Ireland’s oil fields - Who will benefit from the drilling?

The tantalising discovery of a commercial oil field off Barryroe on the Cork coast has rekindled debate on the generous nature of Ireland’s oil and gas tax deal.

At the same time, passions have been inflamed by the pollution threat of drilling exploration near Dalkey in stark contrast with a Norwegian ban on drilling within 30km of the coast.

With the economy in tatters, people could be forgiven for hoping the find will mean a bonanza that will lift the pall of doom and relieve communities from grinding austerity and crushing poverty.

However, as predicted by today’s Irish Examiner investigative report, the mouth-watering figures linked to Barryroe oil and Corrib gas are unlikely to mean a major windfall for the economy.

Not surprisingly, arguments on the pros and cons of a low tax regime are now being advanced on both sides of a newly minted coin that glitters with the discovery of black gold in Irish waters.

Rightly or wrongly, suspicions have hung over a tax regime shaped by disgraced ex-minister Ray Burke. Regarded as extremely generous by international standards, it holds out the promise of largesse for companies exploring here. Effectively, the ground rules were changed, slashing the tax rate from 50% to a more enticing 25% with the aim of attracting companies to drill for oil and gas here.

The deal is based on future profits and allows companies to write off exploration costs against taxes.

Its opponents want taxes more in line with North Sea rates of up to 75% and accuse the present Government of continuing Fianna Fáil policy.

On the other side of the argument, however, the low rate is seen as the best means of attracting companies to explore the potentially rich waters around our coast. Its supporters claim that if large oil or gas fields are found, the rules can be changed at a later stage, an argument dismissed by many as closing the stable door after the horse has bolted.

With only three producing fields, and a fourth in development, Ireland is still a minnow in the exploration game. Energy Minister Pat Rabbitte also holds the view that in order to attract foreign firms, tax rates must remain low and points out that 156 exploration and appraisal have been drilled here in contrast with over 1,200 wells in Norway, the second largest gas producer in the world and seventh biggest oil exporter, while 4,000 wells were drilled in UK waters with over 300 producing.

Against this backdrop, the question must be asked — who will benefit when Barryroe starts producing oil?

Will crude oil be processed at Whitegate refinery in Cork Harbour, resulting in a jobs boost and economic spin-off?

Will the State gain any fiscal benefit from the Corrib gas field?

Will there be a bonanza for hard-pressed Irish taxpayers or will wealthy investors and multi-national oil companies be the main beneficiaries?

Right now, the scales are skewed against the likelihood of substantial oil or gas revenues flowing into exchequer coffers. At a time when the State’s need for cash has never been more pressing, is it any wonder the Government faces a charge of selling off the family silver?

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