator Paschal Donohoe: I welcome the amendment which I hope follows on from the earlier debates we had on the need to make this body as transparent as possible to ensure there will be confidence among all those who will depend on this body to work well and in a just manner.
Deputy Eamon Ryan: I indicated on Committee Stage that I would bring forward amendments to increase public access to information relevant to the safety compliance of petroleum undertakings. As part of this process, amendment No. 5 inserts a new provision in section 13P to require the CER to publish safety permits once such permits have been issued to petroleum undertakings. This will ensure the public will have sight of the permit that will allow petroleum undertakings to carry on a designated activity and any conditions imposed by the permit.
Amendment No. 9 which inserts a new section 13AC in Bill also has its origins in the Committee Stage debate and further increases the level of public access to documentation relevant to the safety assessment process. This new provision which is modelled on the system operated by the Health and Safety Authority in discharge of its obligations with respect to occupational safety requires petroleum undertakings which have been issued with a safety permit to make their approved safety case available to members of the public on request. Petroleum undertakings will be permitted to limit public access to information relating to industrial, commercial or personal confidentiality, public security and national defence. However, all of the data contained in the safety case which, in fact, constitutes the safety management system to be operated by the petroleum undertaking will be accessible to members of the public. In line with other access to information legislation, petroleum undertakings will also be allowed to charge a reasonable fee for making such information available. Notwithstanding this, it should be noted that access to information can only be limited with the written consent of the CER and determination of a reasonable charge will be subject to direction by the commission. This will make the regulatory authority the final arbiter in each respect.
I do not propose to accept amendment No. 1 to amendment No. 9, proposed by Senators Donohoe and Cummins, because the Bill does not actually provide for an application to the CER for a safety permit. The process envisaged by the Bill is that petroleum undertakings will submit a safety case in respect of a single designated petroleum activity or a range of designated petroleum activities to the CER. The safety case is, in effect, a demonstration of the petroleum undertaking’s proposed safety management systems in accordance with the requirements of the safety framework and the safety case guidelines relevant to the activity or activities in question. Should the commission be satisfied that the requirements of both the safety framework and the safety case guidelines have been met to the desired standard, it will issue a safety permit, subject to whatever conditions it considers appropriate. The safety permit which signals approval of the safety case will allow the petroleum undertaking to legally carry on a designated petroleum activity in accordance with the approved safety case and subject to any conditions attached to the safety permit. The amendments I propose will provide a basis for access to both the safety permit and the safety case the permit is approving.
Senator Feargal Quinn: I am very happy with the proposed amendment. The words that concern me somewhat are “as soon as practicable after the issue of a safety permit”. When I came into the House 16 or 17 years ago, I discovered there was a different attitude towards the passage of time in the State apparatus. Very often, terms used in business indicated a much greater sense of urgency to get things done. In the first five or six years I was in the House I suggested amendments to practically every Bill, particularly in regard to the publication of accounts, to seek to have inserted words such as “not later than...”. In those days terms such as “as soon as practicable” were common but I attempted to have deadlines inserted. The issue does not arise in this case but I make the point to remind those who create legislation to recognise that it is useful to include a timescale, for example, “not later than two months”, to make sure things happen. I suggest its inclusion in this instance to ensure we will focus more attention on the timeline rather than just leave the provision open, as inferred by the term “as soon as practicable”. While I am happy to accept the amendment, I hope the matter will receive attention in the future.
I may have missed some of the points outlined by the Minister. The purpose of my amendment and that of the Government amendment is to make more transparent what is happening in the process as opposed to its outcome. The Government amendment will improve the level of transparency at the end of the process by allowing the safety case to be published, or at least that is my understanding of the amendment. What I am trying to get at in my amendment is the question of whether anything can be done to improve the level of transparency during the process in order that the public would have an opportunity to see what it was the company seeking support was stating about the operation of the enterprise or activity. The comparison I would draw is with the planning process, in which the public has the opportunity to see the material as it works its way through the planning process, as opposed to seeing it only at the very end of the process when the result is published. While I may have misunderstood the Minister’s point — if I have, he can clarify it — I want to find a way of improving the ability of the public to see what is happening in the process and understand the case being made to the commission, as opposed to just being able to see the outcome and result at the end of that process.
Deputy Eamon Ryan: I take the point made by Senator Quinn on the need for speed and timelines. I will check the legal position around what those wordings mean and come back to the Deputy on the matter.
Senator Donohoe’s interpretation that publication is at the end of rather that in the middle of the process is correct. The reason for this is I am informed because this process from a safety perspective is very iterative. It is a negotiated series of discussions involving examination of a range of quite complex interconnected variables. The job of the safety officers is to get the most satisfactory outcome from this iterative process, which must fit within the framework put in place. I understand it is not a process which is equivalent to the planning process. A planning application is fairly clear and simple in terms of what is being sought and amendments in this regard can be reasonably and clearly shown. I understand the progression of a safety case is iterative. We could not find an international example where that process is carried out in a public way. I am informed it would take away from the effectiveness or ability of the officers to do their work if the approach adopted at every stage of what are complex negotiations had to be published along the way.
Senator Paschal Donohoe: I thank the Minister for confirming my understanding of the matter and I take his point in that regard. However, while I understand the case he has made I believe the Bill is flawed in this regard.
The Minister has far more experience of this area than do I in terms of what happened in Mayo and the controversy in that regard. Let us consider the position had this system been in place when those difficulties arose and since then in regard to the application. People outside the system who have a strong interest in the outcome of a project and who do not have an opportunity to understand or have an input into the case being made by the different parties will make the point that the process is secretive and non-transparent. I referred earlier to the planning process which while complicated allows public access at clear stages. Regardless of how big or complicated the planning application there is a point at which requests for further information are made, the reasons for which are clearly outlined and the information with which the developer responds is clearly outlined. This type of approach is used in respect of huge planning applications.
I believe we should try to find a mid-point in this process at which the public could have an opportunity to state its view in terms of what is happening and to make input if they so wish. Otherwise, I fear this body which is meant to improve confidence could at some point be charged with being secretive because the public is not permitted to see the valuation and submissions being made in the process. While Fine Gael supports the Bill and welcomes the improvements made, it is vital we improve not alone transparency at the end of the process but at some mid-point of it so people can understand what is happening and have an opportunity to make an input if they so wish.
Deputy Eamon Ryan: There is and must be room for public scrutiny and engagement in the key safety issues involved in any project. As I stated earlier this is a complex process given the variety of consenting and permitting processes in place, such as in the project referred to by the Senator where safety issues proved problematic. There is in any such application an environmental impact statement which includes a quantitative risk analysis process which goes to public hearing and is open to people scrutiny, questioning and debate.
On the point in regard to the safety case and the resulting permit, I am informed that going in at a mid-point or any point of the process would make it difficult for safety officers to do the work they need to do to ensure the safest possible outcome. There is not a point where one can freeze this process in time and then move on to the next stage of the application. As I stated, this process involves ongoing negotiation and working matters out in different ways to the satisfaction of the safety officer. I am informed to put this in published form would result in the safety officers not being able to do their job as effectively as possible.
I believe the amendments we have made are proper to any such safety case. Also, the resulting permit will be published, which is most important. This allows people to understand the standards involved and the operational arrangements agreed.
An Leas-Chathaoirleach: Amendment No. 6 arises out of Committee proceedings. Amendments Nos. 7 and 8 are related and amendments Nos. 6 to 8, inclusive, will be discussed together by agreement. Is that agreed? Agreed.
I raised this issue on Committee Stage. While I do not want to test the Minister’s generosity perhaps he will consider accepting this amendment. The appointment of an authorised officer is a well established, understood and familiar legal term. There is in my view no particular rationale in terms of the introduction of the new concept of “certificate” in terms of such appointment.
The Minister has stated that “certificate” is a more current reference. However, this runs the risk of inconsistency in terminology, a point well made by the Minister in respect of amendments Nos. 2 and 3. This could be change for change sake. It is hoped the Minister will look favourably on this amendment.
Deputy Eamon Ryan: As I stated on Committee Stage, the Parliamentary Counsel’s office has confirmed that there is no legal difference between the terms “certificate” and “warrant”. Given “certificate” is the more current term, I do not propose to accept these amendments.
(4) (a) A petroleum undertaking that makes available a copy of an approved safety case is entitled to charge the person who requests it a fee in respect of the making available of that copy, provided that the amount charged by the undertaking does not exceed an amount which is reasonable having regard to the cost of making it available.
Senator Jim Walsh: I thank the Minister who has again on this occasion shown a propensity to listen to debate in this House and to take on board amendments where he believes there is justification for them. That shows the importance of both Houses and, in our case, the important contribution the Seanad sometimes makes to legislation. I thank the Minister for that. Not every Minister is quite as disposed as he is to taking on board sensible amendments.
Senator Paschal Donohoe: I thank the Minister for his participation in this debate and his willingness to take on board points made by Opposition Senators. I also thank his staff for their courtesy in meeting us and giving us an opportunity to understand the Bill better and for answering our questions. This is good legislation, which will make an important contribution to this area. I have flagged my one concern about it, so the Minister might bear that in mind in future. The Minister has either acted on all the other points made by Opposition Members, or has given a good explanation as to why he should not do so.
Senator Feargal Quinn: I also thank the Minister. The debate on Second Stage was very interesting. What pleased me most was the grasp the Minister and his team had of the Bill’s technicalities, as well as the Minister’s willingness to consider the various points made. It is a hugely beneficial and competent Bill, which will achieve its objectives.
Senator Michael McCarthy: I thank the Minister and his officials for their time and input in allowing us to understand this legislation better following its publication. I sincerely thank the Minister for accepting amendments Nos. 2 and 3.
Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources (Deputy Eamon Ryan): I thank Senators for their comments. Senators and Deputies have a common interest in protecting the public good. In many instances, that can be done by encouraging economic development, but in other instances it is done by protecting public safety. I listened to any amendments and suggestions in that regard, recognising that this is a complex and difficult matter. We must try to get it right on the public’s behalf. I am glad therefore that we were able to agree on substantial amendments. That is always the right approach. Certain high profile, major projects, such as the Corrib gas project, have run into real difficulties, first and foremost for the local community and, indeed, for others involved, including developers and public servants. It has not been satisfactory for anyone. One of our jobs is to try to get our safety regulation permitting right so it is safe and the processes are clear and easy to follow for all concerned. That is what we are attempting to do with this legislation, so I very much appreciate the Senators’ assistance in getting it right.
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