Offaly being led ' a merry dance' on Just Transition Fund replacement jobs

Gearoid Keegan

Reporter:

Gearoid Keegan

'Cop on' says Offaly councillor as Just Transition plans hit funding barrier

Bord na Mona's Edenderry Power station near Clonbullogue

OFFALY has been led on a merry dance on replacement jobs as Bord na Mona exits peat production, a councillor claimed on Monday.

Cllr Eamon Dooley's allegation came when it was confirmed that many projects seeking grants under the Just Transition fund will have to raise up to 50% of the cost themselves.

Offaly County Council will hold a special meeting on Monday to discuss the matter and Just Transition commissioner Kieran Mulvey is being invited to address it.

Ann Dillon, director of service with the council, confirmed on Monday that EU state aid rules will severely impact on the investment calculations for more than half of projects already approved for funding.

The Just Transition Fund aims to finance job creation initiatives from the public, private and community sectors in an effort to cushion Midlands communities hit by decarbonisation.

Bord na Mona announced last Thursday it is ending peat production and the ESB has already pulled the plug on its two peat-fired power stations in Shannonbridge and Lanesborough.

In November 47 projects were approved for Just Transition grant aid in a second round of funding and applicants received notification on December 22.

However, Ms Dillon said “around 25” of them were advised that state aid rules do apply to them and immediately after Christmas “there was a fair degree of concern from project applicants about the complexity of the process of assessing state aid implications”.

Last Tuesday the Department of Climate Action hosted a webinar and Ms Dillon summarised the implications as “that maybe not all of the costs that applicants thought were eligible under the Just Transition Fund will be eligible”.

“So where there might have been an expectation of 85% funding and applicants would have to raise 15% of a matched fund, now the amount that applicants will have to raise themselves could be as much as 50% depending on the application of the state aid rules.”

Some applicants, especially community groups, have indicated that they will not be able to raise the required amount of matching funding.

Ms Dillon insisted that the department has “taken on board” applicants' concerns and has extended a deadline imposed on them from last Friday to January 29.

“They've also offered individual contact with each of the applicants around their projects and what the implications are for each applicant.”

A “frequently asked questions document” will be issued on Wednesday of this week.

“The process is ongoing and complex and the department have taken on board the concerns of the applicants and hopefully there will be more support in the coming days and weeks to help applicants.”

The other applicants to which state aid rules do not apply were to return verification documentation last Friday.

Cllr John Carroll, council Cathaoirleach, said a special meeting of the council would be needed to discuss the matter in full and he will be requesting the local authority's management to invite Mr Mulvey to make a presentation.

The Independent councillor said the special meeting is required on Monday to address applicants' concerns and “what seems to be some questions that's arising out of it that they didn't see arising when they put in their applications”.

This Monday's meeting, though held remotely, was still subject to the two-hour limit required by Covid restrictions and the Bord na Mona and Just Transition items were only reached 10 minutes before its end.

Cllr Eamon Dooley, Fianna Fail, who has been very sceptical about the Just Transition process, formally proposed that the meeting take place next Monday.

“To my mind we've been led a merry dance on this from day one,” said Cllr Dooley.

A former Bord na Mona employee, he recalled there had been many promises about new jobs, including a recent presentation to the council where 97 jobs were mentioned which had “half the chamber thinking it was great news”.

“We've led to believe there'll be a number of jobs and it hasn't happened. It's time we copped ourselves on so I agree with the proposal we leave this until next Monday.”

He was seconded by Cllr Sean O'Brien, Independent, who also said a proposed ban on the burning of solid fuels should be discussed.

Also on the agenda next Monday will be Bord na Mona's decision to end peat harvesting and its plans for bog restoration.

Ms Dillon pointed out that 80% of the company's peat went towards electricity generation, and 10% each to briquette manufacture (which takes place in Derrinlough) and horticulture.

Only Bord na Mona's own electricity plant, Edenderry Power, now uses peat and it intends to “go to 100% biomass by 2023”.

Ms Dillon added: “Derrinlough has sufficient stocks until 2024 and in terms of horticulture there's a significant shift to non peat products.”

She noted that it is Bord na Mona's view that there will be “no impact on jobs” because those who remain with the company will be moved to peat bog restoration.

Bord na Mona will not be going ahead with planning permission retention applications through the substitute consent process for more than 30 bogs in Offaly.

Instead, the bogs will restored, or “rewet”, and Bord na Mona must first consult with communities impacted.

To that end, invitations have been sent to councillors and communities for comment on plans for bog rehabilitation.

“They have comprehensive plans for 82 bogs across a number of counties, 33,000 hectares,” said Ms Dillon.

The bogs which are relevant to Offaly are at Oughter, Pullough, The Derries, Clonad and Umeras.

She told councillors the consultation process was “important” and had a short turnaround time of just three weeks.