Ireland’s track record when it comes to commercial oil and gas discoveries is not a good one. In the course of more than half a century of exploration, some 160 wells have yielded just two gas fields – Corrib and Kinsale Head.
Despite this history, UCD geology professor Pat Shannon is determinedly optimistic when it comes to the chances of an imminent oil find off Ireland's west coast. This is hardly surprising from the chairman of the Irish Offshore Operators Association (IOOA), but he does marshal some quite compelling arguments in support of his case.
In the first instance, he argues that there have actually been more than two commercial finds. “There has been a bit more than just two,” he says. “There was a family of gas fields off Kinsale, including the Seven Heads field and Ballycotton. And then we had Corrib in the Slyne Basin. There have been about 11 other wells that encountered significant deposits of oil or gas. These include the BP oil find off Connemara in 1979, the Spanish Point gas find, and a scattering of other interesting wells but none of them have proved commercial.”
He is not discouraged by this, far from it. "What that would say to me is that most of the ingredients are there. It's just a question of putting the pieces of the jigsaw together. Ireland has had 160 wells while the UK has had 4,000, Norway 2,000, and Canada has had many hundreds. Ireland is certainly under-explored, particularly along the Atlantic Margin. Even though we have been exploring for 50 years now the pace has been relatively slow. The Porcupine Basin is relatively large but there have only been 32 exploration and appraisal wells drilled there – that's less than one a year since 1977. Of them, a significant number were in the 26/28 block at Connemara around the BP discovery."
According to Shannon, this relative under-exploration has as much to do with geography as geology. The deep and wild Atlantic waters off Ireland’s west coast made for an inhospitable exploration environment. “When a great big wave starts off Canada it comes all the way across to Ireland,” he notes. “Also, until relatively recently we didn’t have much good quality seismic data. It won’t find oil for you but it will give you an image of what the structures are like under the sea bed. We now have large tranches of the west coast covered by good quality seismic data. The data used to be like very frosted glass but it’s now much clearer and this helps to de-risk the exploration investment.”
He is also encouraged by a change in thinking. “We have been learning from eastern Canada, which does bear some geologic comparison with Ireland. For 20 to 30 years we looked to locations like the North Sea for comparisons and analogues. Of late, we realised that a better analogue is eastern Canada. This is quite encouraging.”
The presence of major players such as ExxonMobil, Statoil, Eni, BP and Woodside Petroleum among licence and option holders is another positive factor, he believes. "We haven't had a critical mass of companies here up until now. You get a snowball effect of shared experience and ideas with a critical mass. You also get a herd instinct which draws other companies in who are afraid of missing out. Quite a number of stars are aligning for Ireland. All of the ingredients seem to be there now. I would be surprised and slightly disappointed if there isn't a commercial discovery in the coming years. We need a number of wells to be drilled and a bit of luck, you always need a bit of luck."