Our natural resources - Independent oversight is essential

It is almost inevitable that multibillion euro deals between governments and international investors trying to exploit a country’s natural resources give rise to a scepticism or suspicion.

We have had plenty of examples of that, most infamously the deal on the Corrib gas field. The return to our exchequer, rightly or wrongly, seems less than it might be so dissatisfaction or something stronger is provoked. So very much is at stake, especially for a bankrupt country like ours, that it is not always easy to balance the expectations and rights of citizens with the ambitions and rights of those prepared to risk capital to develop resources.

Ideally governments make deals that benefit everyone involved but usually we are left with little more than the inadequate “trust us” assurances from politicians that whatever deal is reached is a good one. Even if the terms are made public many of us are not equipped to decide if the deal is a good one or not. At the very best of times that arrangement was not ideal but now, when so much of the family silver may come under the hammer, it seems a very poor and anti-democratic way to do business, especially as the criteria used to judge projects are predominately commercial.

The scale of projects or sell offs under consideration is pretty spectacular. Our pathetic record on regulation, or, God help us, self regulation, suggests that we would be better served if we had an independent agency, an ombudsman for natural resources if you like, to make sense of the commercial and political interests at play before a decision is reached.

Just as our Ombudsman Emily O’Reilly has shown a committed, determined and impartial office can make a considerable difference and possibly even rebuild trust stretched to breaking point by political objectives, an ombudsman for natural resources might make it easier to be happy with proposals to exploit them.

Today a huge wind energy project is suggested for midland counties. It is envisaged energy will be exported to Britain. The promoters, almost certainly unable to get approval for a project of this scale in England, have suggested that if our planning laws are observed then the project should be approved. This of course is absolute nonsense. The promoters have also suggested implausible job numbers and downstream industries that seem at best fantastical.

Natural Resources and Energy Minister Pat Rabbitte has thankfully promised that a far wider range of issues will be considered before a decision is reached. It would not in any way question his integrity to suggest that as a member of a government so desperate to stimulate the economy might not be the best person to rule on such a proposal. There are ongoing discussions about selling the harvesting rights to State woodlands but who can say what would represent a good deal for Ireland or if it should even go ahead?

Two State agencies — Bord Iascaigh Mhara and Inland Fisheries Ireland — are at loggerheads over proposals to build Europe’s biggest salmon farm off the Aran islands. The proposers, BIM, seem to think that by dismissing more or less all of the negative scientific evidence against salmon farming they will win the day. IFI rely on a considerable body of international, peer-tested evidence and argue that the project is worse than inappropriate even if it is described as “organic”. The ultimate decision will be made by Fisheries Minister Simon Coveney, an enthusiastic promoter of aqua culture, so there are valid and pressing questions about conflict of interest and the kind of objectivity Government should bring to these issues.

Just this week a new EU fisheries policy on discards was agreed and even though Mr Coveney insists it is a good deal dissenting voices have already described it as a fudge. How can an interested but largely under-resourced citizen decide?

Mr Coveney has fought too to avoid a full environmental impact assessment for the very ambitious Food Harvest 2020, because, he argues, it is a project rather than a plan. One is subject to impact statement obligations, the other is not. This seems a perfect if shabby case of observing the letter but not the spirit of legislation. Anyone who cares for our environment, especially precious water resources, must be concerned that the proposals to hugely intensify farm production might have but who can we turn to for an objective assessment? The promoting minister? The EPA? The IFA? The same issues would arise if semi-state electricity and water companies were ever offered for sale.

An ombudsman for our natural resources seems a solution to so many of those questions. Its objectivity would take that onerous burden from Government and it, as it would be entirely independent, might enjoy levels of trust politicians have unfortunately squandered.


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