Ireland's Climate Minister Just Approved a New Offshore Oil Project

Denis Naughten

Ireland’s first minister for Climate Action, Denis Naughten, quietly signed off this month on the Druid/Drombeg exploration field off Ireland’s west coast which is eyeing an estimated five billion barrels of offshore oil.

The department issued no press statement about the initiative and it didn’t even merit a mention on the department’s website.

The news instead leaked out via an industry website, Proactive Investors, which revealed that Providence Resources PLC had confirmed that drilling operations had begun for the exploration well near Porcupine bank off the Irish coast.

As the website stated, it is “expected to be a high impact exploration programme, if the well successfully confirms the prospects seen in pre-drill analysis.”

It explained that the Stena IceMAX deep-water drillship is contracted for the programme, and “operations have now begun after the (Irish) Minister of Communications, Climate Action and Environment gave consent on July 11”.

If recovered and burned, these five billion barrels of oil will result in some 1.5 billion tonnes of new CO₂ emissions.

Just weeks before approving the oil exploration licence, Naughten had travelled to Brussels where he is threatening to delay EU-wide implementation of the Paris Agreement on Climate Change by arguing that the 20 percent greenhouse gas targets for 2020 that Ireland itself signed up to are now “too onerous”. Ireland, has, however, received little support among other EU states for its special pleading.

All of this comes as this week, Ireland published its first National Mitigation Plan (NMP) in over 10 years. However, the NMP has been widely criticised as it fails to set out any clear roadmap whatever to show how Ireland can even achieve its EU-mandated emissions.

Ireland’s current total annual emissions from all sectors are around 60 million tonnes a year, and this figure must drop sharply in the coming decade in line with its international commitments.

The Druid/Drombeg field alone could therefore potentially produce the equivalent of all Ireland’s greenhouse gas emissions (at 2016 levels) for at least the next quarter of a century.

Ireland is one of only two EU states that is set to miss its 2020 emissions reductions targets. Instead of the slated 20 percent cut, Ireland is currently on track to deliver instead a 6 percent reduction compared to 2005 levels.

Since the offshore drilling is being conducted by a private firm, the carbon released will not be tallied as the responsibility of the Irish government, but will end up instead being accounted in Europe’s carbon market known as the EU Emissions Trading System.

Fracking Ban

The news of the offshore oil deal comes after an onshore fracking ban was passed in Ireland last month. This means Ireland follows France and Germany as among the first EU countries to introduce such a ban.

However, it seems this initiative happened despite, rather than as a result of, government policy.

The anti-fracking legislation is the first Private Members' Bill to be passed during the lifetime of Ireland’s minority government. Green Party Senator, Grace O’Sullivan, unsuccessfully attempted to add an amendment calling for the government to refuse to extend or renew exploration licences for oil or gas.

O’Sullivan pointed out the contradiction between the Irish government signing up to international climate treaties such as the Paris Accord while at the same time continuing to issue exploration licenses for fossil fuel prospecting in Irish waters. “Our current energy policy is nothing less than a complete contradiction, a policy that can only lead to one conclusion: we should keep the petroleum in the ground”, she told the Senate in late June.

Naughten on Climate

Climate Action minister, Denis Naughten is an independent member of parliament, based in a rural constituency where farming and turf cutting are among the major activities.

While Naughten himself has a scientific background, taking a strong position on climate action is risky in rural Ireland, where the powerful farming lobby has taken a hostile position on climate action. And so there is likely to be some political pressure from these carbon intensive industries.

Under the new National Mitigation plan, for instance, Ireland’s agriculture sector, accounting for a third of all non-ETS emissions, has been given a political ‘free pass’ on greenhouse gas cuts, leaving a near-impossible situation where all other sectors would need virtually 100 percent emissions cuts in order for Ireland to meet its legal obligations.

Speaking at the 2016 Energy Ireland conference, however, Naughten said: “The simplest solution to many of our challenges in the energy sector is to reduce the amount of energy we use. It is often said that the cheapest barrel of oil is the one not burned”.

But words aren’t matching actions.

Drilling Risks

Apart from the climate damage that will come from digging up yet more fossil fuels, there are specific dangers inherent in this mega-drilling plan on the Porcupine bank that the climate minister approved.

First, this region is a hotspot for whale and dolphin populations and these are severely threatened by the seismic activity that goes hand in hand with oil drilling.

Second, in June 2015, an international team of marine scientists discovered a new cold water coral habitat off the Porcupine bank, with coral extending to depths of up to 900 metres. This underlines the region’s rich and fragile ecology, all of which is now threatened.

Also, the proposed drilling on the Porcupine bank will take place in deeper and potentially stormier waters than the Gulf of Mexico which experienced the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe in 2010. This led to the equivalent of five million barrels of oil leaking into the Gulf and leading to an ecological disaster with an economic cost running into tens of billions of dollars.

There is deep scepticism about a small country like Ireland having the political muscle to make an oil giant stay and clean up a future major oil spill along its Atlantic coast.

An Taisce, Ireland’s national trust, this week called on the government, in the light of the unfolding global climate crisis, to implement “an immediate moratorium on the issue of any further licences for fossil fuel exploration or extraction within the national territory”. France’s Environment Minister Nicolas Hulot announced late last month that France is to stop granting new licences for oil and gas exploration on the mainland and in overseas territories.

Within Ireland’s department of Communications, Climate Action & Environment, the ‘Natural Resources’ section appears to operate as an independent entity. Its section entitled ‘Oil and Gas (Exploration & Production)’ states that its aim is “to maximise the benefits to the State from exploration for and production of indigenous oil and gas resources.”

Other than a vague comment about having ‘due regard’ to the environment, this division doesn’t even pay the usual lip-service to addressing climate change or Ireland’s legally mandated requirement to rapidly decarbonise our energy system. Paradoxically, this division operates within the very government department charged with implementing ‘Climate Action’.

John Gibbons is a Dublin-based specialist writer and commentator on climate and environmental issues. He blogs at ThinkOrSwim.ie You can follow him on Twitter here.

Photo:  Wikimedia Commons | CC 2.0

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