Thursday, 29 November 2001
Dáil Eireann Debate
Mr. Perry: I thank you, a Cheann Comhairle, for allowing me to raise this important issue. The Minister for the Environment and Local Government has issued a consultation paper which could result in the imposition of a national ban on bituminous coal, which is used by householders and petroleum coal, which is smokeless. This is a badly thought out proposal which will be totally impractical and ineffective. Such a ban will lead to fuel shortages, as suitable replacement solid fuels will not be available; higher prices, with increases of up to 25% for such fuels when they become available; and a loss of more than 1,000 jobs in the industry, of which 100 will be lost in Sligo-Leitrim. It will also lead to reduced choice.
The ESB is threatening power cuts this winter and next winter. Electricity is needed for both gas  and oil appliances and power cuts will leave householders without heat and the option to use solid fuel. Natural gas is only an option in certain parts of the country and there is uncertainty regarding the price and supply of oil, as was evidenced last winter. The breakdown of the distribution network and the projected decline in sales will drive coalmen out of business and the elderly and low income groups will be the hardest hit as well as those living in rural areas. Consumers will face hardship as they try to find a coalman who is still in business to deliver fuel and are faced with higher fuel prices and getting used to new fuels. At the moment there is little or no fuel distribution in rural areas. The benefits of the proposed legislation seem insignificant. There is only a small lasting benefit to the environment from this ban as the burning of coal has a minor impact on air quality compared to traffic, power stations and industry. The Government commitments to reducing national emissions of sulphur will only be achieved by tackling the larger producers such as power generators and industry. Domestic solid fuel sulphur emissions are already small and are being reduced. The Government's proposal would deliver a minor improvement, less than 1.5% of the reductions required.
Is there a problem with Ireland's air quality? In fact, it appears that Ireland's air quality is very good. This has been repeatedly commented upon in Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reports. It seems logical that the air quality in rural Ireland must be even better than the average air quality. There is a case for extension of the ban in urban areas, under proper controls, where it is deemed necessary but why must we ban fuels of choice in rural areas? Is air quality being monitored in rural areas? I doubt it. Is there an air quality problem in rural Ireland? Has any other country adopted a similar nationwide ban of bituminous or household coal?
This is a very serious issue. There has been no consultation with the EPA which is on record as stating, in August 2000, that there is no air pollution problem associated with SO2, that emissions have improved considerably and that road traffic is the real offender.
The issue is very important to the whole country but particularly to the most vulnerable of all in rural areas where buying coal and solid fuel is very important. The Minister should be aware of this from his own constituency. A national ban is an outrageous proposal. There is a case for an extension of the ban in certain city areas where there is a smoke problem but I believe the problem must be clearly monitored and action only taken on the basis of this.
I would be interested to hear the Minister's comments on the 1,500 jobs which could be lost nationally if this bituminous coal ban, which would eliminate the sale of household coal, is put into effect. It would be an outrageous move.
Mr. O'Dea: I apologise for the absence of the Minister for the Environment and Local Govern ment, which was unavoidable. I am pleased to be able to clarify for the House a misunderstanding on this matter. A national ban on bituminous coal and petroleum coke, or petcoke, has not been announced. A detailed consultation process has been initiated and full consideration will be given to all comments received before a decision is made by the Government. It is premature to assume what form the decision will take.
On 17 October my colleague, the Minister of State at the Department of the Environment and Local Government, Deputy Dan Wallace, issued a consultation paper on a potential national ban on bituminous coal and petcoke. The initial closing date for receipt of responses was Friday 16 November 2001. In response to the strongly stated wish of the industry to respond in a detailed and considered way, the Minister of State has indicated that he is willing to facilitate the Solid Fuel Industry Association and extend the consultation period.
Deputies will be aware that in keeping with the Government's commitment in An Action Programme for the Millennium the Minister of State extended the ban on the marketing, sale and distribution of bituminous coal in 1998 and 2000 to a total of ten new urban areas. These are in addition to the bans already in place in Dublin and Cork when this Government entered into office. The localised bans have proved beneficial to people and to the environment but particularly to the more vulnerable sections of the community such as the young, the elderly and those suffering from respiratory illnesses. The Minister of State now feels that it is the right time to consider whether the ban should apply on a national basis.
Ireland is also facing challenging targets on the reduction of overall national emissions of sulphur dioxide by 2010. We must reduce these emissions by 76% from 1990 levels under the Gothenburg Protocol and a directive on national emissions ceilings recently agreed between the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers. Petcoke is a significant source of sulphur dioxide and thus discontinuing its use needs to be considered.
I am aware that sections of the solid fuel trade have reacted strongly to the perceived threat to the industry. Their worries relate to jobs, the availability and distribution of fuels and potential price impacts. The Minister of State shares these concerns; hence, his is a real consultation process to identify the most suitable approach. However, the industry must recognise the need to ensure their products are most suited to protect health and the environment and the need to tackle emissions in a meaningful way.
The consultation paper puts forward proposals which are challenging for the trade. However, I am assured that progress is being made. All of the key areas including the availability and quality of alternative fuels and related issues, such as any transitional periods required, are being explored. We are confident that these vital issues can be teased out in a positive manner during the consultation process. We cannot simply replace dirty  fuels with other, higher-sulphur alternatives. We do not want to weaken the solid fuel trade or cause hardship or difficulties for consumers. The whole purpose of consultation is to explore all the issues and avenues available and to make  decisions based on informed debate. That is what the Minister of State is strongly promoting, and he will continue to work on this basis.
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