Wednesday, 6 November 2019
Early Exit from Peat for Electricity Generation: Statements
I welcome the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Deputy Bruton, and ask him to make his opening statement. Under Standing Order 45, the Minister has ten minutes.
I intend to share time with Deputy Marcella Corcoran Kennedy.
I welcome the decision of the Business Committee to allocate time to allow us to discuss this very important issue. As Members are aware, the position in respect of Bord na Móna has been threatened by a number of decisions. This is a very worrying time for workers, their families and the entire midlands region. We have had substantial use of peat in power generation in three plants, one operated by Bord na Móna and two by the ESB. The Edenderry plant has permission for co-firing and that continues to 2023. However, regarding the planning application made by the ESB in respect of the other two plants, in the case of West Offaly Power, a decision was made by An Bord Pleanála that it would not grant the permission sought for co-firing. There was considerable discussion about the opportunity for a judicial review of that decision. Having considered the basis on which a judicial review can be taken, which is essentially a failure of due process within the planning process, the ESB decided that there were no grounds on which to take such a review. An application has been made to Longford County Council in respect of the Lough Ree plant but a decision has not yet been made on it.
Against the background of this considerable setback to the original plan, which was to have a gradual exit from peat but with more years during which it would continue to be used to for electricity generation, the Government has decided that we need to be prudently preparing for alternative opportunities for these workers. I have met the workers concerned, the worker directors, the community and public representatives in the area. There is a strong desire on the part of the workers, their families and the region in general that alternative opportunities would be available to copper-fasten the future of people who anticipated that they would have opportunities to continue to work up to 2027-2028. As a result of that, we have been working diligently to develop those alternatives.
As Members know, in the recent budget we made a significant announcement in that context. That provides for the establishment of a €20 million fund to have aggregated retrofitting in the midlands, which will provide new work opportunities. We also made a decision that we would establish a just transition fund of €6 million, which would be available to support change for both the workers and the region. We also made a decision that, apart from Bord na Móna's work to rehabilitate bogs, which will provide work opportunities, we will also accelerate the work done by the National Parks and Wildlife Service in facilitating the rehabilitation of bogs. We anticipate that the employment opportunities generated by these alternative activities could run to 400 or 500. In addition, Bord na Móna has recognised that it has an obligation to restore its bogs. We have been working with the European Union to consider how further support can be obtained in order to develop a high standard of rehabilitation that would provide additional work opportunities over a sustained period. We continue to discuss the opportunities for that with the European Union.
I have also been involved in discussions with outgoing Commissioner Cañete. We have secured agreement that peat would be included in the coal regions in transition platform. It has been agreed to include peat in that, which will allow us to have the support of a dedicated country team comprised of Commission experts who will be visiting Ireland next month to work with all those involved - workers in the region, the transition team and Bord na Móna - to develop alternative opportunities.
At the core of this is Bord na Móna's own ambition to move strongly, as it would describe it, from brown to green. It made a significant announcement recently re-endorsing that ambition to move by 80% from brown to green by 2025. It has had significant successes in developing alternative opportunities in recycling, alternative and renewable fuels and alternative activities for its 80,000 ha landbank. It continues to develop those opportunities. They will be important activities. Bord na Móna is unique in the context of the midlands in that it is a commercial State body dedicated to providing employment opportunities in the midlands. It has recognised that we are moving out of solid fuel generation. We are moving out of coal and peat. It must transform that business and provide opportunities for workers and for the regions.
I assure the House that the Government is wholly committed to delivering a just transition for the workers, their families, the region and the enterprises in those areas. We will be seeking to work with all the key players to make that a reality. I have already dedicated my senior officials to develop this retrofitting model, along with other Departments. I have committed to appoint a just transition commissioner who will assist us in developing the framework to achieve that just transition.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on this vital issue for my area. As I am from west Offaly and having been brought up in Belmont, in Ferbane, I am very well aware of the importance of energy generation to the economy of the area, not only for employment but to generate electricity. As children, all of us were very aware of that growing up. One third of our land mass is comprised of peat so it is no surprise that, for generations, peat harvesting was crucial to the area. We were fortunate enough not to experience emigration at a time when others regions did.
The transition from peat harvesting in the midlands will be enormously challenging. It has been flagged for a number of years but, unfortunately, the decision by An Bord Pleanála in respect of West Offaly Power has accelerated it. That is causing a great deal of concern for the workers, their families, the communities and those of us who care about this issue in terms of public representation both at local and national level. I am aware also that the Government - I thank the Minister in this regard - has been very concerned about this matter. The Minister has made every effort, as has the Taoiseach, in establishing an interdepartmental committee in the Department of the Taoiseach. That shows how seriously the Government is taking this issue. I welcome that. I want to acknowledge the Minister's visits to Offaly. This issue is of huge concern and his visits were very welcome.
I refer to the implications for Offaly County Council and the hole in funding this will create for it.
It has been very proactive in the just transition team forum which it put together, the midlands transition team. It is welcome to hear of the positive efforts being made. However, we must never forget that the impact on the workers and their families is at the heart of all this. We must ensure there will be no lack of clarity for them in terms of what they are entitled to access, training and upskilling and the impact on their pensions. We must be clear that they will get everything they are entitled to get.
I also welcome the announcements in the budget about the various funds. One in particular, relating to bog rehabilitation, was strongly welcomed. A number of the workers had identified this as an area in which they could be well employed for a number of years. I hope Bord na Móna will be able to apply to the climate action fund to ensure the workers have access to further employment to bring them to retirement age, which is what many of them want. Unfortunately, I have run out of time. It is most important that the workers, communities and our county are at the heart of this just transition.
I am sharing time with Deputy Eugene Murphy, if he arrives. I thank the Minister for allocating time for this debate. What is surprising in the context of his opening statement is that he has yet to set out when a commissioner will be appointed for the just transition task force and how independent the commissioner will be. Apart from restating much of what we have heard previously, we have no detail on foot of the Minister's contribution.
We all acknowledge the issues surrounding the transition in the midlands. The title afforded to this debate is incorrect. It refers to a potential early exit, but the problem is a disastrous and unequal exit due to many poor Government decisions for the best part of a decade. There has been much inaction in this area for many years. The switch is being flicked and many workers, communities and livelihoods are being left behind. I acknowledge the work of my colleague, Deputy Cowen, in trying to ensure that a just transition task force was part of the budgetary negotiations. There will be a hypothecated funding allocation for the regions most affected by the transition that we must progress across the Government. The Government's decision to appoint a just transition commissioner might be the right approach and is in line with the recommendations of the Oireachtas joint committee, but there has been little detail from the Minister about when that will happen. It is far too late, however. The commissioner must be appointed before Christmas so that there can be negotiations with workers.
People who are watching this debate will know that workers are at the core of this. They are transitioning from their existing jobs and livelihoods into future prospects of employment, which were announced in the budget. It is one thing to make announcements, but it is another thing to deliver for workers who cannot be left behind. Bord na Móna and the ESB must commence immediately with a respectful deal in early 2020. The commissioner must be independent and must allocate just transition funding on a fair basis to the communities involved. These funds must be made available not only to the midlands but to all affected areas and sectors, for example, the coal plant at Moneypoint is a particular concern for the just transition task force.
I have a question for the Minister about the hypothecated fund that is a key part of the climate action plan. What will be its legal structure to ensure not only that just transition occurs across communities but also that there is no diversion of funds to other areas if gaps have to be plugged in those areas? What will be the legal structure relating to it in order that we can progress it into the future? No legislation has been published yet. Is it a hypothecation within Government figures or will it have a legal standing? It is important for the communities and workers that are adversely affected to see that a just transition task force has a commissioner appointed and that there is a crystallised funding model whereby any moneys raised through carbon tax are allocated and future-proofed. That has not been announced so far by the Government. I am anxious to see progress on the legal basis for that.
The restoration of bogs is a particularly important climate measure. Has the Minister examined the potential employment opportunities in this area, which we heard about at the climate action committee? We also had a great deal of discussion about retrofitting and the employment opportunities in that area. There are potentially thousands of jobs, a matter for the just transition task force. In addition, the task force must examine the issue of the restoration of bogs. We should see formal details from the Minister in that regard.
There is an absolute fear among people and communities about their livelihoods. Over a number of years there have been delays and a lack of action, and now we are playing catch up. However, that catch up should not be to the detriment of the communities and livelihoods of people whose jobs are being shut down. They have few prospects and little hope until we see more detail. I am surprised that the Minister provided more nebulous information but little detail regarding how he is going to conclude this transition and how he proposes to progress it for the people whose livelihoods are at risk. We know from the climate action committee the number of deaths that occur as a result of fuel poverty. One acceleration for jobs growth will be in the aggregation of retrofitting across the country. There is a potential fund of €30 million for that, but we must see those jobs crystallised into the future.
As regards the just transition fund, can the Minister provide additional information on how the midlands can transition from brown to green? Again, there was little information from him on a roadmap for people's livelihoods and jobs. What is the scale of negotiations that are ongoing? There is enormous concern about a mismatch between management level and the feed down to workers on the ground in the midlands. The regions across the board want buy-in on this issue if there is protection of jobs and livelihoods. We have EU and UN obligations, but we cannot leave people behind. That is a core message.
Deputy Eugene Murphy has been delayed. Will he be able to contribute later for a couple of minutes?
Being from the midlands, I welcome the opportunity to speak on this. We all accept that the move away from brown energy to green energy is happening, but it must happen in a way in which workers and communities are not left behind but are respected and have a future. There must be a just transition. When the committee was putting together the report for the Government, this is one of the areas on which my party and others were united in terms of ensuring it was in the Government's proposals and moved forward.
Unfortunately, that has not been happening up to now and it is having a seriously negative effect on families, workers and communities across the midlands. In County Laois, there was no just transition for the workers of Cúil na Móna. That has been moving away from peat over the last 20 years and has been scaled down, but there has been nothing for the workers over that time. The redundancies announced this year were a shock to workers and families. There were 200 earlier this year in the Offaly area, followed by 150 laid off temporarily in Longford last July. What has been frustrating for many people in the midlands is that the move away from peat has been in progress for 20 years, yet workers and their communities have been left behind. In towns such as Mountrath, which depended on Bord na Móna, there has been no replacement employment for the hundreds who lost their jobs.
We must change how we do this. In the future there must be proper planning and appropriate transition for workers and communities in counties such as Laois and Offaly. For a start, the power stations at Shannonbridge, in west Offaly, and Lough Ree are set to see the public service obligation, PSO, expire on 31 December next. The licences are also due to end in December. I contacted the Department about this, but I am still awaiting a reply. Perhaps the Minister could let the House know whether these matters have been resolved or what the plan is for these two stations. Obviously, people are very concerned about this.
According to the paper published this year by the Commission for the Regulation of Utilities, CRU, the ESB unsuccessfully sought funding to dismantle both Lough Ree and Shannonbridge in the event that these plants lose funding from the PSO levy. If that happens and both plants are shut down, what plans does the Government have in place for the workers? What transition arrangements and alternative employment will be available?
Our party has brought forward a well-researched document titled, Powering Ireland 2030. It calls for 80% of energy in the all-Ireland market to be generated from renewable sources. It is an ambitious target but, looking to what has been achieved in other countries, we believe it is achievable.
A key component of such a transition is the development by the State of renewable biomass and biogas sectors. The midlands can be the heart of such development. That is the message I want to convey to the Minister this evening. This presents an opportunity for the midlands because the region has the land, power stations and people with certain skills that can be developed. At the moment Bord na Móna's bioenergy division sources biomass to be used in the Edenderry power station. I am told that one shipload came from Australia. I do not know whether that is correct. A union representative told me that but the Minister might confirm it. We know, however, that shiploads have come from South America. That is absolute insanity from the point of view of the environment, the economy, and building sustainable communities.
We already have raw material, although it is not being utilised. I highlight the fact that there is a surplus of straw in the country in addition to hedge cuttings and forestry thinning waste. Some forestry waste is being utilised but we need to start using all of those sources of biomass. They will not be enough in themselves, which I understand. It is for that reason that Sinn Féin has been arguing for the past eight years that we need to develop biomass crops and to grow them widely. Trials with willow trees have been carried out, which were not that successful, but there are other crops and other examples. We have all been looking at information in that regard over recent years because we know how important it is. We have a large farming sector in this State. We also have issues with waste and emissions. Farming incomes are also low, which is a major issue, particularly in some of the communities where Bord na Móna activities are being scaled down. Many of the people working in Bord na Móna are also part-time farmers. The State should not be importing biomass of any kind of a long-term basis. We need to develop our own supply chains in Ireland.
The Government's plan for the plant at Moneypoint under Project Ireland 2040 is to convert it to burn natural gas by 2025 at a cost of €1 billion. We face a challenge in that respect. The plant was closed for a period. The future of Moneypoint is an issue in the context both of servicing our electricity needs and of the communities and workers involved. We welcome the commitment to phase out coal combustion but consideration has to be given to converting those plants to alternative fuels and to developing biogas and biomass.
Bord na Móna and the ESB are renowned for their apprenticeship schemes. They have an excellent history of, and great credibility and experience in, producing good apprentices and tradespeople. They have good track records in that regard. There is no reason they should fail to play a role in the new green and sustainable energy sector. What plans are in place to upskill those workers currently employed in the peat industry and in the other industries that are to be scaled back? What plans are in place to train them in the high-efficiency construction skills needed to retrofit homes and to enable them to work in different parts of the country?
With regard to the horticultural sector, the horticultural peat plants at Coolnamona and Kilberry are hanging by a thread. Peat is stockpiled on the bog. I was looking at it again over the weekend. The decision by the British retailer, B&Q, to refuse compost composed partially or totally of peat is a reality. That is what the customer is telling us. Workers in Laois and south Kildare cannot be thrown on the scrapheap. We need to make more use of the facilities at Coolnamona and Kilberry and to provide a sustainable transition for them with regard to horticultural products. There is an opportunity to start using municipal waste to generate compost free from horticultural peat. That needs to be developed. Some of this is being done at Kilberry. I know that and I understand that but it needs to be scaled up. We produce a lot of waste as a country. This is an opportunity to use that waste to move towards more sustainable horticultural products.
We cannot allow the midlands to become a rust belt. We have to ensure that it becomes a dynamic economic area. It has been one in the past. Bord na Móna regenerated Offaly, as did the ESB and other industries. That can be done again as part of the move from brown to green. We are late starters, however, and we are where we are. We need to ramp this up now. We need investment in alternative employment and in training and upskilling. That is why I have proposed that we use the training centre at Mount Lucas. It needs to be expanded. The Laois and Offaly Education and Training Board is doing very good work there but it needs to become a centre for apprenticeship training. I am making the firm proposal that the centre at Mount Lucas, between Edenderry and Daingean, be used for that purpose. I know people who have attended courses there but it needs to become a centre for training and apprenticeships in the new skills required for installing green energy measures, building energy-efficient homes, commercial buildings, offices and community facilities, and retrofitting.
Many communities throughout the State are watching to see what will happen in the midlands with regard to the peat industry because it is the litmus test for how the transition to a more sustainable future will be handled. Successive Governments have handled Bord na Móna poorly. I do not refer only to this Government but to the Governments in the 1980s and 1990s that moved away from horticultural peat and sod fuel, for example. These past actions have served to make communities anxious and concerned. People in rural areas resent the fact that they will carry an unfair share of the financial burden arising from proposed climate actions.
A much better approach to a just transition is needed to gain the trust and support of the ordinary people and communities who will enter into the just transition phase. Moneypoint is a case in point, as are the midlands. We need to do our best in that regard.
Yes. Just transition is about allaying fears by involving those most directly affected. In Ireland, the areas of energy, transport and agriculture all need to undergo rapid transformative change. Hauliers, peat production workers, builders, mechanics and farmers will all be impacted. The sooner we start to plan for their well-being during this transition, the less social and economic disruption we will face. The point of planning for a just transition is that it is not just about climate change, but about people having decent and sustainable livelihoods.
A good example of this from elsewhere in the globe was articulated by our former President, Mary Robinson, in a keynote speech in Dublin last November when she referenced Port Augusta in South Australia where a coal-fired power station was to be closed down. In the five years leading up to the plant's closure, workers, unions, citizens and local businesses came together to research how to achieve a just transition. They developed a thermal solar plant that will create 1,800 jobs and save 5 million tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions. This is a story of how preparation and partnership can work to deliver positive outcomes for all.
This leads us to the Minister's announcements in respect of the midlands following the most recent budget. No matter what part of the country we come from, we all agree that the midlands region is the effective epicentre for the just transition. It is the test bed. I share the views of Deputy Chambers regarding the vagueness in respect of planning.
Notwithstanding the budget announcements, which we understand is the €31 million package for the midlands and the just transition fund, we still do not have sight of what that means in real terms for project delivery on the ground. We do not know, for instance, the detail around the proposed 500 jobs that will be created, as referred to by the Minister, between peatland restoration and the transition into alternative sources of employment.
I believe that we all agree there has to be a transition away from harvesting. I am sure my colleague Deputy Fitzmaurice will speak for the sole traders who are looking after their own little patch of raised bog in his part of the world. There is a case to be made for those people also. I certainly do not have sight of the detail around the just transition as it relates to the midlands. I would welcome a further response from the Minister to provide greater detail on what is his and the Government's vision for how the transition will come to pass.
I am aware that a retrofitting programme for housing was announced in the budget but the detailing of that has yet to be articulated by the Government. We all welcome a retrofitting programme but how will it be implemented and how can we ensure that people will transition from one form of employment into that type of employment into the future? The details of that also remains to be seen.
I welcome the opportunity to discuss the matter. My plea to the Government is for it to provide this House, within a short space of time, with the details of what the just transition means for the midlands and how comprehensive the programme will be. We need to see the devil in the detail on that.
I thank Deputy Sherlock for sharing time.
The Minister, Deputy Bruton, will be well aware that some 12 to 18 months ago Bord na Móna invited all public representatives to meet it, especially those from the rural areas who are involved in the Bord na Móna areas, so that Bord na Móna could show the lovely, glossy booklet it had done out, probably at great expense, about the just transition that was to happen between 2018 and 2030. This included the plan that guys who had worked on the bogs and at the peat would be ceasing around 2027 and then there would be two years after that for burning peat. A lot has changed since then. There was talk of them going into selling herbs for medicine, or going into fish farming, and trying out so many things that it was going to be an eight to nine-year process that would create employment. Everything looked lovely and we all swallowed it and said "Happy days". Then we look back at what has happened over the past four years while this Government has been in power. The answer to the just transition in Donnelly's coal yard in Galway, which was controlled by Bord na Móna, was redundancies, and to let them off. The next phase we came to was the workers in Sligo where the coal came in. The just transition was redundancies and let them off. For people in Derryfadda or Mountdillion, or in parts of the midlands where the works have gone, the just transition once again has been, with this lovely magazine type document, to let them off, give them redundancy and head for the hills. That is it. If this is the way we are going to treat people we should be ashamed of ourselves.
First, why are we not standing up? Regardless of whether it is An Bord Pleanála or anybody else, who is calling the shots in this country with regard to legislation and making sure there is such a thing as a just transition for the 1,400 or 1,500 workers currently? We must also remember that those small towns have shops and businesses that rely on it. Unfortunately, we seem to be throwing in the towel and saying that we are going to put a few quid towards this, that and the other. There are proposals around retrofitting houses, which are great and nobody has a problem with retrofitting houses but let nobody go telling. I have seen it first hand during the debacle on the special areas of conservation, SACs, when we talked about re-wetting bogs. The reality is that someone in Antrim, Cork or Donegal, regardless of where they are from, can compete for that work. It does not mean that somebody from the midlands will get it, unfortunately, under the procurement process. I have seen this happen first hand when things were said to people about re-wetting bogs but it did not work out. This €5 million fund is being traipsed out with regard to re-wetting bogs. I can tell the House that I have worked in this area. Before anyone knew what re-wetting bogs was, the National Parks and Wildlife Service and the Turf Cutters and Contractors Association, TCCA had done some 1,800 hectares. Having gone through all of the figures over the past three to four years, and on the best advice, €5 million will be 17 diggers and 17 people up on a machine when they have to use the liners, for 240 days. I do not know who is giving this tripe about 300 or 400 jobs - perhaps it is based on going back to using shovels - but if they use machines that is the amount of time the funding would cover.
We are looking at a Bord na Móna that brought in a shipload of stuff from South Africa that could not be used. This is a company that bought a business in England that went wrong. On top of the 1,600 Bord na Móna workers there are a further 2,000 horticulture jobs in the midlands. Whether we like it or not we need to make sure we give the just transition. Yes, by all means put in for funding for new types of work. Yes, by all means help in every way in that regard. There is a bottom line, however, and growing biomass incentives in the midlands, for those people who have done that, was unfortunately not viable, whether we like it or not. We need to make sure that we do not just drop the hatchet on those people straight away or that they end up with the same story as the people in Donnelly's coal yard or those people in Derryfadda and others who have seen redundancy as the only answer so far.
As politicians we have to stand up and say if we are doing a just transition it is from now until 2025. Everyone bought into that. Let no-one say that they did not buy into it. Perhaps we as legislators have to create a derogation or some legislation to get over the hump in the likes of An Bord Pleanála. Unfortunately there is no drop of a hat solution in a lot of those areas whereby one could solve it overnight.
On re-wetting bogs, there is one thing that needs to be understood: it is the machinery that does most of this work and liners are involved. Although rail lines are to be picked up, whoever is talking about the works or the number of people involved needs to sit down and talk with the National Parks and Wildlife Service, not me. This is not coming from me. Let them go through what has been done already, which will give the facts around the number of jobs, rather than we in here doing it. There is misinformation going out to workers who are in a desperate situation not knowing their future. We should stand up and be counted for them.
I shall share time with Deputy Paul Murphy.
I welcome the workers from Bord na Móna to the Gallery this evening, many of whom have travelled quite a distance. I thank the Business Committee for acceding to the request by People Before Profit to have this debate. The heading is oddly titled but, as we can see from the discussions, it is about the Bord na Móna workers and just transition, which is supposed to lie at the heart of their future. Their future cannot be considered in isolation from the future of the environment or that of climate justice. In the words of one climate justice campaigner the workers "have earned a living and served the people of Ireland by harvesting peat to heat our homes and power our industries." They cannot be allowed to have given their blood, sweat and tears and be thrown on the scrapheap.
In ICTU's publication of 2019, Building a Just Transition: the case for Bord na Móna, the union identified very clearly the momentous significance of what is happening in Bord na Móna. These might be the first group of workers to face the challenge of just transition, or the first group of workers with whom Government has to face the challenge of just transition, but they will not be the last. The very workers who turn on and off the lights in the ESB are just around the corner from this.
As others have said, it is therefore important that this litmus test is faced.
I was on the Committee on Climate Action. One of the priority recommendations we managed to get through was priority recommendation No. 4 in the energy chapter, which has been completely ignored. Recommendation No. 4 states, inter alia:
[I]n the interests of a Just Transition, any decision to close Moneypoint or to end peat production, the Government will guarantee to underwrite the current pay, conditions and pensions rights of workers affected where those workers continue to be employed in State renewable energy industries.
I am glad that we prevailed in sticking with this recommendation which seeks to provide concrete solutions for Bord na Móna and ESB workers. However, there has been a selective invoking of the recommendations of the report of the Committee on Climate Action. The priority recommendations were agreed by the joint committee after lengthy meetings and considered deliberation. Most notably, however, in the case of the Government's recommendation to increase carbon taxes, it has repeatedly invoked the committee's recommendations while overlooking completely and ignored others, including the crucial priority recommendation No. 4 in the energy chapter. It is not acceptable for the Minister and Government to cherry-pick the more regressive recommendations while jettisoning conveniently the ones which are of critical importance to the workers of this country.
I consulted closely with the unions representing Bord na Móna workers in advance of today's debate and I take this opportunity to relay some of their most pressing concerns. Inadequate levels of finance have been allocated to a just transition to secure jobs and work on bog rehabilitation. The budgetary allocation of €31 million is inadequate for a number of reasons, as was the manner in which it was allocated. The €31 million will be raised through an increase in carbon taxes and allocated to schemes to support a just transition to a low-carbon economy. When one looks at the break-down, however, €20 million will be dedicated to the creation of new energy efficiency schemes, most of which will involve wrap-arounds and retrofitting of homes in the midlands contracted out to private companies. An allocation of €5 million will be provided for peatland rehabilitation but where will that money go? More than likely, the National Parks and Wildlife Service will contract it out to private companies. A paltry €6 million will be dedicated to a new just transition fund.
The above is in stark contrast to what has happened in the Spanish coal industry. Mining unions in Spain have won a landmark deal for a just transition for coal mining. Theplan del carbonfor northern Spain covers a workforce similar in size to that of Bord na Móna and an investment plan of €250 million has been put in place to provide them with a package of benefits and a sustainable development plan. Approximately 60% of the miners are aged over 48 and those with 25 years of service can take early retirement. They are provided with a redundancy payment of €10,000 as well as 35 days per year of service. Additional payments are provided for miners affected by asbestosis and money has been set aside to restore and environmentally regenerate the former sites, upgrade facilities within the communities themselves and provide for the creation of an action plan for each community. Why can we not do that? In November 2018, the then Minister told the Dáil that Bord na Móna was assessing its eligibility for an application for assistance to the European Union globalisation fund. As of October 2019, that application has still not been made. It is shameful. If the Minister does not instruct Bord na Móna to fast-track that application, he will leave these workers on the scrap heap.
I turn to the position of the workers. The last meeting the workers had with Bord na Móna was described to me as "brutal". In fact, Bord na Móna has consistently refused to honour outstanding issues, some of which I will outline now. With regard to the retirement age, there is discrimination against older workers. Bord na Móna is refusing to allow workers aged over 62 to retire. Why would it when it can get more years of work out of them without having to pay them any redundancy? Seasonal workers are being disregarded completely and new ways of flexible working are questionable. There is nothing on joint training and upskilling of the workers. ICTU has requested the establishment of a forum at the Workplace Relations Commission but Bord na Móna has refused point black to engage with the proposal. There is no clarity around plans for the ESB at Shannonbridge and Lanesborough where Bord na Móna workers depend on ESB production. No plan has been outlined for the future.
There are concrete supports we could provide, including training and upskilling, proper redundancy payments, permitting all workers to enter the voluntary redundancy scheme and to deal with the treatment of seasonal workers. The appropriate context for this work is a just transition forum at the Workplace Relations Commission, and not before a commissioner with €6 million who will relate to local businesses. We need to relate to workers and their union representatives otherwise we are giving them the two fingers. We need clarity on what Bord na Móna is doing. A senior figure in the company said recently at a union meeting that a just transition is 95% bull. In fact, he said "bull" with something beginning with "S" attached to it, but I will not use unparliamentary language. That is what he told the unions and that is what he thinks of a just transition. The Minister is the person in charge and we need him to undo this mess immediately, apply to the European Union fund for more money for these workers, talk to the unions in the Workplace Relations Commission, which exists for that reason, and set up schemes to deal justly with the transition from peat production. If we do not do that, we are leading ourselves into major trouble and the Minister may face the wrath of the workers who switch the lights in this country on and off.
I conclude by referring to Naomi Klein, the famous campaigner, who asked how those who inflict brutal, neoliberal climate polices that result only in economic hardship expect these communities to believe them and stay with us to help transition and move to a new system.
I welcome the workers in the Visitors Gallery. This is an incredibly simple issue. We need a rapid, just transition to a net zero carbon economy by 2030, which means moving away rapidly from fossil fuels. It means the use of finite resources such as peat for energy supply must stop immediately. It is incredibly costly to our livable planet to continue to use them. We have to do this in a just way. A just transition means no worker loses out at all. It means no worker losing any income or his or her job and terms and conditions. It is extremely simple. It is necessary to do that for the workers who deserve to have the right thing done by them, in particular in the context of successive Governments from the early 2000s knowing we would face this situation. It is also necessary from the point of view of the environment and the reasons set out by Naomi Klein as referred to by Deputy Bríd Smith.
If we do not have a just transition, there will be no buy-in from ordinary people across the country for the change we need. Instead of treating them as they are being treated now, these workers could be at the heart of a national climate service. They are skilled workers and could play a key role in transitioning our economy. A green new deal with socialist policies involves changing people's lives for the better and giving people decent and quality jobs in transitioning. For example, boglands have great potential as sources of wind and solar power. We need a proposal from the Government to increase wind and solar production on worked-out bogland with major community involvement along with a range of other investments and initiatives to ensure workers do not lose out.
The recent announcement by Bord na Móna that it is to cease to harvest peat for electricity generation because of An Bord Pleanála says it all about Government policy in relation to a just transition, of which more later on. While Bord na Móna has played a remarkable role in the transformation of rural Ireland and provided much-needed jobs and fuel in the midlands and Ireland more generally in the 20th century, we are now facing into a climate and ecological emergency in which the burning and harvesting of peat must cease. If vital jobs in its locations are to be protected, Bord na Móna must transition to alternative enterprises such as renewable energy, biomass energy crop production, afforestation and retrofitting. We must change radically our attitude to land, bogs and energy.
We need a new vision for the midlands, for sustainable green jobs and for our precious bogs.
Burning peat for electricity emits more CO2than coal and almost twice as much as natural gas. In 2016, peat generated almost 8% of Ireland’s electricity but was responsible for 20% of the sector’s carbon emissions. Natural peatlands are considered one of the most important ecosystems globally because of their biodiversity value, ecosystem functions, potential for carbon sequestration and storage, and the important amenities they can provide, if managed properly. There is also potential to increase carbon storage from the rewetting and restoration of bogs. However, this will require bold and transformative Government policies and much more funding. The recent budget announcement will fund the restoration of 1,800 ha of bogland over five years. While welcome, that is a drop in the ocean, bearing in mind that Bord na Móna owns more than 80,000 acres and all our bogs and wetlands are releasing up to 9 million metric tons of CO2annually.
A managed transition is also in line with the citizens assembly proposals where 97% recommended that the State should end all subsidies for peat extraction and use that money on peat bog restoration instead. The assembly also said that there should be a proper provision for the protection of the rights of workers impacted. That is key. By the end of 2019, the Government will have to eliminate the €100 million in annual subsidies which it currently pays for peat-generated electricity through the PSO levy. While this is the correct approach, it will be a significant challenge for Bord na Móna which is the chief employer in the midlands region, and for the affected workers. Approximately 60 bogs no longer needed for fuel must be converted back to wetlands. Up to 400 jobs will be lost unless alternatives are found rapidly. Part of the alternative must be the retraining of workers to so that they may make the changes required to properties across the country, as there is a shortage of workers in the area. This training should be part of the just transition. From what I recall of the climate action committee, Bord na Móna resisted that and it was not something it wished to be a part of. It should be told that it must be.
Replacing peat with biomass, as power companies plan, is not a sustainable solution. It is only possible because of the loophole in the European renewable energy directive that classifies biomass as a renewable source of electricity. This direction is currently being challenged so this may change. The State is acting hypocritically by claiming to act on climate change while proposing to lift protection from bogs and allowing their ecological value to degrade.
Despite all of Bord na Móna’s positive messaging, it has been planning to continue burning peat with biomass until 2027. We have heard how biomass his coming from as far away as Australia, which makes no sense at all. The Government supported this until An Bord Pleanála’s decision last June which pushed the climate and sustainable dimension to the fore of Government policy. We have An Bord Pleanála to thank for that, rather than the Joint Committee on Climate Action or the Citizens' Assembly or anything like that. That says it all about Government policy.
Following An Bord Pleanála refused permission for the continuation of Bord na Móna’s Edenderry power plant with 30% biomass, the ESB applied for similar permission at Loughrea. New research shows biomass energy is not inherently carbon neutral, although low carbon, but that it can have a climate impact as bad or even worse than fossil fuels and thus, by implication, per unit of energy. Bord na Móna’s stated intention was for the station to run on 100% biomass by 2027 but this is unlikely to be feasible and it is clearly not a sustainable solution. These decisions highlight the need for the State to put in place a just transition task force and heed the recent UN call for a land use plan to end destructive land management patterns.
None of this should come as a surprise. Environmental organisations and trade unions have warned for decades that peat-fired generation would have to cease. Recently I read inThe Guardianhow the former US President, Lyndon Johnson, was aware of climate change and its causes and what was happening in the mid-1960s. The oil companies were fully aware of what was happening in the early 1980s. At the turn of the previous century, Irish Governments were aware of what was happening, yet nothing was done. At least now there is a plan, despite its shortcomings.
These bodies have called for plans to be put in place to enable a just and timely transition in order that social and employment impacts can be assessed and provided for. The joint committee discussed this matter at length. Its report of last March recommended that a just transition task force be established to do the research, groundwork and mediation that the just transition will require. We advocated a partnership approach so that all stakeholders could engage on an equal basis. Sadly, this recommendation was not adopted in full by the Government, which has taken a completely different approach. It is an approach of sticking one’s head in the sand. We may be appointing a commissioner to oversee a just transition now, but as far as the Government is concerned, that will take care of the everything.
A structure based on social dialogue, consultation, and inclusion will be essential if we are to engage communities and not alienate them. That is especially the case in the county that I represent, Donegal, as a just transition will not stop in the midlands or with Bord na Móna. It will have to move on to the ESB, and to rural counties where people, through economic necessity, use turf. This is something we will have to address. We have high rates of unemployment, social exclusion and fuel poverty, especially since the financial crash in 2008. From first hand experience, I know that many families returned to cutting turf fuel due to the sheer financial crisis in which they found themselves after 2009. We should not contemplate imposing further restrictions on turf cutting without first considering human needs and how these will be met. Social justice and environmental justice must go hand in hand.
I propose that a just transition should be funded for the entire country. The midlands is currently the crisis point but we must be prepared to move it right across the board. That would dedicate resources into home retrofitting to alleviate fuel poverty and bog rehabilitation. The problem is not confined to the midlands, and we should not limit the role of the just transition commissioner to that region only if we are serious about protecting our blanket bogs and ensuring that no one is left behind in the process.
I am glad to have the opportunity to speak on this important matter. There will be many people in the midlands and, indeed, beyond who will look on the Government's plans around a so-called just transition away from solid fuels like peat with a fair degree of concern if not downright alarm. I hope that whatever the plans for an early exit from peat for electricity generation that they will benefit the ordinary people on the ground who have spent their lives generating peat from the bogs.
We should not forget that since the Minister for Finance introduced a solid fuel carbon tax in May 2013, that enormous sums have been accumulated. We know that last year alone, the solid fuel carbon tax took in €25 million. Between 2013 and 2017 the solid fuel carbon tax raised €72 million on top of the €25 million from 2018. Where has all that money gone? That is just under €100 million from this tax alone, to say nothing of the additional amounts generated by the tax on gas, kerosene or petrol. I want firm assurances that this money will be pumped back into the communities most directly impacted by the Government's plans relating to peat and peat extraction from bogs.
I welcome the workers here this evening. Bord na Móna management has had plenty of time to consider different, innovative methods as they knew this was coming. They have been found very lacking. We cannot depend on the Government. We cannot depend on it for anything in rural Ireland; all it does is attack us and take stuff away from us. If it would leave us alone, we would be happy and carry on left to our own devices. I made my way down to the Select Committee on Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform, and Taoiseach to try to mitigate the carbon tax being put on small farmers and on fuel for contractors but the Government voted down my amendments. The Government does not care about anything outside the Pale. It is just posh boys and girls. I am surprised at presence of Deputy Corcoran Kennedy, who is from Offaly. She is sitting beside the Minister, Deputy Bruton. I know that his wife is from Clonmel but other than that he knows nothing about rural Ireland and he does not care about it. The Government's policy is one of to hell or Connaught. It is as bad as Cromwell.
I welcome the people who are here this evening and I thank them for being here. It would be remiss of us to speak about peat without mentioning two people. One is our late grandmother, Nana Rae, who cut turf in the bog barefoot. That is where we came from. The other is our late father and if he heard about the cessation of peat extraction, he would first ask if the people have gone mad.
I know we must deal with the realities of climate change but I do not agree that we must go down the road we are and accept everything being thrown at us. For example, if we go away from discussing the big commercial harvesting of peat, we are left with the people who want to cut turf for themselves. Those people can never be denied the right to cut turf. These are traditional turf cutters who want to provide fuel for heat in their homes. They cannot ever be interfered with. People in the Government got a fright with the water charges but they will not know what will hit them if they think they can stand on the people who want to cut turf themselves for their homes.
The Government is dealing with the issues in the midlands in a reactive way. There is no plan and it is jumping from crisis to crisis with no organisation. The families affected by job losses cherished the work they had. They and their fathers before them were brought up working on the bogs. I certainly do not like to see that right being taken away from them. I appreciate very much the dignity in the work done by these people for many years in providing turf and peat products around the country and Europe. We must be very careful in how we proceed.
We are talking about moving the carbon tax from €20 to €26 per tonne and up to a possible €80 per tonne. That would be unsustainable for the taxpayers and if they realise the implications on household budgets there would be outrage. It is not hitting people immediately so they do not realise what is coming down the road. Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and everybody else seem to be saying this is all right but I am not saying it is all right. A carbon tax of €20 per tonne going to €26 and up to €80 is not right for struggling families that cannot balance their budgets or provide heat and fuel to homes right now. What will they do when the reality dawns? It will be completely unbearable. The Government must treat people with respect and it cannot stand on them all the time. The people will rise up and bite back.
This is the biggest sell-out that has happened in the country. When the sugar factories were closed, they were knocked down to ensure they would not reopen. We are discussing the desperate position of the people from the midlands who are here tonight, wondering and worrying what will happen to them. They are being sold out.
The Minister has spoken about providing alternative jobs but all we know is that the bogs will be rehabilitated for two or three years. That means drains will be blocked and pumps will be switched off so the bogs can be flooded. That is all that is involved and there will be a small bit of work for a couple of years. What will be the green jobs? Members here speak about defending workers but they also talk about climate change. The climate has always been changing and there is nothing we can do about it. There is nothing the Ministers can do about it either. There would have been a future for the midlands and Longford, in particular, if the Government had behaved. It is trying to kid these people into accepting the idea that they will be provided with jobs and trained. What will they be trained for and what sort of jobs will they be? These people are asking those questions.
It is clear what is happening in the Chamber. Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael are trying to be greener than the Greens. The Government is being supported in its actions closing Bord na Móna by Fianna Fáil. In the budget a carbon tax was put on the people and the argument is it will compensate the people who worked on the bogs. It will not compensate them because their jobs and livelihoods are gone. The workers are part of this but there are businesses that were living off those jobs and they will go as well. Many shops and supermarkets will close because the people will not be able to give them business. These workers will probably have to Dublin to create more traffic jams.
What about the horticulture and composting sectors, which could have provided a future? They could have been there for an unlimited period. Where will people now get briquettes? We will import more coal from Poland, other parts of Europe or Russia. We had our own peat for many years in the midlands that could make briquettes but that market will go. The Government would have got VAT and other taxes from it but now people will get coal, timber and other fuel on the black market. They will have to keep a fire at home unless the Government wants them to perish with the cold. Ministers have spoken about insulating houses but at the rate the Government is going, it will not have them insulated for the next 50 years. At the same time, this generation is supposed to carry on like this.
I am very disappointed when I see what is going on and we cannot stop the midlands from being closed along with the bogs that gave a livelihood to so many people and families over generations. This is being done in the name of climate change so that parties can try to be greener than the Greens. They are not even in the Chamber for this debate. The Government is supported by Fianna Fáil but the people in the Gallery are being let down. They will tell Members at the next election how they have been let down.
I thank the Leas-Cheann Comhairle and I will be brief. Based on the An Bord Pleanála decision in west Offaly, we need to have Irish-grown biomass support in this country to ensure that both Lanesborough and Shannonbridge power stations can co-fire. As the Minister and his officials know, as Minister, I made it clear that priority must be given to the growing of local biomass before any imports would be considered for either of those power stations. We now have the demand side in place with respect to use for biomass. This relates to a support scheme for renewable heat and power generation in Lanesborough, Shannonbridge and Edenderry. We urgently need financial supports to be put in place to establish and grow these crops. We need approximately €33 million for a financial package to establish and pay a premium for three years to farmers before we can harvest the approximately 10,000 ha of willow that would be required to power those two power stations.
I know a working group was established between the Minister's Department and the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine to engage on this and put a support package in place to ensure farmers could have financial aid to establish these crops across the midlands.
There is sufficient land there to meet the need. It would provide farmers in the vicinity of those two power stations with a steady cash income which would be contracted to them by Bord na Móna. It would also ensure that when the new application for west Offaly and the current application for Lough Ree go before An Bord Pleanála they will be looked at positively, because the supply of biomass will be sourced locally. This would support local communities across the region.
I live among the communities. I am surrounded by them. Members of my family worked in the company in the past. My late father worked for many years for Bord na Móna. Before he passed away he often told me about there being no wet time in Bord na Móna and how difficult and harsh it was. I can remember him and the neighbours coming home drenched. Those people worked hard. Generations worked hard. It was a lifeline for people in our region.
The great Seán Lemass led the innovation to develop our bogs. That was really important for people in our part of the country. We should remember that Bord na Móna built many estates, including one up the road from myself in County Roscommon.
Yet, things change and times change. Change relating to the climate is going to happen. I certainly do not agree with some of the moves relating to climate change, but the reality is that it is happening all over the world. There are two sides to this argument. Many young people in my constituency have written and emailed me about climate change, including neighbours and friends. I do not think we can expect people in the rural areas to carry the can completely for this climate change.
Whatever Department he is in, I have found the Minister to be an honourable Minister and Deputy. However, I wish to bring him back to 6 October when he spoke to RTÉ. He said the future of Bord na Móna workers was a priority for him at the time. He said there would be a development within six months on retraining and other schemes for Bord na Móna workers. We fought hard on this side of the House to get a just transition commissioner and fund. I say to the Bord na Móna workers and families that this side of the House will not be found wanting in getting a solution to this problem. We are not going to leave them out with no support, but it will take hard work. It will not all be done by waffling in this House. Many of us work hard behind the scenes. My colleagues from Roscommon-Galway work particularly hard with me to try to bring the matter forward and get solutions.
There is a feeling that we are being left behind. There is a feeling that things are not moving. I did not like the carbon tax. I did not like voting for the carbon tax but I took a brave decision. We fought on this side of the House to get the fund ring-fenced to help Bord na Móna communities. Many Bord na Móna communities will be hit now. All manner of businesses and shops will be hit. If we do not come up with a real plan and if we are not innovative in addressing the problem we have, thousands of jobs will be lost. The Minister knows himself that Shannonbridge, Lough Ree and other areas are all affected. There is serious concern among the communities about the lack of pace in dealing with this issue. I am not expressing any disrespect for the Minister but this must be taken seriously. We need to start moving quickly and we must see real decisions taken. We were told initially that the just transition would be up to eight or ten years. Then, all on a sudden that changed. Myself and my Oireachtas colleagues took the commitment in good faith. We went back to Bord na Móna workers and said to them that it would develop over a period of eight to ten years. We thought we had the space. What happened? We are now told the show is over. That is unfair and unworkable. We are demanding that a proper plan is put in place so that we can start acting now.
It is dangerous to set precedents but we have a little extra time. With the approval of the House, I suggest that we give two minutes to Deputy Ó Laoghaire because I understand there was some misunderstanding with his colleagues. Is that agreed? Agreed.
There was some confusion with the Whips office so I thank the House for the time.
I trust the Minister will indulge me for a moment. My leaving certificate history project was on the miners' strike in Great Britain and the associated fall-out. One thing that struck me was how isolated parts of Wales, Yorkshire and Derbyshire endured destitution after the mines closed. There were extraordinary levels of unemployment, poverty and drug addiction and various other social problems. It was tragic, to be honest. The mines were closed. Bad and all as that decision was, nothing came in afterwards to support them. This struck me when I heard the discussion around what was happening with Bord na Móna given what a crucial employer the company is in the midlands.
The Minister may be wondering why I am addressing this as a fellow from Togher on the south side of Cork city. It is not a big issue for my constituents but my mother is from Banagher in west Offaly. It is a part of the country that has taken many blows recently not only with Bord na Móna but with companies like Banagher Concrete too. Many big employers were lost in that part of the world.
I recognise that peat is not the most efficient way of generating electricity, but the sector has been a vital industry and an employer for many generations and for hundreds and thousands of families. I call on the Minister to ensure that what happened in those parts of England, Wales and Scotland is not repeated in Ireland. That must not be allowed to happen in the midlands communities. This will be a big blow no matters what. There needs to be a just transition and every support possible provided. This is not only about employment but social supports for the communities as well. Every possible effort needs to be put in place to ensure the communities stay above water and thrive and that the level of disadvantage seen elsewhere is not inflicted on them.
I thank Deputies for participating in the debate. Many points were raised that I will not have the opportunity to answer in great detail. However, I wish to reassure the workers, the House and the region that I am working intensely to develop a just transition strategy. As Deputies know, in the budget I secured an allocation for just transition from the carbon transition fund. We have allocated €31 million for this. I convened a group immediately to develop the aggregation model for retrofitting. It will start with social homes within the midlands region. The project aims to include many other homes so that we genuinely have a scheme for developing a strong sector within the midlands.
Deputy Stanley is not here at present but I recognise the valuable asset we have in Mount Lucas. I have been there with Deputy Corcoran Kennedy and it really is a valuable asset that we can exploit.
Deputy Jack Chambers asked about a just transition. I am working out the details for a just transition commissioner and I hope to complete them shortly. We have a cross-Government team led by the Department of the Taoiseach. We are putting together the details so that we can ensure every element can be properly furnished and we can have a comprehensive response.
I have been working with the European Union to ensure we develop the potential to support alternative activities like restoring the bog assets as well as wider activities. Lough Boora has already developed valuable facilities. That is a real asset in the community. We are liaising with the country transition teams within the European Union. They have been working on the coal restitution approach to support just transition. I assure the House that we are giving this intense attention.
There are those who are no longer present but who believe that our attention to climate action is all a conspiracy against the people. I wish to reassure people that is not the fact of it.
We will be the first generation that fails to pass on our world in as good a condition as we found it, unless we get serious about dealing with climate. Unfortunately, that means transitioning out of fossil fuels and there are consequences for that, which we recognise. That is why the attention of Government focuses on just transition. We cannot stop the gradual withdrawal from fossil fuels. We have to make sure we support people and find alternative outlets for them. I recognise the point made by Deputy Jack Chambers about giving legal assurance that the money raised by the carbon tax will be exclusively for just transition, supporting climate action and so on. That will get attention from Government and we have a wholehearted commitment to it. We will consider how it can be structured from a legal perspective.
There are valuable opportunities in restoring our boglands. Notwithstanding the criticism of some Deputies, they are genuinely a huge asset and can be part of managing carbon much more effectively. We have to make sure we do this in a proper way and this will provide valuable opportunities as well as being a valuable way to help us future-proof our country. I recognise the discontent among workers around industrial relations but the Bord na Móna statement makes it clear they are willing to use the joint structures chaired by the Workplace Relations Commission. That is a good model for dealing with difficulties and I urge people to use the Workplace Relations Commission, with which I dealt as Minister for jobs. I have absolute confidence in its capacity to manage even the most difficult situations. I am determined that we will move ahead and will have in place a just transition approach. We will have an independent just transition commissioner so that liaison between workers in communities and Government can be built.