Oil exploration to end but not gas, confirms Taoiseach

Published by Niall Sargent on

September 23rd, 2019

The Taoiseach has said that the Government plans to phase out oil exploration in Irish waters and that gas exploration will continue.

Speaking in New York ahead of a special UN Summit on climate action, Leo Varadkar said that Ireland will become one of the first countries to phase out exploration in a bid to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050.  

The Taoiseach’s announcement comes on the back of advice received from the Climate Change Advisory Council (CCAC).

The State will, however, continue to explore for natural gas – a “transition fuel” that Mr Varadkar said is required over the next few decades as “new technologies are developed and deployed”.

People Before Profit’s Bríd Smith said that the Taoiseach’s announcement is “too little, too late” as the Government has already issued licences that will allow exploration for at least another 15 years.

There is no indication as of yet if any ban on oil exploration will include a moratorium on around 40 existing exploration licences, some of which allow drilling until 2034.

Ms Smith, whose Bill to ban offshore oil and gas exploration was blocked by the Government on multiple occasions, said that the failure to also ban gas exploration “exposes the absolute double standards of this Government”.

“Within weeks they will support the building of Liquefied Natural Gas Terminals (LNGs) in Ireland and Europe that will use fracked gas from North America,” she said, referencing the inclusion of Shannon LNG in the State’s candidate list of energy projects for access to EU funding.

“The boom in fracked gas has caused a spike in methane emissions and is many times more potent as a greenhouse gas than CO2,” Ms Smith added.

Climate council advice

The CCAC advised that burning known reserves of coal, oil and natural gas will “result in warming well in excess of 2° C”, the line in the sand by which world leaders have agreed to limit average global temperature rise.

The Council, however, only advised that the exploration of offshore oil reserves was not compatible with a low carbon transition. Natural gas, it said, is an “important transition fuel”.

The discovery of new gas reserves, it said, could lead to “improve energy security, lower energy costs and facilitate reductions in greenhouse gas emissions” as we progress toward a low-carbon society by mid-century.

Gas exploration should be allowed to continue, the CCAC states, “contingent on the associated deployment of decarbonisation technologies” such as carbon capture and storage systems that have yet to be discovered or developed to date.

The Council said it will keep the issue of gas under review, with Friends of the Earth Ireland stating that it should publish the evidence and research behind its gas judgement “as their conclusion doesn’t square with the research and evidence we are seeing”.

“Ireland is still running the risk of carbon lock-in by not phasing out gas exploration now also. There is no room for gas in the European energy system beyond 2035 so there is no justification for bringing any new gas into production,” the group said.

Bridge to nowhere 

A report released earlier this year by Oil Change International stressed that gas is not a viable bridge between fossil fuels and renewables, nor is it clean, inexpensive, or necessary.

The international energy think tank said that the gas is instead a “bridge to climate disaster” and that the development of untapped gas reserves is inconsistent with the Paris Agreement.

Even if methane leakage from gas extraction is kept to a minimum, the report states, relying on gas reserves will not cut emissions “by nearly enough” to halt global temperature rise.

Methane – highly potent when released into the atmosphere – is prone to leakage throughout the gas supply chain. It is estimated that the warming effect of methane is 84 to 87 times greater than that of carbon dioxide over a 20 year period.

Reacting to the decision, Extinction Rebellion Ireland said that it is “deeply disappointing” that the Taoiseach chooses to “promote this dangerous myth” that gas is a transition fuel as we face a climate and ecological emergency.

Not Here Not Anywhere, a campaign group opposed to offshore exploration, said that the endorsement of continued gas exploration is a “huge misstep”.

“In the fight for a fossil fuel-free future, gas is the real enemy,” the group said, adding that some gas, such as that released via fracking, has “more than twice the greenhouse gas footprint of coal”.

“We just need the political will to go fossil-free, and real leadership from our Government on climate action, not this carefully times piecemeal gesture.”

No cheque in the post

It is expected that Mr Varadkar will also announce this evening that revenue raised from future increases in the carbon tax will be ring-fenced for climate action such as retrofitting schemes and to fund a just transition away from fossil fuel use.

The carbon tax applies to kerosene, marked gas oil, liquid petroleum gas, fuel oil, natural gas, and solid fuels. It is currently fixed at €20 per tonne and is expected to rise by up to €10 in the next Budget. The Government has said that it will rise to €80 by 2030.

A recent study from the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) found that emissions could drop by 10 per cent if the tax is set at €80 due to expected behavioural changes made by households in response to the tax.

The Taoiseach is expected to rule out a ‘fee and dividend’ system where revenue raised by the tax is returned to citizens through a cheque in the post.

In a statement this afternoon, the Green Party outlined its apprehension about the Government approach to the tax, stating that a ‘fee and dividend’ model is far more “socially progressive”.

“Fine Gael seem to be changing their position to support ringfencing of the revenues for climate action but have not shown how it will work,” the Greens said.

“If they use it for grant supports it will only benefit the better off in our society. We have to make sure this is a just transition where we deliver social justice and ecological justice at the same time.”

Speaking recently, Barra Roantree of the ESRI said that the current carbon tax model is regressive as lower-earning households spend a greater proportion of their income on the tax.

According to ESRI research, he said, returning revenues to households in a manner that targets poorer households could reduce income inequality by up to 2.8 per cent.

The ESRI has developed four potential fee and dividend models that would alleviate against impacts on households, namely a simple cheque in the post, an increase in income tax credits, an increase in rates of social welfare payments, or a combined increase in tax credits and welfare payments.

All proposals except for an increase in income tax credits would leave lower-income households better off, Mr Roantree said.

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Niall Sargent

Niall is the Editor of The Green News. He is a multimedia journalist, with an MA in Investigative Journalism from City University, London