'Importing peat is a nonsense' - Just Transition Commissioner

 

The Just Transition Commissioner is willing to help address escalating tensions on peat harvesting, turf cutting and bog rewetting.

Kieran Mulvey told The Farming Independent that he identified potential problems arising on these matters, shortly after being appointed by Government to oversee the impact of the closure of two peat-fired power stations in the midlands in November 2019.

While these specific fallout issues - concern over the horticulture sector’s reliance on peat imports, fears over looming home fuel shortages and farmer worry over the impact of bog rewetting on adjacent lands - are beyond the commissioner’s current remit, he says he is prepared to intervene as he “recognises” that “frustration is building” on the ground.

Mr Mulvey said: “There was a considerable air of positivity right up to Christmas, but I think what has happened, to some degree, at the moment is that there is concern and frustration and, in some cases, annoyance over the fact that the Just Transition money has not flowed into the regions and specifically into the projects that were approved.

“It’s taking too long to achieve that and I’ve been advocating for more rapid action in discussions with the Department, the Midlands Regional Transition Team (MRTT) and individual county councils - this should be the top priority.

“There is a particular difficulty with peat harvesting - involving commercial contractors and individuals farmers - which I highlighted in my first and second progress reports that needed to be addressed as a matter of urgency.

“I specifically outlined the peat import issue as far back as last May. I said it was ‘an issue in development’ after engaging with Growing Media Ireland and the companies involved.

“But I didn’t have, in my terms of reference, a specific remit regarding the situation of independent contractors who had arrangements historically with Bord Na Móna for peat harvesting and turf cutting on its bogs.”

However, after representations from independent TD Michael Fitzmaurice and Fianna Fáil TD Barry Cowen, the hardened veteran of industrial relations says he is aware that complex planning, licensing and legal issues are hampering the ‘Just Transition’ process - particularly since Bord na Móna (BNM) ceased its peat operations in January this year.

“I did indicate that if I could help, I would, but I’d need written instructions as to what my role would be from the minister on this - I don’t want to overlap with whatever working group is dealing with the matter. I’d need to know what I’m specifically trying to achieve, if there is funding involved and the nature of the representative groups - what you don’t want to be doing is dealing with individuals. You need to know there is an umbrella body.

“The planning and licensing laws seem to intertwine and overlap, meaning there are long delays because there are objections to go through the courts and it takes a considerable period. There should be a more fast-tracked and clearer system by which this would be done, otherwise the place gets literally bogged down in an array of legal challenges around complex rules involving both domestic and European law,” he said.

Covid-19 is also impacting on the Just Transition process, he says. “If I hadn’t the restrictions of Covid-19, I could have been more in the region pushing parties and then engaging with different Government departments - but it’s impossible to do work over Zoom on these issues.

“You need to be around the table to say ‘this needs to be done, I’ll be back in a fortnight to see what progress has been made’ - but that’s not available to me. It is hampering the transition, but that shouldn’t be used as an excuse. I’m very concerned that frustration is building up and I’ve conveyed that to the Department.

“The torturous system of state aid has frustrated me and the project applicants. Funding was announced in November 2020 - but little or no money has arrived, apart from the bog rehabilitation and some initiatives around heritage and greenways.

“Importing peat is a nonsense. We’re importing the same product from another European country that doesn’t seem to have the same directives applied to them as are being applied to us on the same bogs.

“There is the situation of individual farmers whose land is contiguous to boglands and the reassurances they want there. The rewetting has to proceed because there are timelines, but that doesn’t mean you can’t have a parallel process of engagement and solution,” said Mr Mulvey.

In November 2020, cabinet approved funding of €126m for BNM’s large-scale peatlands restoration project - a 4-year rewetting scheme on 80,000ac of bogland to store 100m tonnes of CO₂ emissions and create 310 jobs for workers impacted by the closure of the BNM/ESB power plants in Shannonbridge, Co Offaly and Lanesborough, Co Longford.

A further €28m was promised for 47 midlands projects to fund training and reskilling for communities and individuals most affected by the move away from peat-harvesting.

It is understood the closure of BNM’s peat division means CO₂ emissions from peatlands in Ireland will reduce by over 97pc.

Nonetheless, three key sticking points remain front and centre for local farmers, communities and stakeholders.

On the rewetting project - set to get underway on the first 33,000ac next month - farmers with lands adjoining the identified bogs are adamant that “a signed agreement” with BNM on the maintenance of boundary drains now and into future is a “redline issue”.

Farmers also continue to call for an independent land assessment to be carried out before the project commences.

To-date, BNM has maintained that a written agreement “is not required in this case” as the semi-state company has been involved in bog rehabilitation for 30 years and its intention is to block drains in the centre of the bogs and not along the edges.

On the horticulture peat debacle - whereby peat producers and vegetable, mushroom and nursery growers are being forced to import peat from the Baltic states to stay afloat due to the ramifications of a 2019 High Court ruling that milling peat on bogs over 30ha now requires planning permission from An Bord Pleanala and an EPA licence - calls are being made for a derogation or legislative amendment to save harvest 2021.

Stakeholders have warned a working group on the issue that 17,000 jobs are at risk due to the ruling.

Meanwhile, tensions are rife over BNM’s decision not to re-issue licences for private and commercial turf cutting on its bogs even though thousands of “ordinary people” rely on this fuel source, which is cut from less than 1pc of BNM’s total land mass of 200,000ac.

Fuel merchants are also importing peat and coal briquette supplies from Estonia, Scandinavia, Lithuania and Germany, as supplies of BNM peat briquettes continue to tighten also throughout the region.

Source – The Irish Independent