I haven’t been able to write a new blog post due to what I’m telling myself is crippling perfectionism – very strong tongue in cheek there – so am cheating here by reposting an article I wrote for Village Magazine in July 2018.

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Rare shark nursery was uncovered off Ireland’s coast in 2018 under the DCCAE INFOMAR programme. A beautiful video of the find can be viewed here.

Drilling is due to start again this summer  off the Kerry coast in the Porcupine Basin, under ExxonMobil who have spent almost 40 years misleading the public on climate change and are refusing to engage with the European Parliament on the issue. 

I will follow this up with an article on the current state of play in my next post. Until then I recommend reading this excellent article by Daniel Murray in the Sunday Business Post on the new exploratory drilling in the Porcupine. Bríd Smith’s Climate Emergency Bill has now thankfully started moving again after bureaucratic stalling.

Ireland’s Offshore Oil and Gas industry: Hot Air, Watery Wells and Empty Rhetoric

After a long hiatus, last summer Providence Resources drilled for oil in the Porcupine Basin off the South West coast of Cork and Kerry. Significant public relations work was done to claim that 5bn barrels of oil would be found. On the 4th of August, not only was nothing found but a watery well, but shares in Providence Resources fell 46%.

In Irish folklore, the Porcupine Basin is believed to be the site of Hy-Brazil – for some it is known as Tír na nÓg. A mythology matched only by the fossil fuel industry’s own press on the likelihood of it finding oil in the area.

Hy-Brasil

Mythical Hy-Brazil in the Porcupine Basin – said to be visible once every seven years and shrouded in mist

Indeed the failure of this watery well is no surprise; it is a fundamental feature of every fossil fuel venture off the Irish coast.

Ireland – no country for oil barons

Out of around 160 wells drilled since 1962, only 2 commercial discoveries have been found. This is a record low that has existed in a country with the second most attractive fiscal terms in the world and a governing Department of “Climate Action and Environment” that has never once conducted an Environmental Impact Assessment of industry activities offshore.

Gas has been found off Kinsale in 1971, and Corrib in 1996, but they are no example to follow. Not only was there a 25 year gap between discoveries, but they resulted in reputational damage to the industry. Corrib in particular led to social and political upheaval. Corruption and a lack of concern for public or environmental safety dogged the project – finally leaving Shell with losses of €2.5bl.

The fields with the most potential have already been given out, and on extremely generous terms. Many licence periods will go as far as 2028 or 2030 – cutting it close to the zero-carbon 2050 scenarios demanded by EU and UN climate agreements. Some accounts state that under the 2011 Licencing Round, companies can hold licences for 47 years – up until the year 2058.

Our Ocean Wealth Fossil Fuels

According to Harnessing Our Ocean Wealth, Ireland’s offshore oil and gas industry offers -4.8% growth in jobs potential

The only oily thing in the Irish Atlantic is its abundance of fish. The number one reason why fossil fuel companies operating in Ireland can’t secure a business partner is because there is simply nothing there. According to the 2012 Oireachtas Committee Offshore Oil and Gas Exploration Report – which heard extensively from the Irish Offshore Operators Association (IOOA) – Ireland has a mere 4.8% overall success rate for a commercial find. The IOOA, Providence Resources and PwC have all admitted – in many representations to Oireachtas Committees and the public – that there is only a 1 in 32 chance of finding anything commercial. Compared to a 1 in 7 chance in Norway and 1 in 6 for the UK. Even the Government’s own 2012 Harnessing Our Ocean Wealth policy lists offshore oil and gas as having not only the lowest growth potential of any marine industry, but a minus growth of -4.8%.

Climate Change

Ireland’s seas are some of the most inhospitable in Europe, perfect for reclusive Skellig monks, but with major storms and difficult geology. No present fossil fuel technology can cope with such a testing environment. The technology is unlikely to ever be developed due to climate change targets.

The majority of the world’s countries (193 to be exact) agree with 97% of scientists that we need to keep global temperatures below a 1.5C or 2C degree rise to avoid catastrophic climate change. In practice, this is widely known to mean that 75 to 80% of the known fossil fuels have to stay in the ground. Ireland’s fossil fuel resources are unknown, and therefore unusable.

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In July 2018 Fossil Free TCD and others such as Trócaire and Thomas Pringle TD successfully campaigned to make Ireland the first country in the world to divest state funds from fossil fuels.

The millions that it costs to set up new fossil fuel infrastructure represent what the Bank of England calls “stranded assets”. In the past five years investment funds, public institutions and individuals have divested around US$6.15 trillion (€5.2 trillion) of fossil fuel assets and the Irish Government itself is fast-tracking Trócaire and Thomas Pringle’s Fossil Fuel Divestment Bill to divest the state pension fund from fossil fuels. Any investment in further fossil fuel infrastructure, instead of renewables, locks in reliance on a flailing industry.

Energy Security

A genuine concern stated by Government is the need for Ireland to have its own resources for reasons of energy security. However, this is naïve. Fossil fuel extraction is a privatised industry and any fuel found in Irish seas will go to the highest bidder, not to the Irish people. Gas from the Corrib gas field is brought directly ashore. However, the

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Surfers in Clare joining a nationwide protest to Keep It In The Ground after DCCAE granted exploration licences two weeks after banning fracking.

development of new technologies such as Liquified Natural Gas (LNG) means most of our fuel is likely to be immediately shipped overseas. With a growing global speculative in LNG, particularly from China who are increasingly becoming involved in exploration off the Irish coast, it is likely our resources will boost the security of supply of other countries more than our own. Ireland has one oil refinery in Whitegate, privatised in 2001, described as “small, and not sophisticated” by the industry. Planned drill sites such as the Newgrange prospect are also located 260 km off the south-west coast of Ireland. Why would companies risk another Corrib scandal by bringing anything ashore?

Most of our gas already comes from friendly neighbours in Scotland and Norway, not Russia, and we have more than enough to last us to the extent demanded by climate targets.

There is not even a wealth of taxes to be gained from the industry. Since 2013, new licences are subject to a 25% corporation tax on profits which can be written off against costs. The tax take in sub-Saharan Africa ranges from 44% to 85%. Once a field starts producing it will be subject to a Petroleum Production Tax that ranges from 5-55% depending on the field’s commerciality. This again can be written off against costs and corporation tax payments.

2015 Licensing Round Map

The most recent Licensing Round Map – from 2015

However, many oil and gas licences like the Newgrange prospect in the ecologically sensitive Porcupine Basin – or the Kish Basin near the Dun Laoghaire Forty Foot – were given out before 2013 and benefit from a historic no-tax regime set up to encourage investment in exploration. As a result, if there is an unlikely success, the millions of euro that are being poured into exploration by Providence Resources and others will undermine any Government tax bill.

Whatever paltry taxes that remain have also been undermined by Government spending to facilitate the oil and gas industry. One egregious example is the Regional Seismic Survey which was originally a “jointly funded” project between the Department of Climate Action and ENI Ireland (a fossil fuel company currently embroiled in a Nigerian human rights scandal – few surprises there). Government and industry were to share the €20 million cost of mapping the sea-floor with dangerous seismic testing. In the end, the industry gave only €3.99million to the project – though it awarded the subservient Department a 2015 Maritime Industry Award for the privilege of depleting our plankton and fish stocks.

Environmental Damage

No doubt all these arguments of ‘nothing there’ served the industry well when seeking a non-existent tax rate and countering public demands that the Irish State should own its own energy resources. An argument made in Oireachtas hearings and newspaper articles by the IOOA. But with ever increasing knowledge of the damage being done, the policy looks like expensive posturing by pin-striped suits playing JR in Dallas.
One indefensible example of this feckless machismo approach to our environment is the seismic testing that occurs in Irish waters every summer.

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Operation of seismic surveys

To map the seabed for fossil fuel deposits, sonic cannons, also known as seismic airguns, are towed behind boats creating dynamite-like blasts— repeated every ten seconds, 24 hours a day, for weeks and months at a time. At acoustic levels 100,000 times more intense than a jet engine.

As highlighted by the Irish documentaries Ireland’s Deep Atlantic and Atlantic the film, seismic testing blasts are essentially “waves of death” that cause disorientation and internal bleeding in cetaceans for distances of up to 100 miles. Causing unknown damage to the 24 species of whales, dolphins (including Fungie) and porpoises that bless Ireland’s seas with their presence.

Drilling Compared with Reefs

Overlap of fossil fuel licences and new coral reef finds: The wealth of Ireland’s waters in terms of wildlife has been brought to light by DCCAE funded programmes such as INFOMAR and ObSERVE. However these are focused on facilitating fossil fuel exploration with the Minister twice giving no guarantee drilling won’t occur in areas with high discoveries of wildlife.

New evidence from Nature Journal in 2017 shows that a single blast kills 100% of zooplankton larvae – the basis of the marine ecosystem – and 64% of adult krill for at least 0.7 miles. It destroys fundamental aspects of the ocean’s fabric. This is merely the most recent of many peer-reviewed scientific studies showing the extensive effects of seismic testing on all levels of the ocean food-chain. As long as ten years ago in 2007, the International Whaling Commission found that 250 male fin whales appeared to stop “singing” for up to several months during seismic testing.

The full damage being done is as yet unknown – the Irish Whale and Dolphin Group reported 2017 as the worst year on record for beach strandings with a 30% rise in dolphin deaths. Fewer fin and blue whales have also been recorded in the Porcupine Basin – potentially a key mating ground – since seismic testing began there in 2013.

Faced with a Department in thrall to fossil fuel industry executives, it is ordinary Irish fishing communities, many of them in Gaeltachts in Kerry and Galway, that are having to take on the role of watchdog as their fish stocks rapidly deplete (see video as Gaeilge anseo). They are calling for the Petroleum Affairs Division (PAD) to place a moratorium

Fungi,Dingle Harbour

Fungie living the high life

on seismic testing until an EIA is conducted that takes into account the cumulative effect of decades of seismic testing on the Irish ocean. Despite powers granted to do so in 2013, the PAD has never once required an Environmental Impact Assessment or a Stage 2 Appropriate Assessment to assess the oft-reported damage [Update the PAD has required an AA at Barryroe due to fear of a well blow-out, but no EIA was required despite significant risk to wildlife and fisheries from].

The National Parks and Wildlife Service has been severely defunded over the past number of years, meaning they are without the funds necessary to update their guidelines to incorporate new information on plankton – though seismic testing conducted in Ireland is likely to be the most dangerous in the world.

Moving forward

Why would Government want to allow a completely unproductive industry drill along our Wild Atlantic Way? Even if only tiny amounts of oil are found, these wells produce toxic chemicals like benzene, arsenic, and radioactive pollutants, and toxic metals like mercury and lead that may accumulate in our seafood supply. The answer may be simple, lobbying – often by former Department officials that take up roles in private

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The Department of Climate Action’s “open-door policy” for fossil fuel companies

industry once they leave the Department. A pathway charted in detail by Dr. Amanda Slevin from Queens University Belfast in her book Gas, Oil and the Irish State. This lobbying is made all the more effective by the general global shift towards selling off natural resources to private interests – a capitalist turn termed ‘extractivism’ by Naomi Klein.

Fossil fuel lobbyists are obsessed with building an image of their industry as eternally youthful – a mythical Tír na nÓg that will survive against all the evidence that their industry is dangerous, damaging and defunct. The worst irony is that today’s youth will suffer most from the short-sighted selfishness of their endeavours. We have a chance to stop this with the Climate Emergency Bill from Brid Smith which will ban all new oil and gas licences. Like Costa Rica and New Zealand let us move forward to a better, safer world.

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The campaign group Not Here, Not Anywhere protesting the exploration licence granted 8km off the Forty Foot in the Kish Basin