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12 Aug 2022

Small scale turf cutting can continue in Offaly despite Bord na Mona exiting peat harvesting

Just Transition Commissioner hits out at 'contradictory' EU rules

Turf drying on an Offaly bog

Smaller scale turf cutting contractors may continue in operation despite the moves to decarbonise the country, Just Transition Commissioner Kieran Mulvey said on Monday.

Mr Mulvey said Bord na Mona had been “forced” to exit peat harvesting earlier than originally planned because of court rulings, planning law and public policy but he saw no impediment to smaller operators.

Bord na Mona has announced it is ending all peat harvesting and Mr Mulvey said that will reduce carbon emissions by nearly 95%.

Speaking to Offaly County Council, he said: “I still hold the view that turf harvesting can still take place. No policy decision has been made regarding that and there are thresholds under which that can be done that doesn't attract difficulties”.

In 2019 the High Court ruled that peat harvesting on bogs over 19ha requires planning permission and licensing but that consent has proved very difficult to attain in many cases.

While oil is the most commonly used home heating fuel in Offaly, peat remains a very important source, with nearly 38% of homes being centrally heated by burning it according to 2016 figures from the Central Statistics Office.

That makes Offaly households far more dependent on peat than any other county, including neighbours Westmeath (19.6%) and Laois (16.1%).

Fears for fuel poverty have also been raised by Bord na Mona's confirmation that it will cease briquette production by 2024, using existing stocks of peat in the meantime.

Mr Mulvey said he believed Bord na Mona had adequate peat reserves to keep its briquette factory in Derrinlough in production until 2024.

In a wide ranging presentation and question and answer exchange with councillors, Mr Mulvey also hit out at the European Union, criticising its application of state aid rules and its approach to peat harvesting for horticulture.

Millions of euros worth of grants are available from the Just Transition Fund for job creation projects in regions affected by decarbonisation but EU rules on state aid mean companies and community groups will have to raise much more money themselves than they previously thought, putting the plans in jeopardy.

There was widespread shock before Christmas when applicants discovered they would have to contribute between €15,000 and €100,000 if they are to receive their grants.

“Isn't it amazing that Lufthansa, Norwegian Air and Air France seem to get state aid and nobody bothers about it,” said Mr Mulvey.

“The bigger you are, it's the usual argument, some countries in Europe can do what they like and some others, like ours, don't seem to be able to do what we like.

“But I am conscious of this but I think a lesson has certainly been learned about this and there has be a better way of doing this.”

Sixty-nine projects involving €11.2m of spending were not affected by the state aid rules but 25 other projects were.

He was especially concerned to learn that not-for-profit organisations, which he thought would be exempt, were also subject to the rules.

Mr Mulvey was also critical of the EU's position on the harvesting of peat for horticultural purposes.

The horticulture industry in Ireland has indicated it will be damaged when Bord na Mona ceases supplying peat.

Mr Mulvey said that while large scale peat harvesting in Ireland will end, peat will then be imported “from other EU countries that don't appear to have the same restrictions on them, namely the Baltic countries”.

“This is a contradictory position, even within the European Union.”

He said it seemed a “jurisdictional issue” between some Government departments was slowing down the establishment of a working party on the matter.

“Personally I'd wish they get on with it and do it. It's urgent and needs to be addressed.”

He said the ESB will be required by planning law to demolish its former peat-fired generation stations in Shannonbridge and Lanesborough but he believes both sites should be used for community gain projects.

Cllr Eamon Dooley, Fianna Fail, was very critical of the just transition process and said Offaly, the county most impacted by decarbonisation with about 1,000 of Bord na Mona's 2,200 employees, was not being treated fairly.

“Unlike Bord na Mona headquarters at Newbridge, where most employees made redundant possess professional qualifications, the vast majority of workers in Offaly are general operatives, whose skills set while eminently suited to the needs of peat production, are ill suited to a more modern, digital economy,” said Cllr Dooley.

The former Bord na Mona employee added: “The reality is they will find it extremely difficult to gain employment.”

He said that over that last 32 years, when preparations should have been made for “life after Bord na Mona” successive governments failed to act, despite being repeatedly called upon to do so.

“This Council has always been alive to the challenges posed by the inevitable decline of the peat industry – and to the need for a planned just transition, long before the phrase was coined.”

He said Offaly County Council had taken the lead and “done the heavy lifting” by setting up the Just Transition Team.

“By any metric, the impact in the here-and-now on the people of Offaly is far more negative and impactful than it is on any other county, and funding for the county under the Just Transition Fund must reflect that reality,” said Cllr Dooley.

Mr Mulvey said he would engage with the department in relation to Offaly getting a fair share.

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