The European Commission has asked the Government to explain why seismic surveying currently under way off the west coast is not subject to the requirements of EU directives on environmental impact.
It has also asked the State to explain what measures are being taken to monitor and to minimise the impact of seismic surveying on whales and dolphins.
Seismic surveys conducted to map the ocean floor use airguns, comprising long submersible cannons towed behind vessels that fire shots of compressed air into the water every few seconds. The pulses penetrate the sea floor and rebound, giving results which are analysed for geological content. Explosives have been used in the past.
The commission’s environment directorate is acting on a complaint by the Irish Whale and Dolphin Group, which is concerned about the impact on marine mammals of such surveying for oil and gas.
A 2007 study for the International Whaling Commission found that 250 male fin whales appeared to stop "singing" for up to several months during a seismic survey.
Ireland is a declared whale and dolphin sanctuary, and the group maintains the State is obliged in any case to comply with the EU's environmental impact assessment (EIA) directive and habitats directive when licensing surveys.
This would ensure oil and gas firms carried out baseline whale and dolphin abundance surveys for areas which they are seeking licenses to survey and explore.
“As all development costs incurred by oil and gas exploration in Irish waters is tax-deductible, the costs of these baseline surveys will not affect company profits,” the group said.
A seismic survey licensed for the Corrib gas field last year resumed last month, and is due to last four months.
The group sent a complaint to the European Commission and to Minister for Energy Pat Rabbitte last May, pointing out that the licensing for this should have been subject to the EIA directive.
It also maintains Ireland failed to comply with the EU habitats directive in approving the survey. The group says a risk assessment for the Corrib field survey which was published by Shell E&P Ireland was “deficient” because baseline information was not collected, or requested, by the regulatory authorities.
commission informed the group it had raised the issue with the authorities here, and noted that all cetaceans (whales and dolphins) were in need of “strict protection” under the habitats directive.
It also asked the State to explain whether EIA directive requirements were applied to approval for site investigation and exploratory well drilling on the Kish Bank off the east coast.
A Department of the Environment spokesman said it had already informed the commission that Providence Resources had surrendered its foreshore licence for Kish, because elements of the directive were not transposed correctly into law in 1999 by the Government.
The Department of Energy said last week its initial understanding was that seismic surveys were not listed as an automatic requirement relating to the EIA directive. Shell E&P Ireland did not respond to a request for comment.