The Cabinet has killed off a Bill aimed at banning oil and gas exploration in Irish waters, fearing an increase in dependence on imported fuels, a related rise in carbon emissions and costly legal actions from drilling companies.
The Climate Emergency Bill, proposed by People Before Profit TD Bríd Smith, was passed by majority vote twice in the Dáil. It would have made Ireland the fifth country in the world to ban oil and gas exploration by halting the issuing of new licences. The Bill won international support, including from singer Cher.
As the Bill potentially entailed use of public money, Minister for Climate Action Richard Bruton on Thursday recommended what is known as a "money message" under Dáil Standing Orders. This can be used to halt legislation as it adds to public spending.
His order was based on an opinion supplied to the Government which is understood to argue that the State would face significant financial risks as a result of the Bill.
The Cabinet heard this would arise from potential obligations to existing holders of drilling authorisations, as well as refunding application and other fees, and the potential of costly legal payouts if authorisation holders challenged the decision in the courts, which was considered likely. Loss of tax revenue arising from drilling and exploitation of gas was also a factor in the decision.
The opinion argues the Bill would not reduce Ireland’s carbon emissions but rather ensure the State would import all its fossil fuels as it transitions to a low-carbon economy, other than those sourced from the Corrib gas field which is expected to be exhausted by 2030.
However, the advice said that as Ireland decarbonises a decision on ceasing exploration would be needed at some point. The opinion criticises the Bill’s failure to carry out a regulatory impact assessment and argues that it gives no consideration to Brexit, which will reduce Ireland’s gas and electricity interconnection to the EU.
Ms Smith said the Government’s “perceived concern for climate change is exposed as pure greenwashing”. It had “no credibility when it comes to the climate emergency we face”.
"We have to take radical action and keep fossil fuels in the ground," she said. "Fine Gael has killed off my Bill...They have demonstrated they are totally beholden to the fossil fuel industry."
Friends of the Earth described Taoiseach Leo Varadkar as a "climate vandal" and "a hitman for the fossil fuel industry" because of his use of an arcane parliamentary procedure to prevent further debate on the Bill.
“There’s only one group of people celebrating the Government’s decision... that’s the fossil fuel industry, who pour hundreds of millions of euro into lobbying to keep their profits flowing. And it’s paid off here,” said its spokesman Oisín Coghlan. “Leo Varadkar and his Government faced a simple choice between the past and the future, and they chose to cling to the past and forsake our common future.”
Protecting the industry
Development agency Trócaire said it was dismayed by the decision which indicated “the Cabinet has opted to protect an industry that has contributed disproportionately to global emissions, causing poverty and hunger to spiral”.
The Irish Offshore Operators’ Association (IOOA) said the Government had taken an important step to ensure Ireland’s energy security, protect the environment and create jobs, by allowing gas and oil exploration to continue.
“There is no realistic scenario under which gas and oil will not be required to contribute a major part of Ireland’s energy supply in the short to medium term,” it said.