Credit: Gript

A crisis that proves the folly of “keep it in the ground”

It is quite something, is it not, to see a Green Party Minister, of all people, standing at a Government podium announcing a significant reduction in the taxes on petrol and diesel. And yet, that is where Eamon Ryan found himself yesterday morning. After a political career campaigning against the use of fossil fuels, there he was, standing before the public, announcing that he intended to make them cheaper.

From a purely ideological perspective, the present oil price shock should be manna from heaven for green activists. As price rises, consumption and demand should fall, and with those, so too should fall carbon emissions. Vladimir Putin has committed many crimes against decency, but, presumably unwillingly, he did manage to hand the Irish public something Eamon Ryan has been trying to give them for two decades: A sudden incentive to abandon their cars and take up cycling.

Of course, it’s not as easy as all that. Because the reason Ryan found himself standing there, announcing an excise duty cut is that the crisis has revealed what all of us with common sense already knew – that oil and gas supplies are absolutely vital to the Irish economy, and will be, for many years and decades to come.

All of the grand visions and plans in the world will not change that: Hundreds of thousands of Irish homes, in a climate where cold weather is a regular feature, use either oil or gas to produce heat. There are almost 2 million Irish cars which rely on oil for fuel. Air travel, sea freight, public transport, logistics, and manufacturing all rely on a secure, reliable, supply of fuel.

And yet, the policy of the Irish Government for the past four or five years has been to reduce the reliability, and increase the cost, of that supply.

They cannot, of course, be blamed for the present crisis. Eamon Ryan did not invade Ukraine. But it is true to say that Irish energy policy – or wider European energy policy – has never hedged properly against the impact of a sudden price shock. We have deliberately sought to ban production of oil and gas in Europe, and instead become deliberately and consciously reliant on oil and gas from other parts of the world – for entirely political reasons.

Take for example a favourite phrase of Mr. Ryan and his party: “keep it in the ground”. This is something they say with regularity, and it is worth thinking about what it means. It does not mean, for example, “stop drilling for oil and gas”. It simply means “stop drilling for oil and gas in Irish waters”.

Whether Ireland extracts its own natural gas (we do not have much, if any, oil) is a matter of almost total irrelevance to the state of the climate. What matters is not how much gas you extract, but how much gas you burn. Across Europe, and the western world, it has become very politically popular to pretend to equate drilling and extraction with use and consumption: As if we are cleaner and greener for burning gas drilled in the Caucasus mountains of Russia, rather than gas drilled off the Irish coast.

We are not. The overall impact on the climate is the same. It may, actually, be worse.

After all, Gas drilling that takes place in Irish waters can be regulated, in terms of environmental safety standards, by the Irish Government. Gas piped to us from Russia is drilled according to environmental safety standards applied by Mr. Putin. Who, it is fair to say, puts less weight on biodiversity as a political priority than Minister Ryan does.

This is an ongoing card trick: You can pretend to be reducing your reliance on fossil fuels by reducing the extraction of fossil fuels, but the two are not related in any way, shape, or form.

Indeed, the fastest way to reduce the drilling of oil and gas is to make it unprofitable by reducing demand for oil and gas. Supply and demand are inherently linked: If there is demand, supply must come from somewhere. Our policy is to pretend to be reducing demand by reducing local supply. That’s about it. The only way to truly reduce demand is to jack up the price. And, lo and behold, when that happens, our politicians turn tail and run for the hills.

Europe and the United States have their own, readily accessible with current technology, supplies of both oil and gas. Drilling those sources of oil and gas does not “encourage the use of fossil fuels”. If necessary, taxation can be used to keep them at a price high enough to discourage uses that the Greens do not like. All we are accomplishing by banning drilling in the west is the enrichment and emboldenment of regimes overtly hostile to our own.

Ireland, Europe, the US, and others are not dependent on Russian gas and Saudi oil entirely as an accident of geography. Much of that dependence, in modern times, is a political choice. And it is a political choice made as a result of selling people a basic lie: That they’re cleaner and greener for burning Russian gas, rather than gas from the Corrib Oil field. The whole yarn is a nonsense.

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