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Energy Bill 2016 [Seanad]: Second Stage (Resumed) (Continued)

Wednesday, 29 June 2016

Dáil Éireann Debate
Vol. 915 No. 3

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(Speaker Continuing)

[Deputy Anne Rabbitte: Information on Anne Rabbitte Zoom on Anne Rabbitte] Flooding on the River Shannon has caused hardship for families and businesses and prevented infrastructure from operating for many months. I know of homes in Roscommon in the Minister's constituency which are still flooded. The impact is still being felt on the Shannon Callows, in Meelick and Portumna. The ESB should be allowed to lower the level of the River Shannon in September each year. This preventative measure would not affect people in Parteen or elsewhere and would alleviate the current crisis until the works being done by the Office of Public Works are completed and the recommendations of the CFRAM study implemented. It would also have significant benefits from an energy point of view and in terms of local authority manpower and the use of the emergency services. Furthermore, people would no longer worry about the possibility of waking up at night with 12 in. of water in their homes.

This is a good Bill. Any measure that supports consumers, for whom we advocate, and helps them to reduce costs is good. I wish the Minister well.

Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources (Deputy Denis Naughten): Information on Denis Naughten Zoom on Denis Naughten I welcome the opportunity to respond to some of the issues raised. Before doing so, I thank all Deputies who contributed to the debate in recent days. While some speakers were critical of my Department and questioned its policies, all of them took a constructive approach and I appreciate the general support expressed for the Bill. The number of Deputies who contributed demonstrates the importance and relevance of the issue of energy. While the Bill is technical in nature and does not deal with many of the broader issues raised, it is important to have a debate on energy.

As I stated previously, the Bill has been designed to revise, consolidate, update and expand existing energy legislation in a number of specific and well defined areas. Given this intention, the Bill does not set out to revise or recast the energy regulatory framework in an all-embracing or comprehensive manner. It is perhaps worthwhile restating the three main objectives of the Bill. The first is to establish a new administrative sanctions regime for the Commission for Energy Regulation. The second is to make a change to the legal definition of the all-island wholesale electricity market, the single electricity market known as SEM. The final objective is to rename the Commission for Energy Regulation as the Commission for the Regulation of Utilities or CRU. Consideration of whether wider and more comprehensive reform is required will be addressed in the review of the legal and institutional framework for the regulation of electricity and natural gas markets, including the CER's mandate. The review is the subject of a specific commitment in the White Paper. A much broader debate will take place - I hope later this year - not only on energy but also on the climate change and climate action agenda. I hope Deputies will contribute to that debate and discuss some of the policy issues they have raised in this discussion.

The support of Members for the provisions of the Bill are welcome and I look forward to its early consideration on Committee Stage. I advise the House, as I did at the start of Second Stage, that I propose to introduce a number of amendments on Committee Stage. In this regard, I intend to introduce some further minor amendments to the Electricity Regulation Act 1999 and the Gas (Interim) (Regulation) Act 2002. I ask members of the select committee to table amendments they may have as quickly as possible to allow them to be given full and fair consideration. I am anxious to take amendments from Opposition Deputies, where possible, and will consider all amendments with an open mind. If the Deputies opposite have thoughts on what should be the title of the new utility regulator, I ask them to contact me with their views on the issue. The overall objective is to progress the Bill to the Statute Book as efficiently and collaboratively as possible and I look forward to constructive engagement in that process.

A significant number of issues were raised by Deputies. I will comment on some but not all of them, although my officials and I have taken note of each of them.

Deputy Sean Sherlock referred to the need for engagement with the buyer of the Whitegate refinery site. I am willing to do this. The Deputy asked if the Department would explore possible opportunities following the sale, which is an ongoing process. We will examine the issue. My officials have been in contact with the current owners on numerous occasions and are available to the current owners or any prospective purchaser to provide clarification in the short term.

A number of Deputies asked what implications the United Kingdom leaving the European Union would have for the energy sector. While Brexit has significant implications for it, we do not believe it will have an impact on the all-Ireland electricity market. We want a united Ireland when it comes to electricity provision, as I am sure do all Deputies. While aspects of this issue are being moved on for European regulation purposes and forthcoming directives, the all-Ireland electricity market is the subject of an agreement between Ireland and the United Kingdom. This agreement stands and will remain in place. It is our intention to try to support it every way possible. Nevertheless, certain issues will arise as a result of Brexit, one of which relates to oil reserves. Ireland is supposed to have 90 days of oil reserves available. Approximately 20% of our reserves are held in the United Kingdom and EU rules prescribe that these reserves must be held in member states. If the United Kingdom proceeds with negotiations to leave the European Union, it would mean that some of our reserves will be held outside the European Union. Issues of this nature will need to be addressed.

While no issues arise for the energy sector in the short term, challenges will arise in the medium term and we will need to clarify the position on these matters. It is in the interests of everyone on these islands and in continental Europe that these islands achieve unity and a single purpose in the area of energy. Ireland is 85% dependent on energy imports, a large proportion of which are transported via the United Kingdom. The European Union as a whole is also dependent on imports from outside its borders and geopolitical issues on its eastern borders have caused problems. The current political instability in the United Kingdom will not be an issue in the medium to long term. It is important to maintain the good relationship we enjoy with the United Kingdom, which has never been stronger. My first bilateral meeting as Minister was with Lord Bourne, the UK Energy Minister. We will maintain our good relations with Britain and my officials will work closely with their colleagues in Northern Ireland and elsewhere in the United Kingdom. As recently as today, the Secretary General of my Department was in contact with his Northern Ireland counterpart and such contacts will continue. It is important for Ireland, the United Kingdom and the European Union that this connectivity is maintained.

The regulation of water services was one of the main issues raised by Deputies. This legislation does not deal with that issue but merely clarifies current law in this area.

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