Dáil Éireann - Volume 574 - 19 November, 2003

Ceisteanna – Questions. - Company Meeting.

  1. Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his meeting with the president of a company (details supplied) as confirmed by him in Dáil Éireann on 1 October 2003; when and the location in which it took place; the purpose of the meeting; the names of the persons who were in attendance; and the follow-up meetings or other contacts with the company that have taken place with him or officials of his Department. [23280/03]

  The Taoiseach: As I have outlined to the House on a number of occasions recently, I met Mr. Tom Botts of Shell on 19 September 2003. The meeting took place in my Department. Mr. Botts was accompanied by three colleagues from [1357] Shell Ireland. I was accompanied by the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources, the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government and one official from each of our respective Departments.

  The purpose of the meeting was to hear the company's concerns about progress on the Corrib gas project. During the meeting I acknowledged the importance of this project to the country, the scale of the investment already made by Shell and the difficult decision the company now faces in deciding whether to invest further in the project. I advised them that, were they to proceed, they should submit a new planning application under existing legislation.

  My Department has not had any follow-up meetings with Shell, although my officials monitor developments on the project in conjunction with their colleagues in the relevant line Departments. On 14 November Shell wrote to my Department informing us that it hopes to submit a new application to Mayo County Council before the end of the year, subject to the satisfactory completion of ongoing feasibility studies and related public consultation. I understand that letter was also sent to other Departments and Deputies on both sides of the House.

  Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin: I am not sure I heard correctly the detail of the Taoiseach's response. Did he say he met the president of Shell in the company of the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources and the Minister for Transport? There was so much noise in the House, I could not hear his reply.

  The Taoiseach: I was accompanied by the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources and the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government.

  Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin: How often has the Taoiseach accommodated opportunities to meet the presidents of major multinational companies accompanied by two full blown Ministers on the Sunday morning of an all-Ireland final, if the information I have is correct?

  The Taoiseach: That is not correct.

  Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin: Is that not correct?

  The Taoiseach: I would not have a meeting on the Sunday morning of an all-Ireland final.

  Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin: It was a Sunday morning.

  The Taoiseach: The only person I ever meet on the Sunday morning of an all-Ireland final is the president of Sinn Féin, who always comes to the match.

  Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin: The Taoiseach makes a good choice. I want to ask a question about the president of Shell.

[1358]   The Taoiseach: I only had one meeting with the president of Shell. I have had approximately 200 meetings with the president of Sinn Féin.

  Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin: The Taoiseach might be prepared to listen to my question.

  An Ceann Comhairle: If the Deputy asks a question, the Taoiseach will have an opportunity to reply.

  Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin: Does the Taoiseach agree that his meeting with the president of Shell in the company of two Cabinet Ministers on a Sunday morning is odd and strange, particularly as he refuses to come in here to meet the elected Members on a Thursday? There is some discrepancy in that regard.

  Who requested the meeting? Was it at the request of Shell? Who raised the issue of the national infrastructure Bill, as it has been called? What was the specific role of the two Ministers who accompanied him to that meeting?

  Does the Taoiseach agree it was inappropriate that the terminal for the Corrib gas supply, which was refused planning permission, was discussed with the president and owner of the company which, through its subsidiary, Enterprise Energy, stands to benefit hugely from this gas discovery off our western seaboard? Does the Taoiseach believe his actions in this case were unethical and inappropriate? Will he explain the detail of the specific questions I put to the House?

  The Taoiseach: The meeting, which I believe was on a Friday or another working day, was in my office. I was accompanied by the two relevant Ministers and other officials. Full minutes of the meeting were taken, which I think took place on 19 September. It was attended by myself, the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources, the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government and one official from each of the three Departments. Mr. Tom Botts, the chief executive officer of Shell Exploration and Production in Europe, Mr. Andy Pyle of Shell Enterprise Energy Ireland, Mr. John Dunne of Shell Ireland and Ms Rosemary Steen of Shell Enterprise Ireland were also in attendance. The meeting did not take place while the process was ongoing. The application had been refused by An Bord Pleanála and the matter was closed. Part of their consideration was whether Shell world-wide would continue to put further resources into this project. They were reporting back to their world-wide board meeting which would consider whether, in the context of the 2004-2005 estimates, would put resources into this project.

  Shell is a respected company throughout the world, not only in this part of it. When representatives of corporate business come here from different parts of the world I endeavour to meet them, just as I do my best to meet trade union leaders, politicians and so on. The company has [1359] already invested more than €50 million in this project. Whatever one thinks of the project one must admit the resources invested in this country by companies such as Shell are significant. When large companies seek a meeting it behoves me or one of my Ministers to arrange this.

  The Deputy asked why I met the delegation. I offered to meet representatives following a letter from the company which expressed its concerns about the project and requested a meeting. The project is an important one and significant resources have been invested in it, so it was important that I heard the views of the company. I confirmed that the Government was considering reform to help speed up the delivery of critical national infrastructure but, as I have said here previously, I did not discuss the details of any possible legislation. I made it clear that the Government had not made its final decision on the legislation and suggested that Shell would be better off to proceed under existing legislation, as I have also stated in the House. I cannot comment on the application of legislation which has not been approved by the Government or debated in the House and I made that clear to the representatives at our meeting.

  I find it extraordinary that the Deputy thinks any of my actions in this matter were unethical. I have had a fair few meetings over the years that might border on the unethical, but I am not guilty of it in this case.

  Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin: Do I not have the opportunity of asking a supplementary question?

  An Ceann Comhairle: I will call the Deputy, but Deputy Sargent has offered.

  Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin: I am not disagreeing with that, but other people who tabled questions and other voices in this House have the opportunity of a supplementary immediately following.

  An Ceann Comhairle: The Deputy will not challenge the Chair on impartiality.

  Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin: Is it not the case—

  An Ceann Comhairle: You get very fair play and you get more than you are entitled to because of the way you interrupt.

  Mr. Sargent: It is tempting to ask about the other meetings which the Taoiseach thinks were ethically borderline, but we will leave that for another day. I am not sure whether the Ogoni people in Nigeria share his high opinion of Shell but, leaving that aside, will the Taoiseach agree it is important that if he is to have such meetings he should also meet with independent exploration experts? They are telling us what Shell will not – that in ten to 30 years we will enter a period of rising costs for gas resources due to supply decline. The capital asset of gas resources will [1360] then be needed to construct sustainable energy systems.

  Will the Taoiseach be amenable to meetings with people who are independent in their views rather than commercially driven? Companies such as Shell want to take as much profit as possible – which they can offset against tax at 100% – out of the country. Shell is not motivated by charity. It will do very well out of this. Does the Taoiseach recognise that there is no regional or national benefit in allowing this resource to be taken out of the country? In about 15 years we will really need it, but it will be gone. Will the Taoiseach consider the long-term perspective and agree to meet independent people with a longer view than Shell's?

  The Taoiseach: The Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources and his Department do take the long-term view on energy supply. They also take independent advice where available, while commercial interests put forward their own cases. The Department has been known through the years for taking account of the national interest and no one could accuse it of acting otherwise.

  Gas is a clean source of energy.

  Mr. Sargent: It is finite.

  The Taoiseach: It would help us greatly in ensuring that we achieve the targets set out under the Kyoto Protocol and improve our environment into the future.

  I do not want to make an issue of this but the Deputy has a false view if he believes it is a bad thing that people invest heavily in this country and do well out of it. Obviously a commercial company with world boards, investors, shareholders and pension funds to consider does not come to this country out of charity – I am not saying that. However, multinational companies, of which thankfully there are many in this country, provide employment and pay their taxes.

  Mr. Sargent: Is the Taoiseach sure about that?

  The Taoiseach: To a substantial extent, the money they spend here benefits the economy. That is a general rule.

  Mr. Sargent: It does not apply in this case.

  The Taoiseach: If we took the ideological view and decided that private companies were not welcome here, that would be an extraordinary position to take.

  Mr. Sargent: I am talking about Shell.

  Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin: Were any agreements, understandings or conclusions reached in the course of the Taoiseach's meeting with the president of Shell and his colleagues? Has he – or the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources or the Minister for the Envir[1361] onment, Heritage and Local Government, who also met with the delegation from Shell – had any further contact, either directly or in writing, with the president of Shell regarding the matters discussed?

  Does the Taoiseach agree that instead of selling off such important State resources to companies such as Shell, it would be better to have a radical revision of the licensing and revenue structure which governs this sector? We need to see major reform under which the State's 50% stake in all oil and gas deposits is restored. The Taoiseach mentioned that Shell was a tax contributor, but would it not be better if companies such as Shell paid the same rate of corporation tax as all other companies instead of receiving preferential treatment as they currently do?

  The best option would be for the gas from the Corrib field to be piped into an all-Ireland grid. Those of more informed opinion than I have suggested that to do otherwise would result in a significant reduction in the supply of natural gas to consumers throughout the island of Ireland.

  The Taoiseach: I do not agree with the Deputy's last point. At the moment we are at the end of a pipeline that gives us access to almost unlimited amounts of gas from Russia. Those who know more about this than I do can see the potential down the road. If this resource works effectively, as some of the early studies suggest, we could be exporting gas to the UK.

  I do not see what the Deputy means about employment. Shell does a great deal of business and has invested heavily in this country. The Deputy said it receives preferential treatment but this is not the view of anyone in Shell's world or European management. Other countries have ways and means of treating large companies with which I do not agree. We have a very open and transparent system. I can imagine what would happen with a project such as this in most European countries. Perhaps those countries are wrong and we are right. I subscribe to that and I defend our position.

  There were no deals or arrangements other than those I mentioned, including the letter to which I referred in my initial reply. Normal consultation with officials took place.