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Thomas Molloy: Oil find could fill State coffers and secure key energy supply

AMID all the gloom here, Providence Resources has been quietly getting on with the biggest exploration programme ever conducted in Irish waters.

That €500m drilling plan which envisages sinking wells at almost every compass point around the country will finally answer the age-old question of whether there are commercially viable quantities of oil in Irish waters.

A successful outcome would undoubtedly transform Providence but could also have a significant impact on the national economy as well. Discoveries in the North Sea during the 1970s changed the fate of many of our neighbours including Britain, Denmark and the Netherlands.

Even today, long after the North Sea's biggest fields have been emptied, companies there contribute about £6bn in corporation taxes to the British exchequer -- the same amount as Britain's financial services sector. It is far too early to speculate how much oil companies may contribute to the economy here but the prospect of new taxes is a glittering prize.

Junior energy minister Fergus O'Dowd was quick out of the traps yesterday to welcome the find for two reasons: the potential to generate revenues and the potential to secure the nation's energy supplies.

Providence will be paying somewhere between 25pc and 40pc on any profits -- considerably more than the 12.5pc paid by other Irish firms so the tax benefits are obvious. The issue of energy security is more abstract but equally important.

Ireland is among the most vulnerable countries in Europe when it comes to energy. With almost no renewable energy supplies and a rapidly depleting gas field in Kinsale, we import almost all gas used to generate our electricity and almost every drop of oil used for our cars, trains and ships.

Disputes between Russia and its former provinces such as the Ukraine or the latest attempts by the US and Europe to stop Iran's nuclear programme have all pushed up petrol prices but the real concern is that a war or protracted dispute could stop oil and gas imports.

The banking crisis has shown us all how money can stop flowing between countries with close cultural and economic ties. An energy crisis could teach us the same lesson. A steady source of oil means that we would be safe from the vagaries of international affairs. But can Barryroe, off the Cork coast, deliver either of these prizes?

Sceptics will wonder why the oil has not been discovered until now and why the world's major oil companies have given Ireland a broad berth until now. The simple answer is that geologists have always suspected that there is oil in Irish waters but the complex geology made it difficult for old-fashioned rigs to detect and extract it.

New technology has allowed a new generation of exploration companies to extract oil and gas from some of the most inhospitable places on earth, from dusty deserts along the equator to the Arctic Circle. High oil prices and better technology mean that it now makes sense to go to these places for the first time. There are legitimate environmental concerns about some of the new techniques but there is no doubt that huge new reservoirs of oil are being found regularly by small companies and then exploited by the big names such as BP and Shell.

Few people are qualified to judge geologists' reports but the presence of so many blue-chip production companies on Providence's roster is a sign that those who do understand these things are believers.

Providence has always known there was oil in Barryroe. Marathon Oil was extracting gas from the same area back in the 1980s but the field was never very profitable.

The question for Providence was whether there is enough oil to justify drilling, whether the oil is good quality and whether it can be extracted cheaply.

Based on yesterday's report from Providence, the answer to all three questions appears to be yes.

Providence is reporting that previous estimates that Barryroe had 60m barrels of oil is too conservative. The oil itself appears to be better than the Brent crude which is extracted from the North Sea. The latest drilling results also suggest it will be easier than originally feared to extract the stuff. Providence feared the oil was contained in several chambers but it appears to be in one huge reservoir which will make things easier.

Exploration stories come with caveats. The geology under Irish waters is not always easy and has disappointed investors in the past. There could well be other problems but life, especially for oil men, is full of uncertainties.

The fiasco at Corrib where there have been delays to Shell's effort to bring gas ashore is a salutary reminder of what can go wrong.

But the boom enjoyed by European countries which discovered oil in the 1970s shows there are good reasons to hope for the best.

Irish Independent