Tuesday, 12 November 2019
Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate
Power Plant Closures
The ESB's announcement last Friday marked the end of an era of electricity generation in the midlands. This decision by the ESB not to reapply for planning permission to co-fire the West Offaly and Lough Ree power plants will have far-reaching repercussions, first, for its own workers and, second, for Bord na Móna workers who will no longer be needed to harvest peat to supply the ESB after 2020. The impacts on them, local businesses, communities and the local authority mean we will all have significant challenges to manage.
This day was flagged for at least two decades, resulting 15 years ago in the closures of Ferbane and Rhode power stations. Then the ESB provided €3 million to each community. While I welcome the €5 million commitment to be added to the just transition fund, it should be possible for the ESB at least to match the sum provided 15 years ago, if doubling it is not possible.
The Ferbane business park benefited from this fund which, in the past, was a cow park and a dump. It now houses a good business park, a well-known child care facility, Bright Beginnings, and the expanding local business, Brosna Press.
People in the midlands are still reeling from the shock news last week of these power plant closures. The Government has not handled the matter well or planned for the workers. The solid fuel carbon tax came into effect in 2013. From 2013 to 2018, it generated just under €100 million. Will that money be ring-fenced for the benefit of the communities and the workers affected by these closures? What they have been offered is a drop in the ocean. The Minister is repackaging previous announcements but nobody is buying it. We need a firm commitment that the workers will be looked after in the communities in question in Offaly, Longford and other affected counties in the midlands.
I have been contacted by several seasonal workers who stand to lose much money. They have not been given a fair redundancy package. Neither have other workers. As I said to the Minister earlier, it is not comparable with the packages received by their EU counterparts. Spanish workers in the same position are being offered a fairer package. It is not on. I will be raising this issue again.
Notwithstanding my disappointment with An Bord Pleanála's decision, as well as the Government’s and the ESB's response to it, which culminated in last week's announcement, I want to reiterate questions I raised at yesterday’s meetings.
The plants at Shannonbridge and Lanesboro were put there 15 years ago at a cost of €415 million. We have been told that they will now be taken down over a two-year period. I want to ensure that is not the case. Will the Minister commit that they will be retained and have a use beyond their present usage? I want to ensure that the chief executive officer of Bord na Móna comes out front with the implications for the Edenderry power plant, its Derrinlough briquette factory and the horticultural sector. What funds has the company for rehabilitation? It claims it has €20 million and the Minister claims the PSO, public service obligation, will re-purposed to add to that. We want confirmation that the pension fund has the capacity to meet the demands that will be placed upon it. What application has Bord na Móna made to the EU for transition funds?
I want a detailed debate on the terms and conditions of the just transition package, as well as the potential to increase the transition fund commitment to an annual commitment to the counties concerned, particularly as €40 million in rates will be lost to Offaly. What are the statutory instruments relating to the horticulture sector beyond Bord na Móna? A recent High Court decision could impact on a further 4,000 jobs. We need clarification on this.
As said yesterday at our meeting in Ballymahon, I thank the Minister and his colleagues for meeting the people affected by these closures. That was important as the economic lifeline is gone. It is important that the urgent message coming from all Members, irrespective of the county from which they come, is listened to and adhered to. The reality is that with this economic lifeline gone, we need assistance and extra economic activity. That can only be brought around by the county councils and the local enterprise offices working together. There must be an absolute commitment that we put balanced regional development into practice.
Will the Minister address the issue of the dismantling of the power stations? I am totally opposed to it. It may be a planning issue but somehow we should be able get around it. It would be absolutely outrageous to dismantle those power stations, whether it is from a tourism perspective or otherwise. Maybe we could get gas into a plant like Lanesboro. They should not be dismantled. Will the Minister put a stay on that if he can?
One of the key objectives behind the co-firing of West Offaly and Lough Ree power stations was to build up demand rapidly for indigenously sourced biomass. The principal reason for the lack of biomass was the absence of any proven demand for energy crops that would attract farmers. This led to the rejection of the planning application for the West Offaly power station by An Bord Pleanála.
Before any decision is made on the future of the power plants in question, we must fully evaluate the possibility and potential for operating our current peat-powered plants with 100% locally sourced biomass. This could reduce agricultural emissions on local farms by 600,000 tonnes of carbon each year. This would be the equivalent of the removal of 130,000 cars off our roads, generating €372 per hectare with a price of carbon at €80 per tonne. It would also create 4,000 seasonal jobs in harvesting while guaranteeing income to farmers in the midlands.
The closure of the two power stations is devastating news for the midlands. It comes on the back of redundancies over the past 20 years in Bord na Móna. There has been much talk about a just transition for the midlands. The midlands includes Laois. The former workers of Bord na Móna and the communities they come from have had no just transition. I want the Minister, Deputy Bruton, to take note that County Laois must be included in the just transition framework.
The €6 million provided by Government and the €5 million provided by the ESB while welcome, is inadequate. It is a drop in the ocean. It will not even create a ripple in terms of what needs to be done. Jobs are promised but the promises are vague. Yesterday morning, 100 jobs were proposed in re-wetting. By yesterday evening, 300 jobs were being reported. These are one-off jobs, not long-term jobs. As mentioned, Shannonbridge and Lough Ree stations need to be converted to biomass. I have been saying for some time that we need to be growing biomass in this country to ensure we have a supply chain.
A further 400 jobs are proposed in retrofitting. While this is welcome, the workers are not skilled in that work and so they will need to be trained up quickly. I reiterate that we need to expand Mount Lucas training centre for this purpose. The centre is located in the midlands, in the heart of Bord na Móna country, and counties Laois, Offaly and Westmeath are close to it. Hundreds of jobs have been lost over the past 20 years. I have already mentioned Bord na Móna. The Coolnamona plant, of which the Minister, Deputy Bruton, is the shareholder representative of the taxpayer, is at the crossroads of the country, less than 1 km from the N7-N8 junction and the N80 junction. This fantastic facility needs to be utilised.
Last week's confirmation was a devastating blow to the workers, their families and the wider communities. I acknowledge that the Minister, Deputy Bruton, spent Monday listening to public and trade union representatives but this needs to be followed through with concrete delivery and substance. We are now faced with a ten-year just transition condensed into just over ten months. We need the Minister to intervene and to examine the possibility of a full move to biomass at one of the plants and the extension of natural gas from Ballymahon to Lanesborough.
There needs to be full disclosure from Bord na Móna in regard its plans for the future. Has the Minister considered changing the constitution of Bord na Móna, with a view to expanding its remit such that it will be possible to guarantee its workers that they can be re-employed in bog reclamation and home retrofit? As matters stand, public procurement prevents the Minister being able to guarantee those jobs will remain available to the employees of Bord na Móna. Can the Minister confirm the protection of the pensions of Bord na Móna employees and can he ensure that the expanded just transition committee will take into account people from a wider area than that which it currently serves?
I appreciate how intensely people feel about this matter. It was for this reason I spent time yesterday meeting unions, workers and public representatives and some community representatives. There is no doubt that this is a really difficult time. The anger and frustration was very evident.
The Government is determined to deliver a just transition. For me, a just transition is providing alternative employment opportunities that can be sustainable. As we know, peat was on an exit but it was expected to last for longer. We need to create job opportunities that will be permanent and can grow rather than be in a decline. Since this possibility first emerged from An Bord Pleanála, I have been working to put together the measures provided for in the budget, which point to a clear commitment to a just transition. As Deputies are aware, €31 million has been allocated: €20 million of which is for the retrofit scheme; €5 million for non-Bord na Móna activities on restoring bogs to a very high standard and €6 million of a just transition fund. In addition, as discussed yesterday, we have been working with the European Union to repurpose the PSO in order that we can use money to make sure that Bord na Móna can restore bogs to a very high standard. It is in this regard that 200 jobs will be provided, with 100 jobs on the non-Bord na Móna side. These are the 300 jobs referenced by Deputy Stanley.
There are many points that have been made here and yesterday concerning the future of the plant and the structure of tendering for business opportunities by Bord na Móna. I have taken on board those points and I will examine them, and many other proposals, with my officials. We took the step of putting in place a just transition commissioner in order that we could fully explore the many issues that are being raised. There are many opportunities coming from the communities. There are assets available from the two companies. I am determined that we will use this opportunity. I recognise, as others have done, that just transition is not just for 2020. It is a permanent part of our approach to carbon pricing. We have committed as an Oireachtas to move to a carbon price of €80 per tonne. We have been very upfront and honest that all of this money will be ploughed back into helping people make this adjustment. This involves a just transition for people uniquely exposed, as are the Bord na Móna workers and those working in the peat generation plants and, equally, people who are suffering from fuel poverty and people who need to make changes in their lifestyles. We want to harness this opportunity and make the midlands a leading exemplar of how we can move to a low carbon economy. This is, in part, what Bord na Móna is seeking to do in moving from brown to green. It has a diversification plan.
We need to work through the issues. Several Ministers felt the same sense of commitment that I do to make this work for the people of the midlands. I appreciate the frustration and the questions that need answers. We will work through and deliver those answers over the coming weeks and months and into the longer term. We do recognise that it is a central part of the climate action plan to manage this transition in a fair way to people directly affected. We will be committing to develop these ideas to the maximum extent possible.
I thank the Minister for his reply. I want to take this opportunity to raise the issue of the local property tax in Offaly in respect of which an increase is vital, as there has been no increase since 2014.
On the just transition commissioner, I am hoping that he will spend a considerable amount of time in Offaly or perhaps be based there for some time. I extend an invitation to the Minister to visit Shannonbridge. I think it would be timely if he could do so as soon as possible.
On the retrofitting, as pointed out by one of the union representatives these jobs are not guaranteed. What we are hearing here is airy-fairy stuff. We need solid commitments, including in respect of funding. I reiterate my call to the Minister to ensure that the carbon tax revenue is ring-fenced for the midlands region and that, as proposed, the commissioner will be on the ground in Offaly, which is particularly badly affected. I acknowledge that parts of Laois and Longford will also be affected.
I would like an update on the application to the EU coal regions in transition platform. This application which was only commenced in 2017 should have been made years ago. We are trying to do our best here but the Minister needs to take responsibility for what in my view is the most unjust transition ever. It is an insult to call it a just transition.
I ask the Minister to confirm that he will allow the Dáil to debate the terms of reference and, maybe, take recommendations in that regard before agreeing them in their entirety. Is the repurposing of the PSO agreed? If not, the Minister cannot say with any definitive value that the 300 jobs he mentioned are associated with it can be committed to. Does the Minister accept that if he does not bring in new legislation to allow the licensing of the harvesting of horticultural peat by the EPA, there is a huge threat to many more jobs outside Bord na Móna and will he confirm that the rehabilitation programme that is envisaged does not contravene the legislation which the High Court ruled in favour of, which was taken against the statutory instruments brought in by the Minister earlier this year?
It is like Larry Gogan's Just a Minute Quiz. It is very quick this evening and we are now down to half a minute. I came from a horticultural background before I went into the media business. There is a great amount of work that could be done, despite some of the cynics saying we could not do work in the horticulture business. I intend to submit a paper on the issue. We also need to look at IDA Ireland's focus on places like Ballinasloe and surrounding areas, Roscommon town and Longford which will be badly hit. We must up the ante for IDA Ireland to get it to take a special interest in the locality.
The two plants are clear of debt and have a ten-year life span without any major refit being required. No decision should be made on decommissioning either plant until all potential future options for their use are considered. The last thing we need is replication of the short-sighted decision to decommission the sugar beet processing facilities in Carlow and Mallow which has led to the appalling situation where the vast majority of biofuels used in transport in Ireland are now being imported. I urge the Minister to provide an assurance for the House in that regard.
The issue is having quality jobs to replace those being lost and that have already been lost in Bord na Móna in counties Laois and Offaly and the other midlands counties. Does Cúil na Móna figure in this just transition or is County Laois being written out of it altogether? County Offaly is being very badly affected by what is happening. County Laois has been very badly affected and there will be further job losses. I asked the Minister about the use of biomass in the two power plants at Lanesborough and Shannonbridge. It is very important that they not be demolished. We must look at converting them to 100% biomass and put in place biomass supply chains. We must also provide for training for retrofitting. There was a sum of €430 million collected last year in carbon taxes without any increase in it. There is €30 million in total going into the just transition fund for the midlands, which seems to be a small amount.
I asked about changing the constitution of Bord na Móna. Without doing so, we cannot guarantee that the jobs in bog reclamation and housing retrofits will be given to Bord na Móna staff. Yesterday the Minister, Deputy Madigan, said in Ballymahon that she was getting ready to put out to tender the bog reclamation work. How can she guarantee it will be given to existing staff of Bord na Móna? Will she confirm the impact the two statutory instruments on which the High Court ruled against earlier this year might have on future proposals for bog reclamation?
I will not be able to answer everything, but I will answer to the best of my ability. I recognise that one of the issues is the pressure on the rates base of local authorities. That issue was discussed yesterday and it is something at which we are going to have to look.
On retrofitting, we have committed hard cash to it. There is a sum of €20 million available and we will be mobilising the local authorities to be at the core in 2020. Clearly it is something we want to build in in the coming period. We have been admitted to the platform for coal regions in transition. I know that the new Commission is interested in putting funding through it; therefore, it will be an opportunity for us. I am open to suggestions on the terms of reference. If the Deputies want to make suggestions, I will be happy to consider them. We have tried to draw the terms in a broad fashion. We are very confident that we will get permission for the repurposing of the PSO, but obviously we will have to have it signed. We have done a lot of work in that regard and I am confident that we will deliver on it. The peat regulations do require the companies to apply for substitute planning permission. That is a requirement and it will have to be done. Again, I believe the work we are doing in restoring bogs strengthens the case.
On the other opportunities that are available, the ESB is the owner of the plant and has to evaluate its future. Clearly, there are alternatives, as we move to a renewables base, to have alternative sources of fuel at the times the wind does not blow and the sun does not shine. That is something the ESB will have to evaluate for the plant, as well as in its overall set. I recognise that we need to create opportunities in the midlands. Following the two particular announcements, there will be a concentration on working in the short term with those who have been impacted on most directly, certainly in providing for retraining and opportunities to switch to the new employment opportunities we are developing. To build that bridge, we will have to concentrate, in particular, on the areas where workers who have been directly affected are located. Of course, a just transition is something we will continue to pursue. I recognise the wider impact in the midlands.