Opinion: banning exploration for gas and oil off Ireland's shores is getting others to do our dirty work and won’t reduce our greenhouse gas emissions

A few weeks ago, a bill proposing to halt the issuing of new permits for oil and gas exploration advanced to its next stage. The proposed bill aims to ensure that the government considers national and global climate and environmental conditions when issuing licences and not grant them when atmospheric CO2 exceeds 350 ppm, a figure surpassed over 30 years ago and thus resulting in an effective ban.

This will make Ireland only the fourth country to do so, but the first to do so without a Plan B. Of the others to ban exploration, Belize did so to protect tourism, Costa Rica to take further advantage of their hydroelectric/geothermal potential and France, who rely heavily on nuclear electricity, won’t actually cease extraction until 2040.

As a scientist and environmentalist, I strongly agree with the sentiment of this bill. We truly are facing the possibility of a climate emergency but, as with many issues, the solution always appears simple when you don’t dig deep into the problem. The standard assumption of "the sooner the better" in terms of banning fossil fuel consumption is not the whole picture.

From RTÉ Radio One's Morning Ireland, a report on plans by Irish Cement to move away from fossil fuels

We tend to think of electricity when we say energy, yet it accounts for just under a quarter of the energy we consume. The remainder is roughly split between heat and transport, and viable renewable alternatives for these sectors don’t exist to the same extent as electricity.

Ireland is set to remain heavily reliant on imports for some time. Half of all the energy we use is oil based, a third is natural gas and roughly 10 percent is coal so this is not going to change overnight. There is an established demand for these products and it’s naive to think that banning indigenous exploration will affect demand.

What will actually occur is we will continue to import these products from other countries, often ones with less stringent guidelines for extraction operations than ourselves, so there is no net benefit. Unless supported by a massive shift in consumption patterns, this ban represents a feigned solution, an attempt not to taint ourselves with the unpleasant task of fossil energy production.

Banning fossil fuel exploration while at the same time importing vast amounts at huge costs to the state is both disingenuous and counterproductive

Another thing to consider is that not all fossil fuels are the same. Given the precedence, natural gas is the most likely resource to be found upon exploration, not crude oil, and Ireland is heavily dependent on both. The difference is gas has been identified as an important bridging fuel for the transition to a low-carbon economy. Gas emits 50 to 60 percent less CO2 in a new power plant than coal, and is vital in allowing Ireland to integrate as much renewables as we do due to the fact it can change output quickly to balance wind generation. When used in natural gas vehicles, it emits 15 to 20 percent less CO2 than petrol engines and does so without the harmful air pollutants emitted by diesel.

Should gas replace inefficient solid fuels for heating, it would allow for significant greenhouse gas and air pollution mitigation, and pave the way for green renewable gas being piped to our homes and industries as carbon neutral energy. Sensible policy should foremost aim to eliminate the worst offenders, placing coal and peat for heating and electricity on the chopping block.

Banning fossil fuel exploration while at the same time importing vast amounts at huge costs to the state is both disingenuous and counterproductive. Leaving aside the likelihood of such a find, the associated tax arrangements and issues of energy security, the benefits to exploiting such a resource should not be disregarded.

From RTÉ's Prime Time, a report on people's reaction to the Corrib gas pipeline as it began full operations

The Corrib gas field accounted for the vast majority of the drop in our imported fossil fuel dependence (88 percent to 69 percent), meaning our energy import bill fell from €4.6 to €3.4 billion from 2015 to 2016. If another Corrib gas field were discovered, it makes sense to take advantage of it.

Exploiting gas and putting any revenues back into indigenous renewables would be far more beneficial, aiding a move to a low-carbon economy. The potential income should be spent on establishing the infrastructure needed for a sustainable future, not forgone for the sake of moral bravado. For example, Norway has used revenues from its gas fields to become the state with the most electric vehicles per head on the planet.

Ireland has rightly been singled out as a poor performer in tackling climate change, the worst in Europe. However, this bill only lets us pretend as if we’re doing something. In the absence of stronger measures to increase shares of renewables, this offers nothing to reduce emissions, increase energy security, or keep our economy competitive.

This bill only lets us pretend we’re doing something

We need to do more than posture, time would be better spent developing policy for ending fossil fuel use. Policy that would be more effective and less economically disruptive, not those attacking the supply of fossil fuel that we unequivocally need in the interim. Neither foreign investors nor the EU will be fooled by our all-talk-no-action approach to climate change.

When we are unwilling to sacrifice economic growth for climatic safety, pragmatic solutions will trump moralistic stances. Investing in alternatives is a surer path to sustainability than any ban. We cannot continue to burn fossil fuels indefinitely, but it’s a transition, not an abrupt end that is required.

The solution always looks easy when you don’t understand the problem. This law will at best shift responsibility for fossil extraction to others, and at worst makes it more difficult for us to complete the transition at all.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ