Mandy Johnston, Chief Executive Officer, Irish Offshore Operators’ Operation writes for the Sunday Business Post (28th July 2019).

Discussion of the recent demise of the Climate Emergency Measures Bill, proposed by People Before Profit, could lead people to believe that that Bill sought to address the choice between using gas and oil or renewable energy.  It didn’t.

The Bill would have stopped offshore exploration licences from being granted in Ireland.  It has now fallen, because the Government would not give it a “money message” – basically permission to proceed to become law despite imposing costs on the Exchequer.

This Bill is no loss to the drive to reduce carbon emissions.  It would not have accelerated the move to renewables. Indeed, even the oil and gas industry believe we must constantly strive to increase the proportion of Ireland’s energy supply that comes from renewable sources.

Mandy Johnston, CEO of the Irish Offshore Operators’ Association

Ireland’s energy white paper sets the ambition that emissions from the energy sector will be reduced by between 80% and 95% by 2050, compared to 1990 levels. The reduction will require a significant increase in the share of renewables in primary energy supply. However, even in this low-carbon energy scenario, oil and gas will account for 24% to 48% of Ireland’s primary energy supply in 2050.

Our dependency may reduce, but there is no option available allowing us not to still be using oil and gas in 2050.  The only choice is whether we use those produced off Ireland’s shores, or whether we import them instead.  The People Before Profit Bill therefore would have done nothing to promote the greater use of renewable energy in Ireland.

However, it did threaten Ireland’s energy security.  The attempt to stop the search for new energy resources offshore wilfully ignored the fact that importing oil and gas would increase our carbon footprint.  It ignored facts, such as that as recently as last Sunday wind was providing 0.6% of Ireland’s electricity.

Also ignored is the fact that the only other European country with an offshore exploration ban has a huge nuclear industry.

Conventional energy sources remain of key strategic importance.  Natural gas represents 30% of our primary energy mix.  Yes, we have made progress in developing renewable sources and they offer great potential to provide new, indigenous energy.  Renewables made up over 10% of gross final energy consumption in 2017, and almost a third of electricity used came from renewables.  That proportion is growing all the time.

But today’s reality is that 52% of Ireland’s electricity remains powered by natural gas. While renewables continue to grow, they remain an uncertain energy source.  Last Sunday was not an isolated incident: In the Summer of 2018 for example, wind generation sometimes fulfilled less than one per cent of total electricity demand.  At times gas was supplying over 90% of our power. So, while wind is an excellent energy source, it needs a backup.  Natural gas is the cleanest option in this regard.

Even with the Corrib and Kinsale gas fields, Ireland currently imports nearly 50% of its gas and this arrives to Ireland via the UK. As for oil, we rely 100% on imports to provide our needs. When oil and gas are imported, carbon emission levels are increased – due primarily to transportation and, in the case of hydrocarbons from outside Europe, due to less efficient production systems.

If the Bill had been passed, the gas and oil off our coasts which would not be used as a result would not have been replaced by renewable energy.  It would have been replaced by imports. This is a bad idea at the best of times. But with Brexit continuing to come at us with unknown consequences it seems the height of folly.

How to ensure energy security while at the same time protecting the environment and the Irish economy in an uncertain world is a welcome debate which must continue. Such a debate needs to give a far greater regard to real science, evidence and facts.  Against the backdrop of an increasing awareness of climate change and environmental issues we are frequently bamboozled by rhetoric and blinded by erroneous scientific statistic from campaigners who would have us believe that their proposals are completely without consequence.

The myth most frequently peddled in the Dáil chamber and over the airwaves during the debate on this Bill is the false claim that experts believe 80% of fossil fuels should be left in the ground. This is a misrepresentation of a 2015 report by Christophe Mc Glade & Paul Ekins. What the report actually says is that a third of oil reserves, half of gas reserves and 80% of coal reserves should remain unused. The report gives regional recommendations, just 1% of the oil to be kept in the ground is in Europe and just 0.3% of the total global gas to be kept is in Europe.

Although the legislation to ban gas and oil exploration in Ireland has fallen, the myths surrounding the issue need to be questioned and put under scrutiny so that we can have a sensible discussion on how we as a country meet the challenges ahead.

Mandy Johnston is Chief Executive of the Irish offshore Operators’ Association

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