A drilling platform in Belfast's docklands Alamy Stock Photo
to drill or not to drill

Analysis: Should the government support drilling for gas off the coast of Mayo?

The government is between a rock and a hard place over whether to allow companies to drill off Ireland’s coast.

A GREEN PARTY climate change minister would probably rather not plan for how best to boost the country’s gas supply.

But this is the uncomfortable position Eamon Ryan has found himself in.

Most would prefer Ireland’s energy needs to be met entirely with clean fuels but even on an optimistic timeline, given how the country’s energy system is set up, fossil fuels will play a central role for the next decade or two at least.

This has thrown up all sorts of awkward questions – one of those being what should happen at projects such as Inishkea West, a potential natural gas site located off the Mayo coast.

UK company Europea Oil & Gas thinks it could have a major find on its hands there.  

The firm has said the site could contain a similar volume of gas to the nearby Corrib field, which meets about 25% of Ireland’s gas demands.

Europea is a small company. To drill at Inishkea West, it would need to partner up with a much bigger firm which could put up funding for the project.

The problem, according to the company, is that potential investors have been scared off by the Irish government’s coolness towards fossil fuel exploration off the coast.

In 2021, the government banned further oil and gas exploration. While existing licences will be honoured, Europea claims investors are running scared after licensing issues potentially scuppered plans to drill at the prospective Barryroe oil field off the coast of Cork.

Europea has now called for the government to more explicitly state it would support drilling at the likes of Inishkea West.

So, what would the pros and cons be of doing this?

The pros of drilling off Ireland’s coast

The key argument in favour is around energy security.

The Corrib gas field currently meets a chunk of Ireland’s gas demands, but is due to be depleted in the coming years.

Once this happens, Ireland will be entirely reliant on foreign imports for gas.

This became a scarier prospect over the last year following the energy shocks around Europe following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

This insecurity is one of the reasons the government is looking at developing infrastructure, including paying for a huge storage ship, to import and hold liquified natural gas (LNG).

The argument of those in favour of developing Inishkea West is that it could function as this backup gas supply, providing a buffer against potential energy shocks.

And if the government is already planning to import gas anyway via LNG, wouldn’t it be better to just use gas already located in Ireland, rather than pumping it in from abroad?

As well as its plans for importing LNG, it’s also estimated the state will have built nine new gas-fired power plants between 2022 and 2024, which will have to be supplied from somewhere.

The gas will either come from Ireland or abroad. Transporting and distributing LNG itself consumes energy, producing more emissions.

The location of Inishkea West is also a plus. Because it is so close to Corrib, if the field is developed, it would be able to use Corrib’s existing infrastructure to bring gas to shore.

This is a major plus which would save a lot of time, money and emissions. Speaking of money, a gas find would also likely bring in extra tax revenues for the state.

And now the cons

But all of these potential positives come up against Inishkea West’s major sticking point – the project’s relatively low chances for success. Despite companies drilling at 160 sites in Irish waters over the decades, just four have ever progressed to commercial projects.

Europa itself estimates its chances of uncovering a commercially viable gas find are about one in three. Far from a sure thing.

That is also if the company ever gets to the drilling stage at all. The developers behind Barryroe tried and failed multiple times, with investors pulling out at the last minute resulting in a process that lasted over a decade without a result.

Additionally, the gas produced would be unlikely to lower prices for consumers as costs are largely set by what is imported.

Developing the field also obviously locks the country into using it, whereas imported LNG could be scaled up and down as required.

Theoretically, this could be useful if Ireland makes faster progress than expected in moving towards renewables, although realistically another gas field the size of Corrib could likely be used in its entirety easily enough in the coming years.

A Green minister eager to push through a variety of contentious climate measures may judge that backing such a controversial project with relatively low chances of success may not be the best use of political capital.

Especially when the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) has said the emissions from fossil fuels which have already been taken out of the ground will be enough to raise the world’s temperature 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial times. Most scientists and policymakers agree that if global temperatures rise by about 2 degrees the damage to the planet, biodiversity and human life will likely be severe.

That is without any new fossil fuel exploration projects, such as Inishkea West.

The government is essentially between a rock and a hard place with the warnings around new fossil fuel exploration on one hand, and very real and short-term worries about how the country powers itself on the other.

With Ireland certain to be reliant on gas for the coming years, it is worth looking at projects such as Inishkea West seriously. But as for what’s the right thing to do – the answer is far from clear.