Matthew Collins, the Assistant Secretary leading the Government’s Natural Resources Function, sheds some light on how we can make the transition from fossil fuel dependency to a cleaner, more renewable future.
Transforming energy in Ireland
Discussing the “energy trilemma” faced by governments across Europe and further afield, Collins highlights accessibility and affordability, environmental sustainability and security (a mix of sources and reliability) as the key foundations of his analysis of Ireland’s transitioning energy system.
Collins highlights that exploration policy comes as part of the Department’s overall strategy on energy. “It’s not just a policy for the sake of having a policy. It’s about sustainability, affordability and security issues,” he says, giving an impression of the challenges currently faced by the Government.
Indeed, whilst Collins admits that much current policy focuses on energy efficiency, he explains that these factors must be effectively balanced in terms of ensuring economic development, affordability and the competitiveness of the energy sector. “Having an adequate mix in our portfolio of energy resources is also of high importance,” he adds.
The security context and the environmental sustainability policy was set out in 2015 as part of a government white paper on energy. In that policy, Collins explains, it was determined that fossil fuel sources will play an important, albeit shrinking role in Ireland’s energy mix of the future. “The question that Ireland and other European states are asking is, how do we move from an established fossil fuel dominated energy system towards a system that is able to meet the three requirements by the time 2050 arrives.”
Exploration and discovery
“It’s important to recognise that Ireland doesn’t invest directly in the offshore sector. So, as a result, all investors carry the investment risk of all exploration opportunities – meaning Ireland plays more of a regulatory and influential role in Irish waters.”
Ireland’s regulatory role in exploration is highlighted as a benefit to his department, and the country as a whole: “This means we have spent considerable time developing data and knowledge of the offshore sector in Ireland.”
He draws attention to a model that shows a not-too distant past with an energy sector totally dominated by fossil fuels. “The important thing to remember is that the energy sector effectively feeds into all of the sectors of Ireland, both as an input and as an output. Both sides will certainly influence policy. Whilst we can see a growth in the renewable sector, oil and gas are still, however, the dominant energy sources.”
Whilst the objectives set out by the Department are clearly outlined, the Assistant Secretary highlights the risks faced during energy transition – including historical dependencies on other neighbour states. “The risk Ireland must bear in mind is its import dependency. We are 100 per cent dependent on oil imports – our gas imports dependency is also significant. In 2015 we were importing 97 per cent of our gas requirement. This is a concern that we must balance and trade off with the other energy requirements.”
None as are aware of the approaching Paris deadlines than Collins and other civil servants across Europe who are committed to tackling carbon emissions. “Looking towards the middle of the century, this is a business as usual scenario. In the long-term, we are looking at a scenario where we see an 80 per cent reduction in emissions from the energy sector in line with the white paper. It gives us the impression that there is a significant increase in terms of indigenous sources and renewable sources,” he explains. “But it also gives us the impression that oil and gas will continue to play a significant role, creating a much more diversified energy mix and therefore greater affordability and sustainability as we approach the future.”
Ireland the island: risks to consider
Ireland’s geographical status as an island is highlighted as a natural risk regarding exploration, discovery and the development of future energy strategies. “Ireland’s place as an island significantly limits us in terms of infrastructure and how well we can network within the European energy system. So, in terms of our gas imports we are dependent on one single point of access through the UK. This is the reality that we must live with.”
Collins outlines the changing context in which Ireland builds its current and future energy policies. “In terms of the immediate future, Kinsale and related carbon fields will be decommissioned over the next few years, meaning that Ireland will have, at that point, only one gas producing field, something that must be considered when discussing security and the State’s ability to effectively and efficiently provide energy.”
“Our role is to ensure that activities and operations are carried out in an appropriate manner, which are safe and meet environmental requirements, whilst also meeting our own technological requirements. We also promote the sector and provide general assistance and the building of knowledge.”
It is the “building of knowledge” within Ireland’s offshore sector which forms much of the focus of Collin’s discussion. Indeed, the Department regularly encourages and participates in research, working on an international basis with Canada and other European states. It is the participation in the celebrated OBSERVE program, however, which holds a place of pride in the minds of Collins and his colleagues. “This program allowed us to assess to and to establish a baseline of understanding for marine habitats, helping us to better scrutinise offshore activities and the direction of future investment. It is one of the largest environmental, marine and seabird surveys that has been done anywhere,” he explains. “It has provided vast amounts of data, and will be recognised as a landmark project, providing information and guidance on investment and litigation measures that must be taken in the future.
“We have gone through peaks and troughs in regard to exploration activity, but our current focus is on the conversion of the Atlantic Ocean round. Kinsale is a major decommission project and OBSERVE is still a major project we are involved in,” concludes Collins. “Currently we are involved in a policy debate in the Dail surrounding how our exploration policy fits in with our own climate commitments and our economic development in line with the Paris Agreement.”
More debate, more discussion and more attention on the change to renewables will, according to Collins, result in more investment and exploration opportunities for Ireland.