Kevin McPartlan of Fuels for Ireland

In conversation with Kevin McPartlan, CEO of Fuels for Ireland, an organisation which is unequivocable in its ambition: “Our goal is clear: the members of Fuels for Ireland are going to take every step necessary to make not only our industry, but also Ireland, carbon neutral by 2050.”

kevin mcpartlan

Formerly known as the Irish Petroleum Industry Association, Fuels for Ireland rebranded itself in August 2020 after a period considering what the industry body is, in fact, all about.

Kevin McPartlan joined the then Irish Petroleum Industry Association as CEO in 2018. He worked with members to redefine the vision of the organisation to reflect the shared understanding that the fossil fuels cannot be the basis of Ireland’s long-term energy plans, or the basis of the industry’s long-term business strategy – an understanding which led to the renaming of the organisation as Fuels for Ireland (FFI). Representing fuel importers and distributors and Ireland’s only refinery, FFI has acknowledged that its members won’t sustain their businesses into the future by selling fossil fuels.

In the conversation below, we speak with Kevin to understand what this means for the members and the broader picture of energy consumption in Ireland.

“The rebrand was much more than a new name and a new logo. It was a reflection of a new understanding that we are not ‘in the oil business’. Our members across Ireland work hard every day to power Ireland’s economy and society. They are about getting kids to school, people to work, heating homes and businesses and keeping shelves full.

“The industry is not about defending fossil fuel, even though Ireland has one of the highest dependencies on oil of all the European countries with some counties 75% reliant on oil for home heating. There are many in rural communities who drive 2.5 times the mileage of core urban dwellers with little by way of community transport options, and 50% of Irelands energy consumption is currently delivered by oil so the challenge is not insignificant.

A transition is not a single step

“Legislators only seem to discuss the end of the transition and forget that it is a journey, a process of change. There is a famous joke about asking for directions in rural Ireland with the likely response beginning; ‘well you don’t want to be starting from here’. Beginning with our huge dependency on fossil fuels is not the ideal place to begin a transition to clean energy but it is where we are, and we need to plot the route from here.

“However strong the imperative to deliver change you can’t just turn the taps off overnight and we need plans before bans. Governments only want to talk about the end game and the banning of oil boilers without consideration for the 80-year-old in an old, rural farmhouse who faces a cost of around 35,000 to 60,000 euros to retrofit the property and fit a heat pump with a grant only delivering a third of this. There is also skill shortage in tradespeople making it impossible to retrofit the number of homes targeted even if the money were available.”

However, Kevin believes that FFI is not serving members well if it fails to address the reality: “Despite this current reliance on fossil fuels, if these distributors have not identified a route to and begun the transition to low or zero carbon liquid fuels in the next 5 to 10 years, they will not have a business. Fossil fuels cannot be the basis of Ireland’s long-term energy plans, or the basis of our industry’s long term business strategy.”

With 700,000 homes dependant on home heating oil, how do we reduce emissions?

“We believe that rather than setting targets for particular technologies we should be setting targets for outcomes, so instead of saying we will install 600,000 heat pumps by 2030, Government should aim for 600,000 homes with zero-emission heating systems. The focus has to be on overall decarbonisation rather than any specific solution.”

  1. Improve the efficiency of current systems
  2. Retrofit where possible
  3. Use biofuels

Goal obsessed but technology neutral
The Irish Government appears to be prioritising particular technologies – with targets such as 1m EVs by 2030 – a target which is looking very unlikely to be achieved and, even if it is still leaves the majority of vehicles, (1.7m) powered by ICE. FFI has noticed that the approach to failure to deliver a target appears to be to simply set a new, bigger one. “We take a different view. When FFI sets a target – such as that to reduce carbon emissions by 50% by 2025 in home heating, we stand over it, welcome scrutiny and expect to be held accountable.

“The Irish government is trying to back winners but, as a result, fails to incentivise other contributing technologies and fuels.”

“FFI is pushing hard to be goal obsessed but technology neutral and believes it is vital that there are no penalties where there are no alternatives. Government use policy weight and fiscal penalties to push people in the right direction but it is not conscionable to load the extra cost on oil consumers if they have no alternatives.”

Keen to emphasise that this is not a matter of defending oil but of advocating the interests of the consumer Kevin explains how FFI is determined to play its part in achieving net carbon neutrality by 2050 but to do so without allowing consumers to be hit over and over again.

Kevin cites the example of the NORA levy which was introduced in 1996 as a means of funding the maintenance of holding 90 days of strategic oil reserves: “Over-charging oil consumers a levy of 2c on every litre of fuel sold has generated a surplus of around €300 million in recent years and going forward, an amendment to legislation last year provides for the diversion of this levy, at the discretion of the Minister, to the Climate Action Fund. It is not only an unfair levy on the oil industry, compared to other energy producers, but it is effectively a cash grab from those who live in rural Ireland (who pay a disproportionately high share of the NORA levy) to urban dwellers since the majority of CAF initiatives benefit those who live in major cities.”

The impossible perfect is the enemy of the possible good
Kevin feels that policy-makers focus on the potential future impact of their preferred technologies but ignore the real-world benefits which could be delivered immediately from those they do not favour. “This is a significant inhibitor to our hitting our year on year 7% carbon emission reductions between now and 2030.”

“The government has too many people saying the right thing but not the real thing. Heat pumps suit some homes but, for those that they don’t, you can’t just wait to reach the point when they will be suitable. By replacing inefficient non-condensing boilers with clean modern units, and introducing advanced, synthetic and biofuels into home heating we can reduce and ultimately eliminate emissions from these hard-to-decarbonise buildings.”

“Furthermore, with the housing crisis in Ireland and the shortage of tradespeople, we simply don’t have the workforce to deliver the deep-retrofitting targets the Government has set. We’re only now setting up apprenticeship schemes to address this. We just can’t wait for all those young people to complete their training to really address greenhouse gas emissions from home heating. Let’s harness all the available savings now.

Fuel distributors have a part to play
Emphasising his frustration that the Irish Government has attempted to plot the energy transition without involving the body that represents 50% of energy consumption in Ireland Kevin acknowledges the part members and distributors can play in influencing both consumers and those in government delivering fuel, as they do, to both.

“The distributors are perfectly placed to communicate and empower consumers to build up political pressure, so it is essential that there is an understanding of the scale and scope of the threat to the industry but that there is also a solution.”

“Some feel that the industry addressing the idea of carbon neutrality is like turkeys voting for Christmas, but you can’t ignore the reality that Christmas is coming. Distributors have a choice between burying their head in the sands and delivering ever-diminishing volumes or stepping up to the plate, protecting their businesses and consumers by talking steps to reduce and ultimately eliminating carbon emissions from our products.

“The truth is that, even if it is only driven by a financial imperative the industry will still have to change but, of course, the moral side is important to us so there is both a moral and a commercial imperative to accept that there will be a transition to a low carbon future for home heating.

Taking a strong stand on this has not lead to any loss of membership for FFI and all the members have bought into the new policy even where there are differing attitudes to the pace of change. Kevin is determined that working to find a consensus will not be achieved by simply dropping to the lowest common denominator.

“The belief of FFI is that a truly valuable industry association must show leadership. Members must be able to challenge one another to go beyond their comfort zones. As CEO, my job is to facilitate two-way communication. It’s not enough to tell government what industry is thinking, but also to inform our members of policy makers’ views, attitudes, priorities and plans.

The future for liquid fuel
At time of writing the industry is still waiting for a long-delayed biofuel strategy document in which FFI hope to see acknowledgement of the potential for liquid biofuels produced from waste to play a part in the transition.
(The need to consider the role of liquid biofuels for Ireland has previously been highlighted here)

The industry is at the start of a revolution, but liquid fuels have a part to play for many years to come and Kevin has confidence in supply in the long term even though right now it is a challenge.

50% of global HVO production is in the US but there is a ban on importing it to the EU which Kevin believes will change and that other sources will come into play.

“It is important to recognise that the future fuels may not even be the fuels that we have or know right now but may be a zero-carbon fuel that may still be in development.

“To achieve net zero on a global level it is essential for aviation to decarbonise. This is an exciting opportunity for our members because there is an impetus to find a sustainable aviation fuel giving us a part to play in the research and development for this fuel. Where are you more likely to test a new low carbon liquid fuel – in an aeroplane or in an oil boiler?”

Remaining energy neutral and finding best-fit solutions
“We are making the major changes needed to make carbon neutrality a reality which works for everyone and that is exactly why Fuels for Ireland came into being,” Kevin concludes.

“But one thing that will never change is our members’ commitment to fuelling Ireland’s future and meeting our customers’ needs: today, tomorrow and long into the future.”

This feature was first published in the October issue of Fuel Oil News magazine. Find out more about receiving a regular copy here.

Find out more about how FFI is working towards a cleaner fuelled Ireland here.