Good morning everyone. I hope you had a pleasant day yesterday enjoying all that the City of the Tribes has to offer, particularly in this beautiful summer weather. I would like to thank the Marine Coordination Group and the Marine Institute for inviting me to speak again at the Our Ocean Wealth Summit. It is always a pleasure to do so.
At yesterday evening's session Minister Naughten outlined the huge opportunities offered by our offshore renewable potential and the critical importance of harnessing this potential if we are to meet our 2030 climate objectives.
This morning I propose to briefly cover developments since last year's Summit on two other key marine aspects of my Departments brief - marine geoscience programmes such as INFOMAR; and offshore oil and gas exploration.
Ireland has rightly become renowned for its seabed mapping programme, an initiative that is acknowledged through the image of "The Real Map of Ireland", showing our potential offshore territory as ten times that of our onshore land. I am very proud to acknowledge the work of the seabed mapping programme, INFOMAR.
The INFOMAR Project, funded by my Department, through the Geological Survey of Ireland, is tasked with the job of mapping all of Ireland's near shore marine area. The GSI project team has carried out this work in partnership with the Marine Institute based here in Galway.
INFOMAR had another busy and successful year in 2017. In total almost 5,000 square kilometres of mapping was completed and the project remains on target to complete the coverage of all our offshore waters by 2026.
INFOMAR is also working to ensure the mapping data and expertise is put to good use. In 2017 INFOMAR staff co-ordinated and delivered the successful European & Maritime Fisheries Fund Geogenic reef survey to undertake deep-water observations in line with the Habitat Directive to monitor sensitive eco-systems off our west coast.
INFOMAR also contributes all data acquired to the International Hydrographic Organisation which seeks to map all the world's oceans by 2030.
Shipwrecks are a constant subject of public interest and to date INFOMAR has accurately mapped 364 wrecks. 171 wrecks have been positively identified dating back as far as 1797 while more than half of them are unknown. This is a valuable database allowing better protection while adding to dive tourism.
Understanding is also something we are all struggling to bring to the challenge of Climate Change, which is the most difficult long term issue facing our planet. This year I launched a new project in the area of climate change, called CHERISH, which is an EU InterReg funded initiative between Ireland and Wales. Partners include the Geological Survey and the Discovery Programme in Ireland, the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales and Aberystwyth University.
This exciting new 5 year programme will develop best practice in the recording and monitoring of our rich heritage onshore and offshore which is threatened by our changing climate and includes extensive engagement with coastal communities, the real custodians of our heritage.
Turning to oil and gas exploration.
The Energy White Paper acknowledges that oil and natural gas will remain significant elements of Ireland's energy supply in the evolution to a low carbon energy system. This is particularly the case in the medium term where the mix of non-renewables will shift away from more carbon-intensive fuels, like peat and coal, to lower-carbon fuels like natural gas. In the longer term, the intention is to replace fossil fuels with renewable energy sources.
In that transition period the on-going discovery and development of our offshore oil and natural gas resources has the potential to be very significant economic driver for Ireland as well as delivering much needed energy security.
In 2015 Ireland imported 97% of its natural gas needs. In 2017 with Corrib in production that import figure dropped to 30%.
This is particularly welcome, given the decision of the UK to leave the European Union, meaning we will no longer be directly connected energy-wise to the EU. However Corrib is peaking and will begin declining shortly. As such we need to find and develop additional resources to ensure our energy security.
The last 12 months has seen the conversion of 12 of the 14 Licensing Options awarded under the first phase of the 2015 Atlantic Margin Licensing Round to Frontier Exploration Licences. It is very positive for Ireland that the sector has given a "vote of Confidence" in the Irish Offshore. The number and capability of exploration companies involved is a welcome development and hopefully we will see an increase in drilling and the realisation of our oil and gas potential in the coming years.
Next week, the Oireachtas Committee on Communications, Climate Action and Environment, chaired by my party colleague Deputy Hildegarde Naughton will continue its pre-legislative scrutiny of a Solidarity Bill which proposes in effect to ban all offshore future oil and natural gas exploration.
Whilst no doubt well intentioned, the Bill will do nothing to reduce our use of oil or natural gas, nor will it do anything to help us meet our Climate 2020 or 2030 targets. Instead, it proposes simply to bind us to only importing our oil or natural gas needs, with consequential additional emissions because of the distances these fuels will need to travel.
As I am sure you are aware Europe is becoming increasingly reliant on imported oil and natural gas – and this will increasingly come from areas of considerable geopolitical risk.
As a Government, we would love to be in a position to say we don't need any more fossil fuels. As of today, and for some time into the future, that will simply not be the case. The world is increasingly reliant on natural gas to displace higher emission coal and to support renewables in terms of electricity generation. And whilst electric vehicles offer real potential in terms of passenger transport we will continue to need oil for aviation, marine transport and road haulage out to 2040 and possibly beyond. It is also worth noting that not all fossil fuels are combusted, with oil and gas needed for products such as petrochemicals and fertilizers.
That's why our strategy is focussed on reducing our use of fossil fuels though energy efficiency; and increasing the level of renewables for satisfying the demand that we do have.
As such the Government cannot support this Bill.
Marine industrial activities such as seismic exploration and the development and exploitation of oil and natural gas resources in Ireland's geological basins require careful management and regulation to ensure consistency with Ireland's environmental obligations.
There remains a requirement for improved knowledge with respect to protected species in Irish Waters to inform and underpin appropriate management and regulatory actions while also facilitating development where possible.
The first ObSERVE programme which commenced in 2015 is a significant acoustic and aerial data acquisition programme undertaken by my Department in partnership with the National Parks and Wildlife Service of the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht.
The Programme is designed to acquire new environmental baseline data, with the aim of filling existing protected marine mammal and bird data gaps in key offshore basins.
The final reports and data of the aerial and acoustic studies have now been received and it is clear that significant high quality environmental data has been acquired. In addition information has for the first time been gathered regarding species distribution on a seasonal basis over successive years.
The ObSERVE Aerial study recorded ten thousand sightings of seabirds representing twenty four seabird species and almost two thousand sightings of nineteen different cetacean species. The ObSERVE Acoustic study has provided real insights into the relative abundance of fin, blue, sperm, long-finned pilot whales and Sowerby's and Cuvier's beaked whales as well as dolphins.
The reports and data are currently being prepared for release to all interested parties later this year.
The publication of ObSERVE is not the end of this process but is the beginning of improved understanding of the rich diversity of marine life on the Atlantic Margin. It is intended that we would build on this knowledge and work to improve our understanding of the habitats and migratory patterns of the species found in our offshore.
On a final note. If we are to develop our marine resources we must have have an eye to the future and the continued importance of having a skilled and educated research community and workforce.
In January of this year, I was proud to launch the first ever Irish Geoscience Early Career Convention in NUI Galway. This geoscience event was organised by, and designed for early-career geoscientists. It was designed to cultivate scientific debate and foster the development of early-career geoscientists.
There is a great necessity to develop Ireland's economy on a broad and sustainable basis and I was delighted to support the need to foster and develop the next generation of geoscientists.
The event secured support from all sectors of the geoscience community and received sponsorship from my own Department.
I would like to close by congratulating all involved in the Summit and Seafest. In the space of five short years it has become the highlight of the year for all matters marine.