Wildlife (Amendment) Bill 2016: Report Stage (Resumed)

Debate resumed on amendment No. 3:
In page 3, lines 12 to 14, to delete all words from and including “Section” in line 12 down to and including line 14 and substitute the following:
“Section 16 of the Act of 2000 is amended—
(a) by the substitution of the following subsection for subsection (1):
“(1) Where the Minister is of the opinion, having regard to subsection (6)(a), that any land forms, or is part of, a natural heritage area, or, is satisfied under section 18A(5)(a) that a natural heritage area order should be made, the Minister shall publish or cause to be published in Iris Oifigiúil, in a national newspaper, in at least one newspaper circulating in the locality in which the land is situate, and on the website of his or her Department, a notice in the prescribed form of the Minister’s intention to make an order designating the land as a natural heritage area.”;
(b) by the insertion of the following subsection after subsection (1):
“(1A) The Minister shall cause a copy of the notice published under subsection (1) to be sent to the Committee appointed by either House of the Oireachtas or jointly by both Houses of the Oireachtas to examine matters and make recommendations in relation to natural heritage.”.”.
(Government amendment)

Before the Minister dedesignates a natural heritage area site, there must be a strategic environmental assessment and public consultation. In addition, the 2014 review has already been subject to public consultation and landowners have been informed of that review.

With regard to these proposed changes, we want to make the process as transparent as possible, which is why we have agreed to the Senator's suggestions. The Senator is correct in saying what she describes is somewhat complicated and we want to ensure transparency continues across any of our proposed changes. I am led to believe that is the case but we will certainly ensure it is the case before it goes to the other House.

Amendment agreed to.

Amendments Nos. 4, 8, 10 to 12, inclusive, 15 to 18, inclusive, 35 and 37 are related. Amendment No. 12 is consequential on amendment No. 10 and a physical alternative to amendment No. 11. The amendments may be discussed together by agreement. Is that agreed?

It is not agreed. There are a number of different matters in the amendments as read out. I do not agree with them being taken together.

My understanding is the grouping was put together on the basis that all the amendments deal with carbon sequestration and that general area.

No. There are a number of topics and not all of them-----

Does the Senator wish to propose a different grouping?

I propose that the amendments be taken sequentially.

For example, amendments Nos. 10 to 12, inclusive, could be taken together.

Amendments Nos. 10 to 14, inclusive, are related and I am happy to accept that grouping.

Perhaps we could take amendments Nos. 10 to 12, inclusive, as amendments Nos. 13 and 14 were not in the proposed grouping.

As I understand it, amendments Nos. 13 and 14 will fall if amendment No. 11 is successful.

I propose we deal with amendments Nos. 10 to 12, inclusive, as a group and others individually.

Certainly. I am happy with that.

We will start by dealing with amendment No. 4.

I move amendment No. 4:

In page 3, between lines 14 and 15, to insert the following:

"(2) Section 16(6) of the Act of 2000 is amended by the insertion of "for its role in carbon sequestration, or in respect of pollination" after "features" where it firstly occurs.".

This relates to carbon sequestration. I am hopeful the Minister of State will be able to accept this amendment. I acknowledge that he has taken on board the concerns I raised with carbon sequestration in bog habitats and it is reflected to an extent in amendment No. 11, although there are other issues. Bogland covers 3% of the Earth's surface but it contains 33% of our carbon. It is one of the densest and most important areas of carbon sequestration. In the limited time we have to take meaningful action to reduce our carbon output in Ireland and collectively on the planet, one of the most important principles needs to be keeping carbon in the ground, where possible. As I said, land that is holding carbon is doing something of great value.

Aside from the environmental importance, it is also doing something of great value economically. We are looking at immense fines and economic costs. I am very sorry to miss the debate in the Joint Committee on Climate Action, which I joined recently, because it is happening at the exact time of this debate. I have said that I deeply regret that this Bill is being pushed forward before the climate committee has the opportunity to discuss the future of peatlands. In the debate taking place right now in the climate action committee, Fine Gael and other Government representatives will be talking about the importance of the value put on carbon. It is a significant cost and we must consider the importance of what some call a carbon tax but what I would call the pricing of carbon. Similarly, it is vital that in our other areas of policy, like this Bill, we put a value on carbon, its storage and how we ensure we are not facilitating unnecessary and dangerously excessive emission of carbon. I have spoken about a twin crisis many times, taking in the ecological and climate crises. They are deeply entwined. One relates to the storage of carbon and the other relates to pollination and the massive decline in our bird and insect population. Our pollinators are vital to every form of agriculture in the country.

I have made these arguments to the Minister of State and I have seen some reflection of them in the first part of Government amendment No. 11, which proposes to add a reference to carbon sequestration in section 18A. However, it does not look to add a reference to carbon sequestration to section 16(6) of the Act of 2000, which refers to the detailed scientific reference document the Minister of State and others will use to determine whether an area should be designated as a national heritage area. Section (6) states:

The Minister, in publishing or causing to be published a notice under subsection (1), shall have regard to whether, on the basis of the scientific advice available to the Minister at a particular time, the area is worthy of conservation by virtue of its special scientific interest for one or more species, communities, habitats, landforms or geological or geomorphological features, or for its diversity of natural attributes.

This is a very strong section but it was written in 2000 before we knew the importance of carbon sequestration and pollination and they had been widely accepted. It would simply bring section 16(6) up to date if the Minister of State were to accept the amendment and we were to add the phrase "or for its role in carbon sequestration, or in respect of pollination". The amendment would simply add these criteria to the scientific and environmental factors to be considered. Those factors sit very well alongside issues such as species preservation, landform and habitat.

Adding pollination and carbon sequestration to this list would be a substantial signal for the Minister of State to send and it would not affect in any way the rest of the operation of the Bill. The Minister of State has provided that in his decisions on specific natural heritage areas he plans to consider carbon sequestration. It will not affect the immediate practice of the Minister of State but it will bring the law up to date in this regard. I hope the Minister of State will be able to accept the amendment. We may part ways on amendment No. 11 but amendment No. 4 is very practical and well-intentioned.

The note is with regard to the grouping so I will speak on amendment No. 4. I cannot accept it at this stage but I see there is merit in what Senator Higgins is saying. I will ask the Department to look at it and check with the Office of the Parliamentary Counsel to see whether it can be made in the Dáil amendments, in which case it would have to come back here. I see where the Senator is coming from and there is merit in what she is saying but I need to get it checked out.

Would it be possible to accept the amendment and if it needed to be changed that could be done in the Dáil and be brought back here?

I add Sinn Féin's support to the amendment. It should be a matter of threshold for policy in this area that we manage the carbon sequestration of the State and that we have tangible data on its loss. For too long, the State has formed policy without regard to the cumulative impact on our environment. The carbon storage of peatlands in this regard is not something we should easily trade off, in particular where the cutting is at a faster scale than regeneration. This will not affect those who cultivate their plots for personal use. We only need to look at the recent High Court decision to dissolve regulations to take large-scale peat extraction outside of the Irish planning regime because it contravened European environmental law. Furthermore, in July the European Commission indicated it would take action against the State for continued failure to ensure peat extraction is properly assessed for environmental impact as required under EU law. Considering this, there needs to be a common thread in the legislation that acknowledges the carbon-neutralising resource our peatlands provide and what impact any unjustifiable removal may have that is outside the allowance of peat extraction for household use as agreed with turf cutters.

I will accept the amendment. I hope it does not have to be changed in the Dáil or make bad law. I see where the Senators are coming from. If it does need to be changed-----

-----I hope that people understand.

I thank the Minister of State very much for accepting the amendment.

Amendment agreed to.

The Minister of State is very facilitating. Amendments Nos. 5 to 7, inclusive, 9, 13 and 36 are related and may be discussed together by agreement.

We discussed this at the beginning of the debate and chose to discuss them separately with some exceptions.

Amendment No. 1 was not included in the group.

Amendment No. 1 was originally in the group. We would prefer to discuss the amendments separately. Earlier, I indicated that I am happy to discuss amendments Nos. 5 and 6 together because they are directly related. They are on quite a different issue from the other amendments.

We will take amendments Nos. 5 and 6 together.

I move amendment No. 5:

In page 3, to delete lines 15 to 17.

I do not believe this is intentional but an inadvertent issue has arisen. Amendments Nos. 5 and 6 deal with concern about the language proposed to be added to section 18 of the original Act. Adding the phrase "in this section" will narrow the impact of the protection applied by section 18 to any process of review. It would ensure the protections and processes of the review outlined in section 18 would not extend to section 18A.

The core of the Bill is the introduction of a new section 18A that sets out the process for the designation or dedesignation of areas of natural heritage and peatland. There is an inadvertent danger, which can be addressed by accepting either amendment No. 5 or amendment No. 6, that section 18A would be missing the usual protections on process. To clarify what these protections are, at present section 18(4)(a) of the Wildlife (Amendment) Act 2000 sets out a number of provisions on publication where a Minister proposes to amend or revoke a natural heritage area order. The Minister of State addressed, replicated and, in fact, improved on these in his amendment with regard to publication and transparency and I welcome the fact he included engagement with the relevant committee. These are two very positive steps that replicate successfully section 18(4)(a) of the Wildlife (Amendment) Act 2000.

Section 18(4)(b) relates to the provisions of subsections (2), (4) and (5) of section 16 of the same Act and states they must apply to any proposed amendment or revocation of a natural heritage area order. This is not replicated elsewhere in the Bill. Section 16 of the Act states the Minister shall "seek the observations of the Minister for Agriculture, Food and Rural Development, the Minister for the Environment and Local Government, the Minister for Public Enterprise, the Minister for the Marine and Natural Resources, and such other Minister of the Government as the Minister considers appropriate in the circumstances". This is a very important provision. It states that prior to an order for a natural heritage area being revoked, the Minister would have to consult with other relevant Ministers.

I consider the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, for example, to be crucial whereas others might regard the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine as such. If the Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht were to seek to de-designate a natural heritage area or revoke an order of protection, he or she would be required to seek observations from the Ministers under section 18. If we do not include section 18A, however, the new orders that are made will not require him or her to consult other relevant Ministers. It is significant.

Other provisions are missing, such as a requirement that there be access to a map showing the area outlined. I have made such provisions in amendments Nos. 2, 4 and 5. It should also be required that the notice be sent to a Garda Síochána office. A number of other important parts of the process are not provided for in the Bill and will not apply to the orders made under it, but the crucial omission relates to consultation with Ministers. I am concerned about that. I hope that section 18A will be included, as proposed by amendment No. 6, in order that both sections 18 and 18A will be covered. I presume that was the policy intent. Otherwise, it may be decided to remove the words "in this section". I believe that amendment No. 6 is the clearest because it does not run the risk of any wider application but simply extends the provisions from section 18 to section 18A.

I realise that the omission may have been inadvertent because the Bill concerns all the various Acts and how their various sections intersect. I would hate if we were to lose progress, consultation or the level of transparency that currently exists under the new and, one hopes, better laws.

Section 18A has its own provisions for environmental assessment, public consultation and dissemination of information to the public, the Oireachtas and Ministers. Any proposals to dedesignate would be subject to consultation with the public and Ministers. The matter is catered for, therefore, in the sections of the Bill as initiated. I do not believe there is an issue because the consultation is already allowed for and required.

The Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, for example, will no longer be consulted. In section 18A there is an explicit exclusion of that Minister. It provides for "any other Minister of the Government that the Minister considers appropriate" but moves from a requirement to consult the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment to no longer having a requirement to consult him or her.

It includes any other Minister.

It specifies the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, and the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government. The omission may have been inadvertent.

The section allows for any other Minister whom the Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht considers appropriate. It depends on the application in question. It also includes the Environmental Protection Agency, whose input would be important when an order is being made under the section.

What about a provision in respect of the publication of maps?

Any information that is required to ensure that Ministers, Departments, public bodies or State agencies are fully knowledgeable of the intent of the order will be provided. If that includes maps, they will have to be provided. We need to ensure that the relevant body or agency knows exactly what is intended in the order being made to provide for designation.

It is regrettable there are some inconsistencies or a lack of specification but I understand that the Minister of State has indicated the intention to address some of the issues.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

I move amendment No. 6:

In page 3, line 16, after “section” where it secondly occurs to insert “or section 18A”.

Amendment put and declared lost.

I move amendment No. 7:

In page 3, lines 23 to 26, to delete all words from and including “and” in line 23 down to and including line 26.

The amendment will not interfere with the completion of the Minister's review of raised bog habitats. The 2014 review of raised bog natural heritage areas is under way and I would not presume to interfere with the completion of an existing review. Instead, the amendment seeks to delete the provision to allow for a new review of a natural heritage area which, in the widest sense, could include blanket bogs. I do not specify blanket bogs but simply try to confine the Minister's reviews to those of raised bog habitats. Such reviews are subject, as I previously outlined, to an appropriate 12-year review process, which covers all the issues we discussed such as a public consultation, an environmental review and an appropriate assessment It goes back to the fundamental issue that where an appropriate long-term process is in place, I accept that the legislation arises from the process, although certain factors, such as pollination, biodiversity and carbon sequestration, have arisen since that period of review. I do not believe, however, that the Minister should conduct new reviews in respect of the dedesignation of new natural heritage areas.

The Minister of State will speak to the fact that he also intends to designate natural heritage areas but the Minister already has that power and it is not added anew in the Bill. Rather, the Bill will give the Minister the power, through the review, to dedesignate areas that are now peatland, bogland or blanket bog, of which there is so much throughout the west, as the Minister of State acknowledged. The vast amount of blanket bog does the incredible work I outlined. We are only beginning to learn about its ecological significance, while carbon sequestration is an area under investigation. It is premature for the Minister to be allowed to consider the dedesignation of peatlands apart from those already covered in the previous review.

The effect of the amendment is to remove section 18A(1)(b). The rest of the section will stand but the scope of section 18A will be confined to bogs that have been considered under the 2014 review of raised bog natural heritage areas.

Unfortunately, I cannot accept the amendment. A future review of a natural heritage area will not be carried out in a vacuum. It will involve public consultation and will not necessarily lead to proposals for the dedesignation of natural heritage area sites. There are principles and criteria in the Bill to guide the Minister in conducting a review and making decisions such as carrying out a strategic environmental assessment or a public consultation linking the achievement of nature conservation objectives for bog habitats to a favourable conservation status. As set out in the Bill, at the heart of any future review will be nature conservation in respect of maintaining bog habitats at a favourable conservation status or restoring them thereto.

I believe there is enough protection in terms of the requirements for public consultation and strategic environmental assessment not to accept the amendment, as suggested.
Amendment put and declared lost.

I move amendment No. 8:

In page 3, line 29, after “section.” to insert “Any review shall include terms of reference, environmental strategic assessment, environmental impact assessment and public consultation.”.

The Minister of State stated repeatedly today that any review under this Bill, any review of this Act or any review on national heritage areas that are part of our blanket boglands will have a strategic assessment, an environmental assessment and public consultation. I have highlighted that this Bill does not provide for that. It does not contain any reference to a required public consultation, an environmental impact assessment or an environmental strategic assessment. Indeed, a review does not have to contain terms of reference. None of these measures is contained in the Bill. I understand the Minister may wish that such measures would be taken, but my concern is that the legislation does not provide for them. The Minister of State says we will not designate a blanket bog because there has been no scientific analysis; there has been no proper public consultation; there has not been an environmental assessment; we do not know the impact on birdlife or on the Birds Directive; we have not considered the ecological species and what it will do in terms of pollinators not just on those bogs but in terms of pollinator pathways; we do not know what the impact will be; we do not know what the levels of carbon sequestration will do; and we have not considered its impact overall on our national climate targets. We have not considered what the consequences will be.

The thing I know that is being considered is the compensatory payments we may have to make to people who are not allowed to cut turf on a site. That cost pales in significance to the many factors that are at play here. There is a real dearth of information. The Minister of State told us repeatedly that there will be strategic impact assessments and public consultation but right now the process in this Bill for the dedesignation of a national heritage area in a blanket bog and in a raised bog is the exact same. I will read the Minister of State's version of the process. It states that the Minister will conduct a review and consider factors such as potentially considered carbon sequestration in selecting the most suitable bog habitats to cease to be designated as a national heritage area. The Minister will consider the restoration potential, the national, regional, local economic and social and cultural needs, the recreational and sporting needs and environmental criteria. The environment criteria the Minister will consider in respect of blanket bogs mean the conservation of the blanket bog taking into account a comparison made between the area, range, habitat structure, function and ecological features of that blanket bog and those of one or more than one other blanket bog. Right now all the Minister of State is promising to do is to compare a bog that he is about to dedesignate with another bog. That is it. There is no environmental impact assessment, there is no public consultation and there is no strategic environmental review. However, there is a comparison between that bog and another one.

If the Minister of State accepts my amendment, and I hope he will, it will significantly strengthen the credibility of not just the Minister of State, in terms of the statements he has made in the House, but the credibility of the Government. We see the Taoiseach speaking about his hopes for Ireland as a green country. It would strengthen our credibility if, when we are making significant decisions around the dedesignation of what are currently protected areas, we would have an environmental impact assessment. The Taoiseach said he wants Ireland to be known as a "green county" because of how it responds to "the climate and environmental challenges facing our planet". We have a real opportunity here to ensure that in this one area of policy and this one specific area of decision-making, we will respond to the environmental considerations and assess them. That is the reason I ask the Minister of State to accept this amendment which states that any review he conducts will contain an environmental strategic assessment, environmental impact assessment and public consultation, as he said it should. Accepting this amendment will strengthen the legislation and the mandate and will add far more credibility to any decisions that he or a subsequent Minister will make under the proposed legislation.

Section 18A(4) states:

The Minister shall, in relation to the effects on the environment of the proposals arising from a review under subsection (1)—

(a) carry out an assessment, including public consultation, under the European Communities (Environmental Assessment of Certain Plans and Programmes) Regulations 2004 (S.I. No. 435 of 2004), and

(b) if it is required carry out any other —

(i) screening for an assessment, or

(ii) as the case may be for an assessment, including public consultation.

This section takes into account Senator Higgins's concerns, as expressed in her amendment.

Also any proposed review must have terms of reference before it takes place. This is also done for the 2014 review of the raised bogs. What the Senator is asking for is already covered under section 18A(4), which includes public consultation and environmental screening.

On the effects on the environment of a proposal arising from a review under section 18A(1)(a), is the Minister of State saying, because it will be an assurance if it is the case, that in respect of the decisions he makes on designation and dedesignation, he will be abiding by this? Does this section apply only to the reviews of raised bog habitats? Does it apply to the general reviews? The Minister of State has given himself a number of scopes in terms of what might be reviewed? Does this specifically apply to the dedesignation process?

Besides an assessment in regard to the certain plans of the European Communities regulations, does that incorporate a consideration of the Birds Directive and the Habitats Directive? Usually the provisions of an environmental impact assessment will incorporate a wide scope of factors. I refer to the European Commission environmental assessment of certain plans and programmes regulations.

Will it incorporate the birds and habitats directives and environmental impact assessments, including, for example, the impact in regard to climate? I may well be assured that this is provided for in another part of the section. If it does apply, that would be useful and would address some of my concerns.

Time is against us, but I will allow the Minister of State to clarify the issue before we adjourn the debate.

The requirement to carry out any other screening or an assessment is covered under section 4(b). There is provision or an assessment, including public consultation, which would cover the areas mentioned by the Senator.

I remind Senators that we are on Report Stage. We have had a lengthy debate on this issue already and the Minister of State has clarified the issue insofar as he can.

By way of further clarification, it relates to blanket and raised bogs.

I accept the Minister of State's clarification but I would prefer if it was stated in the legislation that it is required rather than that it will be done, if required. I will not press the amendment but I will come back to some of the related issues at a later stage.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Debate adjourned.

I ask the Acting Leader to move the suspension of the House.

I propose that the House suspend until 4.30 p.m.

Is that agreed? Agreed.

Sitting suspended at 4.05 p.m. and resumed at 4.30 p.m.