I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
The purpose of the Bill is to amend the Turf Development Acts, 1946 to 1980, to enable Bord na Móna to make grants, out of funds to be provided by the Oireachtas, to encourage more extensive private development of bogs for the production of turf for fuel.
The increasing scarcity and cost of energy, on the import of which we are so heavily reliant, makes it imperative that our indigenous energy resources be exploited as fully and effectively as possible. Bogland is a primary energy resource which offers an immediate prospect of more extensive development for fuel purposes; it is therefore an obvious source for attention.
The present situation under which Bord na Móna acquire and develop bogs has been, and will continue to be the major contribution of turf to fuel and energy resources. Bord na Móna's record of good planning, effective organisation and growing scale of output of turf products for electricity generation and for household fuel markets is impressive. It is my intention that Bord na Móna continue to develop and increase their production.
The board's new briquette factory at Littleton, County Tipperary, will start production shortly. It has an annual production capacity of 130,000 tonnes and when fully operational will provide direct employment for 120 workers, with a further 210 out on the bog producing the milled peat required for the manufacture of the briquettes. Bord na Móna purchased to date some 70,000 hectares of bog for the production of turf and turf products. The third programme of the board which commenced in 1974, will increase the board's acquisition of bog to about 80,000 hectares.
There are many smaller tracts of bogland which could contribute significantly to our energy requirements. Many of these would be of little interest for development under the large scale operations of Bord na Móna. But their value could be very considerable and I believe that they could be developed by private interests for the production of fuel. Balance of payments and market supply would be advantageously affected, and areas of hitherto useless land could be turned to profit and provide employment. Surveys carried out by An Foras Talúntais indicate that there is a remaining area of bog of about 1.1 million hectares, comprised of relatively small bogs spread throughout the midlands and western areas of the country. It is estimated that about 50 per cent of these boglands would be capable of development for fuel production. Essentially, the Bill is designed to get such of these boglands as are capable of economic exploitation for energy purposes into production as fast and efficiently as possible through the involvement of the private interests concerned.
I do not have to emphasise that the Bill is in no way intended to downgrade or prejudice the primacy of Bord na Móna as the key instrument of policy in the development of turf resources. Indeed, it is because of the confidence I have in the board's expertise and because I know of their dedication to ensuring that all the bogland of the country is carefully used and not wasted or rendered useless by bad work methods, that I am proposing in the Bill that the administration of this private scheme be given over to the board. The Bill also provides for a role for the expertise in the various counties in the administration of the scheme.
The main obstacle to private development of bogland for the production of fuel is the substantial development costs involved, and the cost of modern mechanical turf cutting machinery. This Bill is intended to provide financial assistance towards both of these. One of my chief concerns is to ensure that the now valuable resource of bogland is developed in a planned and careful way and that quick profit despoliation of our irreplaceable asset will not be a consequence. An efficient scheme of private bog development requires the observance of standards of operation. Cost is a major factor in orderly development. Drainage, including outfall drainage, access roads and efficient turf cutting machinery can amount to a financial investment which could impose an excessive burden on private developers, even allowing for the improved market for turf as a fuel. Given this situation and the inescapable need to exploit our domestic energy resources as fully and effectively as possible, it has been decided to introduce a scheme of grants on the lines proposed in the Bill to encourage more extensive private development of bogland for the production of turf for fuel.
To minimise the risk of the destruction or wasteful use of bogs in the growth in turf production which these financial incentives are intended to achieve, the Bill provides for delivery to Bord na Móna of a bog development plan with the grant application. The plan must contain such information as the board may require. Essentially the purpose of this requirement is to enable the board to assess a project and to make grants upon terms they consider appropriate to ensure orderly development, including proper regard to the subsequent use of the cut-over area. However, the board may dispense with a development plan where an application relates to a bog development adequately indicated on a plan received by the board in relation to another application or is in respect of minor works or minor equipment for a proposed development on a bog which is being worked.
I should perhaps mention also that the requirement to deliver a plan to Bord na Móna will not apply to persons seeking grant aid for machinery to cut turf under contract. Such contractors may have no direct connection with the bog area being cut and could not be expected to prepare a development plan. As I have said earlier, persons at local level with knowledge and experience in connection with bog development will have a role in the administration of the scheme. I have in mind here county engineers, county development teams and others with acquired expertise. Specifically, I see this expertise as being of particular immediate value to the board in regard to the examination of bog development plans and perhaps even in the preparation of such plans.
I have, therefore, included a provision in the Bill which enables the board to appoint persons to examine and approve, or indeed in some cases prepare bog development plans.
Turf production by the private sector is at present running at about 1 million tonnes per annum — 313,000 tonnes approximately of oil equivalent — representing a saving to the economy of the order of £47 million in oil imports.
It is not possible at this stage to give any firm indication of the likely effects of the proposed scheme in terms of increased turf production by private interests, but given suitable harvesting and other conditions it seems that an increased output of upwards of 500,000 tonnes annually would be a reasonable estimate.
Realistically, it must be acknowledged that this additional output may not be got in the first few years but the potential is there. As to employment, it is reasonable to assume that the anticipated increased activities in private bog development as a result of the scheme will mean extra jobs in areas where job opportunities are relatively scarce. Mechanised methods of bog development and turf extraction are essential for economic exploitation, so that, initially at any rate, additional employment as a direct result of the scheme may be limited but, when the scheme is fully operational, employment should be provided for upwards of 800. Some of these jobs will be of a seasonal nature but will fit in with the work pattern in the areas concerned, where farm work, which also has an element of seasonality, is the principal source of employment. Of course, every job in the principal bog regions is valuable but where the product is totally from a native and hitherto unused resource such employment is more valuable still and will have beneficial side effects also.
Likely expenditure under the proposed grants scheme is not readily estimated at this stage. Essentially, expenditure would depend on the number of acceptable schemes for grant assistance for private bog development coming forward and, of course, the amounts involved. Development costs will depend a lot on the physical characteristic of the bog being developed, terrain, drainage required and accessibility. Until there is some experience of the working of the scheme a firm estimate of the cost of funding it is not possible.
As Deputies will be aware, the Central Development Committee, knows the CDC, currently operate a scheme under which grants are made available to private operators towards the cost of turf-cutting machinery. It is planned that the CDC scheme will be absorbed in the wider scheme now proposed. The local improvements scheme operated by the Department of the Environment through county councils provides grants for the improvement of non-public roads. Most of the schemes relate to roads serving the local agricultural community, but a limited number relate to access roads to bogs. Minor drainage works, including those which serve a bog, also come within the local improvements scheme but such schemes form a very minor part of the total works undertaken. Roinn na Gaeltachta provide grants to cover the cost of certain roads in Gaeltacht areas. Such grants are not specifically designed to aid bog development but they have in the past been used for this purpose to a limited extent. It is not intended that the scheme now proposed should replace any benefits available under either the local improvements scheme or the Roinn na Gaeltachta scheme. However, the extent to which grants may be available for access roads under these schemes will be taken into account in determining what grant assistance should be made available under the proposed new scheme.
The memorandum included with the Bill explains its purpose and that of its various provisions. I will, therefore, confine myself to the more important provisions in the Bill and to those which I think might benefit from further elaboration. As I have said, there are two main strands to it. First, those who own or have a lease of bogland or a right of turbary over it will, subject to an approved development plan for it, be considered for grants for development works and for bog development machinery, including turf-cutting machines. Second, persons wishing to cut turf, such as contractors, will be considered for grants for turf-cutting machinery.
The Bill indicates those who may apply to Bord na Móna for a grant towards the cost of a proposed bog development. Applicants must be either the owner, which includes the lessee, of the bog or have a right to turbary over it. It is proposed that the board will administer the grants scheme and will have full discretion except in a situation where a conflict of interest between the board and the applicant might be a consideration. The Bill lays down procedures for dealing with a proposal by the board to refuse an application in those circumstances. This I see as a necessary assurance for bog developers. I am satisfied that Bord na Móna would not act in an arbitrary or selfish way so as to put their own interest first and block an otherwise worthy private development. I have provided this safeguard, however. The application and all relevant documents have to be referred to the Minister, who may confirm the board's proposal to refuse the application or direct it to make a grant, having previously consulted the advisory committee, the establishment of which is provided for in the Bill. It should be noted that referral to the Minister is confined to the so-called conflict of interest situation; otherwise, as I have said, the board have total discretion.
It has been decided not to attempt, at this stage, to cover questions of bog ownership or rights, nor to deal with acquisition or allocation of bogland, nor with amalgamation of turbary rights held in small plots, not with division of commonage to facilitate turf production. These are important aspects; they raise difficult and complex issues which would require far reaching measures. Accordingly, it was felt that the introduction of a priority measure, as this Bill is intended to be, should not be held up while these complex issues are being pursued. I do not see the ownership question as a potential source of difficulty in connection with the operation of the proposed scheme. Indeed, the availability of grant assistance towards the cost of approved bog developments should be an inducement to those concerned to settle in a spirit of co-operation and to their own advantage, ownership and rights problems in relation to bogs, where these exist.
I commend the Bill to the House as a measure which provides a basis for the encouragement of more extensive private exploitation of the country's turf resources as a means of reducing our dependence on imported coal and oil, which this year is expected to top one billion pounds.