Cork is not a county I know well, but I can say with confidence that it isn’t a politically ‘unstable region’. I don’t go to Scotland much either, but again, I know it’s not one of the notoriously volatile parts of the world. So why do politicians and commentators keep insisting that Ireland’s gas is sourced from “volatile regions”, when in fact it comes from the North Sea and Kinsale?
For example, writing in The Irish Times on September 8th, 2005, then Minister for energy and natural resources Noel Dempsey stated: “Our natural gas is imported through Britain from some of the most unstable regions in the world. In these circumstances only the most extreme ideologue would argue that we should not explore for nor exploit these resources.”
The Rossport Five were in prison at the time. Dempsey, whose ministerial portfolio included the Corrib Gas project, was stressing the urgent need to bring new gas ashore as supplies from Kinsale dwindled.
Dempsey was articulating a myth that was – and still is – widely held. Debates about “security of supply” in Ireland frequently feature references to the “pipeline from Russia”. We must get the gas ashore quickly, the argument goes, as the Russians or Ukrainians might turn off the taps at at any moment.
Back in reality, not a single cubic foot of Ireland’s domestic gas supply is sourced in eastern Europe. Around 95% of our gas comes via Scotland from Norwegian gas fields in the North Sea. The remainder comes ashore in Co Cork from the Kinsale and related gas fields. Is a diplomatic row between Scotland and Ireland likely? Or between Cork and the rest of Ireland?
The facts are spelled out clearly on the Bord Gais website:
“Ireland’s imported natural gas supplies are sourced from the North Sea. The possibility of gas supplies to Ireland from these sources being restricted is very remote.”
However, there is a security of supply issue, albeit a minor one. All of that imported gas does reach us through one pipeline in Scotland. There is a tiny risk that transmission through this pipeline could be interrupted due to damage to this onshore pipeline. There is a “very low probability” of this, according to John FitzGerald of the ESRI (Review of Irish Energy Policy, April 2011).
The supply splits into two interconnector pipelines under the Irish Sea both to the Republic. A third pipeline brings gas from Scotland to Northern Ireland. An onshore pipeline could be fixed much more quickly than an undersea pipeline.
The real problem in relation to security of supply in Ireland is that exploration in Irish waters (or indeed onshore) will not improve our security of supply. Our licensing terms do not require companies who find oil or gas in our waters to supply the Irish market. They are not even obliged to land it in Ireland.
Economist Colm Rapple wrote on July 1st, 2007: “They are not even required to land it in Ireland if it doesn’t suit them and in the case of a small oil find it could make financial sense to simply pump the oil up to waiting super tankers for shipment to refineries in Britain or elsewhere.”
To spell this out in simple terms: Ireland’s licensing terms for oil and gas exploration, which remain largely unchanged since they were introduced by Ray Burke and Bertie Ahern two decades ago, serve to weaken Ireland’s security of gas and oil supply, not strengthen it.