24/06/15 Senator Daly speaks on The Petroleum (Exploration and Extraction) Safety Bill 2015

Senator Daly: I welcome the Minister of State to the House and I welcome the delayed Bill to the Seanad. As the Minister of State will be aware only 2% of the laws made in this country every year actually come before the Dáil and Seanad. Most of the laws that come into effect in Ireland are EU directives, EU regulations or statutory instruments, signed by Ministers directly into Irish law and they never receive the scrutiny they deserve. This is one of the few occasions when a directive has to come to the Houses of the Oireachtas to be scrutinised before being passed. However, as we see, we have less than four weeks to do it even though the directive started out in 2013.

The Government and previous Governments have failed to put in place systems in this House, meaning that directives from Europe, many of which are excellent and much needed, are only dealt with at the last minute and do not receive the scrutiny they require. In 2009 there were 47 Acts of the Oireachtas yet there were more than 1,200 EU regulations, 547 EU directives and nearly 600 statutory instruments. The legislators only looked after 47 Acts and the rest were done by Ministers and civil servants.

The Bill is to be welcomed. In light of the disaster in the Gulf of Mexico where nearly 8,000 barrels a day, which is nearly 100,000 l, disappeared in the first 24 hours, increasing to 6 million l per day at the height of the disaster, obviously it is very important to have legislation of this nature. With the estimated 10 billion barrels, 1 trillion l, in oil and gas reserves off the Irish coast, having a proper safety and regulatory system is important.

The Minister of State outlined the Bill excellently. When industry welcomes a Bill introducing safety regulation, we should be concerned. While the Minister of State has said there is no cost to the Exchequer, was any regulatory impact assessment carried out? The programme for Government promised that the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform would carry out regulatory impact assessments for Bills such as this. Obviously, we do not want to put an undue burden on oil and gas industries or suppliers, but it is important to know what the regulatory impact assessment would be.

I have concern over the decommissioning of oil and gas platforms. It is great for the taxpayer that we would get the revenue from it. However, if a company decides to fold its tent and close up its operations in Ireland, there is no entity to chase for the decommissioning of the platform. In fact all the money we might have got from the taxation and the levies applied on the industry would then be spent on decommissioning oil and gas platforms.

I believe the Minister of State will also be concerned that certain sections of the Bill refer to a maximum amount of money to be applied in fines. The term “as low as is reasonably practicable” is very much open to interpretation. I know they are talking about best practice, but I am sure other jurisdictions would have a definition of what is “as low as is reasonably practicable” regarding the prevention of major accidents offshore.

We do not have much time. I know this is a bit like Committee Stage. We will ram through Committee Stage and I do not blame the Minister of State for that; it is just the way the Bill has come in. Section 8 deals with safety case guidelines. It refers to “the appropriate technical principles and specifications relating to… decommissioning of… infrastructure”. Should a bond not be put in place whereby as the Department gives out a licence it also asks the company to put a bond in place so that if it goes to the wall at least we would be able to get the money from the bondholder to decommission the infrastructure? The concern is that that would be a massive cost on the taxpayer into the future.

I am concerned about the lack of sanction over not carrying out requirements by the new authority and also about a limit on the fines. One of the sections refers to “on conviction on indictment, to a fine not exceeding €3,000,000”. I do not know why we would limit an oil company to a fine not exceeding €3 million. The cost of the clean-up for the Gulf of Mexico disaster has now reached €14 billion and it has still not finished. Every now and again BP issues an announcement that the clean-up is finished and then the US Coast Guard states it is not done and there is still more clean-up being done.

Section 15 deals with a reportable petroleum incident. This is why I highlighted the first 24 hours in the Deepwater Horizon disaster. The Bill refers to the requirement for “information and particulars as may be prescribed by the Commission, without delay, and no later than 24 hours after taking those measures”. That relates to the reporting of an incident. One of the issues with the Deepwater Horizon incident was that it was not reported early. The fact that it went on for years was obviously a huge issue. Section 15(2) states that they do have to report anything within 24 hours and make the State aware. Failure to do this incurs a fine of €1 million. One would hope they would do it. These companies deal in trillions and we are imposing an on-the-spot fine that is equivalent to a parking fine for some of them.

The Minister of State spoke about the issues of transparency. The Bill provides that: “The Commission may, with the consent of the Minister, publish a non-confidential version of the reports.” However, there are also confidential versions, which would lead to a lack of transparency.

Obviously, I am concerned over the limited amount of time we have – we had two years to do this and we are doing it in four weeks. This has happened before and I have spoken many times in this House about the lack of process when it comes to what is essentially a good directive. I am not giving out about the concept of the directive, but we are missing opportunities, one of the most important of which is consequences for the operators not doing what they should do.

We talk about the safety measures required, including fire tenders and other equipment, but do we actually have that in place? How many fire brigades would be required? Obviously, because it is mostly offshore, we will need boats that can deal with incidents at sea. The fire services are provided by the local authorities and do not have these boats hanging around the place. How many do we have? How many are required? If there is an incident and we do not have the equipment, whose fault is it? To bring it in from the Gulf of Mexico or the North Sea would take days. Those are the lessons that should have been learned from the Gulf of Mexico disaster – the equipment was not deployed in time.

I wanted to make those points. I know we are supposed to be discussing the generality of the Bill, but in reality we do not have much time to get this right.Donegal and Kerry could be badly affected by oil rigs just sitting there, which has happened in California and other places because there is an issue around who is going to pay for them to disappear. We should have a bond system in place on which the Government at least would be able to call in the event of a company no longer being in existence, as that would mean there would be money to pay for the decommissioning of such rigs.

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