Dáil debates

Thursday, 5 May 2022

Regulations for the Sale and Distribution of Turf: Motion [Private Members]


4:45 pm

Photo of Michael FitzmauriceMichael Fitzmaurice (Roscommon-Galway, Independent)
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I move:

That Dáil Éireann: notes that:
— as per the Dáil record, the Government is in the process of drafting regulations with respect to the sale and supply of solid fuels, which are due to be signed in September of this year;

— the Government has confirmed that the proposed regulations will not be implemented this year;

— as per the Dáil record, under the Government's proposed regulations people will not be permitted to place turf on the market for sale or distribution to others;

— the Government has confirmed that it wishes to protect the existing rights of people who save turf; and

— turf is an affordable solid fuel, many people are dependent on solid fuel to warm their homes, and in some counties up to 34 per cent of households are solely dependent on turf as solid fuel;
calls on the Government to exempt from the proposed solid fuel regulations:
— people who have turbary rights, Q3 agreements, fee simple rights, acquired rights, commonage rights, licensed rights, leased rights, inherited rights, familial rights or any other recognised ownership rights;

— people who assisted the State by providing their bogs for preservation as part of the designation of boglands, and who participated in the Turf Cutting Compensation Scheme, whether they sold their bogs to the State, took compensation to buy turf elsewhere, opted to be supplied with turf by the State or moved bog under licence or turbary right; and

— people who have historically rented or have been provided with a plot and saved turf for their own household; and
further calls on the Government to undertake to work with the industry over a reasonable period of time to ensure that turf sold in larger urban areas via retail outlets meets the same moisture content regulations which currently apply to timber and peat briquette, thus ensuring any proposed ban on the sale of turf will not be necessary.

I am sharing time with Deputy Pringle. This motion relates to the regulation of solid fuels. I thank the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications, Deputy Eamon Ryan, for coming to the House. I know he has a busy schedule. I thank him and the Government for accepting the motion.

The reason I brought forward this motion is that over the past few weeks, as the Minister is aware, on foot of a parliamentary question being asked, there is a great deal of anxiety among the public and especially among elderly people. When I talk about rural Ireland I am referring to people in the countryside and also to people in small towns who rely on turf as a solid fuel. I hope this is a respectful debate by everybody because we need to find solutions, not badger each other. I am not whining about it but I noted that in the debate over the last few weeks everybody spoke about turbary rights. I listened to the thoughts of Government backbenchers on it and I decided to compile a motion that would clarify situations. That is very important for people who feel there is a vacuum in the information that is required.

I will go through the motion bit by bit. I almost know it off by heart at this stage. The first matter that arose, which is included in the motion, was the types of ownership. In the motion I refer to the Minister introducing regulations in September regarding solid fuel. Turbary rights was always talked about. I have spoken to people who had fee simple rights, freehold rights, acquired rights, family rights, leasehold rights, commonage rights on mountains and in different areas and squatters' rights. There are ten different rights of ownership that people would have had down through the years. Indeed, as chairman of the Turf Cutters and Contractors Association, TCCA, when dealing with the National Parks and Wildlife Service on the designation, I know it is very familiar with the different types of rights. In fairness to it, it has recognised all those rights through the years. Rather than civil servants writing scripts and so forth, it would be good to have a straight, open debate. I would be obliged if the Minister would note with regard to the rights I have spoken about that they are recognised. It is not just turbary rights, as the Taoiseach said one day. A turbary right is just one part of a right that is involved. Clarification is needed in respect of a lot of this.

I will move to the second part of the motion. I come from Lisnageeragh bog and Turlough. It is designated. On one side of the road there are approximately 3,000 acres and on the other side there are approximately 100 acres between spread ground. That does 80 families for all their lives. An acre of bog would last them for about 200 years. When the habitats directive came into force years ago the people on one side of the road were asked if they would sell their bog or move to a relocation bog if it was possible. Unfortunately, in some parts of the country we have not been successful in getting relocation bogs. Some people were asked if they would take turf supplied by the State. That is done on a yearly basis up until 2025 or 2026. Some people were asked to take monetary compensation and were asked to buy turf somewhere else. Those people co-operated with the State. Early on, there were some who went under licence. That is another right that nobody appears to be familiar with. These people got a 65-year licence if they went four or five miles up or down the road. These were helping people with regard to the habitats directive and in respect of preserving a representative sample of bog in Ireland. Those people are left in a vacuum at present. With some of the media coverage that emerged, and I am not blaming the Minister, they do not know whether they are sitting or standing or coming or going. That needs clarification.

Then there are the people who traditionally had a right of renting. They could live in a big or small town or be out in the middle of the countryside. They might have a wet bit of bog that they did not develop and left it there and they might rent a plot from somebody up or down the road or there might be somebody who gives them a plot. People have been doing this for years. They have a right of renting, but they would not have the turbary right that is talked about.

They also need to be exempted, as I have outlined in the motion. This is for the simple reason that we do not need to complicate matters. We need to make sure that clear messages are sent out. The Department needs to ensure that it specifically categorises or explains the various things with which there are no problems

The phrase "turbary right" was used to cover everything. This panicked many people who had a freehold, particularly elderly individuals who are solely reliant on turf. I would be obliged if the Minister clarified that he would be willing to put in an exemption for all of these people. Such an exemption is provided for in the motion. It would give clarity to people to know this. In order that the Minister understands the position, I will explain that when a person rents a plot, it could be on someone else's land. The turf is brought out and spread on the ground. Those renting the plot look after it, turn it and foot it. They might get someone to bring it home or they might bring it home themselves using a car and a trailer. It all depends. Generally, the amounts of turf involved are not large.

There is not a Deputy in the Dáil who does not support doing as much retrofitting as possible. As a turf contractor, through the years I have seen that as more installation has gone into houses they need to cut less turf. In general, ten hoppers are used. When installation goes in, we see approximately two hoppers fewer being used on a yearly basis. This message needs to go out from here. We are not opposed to retrofitting. We fully support it and have done so. We supported the Minister on smoky coal last year and on previous occasions and I want to be clear on this. Something that needs to be understood is that many people in rural areas are on €13,000 a year. They are low-income families. I will call a spade a spade. I grew up beside a bog. I was born and bred on it. People may not be as affluent or wealthy as those in other parts of the country. The land is not of as good a quality. We need to put things into perspective.

In the motion, I speak about the Government working with the industry. When this was announced first there was talk about a ban on the placing on the market, the distribution or selling of turf. Anybody who understands turf and who has known about it all their lives knows there is good quality turf that has been seasoned. People dry it and let it season. I have listened to some of the Minister's colleagues state peat briquettes were fine. We can have a sod of turf as dry as a peat briquette. With no disrespect to him, the Minister will probably say that UCD and the EPA have done sampling. What were they sampling? We have also done sampling and have the result.

People can comply in the same way as they do with timber. When the Minister introduced the rules on timber last year I was very outspoken about the problem happening throughout Ireland. Unfortunately, bad quality timber, such as spruce, was being cut. People might be as well burn the Irish Independentin the fire because it would go that quickly. It was being cut one day, split the following day and then sold at the weekend. That is no good. We all know this. It is common sense. If we learned anything from the generation gone by we were always taught from knee high that timber is cut in January or February. Then, as we say in rural Ireland, it is left to season. There are more sophisticated ways to do this such as kiln drying. It can also be put into a shed where a good breeze can get at it. Over the summer months and into the back end of the year, it seasons.

I will be very honest about the tests we did. They were done on turf that was cut last May, which is a year ago now. The tests were done a month ago. The moisture content was extremely good. Something else that needs to be understood from the generation gone by is that an awful lot of people have a store and keep a supply for a year or two ahead. There is a saying down the country that it is like flint it goes so dry and tough. There is good quality burning in it. This needs to be understood. The industry will work with the Minister. From everything I have looked at the Minister does not have to press a destruct button by saying we need to ban the sale of turf. There are regulations and the Minister will be looking at them with regard to air quality.

Down through the years, we have seen the amount of coal used to keep the lights on in this country. The EPA gave a licence to burn tyres. There is a feeling at present, and this is being honest with the Minister, that the ordinary people are being picked on. They are not happy about this to be quite honest. It is not only coming from people who cut turf. It is coming from people who throw their heads up in the air and ask "Jesus, what is next?". We look at the small fry compared with what is going on around the world. It is very important that clear messages come out and that we resolve this matter.

I look at the age profile of the people I do work for. I am grey-haired myself but they are a bit greyer because they are a bit older. We are using an sledgehammer to crack a nut because it will phase out in its own way in the next ten to 12 years. The next generation is going down a different route when building new houses. Nobody has a problem with this. After ten or 12 years we should have a system in place that is beneficial to the owners, regardless of what they are. They are not all farmers. The Minister must remember that in previous times when people got a council house, they got with it a turf bank, as we call it, and a turbary right, as the Minister speaks about. They did not own an acre of land. The old saying was that it went with the chimney of the house. Bord na Móna built houses in County Roscommon for its workers. Those workers had turbary rights for cutting turf. We have to be very careful. It is not only someone abroad in the sticks such as where I live who might have a turbary right. It might be someone in a medium-sized town or a smaller town. It also needs to be noted that many parents when making a will consider members of the family who need a bit of fuel for the fire.

I again thank the Minister for accepting the motion and for coming to the House. We need to resolve this issue because of the anxiety among the community. Mixed messaging is not a good thing.

5:05 pm

Photo of Eamon RyanEamon Ryan (Dublin Bay South, Green Party)
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I thank Deputy Fitzmaurice for his opening contribution. The Government is not opposing this motion because I think we need to clear the air a bit. There is a lot of confusion, fear and misinformation on this issue. I will summarise what I see as some of the key issues.

This goes back to the late 1980s and early 1990s when Dublin had a particular problem with smoky coal. I think Mary Harney as Minister of State introduced regulations to restrict those smoky coals. It had a profound effect. The situation in Dublin at the time was desperate. Anyone of a certain age will remember it. The evidence is really clear that we saved something like 350 lives per year that were being lost at the time because of bronchial asthma and heart conditions that came with breathing in foul air. Over the years since, we extended that smoky coal ban to other areas, cities and towns because coal is a particular issue. This has been quoted a lot but it bears repeating. The European Environment Agency's assessment was carried out two years ago. Its assessment was that there were something like 1,400 premature mortalities from air pollution, the majority of which were primarily attributable to particulate matter - the small bits of soot you would hardly see. I think the scientific description is less than 2.5 microns wide. At that small level, they get into your lungs and bloodstream, which is why it is such an issue. It has been recognised going back about seven or eight years.

Various Governments have been looking to go further to reduce those deaths and to initially introduce a smoky coal ban across the country. This is so much easier because then you cannot get illegal imports and stuff coming across the Border. You never have anything but smokeless coal in the country. There was clear legal advice that was subject to legal challenge for fairly rational reasons because the people who were selling that product would say that the Government was addressing one element of it but was not addressing the other elements because the burning of wet wood or peat has a similar effect. Under European law, it seems categorical that you cannot discriminate between products but must regulate across. That was clear advice. A series of Ministers recognised that this was not easy because when you get into the area of turf in particular, it is conflicting for a range of reasons against other public policy people who have customary rights - let us use those words. There is a range of different aspects in this, including arrangements that have been put, such as turf compensation schemes. It is complicated. A variety of people have traditionally relied on their own bogs or access to a bog to be able to provide for their heating and the regulation of that is incredibly difficult. In many ways, you would say this is not the core of the regulation we want. The key problem is in towns, villages and cities. Those within a house in a country area are at risk. In particular, an open fire creates health problems for those in the house, which is something about which we must be clear, up-front and honest. However, neighbours and others are less likely to be affected because of the greater distance between houses in the country. However, it is a real problem in towns. I met the EPA earlier this year to discuss another issue but it told me we have a real problem and cited Ennis. I think there were 40 days this winter when it was above the WHO limit for a 24-hour period. That is killing people. Deputy McNamara would be aware that this was a real issue in his constituency. It is not just Ennis. There are towns and villages across the country where that applies.

In the programme for Government, we committed to extending the smoky coal ban nationwide. Everyone knows this also meant we would have to address the issue of wet wood and turf. We started that process a year and a half ago. In fairness to Deputy Fitzmaurice, there has been ongoing communication throughout that process. This discussion did not start in the past two weeks. In the public consultation that happened in September last year and before that, we made it very clear that we were willing to take certain legal risks because there are legal risks. The best and most legally watertight way is just to say that not a single sod of turf can be burnt. We said that what we were going to do was regulate it at the retail level - at the commercial distribution level rather than for those who are taking turf from their own bogs or sharing with neighbours in that kind of rural tradition. We said this was not the kind of ban we are talking about. We are looking to regulate the commercial retail aspect of this and the Government and I are still committed to that. There is real concern and we have listened. We listened to Opposition Members last week in the various debates and to the Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and Green parliamentary parties. I believe we can and will introduce something that protects the lives of those 1,300 people and is manageable in terms of those who have that traditional use of and access to a bog but regulates it at the retail level. We cannot ignore towns because it is there where we have the real problem. We need to work with the likes of Irish Rural Link, which I met last week, and use its boots-on-the ground capability to identify those who may have a problem in switching over and help them in every way we can to make sure this switch is made.

The Taoiseach was correct last week. A lot of people said "Oh God, he's weakening the regulations." He was not. He made the obvious point that we said last September, and we had to give notice to the suppliers as well as to the customers, that from next autumn, they should not buy in or do contracts for that smoky coal because it will not be allowed and that we will introduce these regulations that address wet wood and turf in particular. We gave a clear signal that we would do it. The truth is that by doing it this autumn, in respect of turf, the Deputy knows more than anyone that most of the turf is in, saved and sold by the end of August. People are saying this is the wrong time. There is never a right time. There is never a right time when 1,300 lives are being lost. We are conscious that next winter will be tough but for the majority of people, particularly those relying on turf, be they out in the country and have access to a bog or an arrangement with a neighbour whereby they can get it, it will be an issue for the following year. However, we do need to introduce regulations in the autumn for smoky coal in particular because we do not want to go through another winter, particularly if it is cold, where people die unnecessarily because of that.

We listened to the various voices. The draft regulations were very much draft ones. We are in the middle of a consultation process with the European Commission, which we must do. We may have to go back and talk to it again. We will do so because we are going to amend them listening to some of the voices and views here. We will get that right and will introduce it in the autumn in a way that allows us to get that balance right.

It is a balance, but I believe it is one that legally, we cannot ignore or walk away from.

Lastly, I would say I agree with the majority of the motion, as set out. We hear different views on the issue. Friends and colleagues who burn a lot of turf say that very dry turf burns quickly. It is one of the characteristics of it. Yes, it has a very high efficiency, but it burns up quite quickly. People are not burning wet turf. It does not make sense. It does not work. We have to go with the science. I will be perfectly honest. Even on the peat briquettes, I will be looking at the science to ensure that those briquettes, because of the way they are processed and burn, are below the 10 micrograms of pollution that is put out into the atmosphere. We have to be straight about that and ensure that is the case. I do not believe it will open up a future where we find that it is possible to burn turf. No matter how seasoned it is, it brings difficulties. That is a point of difference, but we will discuss it. We will sit down, listen and engage. That is what this debate is about. It is why I appreciate it and why the Government is not opposing the motion.

5:15 pm

Photo of Thomas PringleThomas Pringle (Donegal, Independent)
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My colleague, Deputy Fitzmaurice, has outlined, in depth, the very real concerns that exist on this issue, and has further outlined solutions that would go a long way to allay those concerns as they relate to the proposed regulations in the short term. We know he has an indepth understanding of the issue, as he is someone who has toiled at the coalface - no pun intended - or turf face of this line of work for many years. He is giving voice accurately to the thoughts and feelings of many people up and down the country here today. Yet, I have to ask the question of how we arrived at this point. Why, in relation to climate action initiatives, do we always appear to arrive at a similar point of conflict? No Member of this House can rationally dispute the fact that climate breakdown is happening; that climate change is the defining issue for our country and for our society; and that it requires us all, as a nation, as a society and, importantly, as communities, to face this thing head-on. It requires brave political decisions. However, condemning a cohort of people in this country into poverty does not qualify as a brave political decision. The finger-pointing and whataboutery of those on the Government benches towards the Opposition, on this issue, cheapens the discourse, and does a disservice to the issue of climate action. It would suit the Minister and his colleagues better to acknowledge the broad support they have enjoyed from across both Houses of the Oireachtas in setting targets and embracing initiatives on climate, when they have been well-founded and fair. It is quite simple in my mind. Measures must be poverty-proofed. They cannot and should not widen inequality. They should not pit sections of our society against each other. I take on board what the Minister has said in his response today. That is vitally important.

A just transition must be more than an empty formula of words that are trotted out now and then, when it suits. It has to be at the centre of Government thinking on all such proposals if it is to get the buy-in and understanding of people, especially in rural communities such as Donegal, where there is still a higher-than-average reliance on fossil fuels, such as turf, to provide domestic heating. A sustainable, affordable alternative must be put in place before the rug is pulled from under those people. The consequence of poor policy, as we have seen many times, is to leave yourself a hostage to fortune, to climate deniers peddling glib lines and false promises of return to some bygone utopia at the expense of any chance of a future. I passionately want that future for my children and future generations of Irish citizens. However, the Minister will not achieve his goals in the short, medium or long term if the Government continues to act like only it knows best, and that we should all just be compliant and silent to its superior understanding of what is good for us. It does not wash with people. The Minister must see that. It is a demeaning way of trying to get things done. More importantly, it is failing, and will continue to fail.

Another thing that has struck me about the political discourse on this issue is the simplistic idea that this is some dastardly Machiavellian three-card trick pulled off by the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communication and the Greens over their colleagues in Government. There has been little challenge to this empty rhetoric in the media. Indeed, it appears to suit Deputies in Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael to let the Minister defend the Government decision on his own, in the hope of distancing themselves from it with their silence. People are not stupid. They can see the cack-handed, divisive, inequality-loving fingerprints of Fine Gael and the last-minute, ill-judged, back-of-an-envelope-job trademark of Fianna Fáil all over this mess.

In conclusion, it is obvious to all of us in this House that we have to fully decarbonise our energy consumption, not just domestic heating, in the short to medium term. Will the burning of all fossil fuels end? It will. Can it be achieved unfairly on the backs of people in rural Ireland? No, it cannot. This Government, and previous ideological carbon copy iterations of the same, have had years to bring forward solutions on this issue. We, in the Opposition, have consistently called for a fabric-first approach, for just, equitable and affordable solutions. Yet, the Government has not come forward with them. I earnestly advocate for the Minister to go back to the drawing board and come back in here to present us with a proper solution. In the interim, I ask him to listen to the ideas put forward in this motion by Deputy Fitzmaurice, and commit to exploring those solutions fully, as I note he said he would in his contribution. That is vitally important, because it is a way this will be delivered. People will but into, go along with, and accept, the decision. They will accept other decisions that will be difficult to take in the future as well.

Photo of Catherine ConnollyCatherine Connolly (Galway West, Independent)
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I thank Deputy Fitzmaurice for his effort and his work behind this motion. I welcome that the Government is not opposing it and is going to work with the contents of it. I find myself in a strange position. I am absolutely committed to tackling climate change. It is the greatest existential threat we face, and we have to take action. My difficulty with a lot of what the Government is doing is that it would appear to be on a divide and conquer basis. On this occasion, there is a division between the town or city and the rural areas. The feeling for me, and for those on the ground, taking Galway city as an example, is that urgent action is not being taken in relation to climate change. We are not rolling our park and ride, public transport, and so on. We took away waste management responsibilities from the county councils way back in 2001, when Galway City Council distinguished itself by working towards a zero waste strategy. However, it was unacceptable to the Government at the time. The Minister will remember all of that. We said "No" to an incinerator not on the basis of NIMBYism, but on the basis of a zero waste strategy, using three bins and so on. I say that by way of highlighting that the people are way ahead of us on so many issues, including neutrality, climate change and what is needed. Justice and equality comes up on the doorsteps all the time. I have never heard about anybody looking for a reduction in tax in all the time I have canvassed. What they have asked for is services.

Back to the topic at hand, what happened here is most unfortunate, to put it at its lightest. Rather than anticipating and analysing the problem and ensuring the delivery of a just transition, as my colleague has said, through providing ways of dealing with it when the turf has to go, the Government took a hammer to it. Now it is changing its mind, which I welcome. We all make mistakes. I welcome that the Government is going to look at the issue. However, it is doing terrible damage to the climate change movement. I know that it is about health. I fully support the Government in relation to the elimination of smoky fuels. The Minister talked about evidence. I ask him to look at the analysis. I am looking forward to the publication of the more recent analysis that follows up on the census. I will be parochial and take Galway as an example. The last census listed the counties with the highest proportion of households using peat central heating. County Galway was third on the list, with 23% of households using peat for central heating. As my colleague has pointed out to me, that figure excludes the houses that are using peat with no central heating. The figure is astronomically high. We are utterly reliant on peat. I am only mentioning the one county that is third highest on the list. There are lots of other counties. No analysis was done, or thought given by anyone, as to how to deal with that. I come back the point about double messages being given all the time. I am on record as being against the carbon tax. I make absolutely no apology for it. It is a divisive tax and it does not serve us well in relation to climate change. I do not think my experience in County Galway can be described as being unique to Galway. I think people genuinely want to act in relation to climate change. The obstacles have come from successive Governments. Taking data centres as an example, I remember that in 2018 I was not familiar with data centres. The women working with me downloaded the policy document on data centres. I could not believe it. Perhaps the acting Chairman might have a different opinion from me when he is sitting as a Deputy. It is worth reading the document. It gives the thumbs-up to data centres, without even a consideration of the consequences for climate change and energy use.

That still has not been updated. We are telling people they cannot burn turf, the one thing they rely on, and we are giving them no alternative. On the other hand Government policy states that we should build as many data centres as we like. I recently spoke on this in a Sinn Féin motion on data centres. There are over 70 of them in Ireland, another eight are under construction and up to 30 more in the planning stages. As of September 2021, data centres take up 11% of electricity in Ireland.

I will return to the topic at hand. What is missing is leadership and a recognition that the people are ahead of us. There should be no division between neighbours or between city and county. We were in this together, in the truest sense, not like was said about Covid and the solidarity. We were together for a little while and we quickly departed from that. We used punitive methods and divide and conquer tactics among those who were vaccinated and those who were not. We are doing the same thing with climate change with a punitive carbon tax and stupidity when it comes to divide and conquer as opposed to a just transition, rewarding the people and giving them alternatives.

5:25 pm

Photo of Darren O'RourkeDarren O'Rourke (Meath East, Sinn Fein)
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I thank the Independent Group for bringing this motion. It seeks to go some way towards filling a vacuum left by the Government when it jumped, so dreadfully ill-prepared, to announce a ban on the sale and distribution of turf. The motion seeks to clarify what is meant by "turbary rights"; those can come in different ways and forms and the motion seeks to exempt certain identified groups. It also calls on the Government to work with the industry to look at the standard and performance of turf and its comparison with so-called acceptable solid fuels.

The fact that we are debating this motion at this stage and that it is an Opposition motion shows how Government has failed so miserably in the basic business of Government: planning; preparation; engagement; support; and communication. Despite lots of talk about the issue of turf and lots of pontification and vilification, the truth is the Government made a hames of this and it has no one but itself to blame. The vast majority of people using turf are living in rural Ireland, often in colder homes. Many earn too much to qualify for the free energy upgrades and have little to no disposable income that they can put towards a retrofit of their homes, even with the 50% grant. Even for those who qualify for the free energy upgrades, there is a two-year waiting list with a backlog of 7,000 people and Government is making slow progress towards addressing that backlog. When the Government's half-baked plan was brought forward, devoid of the basic statistics on energy poverty and turf use and containing no proposed alternatives, people had a right to be concerned and the Opposition had a right to challenge the Government to do better. We all recognise the need to move from fossil fuels to environmentally friendly alternatives. That is not in dispute but the Government needs to work with people to assist them through this major energy transition.

A just transition is a critical component of climate action. It means bringing together workers, communities, employers and Government in social dialogue to drive the concrete plans, policies and investments needed for a fair and fast transformation to a low carbon economy and to ensure employment and jobs in the new economy are as decent and well-paid as those left behind. This Government refused to accept our amendments to the Climate Action and Low Carbon Development (Amendment) Act 2021, which would have defined a just transition and climate justice and ensured the climate action plan was drafted with reference to just transition principles. It was a real shame that the Government refused our constructive suggestions and the resulting climate policies are weaker as a result. The same can be said of the amendments brought forward by Deputy Whitmore on the Circular Economy, Waste Management (Amendment) and Minerals Development (Amendment) Bill 2022 earlier this week that were opposed. The amendments sought that just transition principles would be included in that Bill but they were opposed by the Government.

Most of the Government's policies are missing that key just transition element and that is a choice and decision of the Government. The midlands was the first major area promised a just transition as the peat-burning power stations were wound down. Unfortunately, jobs, reskilling and investment have not materialised and communities feel left behind. They feel they were sold a pup because they were. This is another reason the Government's proposed ban on the sale of turf went down so poorly. It did so because those it will impact are centralised in the midlands in particular, with this motion highlighting that in some counties up to 34% of households are solely dependent on turf as solid fuel. There is a level of mistrust that is of the Government's own making and it is important that the Government seeks to address it. It is doing real harm to the climate agenda. From this Government, as with previous Governments, people see failure, hypocrisy and inequity.

The urgent need to tackle climate change is not in question. We all know we need to move urgently towards a zero carbon society and economy and this will take action from individuals, businesses and the State. The Government is failing in its responsibility. It is high on rhetoric and low on delivery and at the heart of every scheme it designs is inequity. Yesterday, for example, the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland, SEAI, highlighted a 6.3% growth in energy-related carbon dioxide emissions last year. This is extremely worrying considering we need to reduce overall emission by 4.7% each year in the first half of this decade to meet our 2030 emissions reductions targets. Slow action and input to policies are contributing to this move in the wrong direction. On the one hand the Minister is telling ordinary people to cut energy use while on the other hand doing nothing to curb the uncontrolled growth of energy-sapping data centres. Data centres are already using more electricity than all rural houses combined and this is set to more than double out to 2030. People see the hypocrisy in Government policy and action and they will not stand for it.

Photo of Matt CarthyMatt Carthy (Cavan-Monaghan, Sinn Fein)
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If we are to take the Minister's remarks on their own I am sure the vast majority of people would say they are all laudable aspirations. When people are in government they have to be judged on the results of their words and actions and here are the results of what the Minister, the Green Party and the Government managed to do in recent weeks. The amount of turf that will be extracted and sold in Ireland in 2021 will be significantly higher than in 2020. That is thanks to the Minister and his actions. Many people who have not burned turf in several years are making arrangements to get to their bogs, contacting their neighbours to look for a supply or if they use turf they are getting a little bit extra just in case. How ironic is that? The Green Party in government is damaging the environment.

There has been an attempt to portray the debate that surrounded the Government's mishandling of the turf ban in binary terms. It has been portrayed that the protection of peatlands is good therefore anyone who opposes any measure, regardless of how harebrained or unworkable, that has that as its stated aspiration is portrayed as a narrow-minded and populist resister of inevitable change. The problem is that the Government’s approach to these matters is often considered - rightly in my view - punitive, tokenistic and hypocritical by those who are directly affected. Rather than advancing climate action, Government measures alienate many of those people who are keen to protect the environment, water quality, biodiversity and air quality of the communities they live in. It is nonsensical to suggest there are people in some part of Ireland who are content in destroying that area in which they live.

The numbers of those using turf to heat their homes have declined rapidly over a number of decades. Why is that? The evidence is clear; when they have an affordable and credible alternative people embrace it. The question has to be asked, and it is a legitimate question that neither the Minister nor any of his colleagues in government have addressed, why is the Government's focus not on providing those alternatives? Aside from the most recent debacle, the largest single driver of increased solid fuel use in recent months has been the rapidly rising cost of home heating oil. What was the Government’s response to that? It was to increase the cost of home heating oil further through carbon tax hikes, not at the beginning of this year or last year but last Sunday.

If the Minister, Deputy Ryan, was genuine in his motivation behind the turf ban being air quality, he would have been the person at Cabinet to demand that the most recent carbon tax was halted. In fact he would have been supporting and advocating for Sinn Féin's call that all excise duties and charges on heating oil be lifted during the current cost-of-living emergency. That single move would have done more to reduce turf use than anything he now presents in his unworkable regulations on turf sales.

Peatlands are an invaluable natural resource that must be protected. That is a statement of fact. The burning of solid fuels is damaging our environment and our air quality. That is a statement of fact that Sinn Féin recognises absolutely. It is quite frankly insulting that Government, through its spin and favoured commentators, is now trying to accuse those of us who have pointed out that its proposals are unworkable of somehow being climate deniers or populists because we impose what are unfair and quite frankly counterproductive measures.

While it has been rarely mentioned in the many pontifications that have filled the opinion columns in recent days, it was not lost within community discussions or in this House, in which we have mentioned it quite a number of times, that the turf debacle coincided with the approval of another data centre, one that will use the same levels of electricity supply as some small cities. That the Green Party and its partners in Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael refused to support a moratorium on such developments, only last year, simply adds to the view that Government is more comfortable in targeting ordinary families without alternatives than it is to facing up to large corporate polluters.

The Government assertion that climate action equates to punitive measures is disingenuous. To say, as is essentially the rhetoric from Government, that we cannot fund climate measures unless the burden is borne by ordinary workers and families through carbon taxes is dishonest. What actually happens? That very same argument is then embraced by actual climate deniers. We probably hear it in this House that anybody who supports carbon targets and climate actions at all, therefore supports carbon taxes and punishing ordinary people.

The truth is that there is a fairer way, which is by providing the alternatives before penalising people for not using those alternatives. Essentially that is what Government has in place now in that it is charging people for not using alternatives that do not exist for them. Increasing the cost of petrol and diesel for those who have no choice but to drive to work, no access to public transport and cannot afford an electric vehicle does nothing for the environment. It just makes their lives harder and likewise for those who use solid fuels.

If the Government wants people to change, it has to first provide a mechanism for them to do so. Most of those hardest hit by Government actions do not have such a mechanism. They do not get the supports and benefits that are often cited as existing as a result of the carbon taxes they pay. Government claims that a portion of the take from carbon taxes goes to agri-environmental schemes for farmers but it does not say that is actually less than the CAP funding it gave away in EU budget negotiations. Farmers are expected to pay considerable amounts through carbon taxes but get less back in supports.

Most working families to do not have access to 100% retrofitting grants. Those who do will wait years for them and they cannot afford to avail of electric vehicle grants. This is one of the sources of the unfairness. Somebody who lives in an area that is very-well serviced by public transport and happens to have sufficient funds in the bank can get a €5,000 grant from the Government towards a brand new electric car and a €25,000 grant towards a deep retrofit of his or her home. The Minister of State expects people without either the means or transport alternative to pay for it through the Government's taxes.

If we really want to make a positive impact, funds should be delivered to where they will make the biggest impact and where they are needed most. In the first instance, a comprehensive cost-of-living package must be delivered as advocated by Sinn Féin. People need a break. At a minimum Government should commit to not making necessities more expensive without alternatives. Second, resources should be targeted at those who currently do not have the alternatives in transport or heating systems. Third, we must recognise that far from delivering positive changes, the actions of the Minister, Deputy Ryan, the Green Party and their colleagues in government, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, are making things worse. We can and must pursue a better, more effective course.

I commend Deputy Fitzmaurice on bringing forward this motion and a bit of realism to this House. Government has indicated that it will support the motion. However, it now needs to genuinely start listening to communities throughout this country that want to play a positive role in protecting our environment but are being hampered in doing so by this Government.

5:35 pm

Photo of Claire KerraneClaire Kerrane (Roscommon-Galway, Sinn Fein)
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I welcome this motion and commend my constituency colleague, Deputy Fitzmaurice, and his colleagues on bringing it forward. They have put forward, as has widely been agreed here this evening, reasonable asks of Government with regard to the turf-sale ban initially proposed by the Minister, Deputy Ryan. One of the first things the Minister, Deputy Ryan, said when he stood up was about the amount of misinformation that has been given on this issue.

Of course most of that misinformation came from Government because there was a parliamentary question reply that did not speak about commercial sale. On 5 April it categorically stated that "a regulatory provision will be made to prohibit the placing on the market, sale or distribution of sod peat". The reply went on to state that "persons ...[with] turbary rights ... will not be permitted to place it on the market for sale or distribution to others". The misinformation, which came on the back of that reply from the Minister, was the Tánaiste saying there would be a pause and the Minister saying that the plans would be proceed and there was no pause agreed.

That was the bulk of the misinformation on this issue from start to finish. Unfortunately we still do not have that clarity that is very badly needed. This motion puts the Minister on notice because it will be important when he comes to look at these regulations that he considers those listed in this motion. It is not just as simple as those with turbary rights. We welcome the U-turn that has now been taken on these regulations that were due to come into effect in four months' time. In that initial parliamentary question reply there was no mention of drafts or consultations. It was a factual statement that this was happening. Clearly that was the Minister's intention.

As has been said quite often since all of this began, the fear, confusion, stress and worry that this caused in rural communities was immense. It was handled so badly from start to finish. I hope at the very least that a lesson has been learned by Government because we have to bring rural communities with us in climate action. This is certainly not a way to do that. This entire debacle also points to the need for a rural-proofing mechanism to be put in place.

I welcome that the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, is working on such a mechanism and that it has been tendered and work is under way to come up with the best mechanism that can be put in place. That will be needed not just for climate action measures but for all measures and policies in all Departments. We need a rural-proofing mechanism to ensure that rural communities are considered when it comes to policy from any Department. It is very reasonable for people to seek that alternatives are put in place and we do not have a situation in which things are done back to front.

There is a cohort of people who either cut or use turf that would tomorrow take an alternative if it was accessible and affordable. Certainly my generation, which is very different from the generations before us, does not take enjoyment from going to the bog. In fact we dread it and many of us hate it but unfortunately we have to do it. I remember growing up that the only way dad would get us to go the bog was by telling us we could bring picnic. We would get to the bog, eat the picnic and want to go home. That is not what my generation wants.

However, there is also a cohort of people that will accept and use nothing other than turf. I think of my granny at 90 years of age. I acknowledge that the Minister appreciates that tradition and culture because it is very important for that generation. The cutting and use of turf is generational. It will naturally phase out. There is doubt that will happen.

It is absolutely shameful that we do not have a poverty strategy in place in this State in 2022.

Whether this involves one person or 200, 2,000 or 3,000 people dying in this State every year because of energy poverty, the fact is that people are dying in this State in 2022 due to fuel poverty. We have no strategy. We do not know the households where people are living in fuel poverty or those households where people are at risk of fuel poverty. The fuel allowance exists, but it is extremely limited as a support measure. There are some households where if people get sick and must leave their jobs it will not be possible for them to access the fuel allowance if they are on illness benefit. People on low pay getting the working family payment, WFP, which essentially tops up poor wages, cannot get the fuel allowance. Whatever the perception might be, especially in the Government, there is no link between fuel poverty and the fuel allowance. People receiving a certain number of payments get the fuel allowance, but otherwise there is no support for people living in fuel poverty.

The first thing we must do therefore is to determine who is living in fuel poverty. These are important data we do not have. We need and should have that data if we are going to have a just transition and bring people with us. I say that because that is what we need to do if we are going to be successful in undertaking climate action. I call on the Government, in addition to considering everything in this motion, as important as it is, to accept also that the alternatives are just as important and so is a fuel poverty strategy. I hope the Government will commit to going back to the table to develop and publish such a strategy. It is so important for us to have it in this day and age, that we tackle this issue and ensure that people do not die because they are cold in Ireland in 2022.

5:45 pm

Photo of Duncan SmithDuncan Smith (Dublin Fingal, Labour)
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I acknowledge the content of this motion and Deputy Fitzmaurice's work on it. Sometimes it is a shame that the schedule of the Dáil is so rigid in respect of when parties or groupings have business in Private Members' time. This motion would have been better discussed last week. That is the case no matter what side one is on in this debate. Anyone who listened to Deputy Fitzmaurice debate this issue on "Morning Ireland" a few days ago from the perspective of his experience of being a man of the bog, as he said on that programme, would have realised this is something we should have been discussing last week. The debate got away from us last week and it became about other things.

This subject concerns the regulations and how we can move from the status quo, which cannot continue, to where we need to go. We may differ on this point, but at least this motion is technical and based in the reality of what is happening on the ground in the communities on the bog being heated by the turf from those bogs. This aspect must be acknowledged. We must, however, move and bring people with us. This is where the Government has failed in recent weeks and that is why this has become such a worrying issue.

The facts do not lie. Some 1,300 die annually due to poor air quality. There are several reasons for this, including emissions from vehicle fuel, smoky coal and the burning of turf. We do not know to what degree each contributes, but taken together, having all these particles in the air is damaging people's health. I just about remember the 1980s and the smog in Dublin resulting from the use of smoky coal. Work went into reducing the use of such smoky coal in Dublin and our other major cities.

We now need an all-island ban on smoky coal because it can still be seen. In my constituency of Dublin Fingal, coal can still be seen for sale at the side of the road in bags that we do not know the origin of. We also do not know the standard of this type of coal. Many people, however, believe it to be smoky coal. This practice must stop and we need a 32-county approach to achieving this objective. After the Assembly elections, this is something we must explore with real vigour. I say that because this remains a problem. In 2015, the then Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Alan Kelly, began the process of introducing a nationwide ban on smoky coal. It ended up running into the sands when we left, or were kicked out of, Government, in 2016.

We see, and have seen, continued resistance to doing what is needed regarding reducing particle emissions into our atmosphere and reducing our air pollution. These are difficult decisions to make. There is no denying this point. Unfortunately, the approach taken by the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications, Deputy Eamon Ryan, has perhaps been too bullheaded and has caused this row, which has been building in recent weeks. It need not have come to this point. We must examine what practical solutions could have been proposed in this context. For example, we know the homes that require turf to fire their central heating systems or just to heat those homes that do not have central heating. One of the solutions we suggested was that we could have fast-tracked those properties for retrofitting. We are looking at this scheme and it is still almost up in the atmosphere. People are not seeing it on the ground.

If, however, the Government had stated that it knew turf was a poor fuel for heating homes and that this was a status quothat must be moved away from, while also acknowledging that people living in fuel poverty do not have other options now and therefore the Government was going to fast-track retrofitting those people's homes, that would have been the way bring people with them, but that was not done. An ideological approach was taken. It was absorbed by these communities and this is what has caused the fear that exists. This has all happened in a context where there are practical solutions that could have brought people with us on this transition and got us to where we want to be. That objective is to reduce to zero the need to burn poor fossil fuels in our homes, businesses or vehicles to enable us to live, commute and work. This is the point we must get to.

We have talked about the Climate Action and Low Carbon Development (Amendment) Bill 2021 and the globe being on fire and climate breakdown. The reality when it comes to making decisions is that they become politically difficult. Therefore, we must find solutions to get us through, because there is no other option. We must stop burning turf, coal and other fossil fuels. Other solutions exist and we must target them at the people in need of them. The cost-of-living crisis is real. Fuel poverty is very real. The fuel allowance is not fit for purpose and it is not helping people where they need it. Even if people do receive fuel allowance payments, just providing more money to buy poor fossil fuels that are going to damage the atmosphere is not where we need to be. That is the status quo. We must move forward and bring people with us.

This motion goes some way towards doing that. We will always find ourselves at some point being on opposite sides or not being fully in agreement. This motion is borne from lived experience. It offers a proposal worthy of discussion. We must see something more from the Government on this issue. We cannot allow our war on climate change to fall at any hurdle, and especially not at this one.

Photo of Jennifer WhitmoreJennifer Whitmore (Wicklow, Social Democrats)
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I also thank Deputy Fitzmaurice and the Independent Group for bringing forward this motion. I found it informative. I was surprised at the number of rights and leases available to people in rural communities. The fact that there are so many shows the complexity of this issue, as well as how intrinsic it is to rural life and to many thousands of communities across the country. That is also demonstrated by this system having gone on for so many years and with so many different regimes having been applied to it.

This is the third time I have spoken on this issue in recent weeks. Previously, I spoke about how frustrating I found the lack of clarity regarding what was being proposed. I said that what was incredibly frustrating was that the lack of clarity, and the concern that ensued from it, undermined the fundamental message this regulation was trying to convey. This message concerns air pollution and public health. A climate message is also embedded in this regulation, as is a biodiversity message. All those environmental messages were lost. They became tangled up in this huge political fight because of a lack of clarity from the Minister and the Government regarding this matter.

I had some element of sympathy in that regard because it can be difficult to get this type of messaging across sometimes. My sympathy, however, waned quite a lot after I read the public consultation on the development of the new solid fuel regulations for Ireland.

I presume this is consultation the Government did on this issue. This is the summary of the responses. I had a quick read of it. Interestingly, 3,500 people responded to that consultation. I have worked for Government bodies where I have run public consultations and that is a massive number of people to engage on any topic. That in itself highlights how important this issue is to communities across the country. Probably the most stark thing that jumped out at me was on the third page, where the fourth paragraph notes that there appears to have been a significant level of misunderstanding regarding the purpose of the consultation and the scope of the regulatory proposals. A large number of respondents made submissions outlining their opposition to an outright ban on all solid fuels or a ban on turf cutting, despite the fact that no such bans were proposed in the consultation documents, press releases, town hall meetings or any statements made by the Minister. The document states that while this misinterpretation had the effect of eliciting a number of responses that were not fully relevant, it did provide some further context and understanding of certain areas of public opinion. It goes on to talk about the different issues that were raised during the consultation, including health, fuel poverty, retrofitting, traditional cultural attachment, cultural awareness and communication.

The Minister was told this was going to be a mess. It was clear from the consultation that people did not understand what he was doing or why he was doing it. Yet he continued and because he refused to listen to the 3,500 voices of those who took time out of their day to engage in this process, it is in the first page that there was a lack of clarity and major confusion about that. Because he refused to listen to them, we are now here at the point where we have had to debate this issue three times in the Dáil. We are in the middle of a cost of fuel crisis and a cost of living crisis. We have a war that is waging in Europe. We have climate and biodiversity crises. We are about to hand over €1 billion to a private healthcare entity where there is a lack of clarity about who is going to control it. We have so many issues to be discussing yet this is the third time we are discussing this matter. The Government was told by the public that what it was proposing was unclear. Given it was so avoidable, I find it absolutely unforgivable that it did not listen to those people. It is a pity the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan is not here at the moment. He spoke earlier and said that the public consultation made it clear and that he listened to various voices. I cannot see any evidence of that whatsoever.

The specific issues raised by people included concerns in respect of fuel poverty, the availability of affordable alternatives to solid fuel, and that the cost of retrofitting is too high. Strident regulation of solid fuels would constitute an attack on rural Ireland and traditional home heating practices. Everything we have been saying, all the Members of the Opposition and in fact Members of the Government have been saying for the past two weeks, the public had already told the Minister and he did not listen. We cannot afford to allow that to happen. Dealing with climate and environmental crises and air pollution is going to involve many challenges. There will be messaging and financial challenges. People can be fearful of change. There are many things we will need to do. My goodness, please, the Government must listen to people when it does a consultation. I do not see the point of spending money on a consultation. I am not even sure if it was read by any person in government because I have not heard anyone else talking about this document.

I also want to mention the issue of just transition. I welcome the fact that the Minister of State engaged with the committee on the Circular Economy, Waste Management (Amendment) and Minerals Development (Amendment) Bill 2022 and included poverty proofing and disability proofing of it. I reiterate my disappointment that the just transition principles were not included and were opposed, as they were also opposed in the Climate Bill. If the just transition principles had been applied in this instance, I do not think we would be here today.

I understand that the primary purpose of this is a public health and air pollution objective. The Social Democrats introduced a Bill last year on car idling at school gates. It is a robust Bill and has been developed and been through the Bills process. It is a win-win for everybody, for the environment, children's health, and for the people who will use less fuel because there is no idling. It is also an issue that Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the Green Party have all at some point said they would implement if they got into government. I ask that they look at those wins and move on the Bill. As an Opposition Deputy it is highly unlikely I will get it any further than to introduce it. I ask that the Minister of State does that. If his objective is to have clean air, here is a simple measure he can undertake that has already essentially been approved and given the green light by his party members.

I also wish to reiterate the calls for a strategy on fuel poverty. It is disgraceful that it is three years out of date, particularly in the times people are facing at the moment. I ask that the Government moves quickly on that and gets it done.

5:55 pm

Photo of Michael LowryMichael Lowry (Tipperary, Independent)
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Bringing home the turf in rural Ireland has long been considered a necessary and noble task. Ending the cutting of turf is ending a tradition. Irish people hold traditions very dear. I am opposed to an immediate ban on turf cutting. I voted against the Government's position on this issue last week. Most of us in this House know the dangers of global warming. The threat posed by fossil fuels must be addressed. However, in doing so, we are obliged to take stock of the overall picture. This cannot happen overnight. We must allow time for people to change the habits of a lifetime and, more important, to make provisions for the future.

In my native Tipperary we have a village called Littleton. This village and community grew around the operation of the former briquette factory. A large number of locals were employed permanently or part-time at the factory. As part of their terms of employment the workers were entitled to turf and briquettes at a discounted price. As an obvious result, their homes were, and most still are, heated by solid fuel, cookers and back boilers. These households need time to adapt. Now is not the time to force change. Every household is under financial pressure. Money is scarce and budgets are tight. Ability to fund retrofits is constrained. Grant structures for retrofitting requires the applicant to personally contribute a large sum of money. The vast majority of households simply do not have this level of funding available to them. Even if an applicant can meet the qualification criteria, certified tradesmen are overstretched and unavailable. Carrying out such work is not achievable for many families within an enforced time span.

Over the past weeks I have been contacted by numerous people involved in the tradition of saving turf. One man has been cutting turf in Tipperary for over 40 years. Down through the years his family has employed up to 50 people. They sell turf as a single source fuel supply to in excess of 300 homes locally. They are now dealing with the third generation of local families. This man states that the past few weeks have been incredibly difficult for the turf-cutting business. This is due to inconsistent messaging on the future of turf-cutting. I want to quote him to give an accurate reflection of what he and many more are feeling at this time. He says: "On a daily basis, I am receiving calls from customers, many of whom I would consider to be vulnerable. They are expressing serious concerns about their ability to heat their homes. In the context of the current economic situation, in particular wholesale oil and gas prices, if people have to refrain from burning turf, it is likely that many will be unable to obtain an economically viable heat source for their homes." He is pleading with the Government to make this move in a phased manner to avoid a cliff-edge impact on customers and contractors. His business has invested heavily in machinery, tools and equipment. If a swift ban on cutting turf is implemented, it will not only affect the livelihoods of his employees, but will also write off significant investments by contractors across the country.

He cannot be faulted for asking if the Government will offer financial support to them when their businesses are wiped out. Equally, he cannot be blamed for worrying about his customers' ability to transition to an alternative heat source for their homes. It is impossible to explain to people the logic behind imposing costly demands in the middle of the current economic crisis, a time when many are already deciding whether to eat or heat their homes. The time will come when these decisions can be made, but now is not the time to take unilateral decisions that have negative impacts on vulnerable households.

6:05 pm

Photo of Seán CanneySeán Canney (Galway East, Independent)
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I too opposed the Government's proposals last week in the motions because we all want to ensure that measures put in place are just. I will give a few examples of things that should be in place and alternatives that are not available. We all know the charging point infrastructure for electric vehicles is not in the country. I have a constituent who sold the electric car he bought eight months ago because he could not charge it at home owing to a problem with the ESB, nor could he do so in Tuam because there is only one charging point there. Down in Claremorris, there is also only one. The man sold the car. He said he would never touch it again.

For about 12 years, we have been looking for a bus lane between Claregalway and Galway city. For probably 20 years, we have been looking for a bypass of Claregalway. I mention these points because we talk about cars idling outside schools. Around 30,000 cars idle for about half an hour every morning as people try to get to Galway from the Tuam area, and they do so again in the evening as they try to get home. This causes many problems for air quality and the health of our people.

The warmer homes scheme is great but the delay in getting people to do the inspections and the work is up to two years. As late as three months ago, I saw a project being carried out under the scheme. Everything was done right except that the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland funded an oil-fired boiler to heat the place. I believed it should have been a heat pump. Therefore, we are still using fossil fuels and funding their use through our warmer homes scheme.

A situation in my constituency, in Derrybrien, points to what can be done and what should be done urgently. Turbines producing energy for up to 50,000 houses are to be decommissioned. Not alone has the wind farm been providing green energy but it has also been helping us nationally to reduce our carbon dioxide emissions. The Government is standing idly by instead of introducing emergency legislation to ensure it remains in place. The site also has telecommunications and emergency radio assets for the area. It benefits the local authority economically through rates and the local community through a dividend.

The other issue concerns what people are heating their homes with. Consider the number of solid fuel ranges and stoves that are still in local authority houses. The local authorities need to replace all of them with heat pumps. How long will it take to do that? Will it take five years or ten? People must not be forced out of a situation without an alternative.

The grants for the retrofit scheme are fixed. While new grants were introduced lately, much of the benefit has been eroded through inflation. I ask the Minister to relay to the Government that we need a just transition. Let us not try to force people into something if they have no alternative to what they currently have. Forcing them is why there has been such a huge backlash over recent months. It is why we are speaking about it for the third time in the Dáil and why we need to bring clarity to what we are doing and understand exactly the implications of what we will do so we will not leave people in a worse position regarding heat, hot water or cooking. It is a huge problem for many in this country. I commend Deputy Fitzmaurice on bringing forward his proposals. We have talked about turbary rights and licences and the history of people shifting from one bog to another. They were given compensation to buy turf for the next ten years but all of a sudden they cannot buy it. We have to settle this down and ensure everybody is treated properly.

Photo of Michael CollinsMichael Collins (Cork South West, Independent)
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Many of the householders who use dry turf may be elderly, disabled or unable to save the turf themselves. Therefore, they rely on buying it from neighbours or others. A study commissioned for the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, has found that, all in all, 54% of all households use some form of solid fuel to heat their homes, with 16%, or one in every six, using it as a primary source of heating. Therefore, it is ludicrous and unscientific for the Government to announce that a ban on selling turf is needed to protect the nation and planet from the dire health consequences of burning a sod of turf. This announcement was nothing short of bullying by a Government that has a majority for now and thinks it can get away with anything it does or says. There has been plenty of huffing and puffing from the backbenchers of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael since the announcement. However, when they had the chance last week, they voted with the Government and in effect gave a blank cheque to the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications, Deputy Eamon Ryan, to do as he pleases.

Instead of talking about this nonsense, the Minister should have been talking about an issue I have been raising consistently in the Oireachtas over the past few years, the security of our national energy supply. Despite my best efforts, the Government has refused to address my concerns or those of the nation in any way. I am now concerned that the Government is not acting in our national interest with regard to the security of our energy supply. I have asked the Minister numerous times over the past few years about the officially commissioned report on the security of energy supply. Where is it and why is it over a year late? This is my third time asking for an answer in the Dáil.

We hear that fuel may be rationed if supplies are squeezed. Let me tell the Minister of State that if this happens, the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, should be brought up for gross negligence for failing to move to secure our energy in this country. A floating liquified natural gas terminal in Cork Harbour would immediately improve additional security of supply. I spoke at length with the Minister to have him progress this plan with a man from west Cork. Where is the plan? Has it been thrown in the bin? What about progressing the carbon-neutral development off Barryroe? It is being kicked around and political posturing interferes with its progress. Why has it been stalled? It has the potential to create 1,200 jobs locally, bringing €3 billion into the economy. More important is its potential to make us totally energy independent, stopping us importing fuels when we have them on our own doorstep.

Photo of Richard O'DonoghueRichard O'Donoghue (Limerick County, Independent)
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In a time of crisis, the Government has yet to fail us in coming up with ways to impose hardship on people. I listened last week to some of the people who got airtime to talk about burning wet turf. That is the same as pouring the pot of tea into the car and hoping it will run on it. That is the type of nonsense the Government has got airtime for. Then we heard about "mining" turf. That is as much as the Government knows about turf. It is as much as it knows about poverty. I spoke last week about people who count the number of briquettes in a bale. There are 22. The people were putting so many aside so they could heat their house in the way they could afford or to heat the water because they have no other fuel supply.

The biggest polluters in this country with regard to fuel are the local authorities. The biggest polluters in this country when it comes to sewage in our waterways are the local authorities. Who does the Government help all the time? It pumps money into the local authorities. When people want to build a house for themselves on their land, which they may have been left, in Limerick and other counties, they are charged €6,000 or €7,000. They must supply their own water and sewerage but if they do something wrong, they are fined. Despite this, the Government and local authorities are the biggest polluters and the Government is doing nothing about it. Again, who does it target? It targets the people in the counties who do not have any infrastructure such as gas lines.

The Government told the people it would give them €200 off an ESB bill. Why does the Minister of State not stand up here and tell them the truth? It gave them €200, less the 23% VAT which goes back into the Government's pockets. That is the truth. It could not even tell the people the truth about what it was going to give them at escalating prices. Everything that the Government does seems to be flawed and against people outside of towns and cities outside of Dublin. That is what it does. It is a city-based Cabinet. A total of 80% of the Cabinet is city-based. It does not understand Ireland outside of Dublin. There is no transport, sewerage or proper water supplies. It is a failure of this Government and previous Governments because we have no alternatives. If it wants people to change because of the environment, it should give us the alternatives.

6:15 pm

Photo of Carol NolanCarol Nolan (Laois-Offaly, Independent)
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The announcement of the ban on the commercial sale of turf created a fiasco, and that fiasco was of the Government's making. I have listened to statements made during the debate blaming the media, Opposition Deputies and everybody else instead of the Government holding up his hands and saying it got it wrong, and seriously wrong. It shows the arrogance and the fact the Government thinks it can walk over people in rural Ireland and fool people. It will not wash.

The ban on the commercial sale of turf will be strongly resisted. I do not think the Government realises the anger that is out there. It is encroaching on people and this is an overreach. It is telling people how to heat their homes. A small percentage of people are affected. Next, the Government will be telling them what to eat or how long to run a shower for. Is this for real? If the Government is seriously worried about the deaths it maintains are caused by fossil fuels, why is it not concerned about the 3,000 deaths caused directly or indirectly by fuel poverty? That is the reality. It is a fact.

The Government is disconnected from the people. It is arrogant in trying to ram through something that has been strongly resisted in rural Ireland and strongly opposed by me and other Rural Independent Group Deputies. We will continue to stand with the people in our constituencies. We will not be watering down what we are saying or anything else like some Deputies here or like the Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil rural Deputies who headed for the hills earlier today and are now probably on the run. This is ridiculous. It is an overreach. To tell a small percentage of people what they should burn is ridiculous.

Is the Government not concerned about the substandard buildings and accommodation in which people are living in this country? Is the Government not concerned about the substandard conditions in which children and teachers are trying to work in our schools every day while they wait for approval from the Department of Education for new buildings? Does that not appear on the Government's agenda? It seems to be very selective in the research it chooses. It has ignored research compiled by the European Respiratory Society. It stated that living or working in cold and damp conditions causes serious lung conditions. Has the Government ignored that?

The Government needs to get real and stop trying to dictate to the people of rural Ireland all of the time. It is out of step, out of line and out of touch, and I can tell it this will be resisted. It will not get its way on this one.

Photo of Ossian SmythOssian Smyth (Dún Laoghaire, Green Party)
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I welcome the opportunity to respond to some of the issues raised in the debate. I am acutely aware of recent increases in energy costs due to increases internationally and, more recently, the crisis in Ukraine. The purpose of new solid fuel regulations is to ensure better quality and more efficient fuels will be available on the market. Low smoke ovoids are a suitable cost-efficient alternative to other types of high polluting coal, peat and wood logs in terms of heat delivered per cent cost.

Given recent research which highlights a greater dependence on solid fuels by those in energy poverty, the risk of long-term exposure to poor air quality indoor and outdoor for those in more disadvantaged socioeconomic groups and the impact of short-term high-level air pollution events, it is appropriate to consider the link between increased risk of excess winter mortality among those in energy poverty living in areas with high dependency on solid fuels. As such, the case for further regulation of solid fuels is clear. To improve the health of citizens, we must continue the transition away from the use of solid fuels for residential burning.

There will be a targeted focus on the people these regulations impact most. There are people on low incomes who have traditionally purchased turf because it is cheaper. They are the people who are at most risk of fuel poverty, on whom we will focus our retrofit activity and where we will focus our social welfare supports. The transition to low smoke fuels from higher polluting fuels should not be difficult for customers, given the wide range of alternative low smoke fuels available on the market which are now at a comparable price to traditional fuels and do not require any appliance change.

Information provided by the SEAI in the most recent domestic fuels comparison of energy costs demonstrate that low smoke coal is a suitably cost-effective lower emission choice of coal in terms of heat delivered per cent. This indicates that if a household in fuel poverty switches to a lower smoke product, there should not be an undue financial burden. The Government also has a range of measures in place, including but not limited to the fuel allowance, to address the impact on consumers of energy costs. These measures include budget 2022, which increased the weekly rate of the fuel allowance by €5 to €33 per week, so that €914 was paid to eligible householders over the course of the winter. An additional lump sum payment of €125 was paid in mid-March 2022 to the 370,000 households receiving the fuel allowance.

Following the enactment of legislation in early March, from the beginning of April all residential electricity customers will see the electricity costs emergency benefits payment of €200, including VAT, credited to their accounts. The national retrofit scheme includes specific measures to support householders in taking action to reduce their energy bills, including up to 80% grant funding for low-cost, high-impact measures such as attic insulation.

A range of additional measures will be introduced. They will include VAT being reduced from 13.5% to 9% on gas and electricity bills from the start of May until the end of October; an additional payment of €100 to be made to all recipients of the fuel allowance; a reduction in the public service obligation levy to zero by October 2022; a targeted package of measures to enhance protections for financially vulnerable customers and customers in debt; supporting existing customers in accessing a competitive rate for their energy; and a scheme for the installation of photovoltaic panels for vulnerable customers and householders, with a budget of €20 million.

I made the point earlier in the debate that I do not believe people in rural Ireland are burning wet sod peat, which would be a highly inefficient and uncomfortable process. It is the emission factors, rather than the moisture content, of burning sod peat which is the primary concern in any event. The Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, research report, Emission Factors from Domestic-scale Solid-fuel Appliances, points to the fact that, of all the solid fuels tested, including bituminous coal, sod peat produces by far the highest level of particulate matter and nitrogen oxide emissions per unit energy loaded and produced by far the highest level of emissions per unit heat delivered. This demonstrates what we already know and what other EPA research points to, namely, that the contribution of peat to fine particulate matter levels can be considerable, in particular in areas such as the midlands where peat extraction occurs.

Sod peat is comparatively low in energy, is not convenient to handle and leaves significant ash residues. While it is primarily a rural fuel, there is increasing evidence indicating that sod peat is being used in urban settings where it has a greater impact on air quality than in rural areas. That is why measures are required to reduce the emissions associated with burning peat but which respect the traditional practice of harvesting turf. To reiterate, the final regulations will not prohibit the owner of a turbary or a customary right, or a person entitled to sod peat harvested for distribution in accordance with the cessation of turf cutting compensation scheme, from using or sharing sod peat. However, we cannot encourage its use outside of rural areas where it does the most harm by introducing standards which will make no appreciable difference to the adverse effects of burning sod peat in more urban areas.

That would be a retrograde step, especially at a time when we are seeking to increase our ambition. Clean air is central to supporting life in all its forms and the environment on which we all depend. It is synonymous with well-being. Clean air and a healthy environment are also prerequisites for attracting inward investments and sustainable jobs. Clean air benefits our habitats and wildlife and contributes to the best possible environment in which we, as a society, can live, work, grow up and grow old.

We now have an opportunity to take a landmark leap in improving Ireland's air quality by taking the final step in removing dirty coal from our marketplace through the introduction of enhanced standards across the range of other fuels and a sensible and balanced approach to restricting the use of sod peat in urban areas while preserving traditional and local practices. These measures are required to improve air quality and protect public health. To reiterate, some 1,300 people are dying prematurely in Ireland due to air pollution from solid fuel burning and there are more than 16,200 life years lost as a result. Thousands more experience a poor quality of life due to the associated short- and long-term health impacts of this form of pollution. New regulations are a critical element of addressing this public health and environmental crisis and they will serve to improve the quality of the air we breathe and the health of the public we serve.

6:25 pm

Photo of Michael McNamaraMichael McNamara (Clare, Independent)
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I am sorry to be making my contribution after the Minister of State's wrap-up speech because there are a couple of points I would have liked him to address. His colleague the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, in his introductory comments spoke about poor air quality in Ennis. Of course, I share his concern regarding the very poor air quality there and the fact that it was over the legal limit for a considerable period this winter. However, I invite the Minister of State or the Minister to come to Cloughlea with me next winter. We will stand there and we will not hear the hum of air-to-water systems. Instead, we will see, or might even smell, evidence of smoky coal being burned. That is not because people in Cloughlea or Ennis or anywhere else in County Clare want to break the law. It is not that they have a disregard for the environment and want to take the option that is more damaging to it. It is because they do not have an alternative.

Retrofitting schemes are being introduced but the constituency I represent is somewhat different from the one the Minister, Deputy Ryan, represents in terms of average disposable income and measures such as that. I do not wish to personalise it in any way but Government Ministers speak about the amount of money they are making available for these retrofitting schemes and the amount of money a person can get back. However, the amount a person has to invest up front in these schemes, which I support - I advocate those who can afford them to engage in them - is beyond the reach of a large and increasing number of people.

I do not have a problem with the Government asking people to take more environmentally sustainable alternatives. I have a problem with it not putting alternatives in place before it does so. That, unfortunately, is what is happening. I appreciate that it is a lot easier to ban something than it is to put an alternative in place. Courts will give injunctions prohibiting people from doing something but they are very reluctant to give injunctions forcing people to do something because that is difficult to do and police. For this branch of government, it is exactly the same. It being difficult to do, however, is not a reason not to do it. The Government simply has to put alternatives in place before people are penalised for not taking those alternatives.

I wish to focus on another example of this, which is the abandonment of the second phase of the northern distributor road. I recently had a meeting with the University of Limerick at which the president of the university spoke about how essential the strategic development of that area is to the future of the university, as well as that of counties Limerick and Clare and the entire mid-west. She has no particular desire to see car traffic increase. In fact, she wants to take cars out of the university campus and introduce more sustainable travel. If the Minister does not want to have a road there, if there is an alternative being planned, that is great - let us hear about it and see what is being planned. There is a railway that goes through Long Pavement and across to Parkway. I suspect Deputy Leddin would be delighted to bring the Minister of State down to see it. If that is not the case, I will do so. I have heard no mention, however, of utilising that railway line and spurs off it to develop that bank of land on the Clare side of the University of Limerick campus or to remove the one-hour traffic jams through the University of Limerick and put a sustainable alternative in place.

I do not disagree with the Government's analysis of the problems we need to tackle but I do not think we can do that by penalising people unless there is an alternative in place. The Government is not sufficiently focused on putting such alternatives in place, be it in respect of sustainable travel around the University of Limerick campus or the area on the Clare side of it that it is hoped will become part of the campus. If we are not going to have a road, let us have a new railway line, tramway or sustainable form of travel. To say that there will be no road and the Government has no alternative, however, is simply short-sighted. Telling people that the Government is going to ban coal but, realistically, it does not have an alternative they can afford - there is an alternative that Government Ministers can afford - is not going to achieve buy-in. I do not disagree with the objectives of the Government but it is not going to achieve them in that way.

I cannot put it any further. I do not wish to disparage what the Government is seeking to achieve. Smoky coal is banned in Ennis but there is a reason people continue to burn it. It is because it is cheaper and provides more heat. I refer to the idea that the Government is going to allow turf to be sold in certain areas with fewer than 500 people but not in other areas. Public health is being cited. Public health was the objective of many measures. A differentiation such as that which has been proposed would be the €9 meal of 2022. The Government can tag on a public health label at the end of it but it is not going to achieve any reasonable objective.

Photo of Michael FitzmauriceMichael Fitzmaurice (Roscommon-Galway, Independent)
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There are a few things that were said by the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, and, indeed, by the Minister of State, Deputy Ossian Smyth, that need to be corrected. They spoke about sod peat not being valuable for heat. In case the Minister of State does not know - he might not come from a turf or bog area - the fact is that approximately €600 heats one's house for the year. There is no way one can do that with oil or anything else. Turf is what people are able to use to heat their homes. That needs clarification.

All the talk about a legal challenge is a red herring, to be frank, because what the coal people will do is go to non-smoky coal. They can bring that in, no problem. This idea is being thrown out everywhere but the dog on the street knows what is really happening. Reference was made to a problem in Ennis. I heard about that problem when it was happening. Does the Minister of State know what happened? There were lorryloads of coal going to one part of the country and they ended up in Ennis. The Minister of State's own Department knows that. It is no big secret. That is what happened with the smoky coal and the air pollution in Ennis. We have to be upfront about it.

As regards sod peat - we call it turf - this thing was brought out about wet peat. People do not burn wet turf. It will not burn, to put it simply. It creates smoke but that is all one gets. The Minister of State spoke about smoky fuels. To get good quality turf, a person turns and foots it, brings it home and puts it in a shed to let it season. To be frank, if the Minister of State knew anything about turf, he would know that there is no smoke from burning good quality turf that has been dried properly. That is a fact. Let no one say there is smoke from it. There is no smoke from it. If turf is not dried, then, just like with timber or any other product, there is smoke from it.

It is basically about having a bit of common sense.

The point has been thrown out about European agencies and about the number of people who are supposed to die in each country, allegedly, as a consequence of burning certain fuels. Reference was made earlier to open fireplaces. It is only the lofty people who can afford open fireplaces. The ordinary people of rural Ireland have stoves and ranges and that is what some of them use to cook the dinner, as well as heating their houses with the back boiler. A total of 97% to 98% of households that use turf have either a stove or range. There is misinformation being put out about this. We have had talk about the danger of air pollution. The people who use turf have been using the same amount for the past 20 years.

When we talk about air pollution, we need to talk about the diesel used by aeroplanes and at places like Dublin Port. As Deputy Verona Murphy said, 14 million litres of diesel were used because a barrier does not go up. We need to talk about smoky coal and diesel cars. It is not a case of one size fits all. If we drill down into the details, we can look at the percentage of people who burn turf and the percentage who burn it in urban areas. If we are to go about quantifying lives lost, I would say the number would be three or four at most. Again, we are not looking at the big fish. Are we going to say smoking is good for you and people can smoke in our faces and we are not overly bothered about it? Red herring stuff is being thrown about, which I do not like to see in any debate.

We need to debate the topic properly and we need to make sure fuels are properly dried. I agree with that, and I am the first to say it. There is an opportunity for the Government in introducing regulations. As I said earlier, the moisture level of peat briquettes is down by 15% or 16%. A peat briquette and a sod of turf are made out of the same product. It is as simple as that. One is pressed and the other is dried naturally. There is no reason we cannot ensure that they are comparable in terms of moisture levels. I have said time and again that the Government does not need to use a sledgehammer to crack the nut. All it has to do is the same as it has done with the regulations for timber and peat briquettes, which is to introduce a requirement to reduce moisture levels to 25% or less. There is an opportunity when the regulations are coming in to ensure any products included in the distribution to large urban areas are brought under that requirement to ensure they are safe.

Let us not be mixing up different issues. I talk to coal merchants all the time and they say they can bring in the other type of coal once they move away from smoky coal. There is a solution for them. There is no big court case looming. Instead of using a sledgehammer to crack the nut, there must be an opportunity for everybody instead of taking people's livelihood away from them.

6:35 pm

Photo of John LahartJohn Lahart (Dublin South West, Fianna Fail)
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I have to take a sledgehammer to the debate at this point because the time is up.

Question put and declared carried.