Seanad debates

Tuesday, 11 May 2021

Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Bord na Móna

9:00 am

Photo of Fiona O'LoughlinFiona O'Loughlin (Fianna Fail)
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It is a pleasure to be back in the convention centre, where we had our first Seanad meeting of this mandate. I thank the Cathaoirleach for selecting this Commencement matter, which is important to the people of Kildare, Offaly, Roscommon, Longford and Westmeath and all those impacted by job losses because of Bord na Móna.

I cannot overstate the importance of Bord na Móna and the employment it gave in my county of Kildare. I grew up just outside Rathangan, close to Allenwood and Coill Dubh, where Bord na Móna has since its inception in 1946 created huge employment. The bog is important not just because of employment, but also because of heritage, the ecological system and horticulture. The families that came to our part of the country from all over Ireland because of the employment Bord na Móna offered settled in and have become part of the area. It is a strong legacy. Over the last number of years, Bord na Móna has been operating in a challenging environment as we have been preparing for the transition to a more climate change-friendly environment. There has been much discussion about the company's long-term viability, particularly in relation to the power stations in the midlands. As a result of that, the just transition scheme was introduced to provide a solution to the problems we would have in terms of job losses and lack of employment going forward. The just transition fund's mission was to create economic opportunity for the front-line communities and workers hardest hit by the transition away from peat. It was to be part grant-maker and part catalyst, to provide investments to help communities create 21st-century jobs and technical assistance, to empower local leaders and communities to act, to advance economic solutions that are equitable, inclusive and low-carbon, to strengthen local economies and to build the resilience of low-income workers.Many of the workers we are talking about traditionally have been low-income workers. I have attended a number of meetings of the just transition group and I commend the work the commissioner, Kieran Mulvey, has done in this area.

My colleague, Deputy Cowen, raised in the Dáil last week the slow pace of transition. Originally, there was talk of the Government offering help, hope, assistance, initiatives, incentives and rewards, but unfortunately that has not come to fruition to date. While we hoped to have innovation championed at this point, that has not happened. Deputy Cowen found out in response to replies to parliamentary questions he tabled that not one job has yet been created by just transition funding and only €166,000 has been drawn down to date. In my area, Allenwood has received significant funding, but again not one cent has been received to date. Funding has also been awarded to the Umeras peatlands project but nothing has yet been received.

I welcome the fact the Minister of State, Deputy Smyth, is here to give us an update and I invite him to visit the Lullymore heritage park in my area of Kildare to see the wonderful bog heritage we have. I look forward to hearing his response.

Photo of Ossian SmythOssian Smyth (Dún Laoghaire, Green Party)
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On behalf of the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications, Deputy Ryan, and the Government, I welcome the opportunity to set out the actions which are being taken by the Government in response to the announcement of the closure of the peat-fuelled power stations and the end of peat harvesting by Bord na Móna.

The Government is committed to a just transition in the midlands region and has dedicated significant funding to supporting workers, companies and communities affected by the closure of the two power stations at Lanesborough and Shannonbridge. The Government appointed Kieran Mulvey as just transition commissioner in November 2019 to assist the midlands region in the transition process. The commissioner has made a series of recommendations to the Government on taking forward the Government's just transition response in the midlands. A significant package of supports has been put in place in the midlands to ensure the transition away from peat-fuelled power is indeed just. This includes the midlands retrofitting project at a cost of €20 million, €108 million for the Bord na Móna peatlands restoration project, €30 million being made available through the just transition fund for approved projects, and €19 million for the National Parks and Wildlife Service, NPWS, peatlands restoration scheme.

The Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications approved funding of €108 million for Bord na Móna's large-scale peatlands restoration project on 24 November 2020. The plan will protect the storage of 100 million tonnes of carbon, sequester 3.2 million tonnes of carbon out to 2050, enhance biodiversity, deliver significant benefits and contribute to Ireland's target of being carbon neutral by 2050. The scheme will encompass 33,000 ha of Bord na Móna peatlands previously harvested for peat extraction for electricity generation. The Government funding, which will come from the climate action fund, will be bolstered by an €18 million investment from Bord na Móna, which is committed to a brown-to-green transition.

The National Parks and Wildlife Service's peatlands scheme received funding of €5 million in 2020, supported by the carbon tax fund, which enabled the commencement of peatland restoration measures on almost 1,900 ha of raised bog on up to nine raised bog designated sites in the midlands region, along with the development of drainage management plans and other peatland management and conservation measures. Bord na Móna has been contracted to manage this programme. Work has commenced on this project, and an additional €14 million has been allocated to the programme in 2021 for the restoration of a further 2,500 ha of protected raised bog, together with other peatlands conservation measures.

Through the NPWS's peatland scheme and Bord Na Móna's peatlands restoration programme, Bord na Móna will over time engage 350 employees, some of these on the same seasonal basis that has underpinned Bord na Móna's support of the local economies to date. Taking seasonality into account, this equates to 230 full-time equivalent roles. These projects will support a just transition by not only avoiding job losses based in the Offaly works and across the midlands but also creating opportunities for skilled employment in these areas into the future. The Government's just transition fund was established in mid-2020 to respond to the closures and to support the transition away from employment in peat harvesting in the most affected communities in the region. Eight of the most affected counties were eligible to submit funding applications to the 2020 just transition fund.

The Government announced provisional funding offers totalling almost €30 million to more than 60 projects throughout the region for projects from the private sector, local authorities and communities to create a strong, green and sustainable economy. These projects will contribute to making the midlands a more attractive and sustainable place to live and work. Sixteen projects are already up and running in the midlands with support from the just transition fund. These projects have created 28 full-time jobs and will support a further 175 indirect jobs. A further five projects, worth €2.5 million, have now received a grant offer letter from the Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications and will create nine jobs and 18 indirect jobs. The Department is assisting the remaining projects to prepare them to the grant offer stage and expects to finalise grant agreements in the coming weeks. The Department envisages a significant ramping up in expenditure in the second half of this year once grant agreements are in place and projects begin to draw down funding.

The Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage is supporting retrofitting activities in the midland counties. A total of €20 million was allocated from carbon tax revenues to retrofit homes to a building energy rating, BER, of B2. This project was established as a pilot programme to provide economic stimulus to the counties most affected by the cessation of peat harvesting for electricity generation, and it centres on upgrading larger batches of homes in distinct, compact geographical areas. Offaly, Laois, Kildare, Westmeath and Longford will receive €3.33 million each and Roscommon, Galway and Tipperary are to receive €1.11 million each for retrofitting. There is also an allowance for administration costs, for example, surveying, project management and BER certificate registration, as it is recognised the ramping up of this programme will bring increased administration and implementation costs to local authorities. A total of €428,902 has been recouped to local authorities to 30 April 2020 in respect of management and administration fees. The Department is on course to finish this project in 2021, with at least 750 homes benefiting from the programme.

Looking ahead to future just transition supports, the EU just transition fund, part of the European Green Deal, will allocate €77 million to Ireland to alleviate the socioeconomic impacts of the low-carbon transition in the most affected regions. This fund may be used to support the reskilling of workers, help SMEs to create new economic opportunities, and promote the diversification of economic activity towards low-carbon sectors and progress towards achieving the EU's 2030 climate targets and a climate-neutral economy by 2050.

The Department of the Environment, Climate and Communication is preparing a territorial just transition plan, for approval by the European Commission, to access this funding. This plan will set out Ireland's investment priorities and will identify the sectors and regions to be supported. The Department envisages that the work will be completed this summer.

Photo of Fiona O'LoughlinFiona O'Loughlin (Fianna Fail)
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The Minister of State has outlined some figures. Timelines are very important in terms of the outcomes we expect to see and I would appreciate if they were put in place.

I wish to make three brief points. Retrofitting is very welcome and I am pleased the pilot scheme is being rolled out. I am aware the pilot scheme is just dealing with houses within local authority housing stock, but it is important that as we move forward we would look at the opportunity for private homeowners to be able to avail of retrofitting also.

Bord na Móna's headquarters is in Newbridge and, as it is looking at making changes, buildings will be available there. It would be wonderful to see an educational facility such as a third level college there along the lines of An Foras Talúntais, which we used to have in Lullymore, that would be involved in education and research on horticulture and bogs.

The final point I wish to make relates to horticultural peat. It is appalling that those who are involved in the nursery industry, employing 6,000 people directly and providing 11,000 ancillary positions, still have no option at this point but to bring in peat from Lithuania and Holland, which obviously has a significant carbon footprint and is three times the price. The Government has provided no viable alternative solution or some type of scenario whereby nursery owners could use Irish horticultural peat. The issue must be addressed.

Photo of Ossian SmythOssian Smyth (Dún Laoghaire, Green Party)
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It is valuable to hear directly the reality on the ground from people who are living in the midlands area where the work is going on. I am delighted to accept the Senator's invitation to visit Kildare and see for myself because there is no point in making rules in isolation of the reality.

Second, the Senator mentioned the retrofit of private homes. There are two major schemes. Approximately €65 million is being spent this year on retrofitting council houses and €220 million is available to retrofit private homes. That private retrofitting will require an element of grant and another portion of credit to make it happen. These are huge schemes and they become much larger each year. However, one needs to make sure that people have the money to do it and have confidence in their economic situation.

I find the third level college idea very interesting, on a horticultural basis, and retraining will be key. I am happy to talk about it with the Senator when we meet in the future.

The importation of peat products from abroad has been mentioned. Clearly, carbon leakage always is a concern. In any policy that we implement to limit the production of high-carbon materials, carbon leakage must be considered. Bord na Móna will continue to manufacture peat products until 2024. I wish to put it on record that it is not the case that Bord na Móna has ceased production altogether.