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Bord na Móna (Continued)

Wednesday, 2 October 2019

Dáil Éireann Debate
Vol. 987 No. 2

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Deputy Brian Stanley: Information on Brian Stanley Zoom on Brian Stanley I thank the Acting Chairman. I acknowledge that he was also present at yesterday's meeting. The unions asked me to call that meeting last week. I believe it was very fruitful. We are facing a dire situation in respect of Bord na Móna. There are huge problems and it is facing a perfect storm. Workers are uncertain. They are not sure whether they will have jobs in two or three weeks' time, let alone in two or three months. Senior management has said that seismic changes will take place. This will have a very significant effect right across the midlands, particularly in Laois and Offaly. As the previous speaker said, the public service obligation, PSO, for the two peat-burning stations at Shannonbridge and Lough Ree will end in December. There are 3 million tonnes of fuel on the bog. I am advised that no price per tonne has been agreed with the ESB for that fuel. An Bord Pleanála has refused permission for co-fuelling at Shannonbridge. The licence for that ends in December 2020. No judicial review of that decision has been sought. We raised this issue with the Minister on 30 July, when we met him in Tullamore. The future of the briquette factory in Derrinlough is also threatened because it needs modernisation and also faces threats arising from carbon tax increases and smokeless fuel bans. With regard to the horticulture sector, Coolnamona and Kilberry are hanging by a thread. Peat is stockpiled on the bogs; I saw it again last Sunday. The decision by the British retailer, B&Q, to refuse compost partially composed of peat also poses a threat. Workers in Laois and south Kildare cannot be thrown on the scrapheap either.

What is needed is €30 million from the climate action fund to secure jobs and to commence the rehabilitation of bogs. This needs to be done and we need a proper plan for each bog. As part of a just transition, we need to finance the voluntary severance fund because we have workers who have no work. We need investment in alternative employment and training and upskilling in new industries. We also need to protect reasonable conditions of employment and to underpin the company's pension scheme. This is very important because there are almost more pensioners than workers with Bord na Móna because of the historical context in which Bord na Móna employed multiples - many thousands more - of what it does now. Time is of the essence in this regard.

Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment (Deputy Richard Bruton): Information on Richard Bruton Zoom on Richard Bruton I thank both Deputies for raising this issue. I am aware of their intensity of feeling in this regard. I will just say a few things. Just transition is at the very heart of the climate action plan and Government has recognised that those who are most exposed to the impact of the climate transition that is under way have to be protected and that we have to support people. The co-firing plan was Government policy and was supported. It would have allowed for a phased withdrawal from peat. The result of the decision of An Bord Pleanála is being intensely reviewed. I point out to Deputy Stanley that judicial review is a very particular type of challenge to a decision. It relates to a failure in procedures. Clearly, that is different from what is now being assessed, which is whether a planning application can be made which would meet the requirements of the board. That is what the ESB is currently evaluating.

As the Deputy knows, the first thing I did when this information became public was not only to meet with the public representatives, including the Deputies, involved, but to meet with the worker directors of the company, the Oireachtas Members representing the midlands, the midland regional transition team, the regional enterprise team, and the regional skills forum. I recently also met with representatives of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions. On foot of our July Cabinet meeting, we have set up an interdepartmental group, led by the Department of the Taoiseach, to work on the just transition plan, that is to say, to prepare for different contingencies that may arise in this context. That work is ongoing. There will be several strands to the Government's approach. There will be elements of diversification within Bord na Móna. I acknowledge Deputy Naughten's submission which dealt with particular elements of that diversification. There will also be a focus on an accelerated programme of bog restoration. Many recognise that this is an area on which we can work, perhaps not only in respect of Bord na Móna bogs, but bogs further afield. There is also a need for other regional initiatives in respect of urban and rural enterprise developments that can support the transition not only for the individual workers concerned, but for the wider communities.

I assure the Deputies that Government is giving this issue very intensive attention. In addition, we have secured agreement that the midlands will be part of the platform for coal and other carbon-intensive regions. A team from the EU will be visiting to provide advice on the supports that may come from that direction. At this point, the EU has not committed to any funding in this regard but the new Commission is certainly looking at it more favourably. I recognise that we have to show our capacity to breathe reality into the words "just transition" for those working in the midlands and for the many people who are dependent on those workers as part of the operation of the midlands economy. We are working on the issue. The Deputies' raising of it is timely. Deputy Corcoran Kennedy also raised it last week. I understand that there is intense concern about these developments in the constituencies involved. I assure the Deputies that it is getting very considerable attention from Government as we prepare for the contingencies that might arise.

Deputy Denis Naughten: Information on Denis Naughten Zoom on Denis Naughten By Christmas Day, 2,000 people across the midlands could be without a job, with a further 2,000 people looking to the New Year in despair in light of the likely loss of their own jobs. Will the Minister give a commitment here, on the floor of the House, that he will bring in the chief executives of the ESB and of Bord na Móna and provide the public with absolute clarity with regard to a new planning application and what is to be done with the 3 million tonnes of peat currently on the bog? Will he clarify to the House that we have already missed the boat with regard to a judicial review, because the date has now expired, and that we are now talking about a new application? We are all committed to a just transition, but it must be backed up by cash. Cash must be put into next week's budget to implement that just transition. It must be provided next week, not next year or the year after. We need to put a just transition plan in place. It should be something along the lines of the plan in place in Spain, where the coal industry is being decommissioned. I will present the Minister's office with a copy of that plan. It could be used as a template for doing what urgently needs to be done across the midland counties.

Deputy Brian Stanley: Information on Brian Stanley Zoom on Brian Stanley I concur with what the previous speaker has said; time is of the essence. What we heard about the situation yesterday demonstrates that time is not on our side, as those of us who have been following the issue and making representations on it know. We are literally trying to catch up by 25 or 30 years. As has already been said, this issue needs to be dealt with in the budget next week. With regard to the climate action fund, funding needs to be released. Workers need some certainty. They do not know whether they will have a job in two, three, or four weeks' time. That is the reality. I have met workers in the last week who do not know. We declared a climate emergency; we accepted that we have one. Bord na Móna is now part of that emergency. The programme for Government says that "The Departments with responsibility for Agriculture and Energy policy will explore, with Bord na Móna, the potential of energy crops, which can be grown in the vicinity of Bord na Móna plants". I have been hammering this issue for years. Has that happened? Is that under way? The Minister needs to sit down with the CEOs of Bord na Móna and the ESB, because the two companies are linked on this issue, in order to set out a way forward, of which the Minister can then inform us. He needs to make a statement regarding co-firing as it is Government policy to co-fire peat and biomass. The Government needs to give a clear policy direction with regard to biomass, biogas, wind, solar, and forestry. These are the new industries that will be needed to replace peat.

Deputy Richard Bruton: Information on Richard Bruton Zoom on Richard Bruton I assure the Deputies that I have already met with both CEOs. The ESB in particular is intensively assessing its options in light of An Bord Pleanála's decision.

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