Minister for Environment Eamon Ryan published a long-awaited review of energy security on Monday last, prepared by the London consultancy firm CEPA.
The publication followed the article Minister Ryan wrote for the Sunday Independent in which he reiterated the Government’s opposition to two measures which have been advocated as medium-term solutions to the inadequacy of gas supply.
Inadequate gas also threatens electricity shortfalls since about half of Ireland’s electricity is generated from gas.
Gas dependency could even rise further given the slow rollout of renewables, the unreliability of some older fossil fuel generation units and the growing demand from data centres and other sources.
The two medium-term measures are the construction of a terminal to import liquefied natural gas (LNG), to supplement gas currently supplied from the dwindling Corrib field off Co Mayo and through pipelines from Scotland, and the encouragement of exploration for new domestic gas-fields.
The CEPA report is unenthusiastic about these two measures, in contrast to policy actions around Europe where almost all governments have been pushing ahead with new LNG terminals and several have begun to encourage exploration once again.
The CEPA report was delayed in order to address issues arising from the war in Ukraine but unfortunately missed the about-turn in EU energy policy which European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen announced at the European Parliament last Tuesday.
The details have yet to be worked out but it appears that the European market rules for gas and electricity will be comprehensively re-written and the modelling in the CEPA report is built around the pre-existing regime.
It considers a wide range of options for mitigating supply security risks in the years ahead but the estimates of their impact will have to be re-worked when the new European market structures emerge.
The CEPA authors endorse Minister Ryan’s reluctance to permit a new LNG importation terminal on the grounds that some of the gas likely to be imported would be fracked, that is, recovered using a technique called hydraulic fracturing, which has enabled a boom in gas production from shale deposits in the US and elsewhere.
The technique has been controversial, with concerns about the escape of fugitive gas, earth tremors and damage to watercourses. There is no fracking permitted in Ireland (nor are new exploration licences of any kind) and there has been a fracking moratorium onshore in the UK since 2019.
This has recently been lifted by the new prime minister Liz Truss and hydraulic fracturing has long been a feature in the North Sea.
The minister will further be aware that Ireland imports around 75% of its gas from Britain which has several LNG terminals which import fracked gas. Since molecules of methane do not carry identity papers, it is not possible to know what percentage of Ireland’s gas imports are fracked, but it is certainly not zero.
Ireland’s electricity imports from Britain must include a portion of nuclear power too, since electrons are also anonymous, and a new interconnector is planned with France, which perforce will deliver nuclear electricity.
CEPA goes on to rule out exploration ... perhaps in the vicinity of the existing subsea Corrib platform, where €3.6bn of infrastructure is in place
The status of Ireland as a non-nuclear, anti-fracking, citadel of virtue is an affectation and it is surprising that CEPA has chosen to feed the illusion that foregoing an LNG terminal keeps the virtue intact.
In any event, the promoters of the LNG terminal on the Shannon estuary have indicated a willingness to source LNG only from virtuous countries like Mexico, where fracking is not employed. To be crystal clear, when you switch on the gas tomorrow, or plug in the washing machine, you will be using some proportion of fracked gas and of nuclear electricity.
CEPA goes on to rule out exploration, using legacy licences, for any additional gas that might be located, perhaps in the vicinity of the existing subsea Corrib platform, where €3.6bn of infrastructure is in place, along with onshore gas pipelines, built and paid for and likely to be idle, well before the end of useful asset life, within a short few years.
The reasons given are: ‘additional domestic production of natural gas above forecasted demand could lock Ireland into a high-gas energy market’ and that ‘the volume of any potential additional natural gas discoveries cannot be known’.
Since gas-fields rarely prove to last more than a couple of decades (output from Corrib commenced in 2015 and is already in decline) the first objection is debatable – Ireland will need gas as far out as 2050, not least to back-up intermittent renewables, even if nuclear is eventually permitted.
Of course, the volume of potential discoveries is unknown – that’s why it’s called exploration. From the Government’s point of view, who cares if some explorers, using their own money, come up empty? The CEPA report, now out for public consultation, is hardly the last word on energy security.