Tuesday, 15 November 2005
Dáil Éireann Debate
Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture and Food (Mr. Browne): The Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources has overall responsibility for energy policy and is primarily responsible for the promotion and development of renewable energy, including biofuels. Nonetheless, the development of the biofuels industry is a cross-sectoral issue impinging on several policy areas, for example, those related to environment and fiscal policy as well as energy policy, and involving several Departments and agencies. My Department has been represented on a number of interdepartmental groups considering the issue and there has also been direct contact between my Department and the Department of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources.
I am acutely aware of the central role which agriculture can play in the provision of necessary raw materials for the production of biofuels. These raw materials can include oilseed rape, wheat and sugar beet for the manufacture of liquid transport biofuels, forestry by-products for wood biomass, and other farming by-products, such as meat and bonemeal and tallow, for energy-heat generation and biodiesel, respectively.
Factors such as the increasing cost of oil, the need to reduce carbon dioxide emissions and the opportunity for farmers to explore alternative land uses following Common Agricultural Policy reform, mean that the potential of this area must be fully explored. For the purposes of contributing to the development of policy on biofuels, my Department in conjunction with COFORD and Teagasc, has examined the potential of energy crops, wood biomass and farming and food by-products.
In general, the production of energy crops for biofuels will have to be demand-led and production by farmers will only occur if the economic returns are greater than those offered by traditional crop enterprises. The production of liquid biofuels from energy crops is not economic at current oil price levels. However, the scheme announced by the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources, for mineral oil tax relief on pilot biofuel projects has stimulated the production of oilseed rape for biofuel. The exploitation of wood resources for energy purposes, mainly for heat or electricity generation, offers significant potential. Sustainable Energy Ireland has recently announced a pilot scheme to grant aid the installation of wood-fired boilers.
I am anxious to encourage further research to assist the development of the biofuels industry. Teagasc has already done some valuable work in this area and I also arranged for research projects on biofuels and other non-food uses of crops to be included in the latest call under my Department’s research stimulus programme. The outcome of this call is not yet available but the nature of the projects to be funded will depend on the proposals received.
Mr. Naughten: Is the Minister of State satisfied with the existing energy crop scheme being administered by the Department? Has consideration been given by either the Department or the Government to changing the legislation to ensure a minimum amount of biofuel in both petrol and diesel which is the case in continental Europe? The Minister of State referred to sugar beet but I was surprised he did not refer to waste disposal, whether that be slurry or chicken litter. This will become a huge problem once the nitrates directive is implemented. What steps, if any, are being taken by the Department of Agriculture and Food, to investigate this matter?
Mr. Browne: I read with interest Deputy Naughten’s speech at the Ard-Fheis on this issue. I notice that most if not all the issues he raised in his document were ones we have been encouraging for the past year. In reply to the Deputy, the scheme for relief on excise duty, which is operated by the Department of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources, is very successful and some of the projects are situated in my county.
A number of projects are administered in conjunction with the Minister, Deputy Noel Dempsey, and his Department. A scheme for wood burning boilers is about to be introduced, as is a scheme for biomass harvesting machines. In answer to the Deputy’s question about alternative crops, we are also putting together a scheme for the use of willow which will be announced soon. This will encourage the growing of 500 hectares of willow and grant aid will be provided. Some of the issues raised by Deputy Naughten last weekend and again in the House today are being dealt with by the Government and we are way ahead of his thinking.
Mr. Crawford: All I received was what I got directly from Brussels. What progress has been made in encouraging wind farms? Many farmers in a part of my constituency whom I will not name have signed up for years to have wind farms put in place but the regulations are such that they have not allowed it to happen. The people who are building the wind farms are now in Scotland instead of Ireland. The Minister of State, Deputy Browne, made a strong point at the beginning of his analysis that the Department of Agriculture and Food is only one of a number of Ministries involved in alternative energy. Can those Ministries be brought together to ensure there is direct action to compensate for the present high price of oil?
Mr. Browne: The wind turbine issue is a matter for the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources, Deputy Noel Dempsey. Having been in that Department for the best part of two years, I am very much aware of the importance of such projects.
Mr. Browne: It is very much part and parcel of farm incomes. Indeed, in my county and many counties farmers have received planning permission in that regard and many of the wind turbines have been erected. There are difficulties with connection to the grid and the cost factor, and the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources, Deputy Noel Dempsey, is working on that.
On the three Ministers involved, I do not wish to sound smart but I got three documents from the Fine Gael Party at the weekend, one from Deputy O’Dowd, one from Deputy Mitchell and of course an important one from Deputy Naughten, all of which related to alternative energy, and the same problem exists in the Fine Gael Party.
Mr. Sargent: Will the Department look beyond pilot schemes? The Minister of State, Deputy Browne, mentioned 500 hectares of willow. Does he see biofuel, willow or any of the other options as being worth more than a pilot scheme? Will he state when a pilot scheme finishes and when he can release the potential of the sector rather than keeping a lid on it?
Mr. Browne: I have had direct discussions with farming organisations and farmers. Willow growing is not viable at present. We, therefore, decided to run with a pilot scheme of 500 hectares which is grant-aided substantially and we will see how that works. If that is successful——
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