The role of disgraced former Fianna Fáil Minister Ray Burke in granting licences to oil companies for off-shore exploration during the 1980s and 1990s came under the spotlight again at a press conference in Dublin this week. Speaking in Buswell's Hotel on Tuesday, the chairperson of the newly formed Campaign for the Protection of Resources, Padhraig Campbell, said that "Ray Burke, against the advice of senior officials in his department, held a meeting on his own with the oil companies after which the terms and conditions previously attached to licenses were changed dramatically in favour of the companies".
Campbell called for the "immediate scrapping of the 1992 gas exploration legislation and for the suspension of current licences". A member of SIPTU's Off-Shore Committee, Padhraig Campbell is spearheading the campaign that seeks to "restore the balance back in Ireland's favour in terms of the seriously flawed and outdated oil and gas taxation and related terms and conditions legislation".
The press conference was attended by a number of TDs from Leinster House, including Martin Ferris of Sinn Féin, Eamonn Ryan of the Green Party, Joe Higgins of the Socialist Party, and the Independent TD from Mayo, Dr Gerry Crowley.
Ferris, a former oilrig worker, said that the multinationals had "exploited for selfish benefits" Ireland's natural resources "against the needs of our people".
He repeated his call for the extension of the terms of reference of the Flood Tribunal so as to "investigate fully the role of Ray Burke" in revising the terms of the exploration licences, which he bluntly described as "the rape of our resources". Ferris also contrasted the potential for economic prosperity contained in the oil and gas reserves with the current cutbacks in public spending. "None of this would be necessary if this state had retained proper control over our oil and gas reserves and ensured that they were used in the best interests of our people," he said.
Referring to the fact that he had received a quasi-legal letter from one of the companies involved in the Corrib gas project threatening legal action, Ferris said, "I will not be bullied by anybody. This matter is too important and the monies involved too big to allow the circumstances of it to go uninvestigated."
Supporting the call from the Campaign group for the protection of the rights of Irish people to work on oil rigs operating in Irish waters, Joe Higgins of the Socialist Party called for the establishment of a state company to engage in gas and oil exploration off our coasts.
Eamonn Ryan of the Green Party said that there were serious environmental questions arising out of the planning application for bringing the gas ashore. He said there hadn't been sufficent attention paid to the environmental consequences of bringing the Corrib gas ashore, but added, "Thankfully An Bord Pleanala stood in where the government didn't".
Echoing the sentiments of all present, the independent TD for Mayo Dr Gerry Crowley described the fact that the people of Mayo in particular and Ireland in general will not benefit from the Corrib Gas Field as a "scandalous disgrace".
Joe O'Toole, chair of SIPTU's Offshore Committee, criticised the practice of issuing what are termed "frontier" licences, saying that, "these licences allow the big oil companies to sit on exploration sites for up to 20 years without drilling a hole". He said that in the '70s and '80s the companies didn't have the technology to bring ashore oil and gas from the depths that were being drilled in off Ireland's west coast and most of the sites were pronounced unviable. But he expects many of these so-called unviable sites will start producing oil and gas now under the 1992 terms and conditions of the licences and because of the changes that have taken place in the development of drilling technology.
When asked if there was a danger that exploration would grind to a halt if licencing terms and conditions were revised, O'Toole said it would be better to leave the resources in the ground until there were proper benefits to the people of Ireland because "after all, the oil is not going to go off".