I congratulate the Minister of State on his appointment and I wish him success in his brief.
National Oil Reserves Agency (Amendment) and Provision of Central Treasury Services Bill 2020: Second Stage
Go raibh maith agat.
I move: “That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
I am delighted to address the House for the Second Reading of the Bill. The Bill is important in that it provides for the use of petroleum product levy funds, also known as the National Oil Reserves Agency, NORA, levy, collected on the consumption of oil products, to be used to fund the climate action fund. This fund will support a range of climate action projects which will reduce greenhouse gas emissions and be of benefit in terms of employment opportunities and economic development in communities throughout the State.
The repurposing of the NORA levy for climate action is timely in the context of the overriding need to provide a stimulus for the economic recovery. It is one of a number of measures the Government intends to put in place over the next few months to kick-start economic growth. However, we need increased ambition in leveraging every mechanism at our disposal to ensure we can deliver every type of innovative project that will place Ireland at the forefront of the green economy and develop our green infrastructure. While doing this, we must at the same time be sure that all regions of the State benefit from the new sustainable economic and employment opportunities that have emerged, including within the renewable energy and energy efficiency sectors. There is a strong need to ensure no region of the State is left behind as Ireland transitions towards a low-carbon society. This has come into sharp focus recently with the announcement that Bord na Móna will suspend peat harvesting and concentrate on enhanced peatland rehabilitation. The Department is examining the potential of the climate action fund to provide support for this activity, which will have the effect of transforming bogs damaged as a result of industrial milling of peat for power generation into effective carbon sinks. At the same time as providing for sequestration of carbon, this work will generate replacement employment for workers previously employed in the milling of peat.
The climate action fund is one of four Project Ireland 2040 investment funds established to support the whole-of-Government stated ambition on climate action. This Bill provides for the financing of the fund by way of using funds generated by the NORA levy left over after the funding requirements of the NORA have been met. The Bill also establishes the fund, which is currently set up on an administrative basis, on a statutory footing, as advised by the Attorney General. The transport sector, excluding aviation, is dominated by passenger cars and freight and represents appropriate one fifth of Ireland's greenhouse gas emissions. It is, therefore, appropriate that the surplus NORA levy funds, which are levied primarily on the use of petrol and diesel in road transport, are repurposed to assist in the wider decarbonisation of our society. This is consistent with the establishment of the polluter pays principle.
While the primary purpose of the climate action fund is to support projects and initiatives in the area of climate mitigation, the fund also offers the considerable potential benefit of supporting sustained post Covid-19 investment in relevant technologies and infrastructure with resulting positive impacts on economic growth and job creation in communities throughout the State. The first call for projects led to the fund committing up to €77 million of support to successful projects. These projects are expected over the lifetime to leverage a total of €300 million of investment in the State. The projects supported under the first call of the fund will include: the nationwide roll-out of a high-powered ESB charging infrastructure for electric vehicles, EVs, supported up to €10 million; Dublin City Council's district heating system, supported up to €20 million, an innovative programme of which there are not many exemplars in this country; Gas Networks Ireland's green renewable agricultural zero emissions gas, supported up to €8.5 million; Irish Rail's hybrid drives for InterCity railcars, supported up to €15 million; a local authority public lighting energy efficient project, supported up to €17.5 million, and the benefit of which I have seen in my own constituency where the pilot of this programme commenced; South Dublin City Council's Tallaght district heating scheme, which uses excess data centre energy, supported up to €4.47 million; and the Three Counties Energy Agency project to increase efficiency in the road haulage sector, supported up to €1.37 million, another project I had close association with.
These projects will enable decarbonisation in a number of sectors, including transport, heat and agriculture. On the enactment of the Bill, it is envisaged that a second call for applications for support from the fund will open as soon as possible in 2020. The advance work of the Department and continuous engagement with different sectors as well as experience gained from an analysis of the first call applications indicate that considerable scope exists for supporting projects that will provide climate benefits. At the same time, the fund can contribute to investment and economic growth across society, thus making an important contribution to our national recovery.
The overall purpose of the Bill is to amend the National Oil Reserves Agency Act 2007 to provide for the establishment of the climate action fund on a statutory basis, extend the purposes for which the NORA levy is paid to include providing funding for the fund and to provide for the payment of a portion of the levy moneys collected by the NORA fund. The NORA levy is collected at a rate of 2 cent per litre on most oil products on the market and is used to fund the activities of NORA, primarily in the maintenance of the State's strategic oil reserves. The amendments to the 2007 Act provided for in the Bill will allow for the repurposing of NORA levy monies to support projects and initiatives from the climate action fund and contribute to achieving the State's climate action goals in a cost-effective manner.
The Bill also amends the National Treasury Management Agency (Amendment) Act 2000 to provide for NORA and Irish Water as designated bodies to whom the National Treasury Management Agency, NTMA, may provide central treasury services. This allows the NTMA to make deposits from and-or to make advances to NORA as an alternative to the current utilisation of the commercial banks. It also facilitates the restructuring of Irish Water's funding arrangements, whereby existing funding from mainly commercial banks can be replaced with more competitively priced State funding debt facilities. This NTMA facility to Irish Water is intended to cover short-term and temporary timing-related funding requirements. Provision is also made in the legislation to provide for technical changes to the biofuels obligation scheme and for fixing of the rate of the biofuels levy to a nominal amount to incentivise the use of biofuels.
The legislation contains 28 sections. I will turn to key provisions and explain what each is designed to achieve. This is not intended to be a definitive explanation of the contents of each section. The explanatory memorandum gives a more detailed account of each provision.
Section 4 revokes existing provisions of secondary legislation that set the rate of the NORA levy, which is required as the Bill will insert a new provision into the National Oil Reserves Agency Act 2007, which fixes the rate of the levy at 2 cent per litre by statute.
Section 5 amends section 8 of the National Oil Reserves Agency Act 2007 by expanding the functions and powers of the agency to enable it to pay levy funds it has collected to the climate action fund, as directed by the Minister.
Section 13 of the Bill amends section 37 of the 2007 Act by expanding the purpose for which the levy is paid from the current purpose of funding the expenses of NORA to also include contributing to the climate action fund. This section also sets the rate of the levy to 2 cent per litre by statute.
Section 14 is an important component of the Bill which amends the 2007 Act to permit the Minister to issue an annual direction to NORA to pay a specified amount of levy moneys to the climate action fund. The section provides that only levy moneys collected and recovered after the legislation has commenced may be paid to the climate action fund. Prior to making a direction, the Minister is required to consult with NORA, the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform and the Minister for Finance. The Minister is also required to be reasonably satisfied in making a direction that NORA will have adequate financial resources remaining after payment has been made to meet its expenses during the remainder of the current financial year. In addition, the Minister must consider the amount specified to be appropriate, having regard to any future expenditure that may be required by NORA in subsequent years.
Section 15 fulfils the important function of establishing and providing governance arrangements for the climate action fund. The fund shall be controlled by the Minister or by persons to whom the management and control of the fund has been delegated by order of the Minister. The fund will consist of such accounts that the Minister will determine as necessary, with provision made for submission of the accounts of the fund to the Comptroller and Auditor General for audit and the laying of a copy of the report of the Comptroller and Auditor General and audited accounts before each House of the Oireachtas. The purpose of the fund is outlined and includes supporting projects, initiatives or research that seek to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, to increase the production or use of renewable energy or to improve energy efficiency in the State. In addition, provision is made for projects or initiatives to support regions and sectors of the economy impacted by the transition to a low-carbon economy. Provision is made for the Minister to invite proposals to avail of moneys from the fund. Moneys may be paid from the fund only to persons who have conducted projects in accordance with the guidelines specified by the Minister in consultation with the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform. Provision is also made for the establishment of a committee to advise the Minister on any aspects of his or her functions related to the fund. Further arrangements are made for the payment of any expenses incurred in connection with the administration of the fund, with the consent of the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform.
Section 22 makes a technical change to the 2007 Act in regard to the administration of the biofuels obligation scheme. The amount of the biofuels certificates from the two previous obligation periods which may be used in the current period is reduced from the previous cap of 25% to 15% of the total obligation.
Section 24 amends the 2007 Act by setting the rate of the biofuel levy at one tenth of a cent per litre of biofuels placed on the market. Setting the rate at a nominal amount removes an anomaly which currently exists whereby the levy placed on biofuels is the same as that on petroleum products placed on the market.
Section 28 amends section 18 of the National Treasury Management Agency (Amendment) Act 2000 to provide for the designation of both NORA and Irish Water as designated bodies to which the National Treasury Management Agency, NTMA, provides central treasury services. This allows the NTMA to take deposits from and-or make advances to the agencies as required. NORA will be permitted to deposit moneys with the NTMA as an alternative to the current utilisation of the commercial banks. This provision also facilitates the restructuring of Irish Water's funding arrangements.
In conclusion, this Bill serves to repurpose surplus NORA fund levies to make them available to the climate action fund, thereby supporting projects that will assist the State in its progress towards net zero carbon emissions by 2050. It also establishes the climate action fund on a statutory basis, enabling it both to receive levy funds and administer the provision of those funds to projects that will further decarbonise our society. In addition, the fund offers real potential to support employment and economic development by exploiting the opportunities of the expanding green economy and developing green infrastructure while, at the same time, supporting the just transition of regions formerly dependent on high-carbon activities. The climate action fund provides the opportunity to support economic growth while also delivering significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. The Bill establishes the fund on a sound basis and provides it with access to the funding it requires to achieve its goals. I commend the Bill to the House.
I am sharing time with Deputies Seán Crowe and Buckley.
The main purpose of this Bill is to amend the National Oil Reserves Agency Act 2007 to provide for the establishment of the climate action fund on a statutory basis. It also provides for the 2 cent levy that currently funds the National Oil Reserves Agency to be redirected to support the fund. It is proposed that the climate action fund will be used to support projects aimed at reducing emissions, increasing renewable energy production, improving energy efficiency and helping regions and sectors hit by changes that cut carbon emissions. Such a fund, constituted correctly and fairly and spent wisely, could really assist the State in its response to the climate crisis. Therefore, Sinn Féin is happy to support the Bill.
The National Oil Reserves Agency was established as a stand-alone agency under the 2007 Act. Its function is to arrange for the holding of national strategic oil stocks at a level determined annually by the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, for supply in an emergency. NORA is currently funded by a levy set at a rate of 2 cent per litre on the sale of most petroleum products at the point of sale. The levy is collected by the oil companies each month and paid to NORA to fund its activities, including operating expenses incurred in the purchase of petroleum products and securing storage in Ireland and abroad.
The NORA levy was increased by the then Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, in 2009 from 1 cent to 2 cent by way of SI 214 of 2009. That statutory instrument imposes a 2 cent levy on petrol, green diesel, diesel oil, fuel oils and kerosene, but specifically excludes jet fuel of the kerosene type. Will the Minister of State explain why jet fuel was specifically excluded from the provisions of the 2009 statutory instrument? According to the European Commission, direct emissions from aviation account for some 3% of the EU's total greenhouse gas emissions and more than 2% of global emissions. If global aviation were a country, it would rank in the top ten emitters. In 2020, global annual international aviation emissions are already approximately 70% higher than they were in 2005. The International Civil Aviation Organisation, ICAO, forecasts that, in the absence of additional measures by 2050, they could grow by a further 300%. Given the huge emissions the aviation industry contributes, should jet fuel be excluded from the levy that will support the climate action fund? Why should ordinary motorists be obliged to pay that levy when large airlines are not? I ask the Minister of State to address this point in his response.
The NORA levy was increased in 2009 to reduce the €440 million in debt NORA had accrued. According to NORA's 2018 financial statement, a programme of debt repayment was undertaken between 2012 and 2017. By 31 March 2017, NORA's loans were nil, and this position has been maintained since then. As of the end of August 2019, NORA held a cash balance of €221.7 million. Over the period 2019-23, average levy receipts are expected to be €141 million per annum, while average NORA expenses are expected to be €76 million per annum. Section 44(3) of the National Oil Reserves Agency Act 2007 states: "In determining the rates of levy, the Minister shall seek to ensure that (taking one year with another) the sums realised by applying those rates to the volume assessments meet but do not exceed the estimated expenses of the Agency and of each designated subsidiary". However, this levy has obviously far exceeded the expenses of NORA. Has there been a breach of legislation to date due to NORA collecting an excess amount of money via this levy? The Comptroller and Auditor General was asked this specific question by the Committee of Public Accounts last year and he said it was a legal question. Has the Minister received legal advice on this?
I also raise the issue of the up-to-date cash balance of NORA. The 2019 financial statements are not available online. Will the Minister outline the current financial state of NORA? Section 14 of this Bill includes the provision that any levy moneys collected or recovered prior to the commencement of the Bill "shall not form part of any payment into the Climate Action Fund under this section". On what exactly will NORA be spending the large sum of money that has accumulated in its accounts? I ask the Minister to address that at some stage. I have outlined the figure of €221 million from last August, but does the Minister have an updated figure? Considering that NORA accumulated debts of €440 million just a decade ago, is the Minister satisfied that this will not happen again? Will there be transparency and oversight here, given the significant cash balance?
This Bill will convert a levy on fossil fuels, which was introduced for the specific purpose of paying down a debt and funding NORA, into a levy on fossil fuels that will fund climate action initiatives. Taken in combination with the Government’s proposed punitive carbon tax, this will now be a double tax on fossil fuels, on which people rely to heat their homes and run their cars. Has the Minister considered this? We already have 400,000 people living in fuel poverty in this State, and this Administration wants to quadruple the carbon tax over the next decade. The Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, confirmed that to me earlier today. Does the Minister agree that this will push more people into fuel poverty, as real affordable alternatives are simply not available for most people? Similarly, the Minister previously proposed a fee and dividend approach to carbon tax, but this has since been abandoned by the Green Party. Will the Minister outline how he will assist those already living in fuel poverty and the many more who will be at risk of it due to the severe hikes in carbon tax the Government is proposing? How will those people be helped?
The Bill also amends the National Treasury Management Agency (Amendment) Act 2000 to provide for NORA as a designated body to which the NTMA may provide central treasury services. This allows the NTMA to take deposits from NORA, make advances to NORA, or both, as an alternative to the current utilisation of commercial banks. Irish Water is also to be given the same designated body status under the NTMA legislation. This facility is intended to facilitate the restructuring of Irish Water's funding arrangements, whereby existing funding from mainly commercial banks can be replaced with more competitively priced State-funded debt facilities. Are there any estimates of how much these changes could save Irish Water and NORA?
The Bill also proposes two substantive changes regarding the use of biofuels in Ireland by providing for technical changes to the biofuels obligation scheme, in addition to setting the rate of the biofuel levy to a nominal amount. Biofuels are intended to assist EU member states in meeting their emissions reduction targets. However, ensuring that biofuels are produced in a sustainable way is central to them reducing greenhouse gas emissions without adversely affecting the environment or social sustainability. Will the Minister provide further details about the Government’s plans in this area?
It has been stated that the climate action fund will provide €500 million in support to projects over the period of the National Development Plan 2018-2027. It was previously announced that the annual expenditure will be approximately €10 million in 2020, €30 million in 2021, €40 million in 2022, €80 million per annum in each of the years from 2023 to 2026 and €100 million in 2027. Has the Minister considered front-loading this investment to stimulate the economy post Covid-19 and to make quicker progress on our emissions targets?
My time is running out and I cannot see whether my colleagues are here to take over.
They are definitely there. I call Deputy Seán Crowe.
There is common agreement that we all need to do more as a country to combat climate change and that Ireland has dragged its feet and been a laggard in that fight for far too long. Having said that, we need to bring people along with us and we need to engage with the public. It is a huge local, national and global issue, but the biggest impact it has globally is on communities that are already marginalised. That is where I am coming from on this issue.
The Minister of State spoke about some of the projects that are being proposed and supported. He mentioned one in my constituency in Tallaght, which relates to the excess energy coming from the Amazon data centre on the Belgard Road. The plan is to tie in the heating system in order that excess heat would go to the council, the local IT, and eventually Tallaght Hospital. The idea is to tie it into the heat coming from the square, the Garda station and so on, and to use that excess heat. The plan would save some 1,900 tonnes of carbon in that general area and heat 339 student units.
We can do many positive things to support communities and structures in the area but I am concerned about who is paying for it. An appropriate level of consideration has not been given to the communities and individuals the 2 cent levy will be put on. I know from experience in my own community that for many of the families paying the most to heat their homes during the Covid pandemic, as well as at other times, often the heat is going out through the roof. They are the families with old cars who cannot afford a new one, who cannot afford to get their houses insulated, and so on. That is where the focus needs to be when supporting those families. No one takes delight in having a less efficient heating system or an older car that does not get the same mileage as newer models. It has to be about bringing people along and that is a concern because we need to see a rapid and just transition.
I am confused about certain elements of the Bill, such as jet fuel specifically being exempt from the levy. That question has been asked already. Why have airlines been left out of paying their fair share into this new climate fund?
I have run out of time and my colleague wants to come in. There are many positive aspects to the fund, but how the money goes into it is the big concern. There is much we can do with this fund but we need to look at where it is coming from.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on this Bill. I do not like to use scripts but I have edited it down since our time has been cut short. Projects aimed at reducing emissions, increasing renewable energy production, improving energy efficiency and helping regions hit by changes to cut carbon emissions are expected to be the beneficiaries of funding from a climate action fund.
I will cut straight to the chase. There is much welcome detail in this Bill, but my bugbear is the notion of the carbon tax. This was raised already by one of our speakers. I do not want it to be the same, but this is similar to the bailout and austerity with it being the poor will who end up again paying the most. Regarding the last carbon tax rise of €6 in September, it was revealed then that there was no poverty review. That is one thing that will be absolutely vital in securing fairness in this document. Will the Minister of State commit to ensuring that a poverty impact review will be carried out and that the terms of reference for review will go beyond the impact on those worst off in our society and extend to low earners struggling to make ends meet above that very limited threshold?
We cannot claim to care about justice of any kind if our first concern is not on the impact of a policy on those who have the least voice, the least power and the least protection against bad policy. That is the one thing I am worried about and this issue has been raised before. Ordinary workers have no choice when it comes to energy-saving costs. This issue has also been raised before. People in rural communities have to drive and a new electric car is not an option. Many people are living in old, damp and poorly insulated homes. As many of those are also rented, it is not even possible to renovate. There are no advantages for them.
We know that these people on the bottom rung are not the problem. Whatever we want to call austerity, whether green, otherwise or whatever, it is certain that we need to do better to really change anything. The one thing we do not want to do, however, is to make those less fortunate even less well off and still be climate poverty poor when this is finished.
I congratulate the Minister of State on his role, which I am sure still feels very new to him. I know he has been flying the flag down in his constituency for a long time, so congratulations on all his success. The Labour Party will support this Bill and we broadly agree with the repurposing of the existing levy for ring-fencing and the funding of the new climate action fund. It is something that my colleague, Deputy Sherlock, raised last year when he was our spokesperson on climate and it is encouraging to see it implemented in this Bill.
We have some concerns regarding the collection of funds for the climate action plan in general and to ensure that the country is not placing itself in a position where it will be relying solely on the surplus or levies from the sales of oil products to fund vital climate action. We see this very much as a positive first step but it cannot be the only step. We cannot base our progress and efforts to end Ireland's status as a climate action laggard on the revenue collected from burning fossil fuels. To me, this seems to be in the long term rather counterproductive, but I understand that in the short term it is, I suppose, a good first step. I hope that the Minister of State, whether in this debate or future ones, will articulate further plans to better fund the climate action plan and put it on a sustainable basis.
Will the Minister of State address the issue of 11.5% of Ireland's oil reserves being located in Britain? Will the fact that these reserves are held in Britain present challenges, as Britain is, as we know, set to leave the EU either with or more likely without a deal in January 2021? Further to that aspect, I will be interested to hear the view of the Minister of State regarding the EU obligation for Ireland to store 90 days' worth of oil reserves. Does the Minister of State believe that this practice should be continued as we hopefully transition towards a greener economy? In a country where residents are suffering from such fuel poverty, is it not a skewed situation to maintain such large oil reserves, much of which is off our shores?
First and foremost, we must ensure that Ireland meets or, in the best-case scenario, exceeds its climate targets with the policies that this Government takes. We have less than a decade to change completely not only Ireland's course but the global path for emissions reductions. That said, the greatest concern for our party is that workers and households do not bear the brunt of the costs of meeting our targets and changing Ireland's course. The programme for Government states that we will be "spending €3 billion on targeted social welfare and other initiatives to prevent fuel poverty and ensure a just transition".
That statement seems vague and I understand such statements can appear vague in a document such as a programme for Government. Will these initiatives, therefore, go towards green jobs, green economic creation and the expansion of Ireland or is the Government planning to expand the welfare base rather than focus on the employment of people displaced through closure or bailing out of carbon-heavy businesses? By expanding the welfare base, does the Government envisage major job losses or does the Government want to truly ensure and commit to a just transition for workers?
Can the Minister of State ensure that a just transition will ensure that workers employed in high-pollution industries will have reskilling, retraining and alternative job opportunities before these jobs disappear in order to give them some light at the end of the tunnel and let them know that their futures are not only going to be ones where they survive but where they will thrive? I suggest that the vast majority of people in Ireland recognise the need for action, recognise that change must happen and recognise their responsibility to have a decent environment for the generations to come. What the people of Ireland do not accept is that the cost of this transition should be placed solely at the door of ordinary people, while companies and large industry in these sectors and other sectors, which have been mentioned previously as being the biggest contributors to the current situation, find themselves getting off relatively scot-free. Ordinary people must not be the first soldiers on the beach in the fight against climate change. We all have our part to play and we are all in this together but others have a greater responsibility and a greater capability to ensure that we meet our targets.
As the Government introduces carbon taxes, and taxes on high emissions, I am sure the people of Ireland will do their bit. Ireland as a nation is not one of climate change deniers and we very much value our environment and our beautiful island. As I said, however, the Irish people will not accept the task for large multinationals and covering up poor governance and failure to enact radical and progressive green policies.
The Minister of State should elaborate further on his plans for a just transition in respect of all the regions of Ireland. I refer to the large urban areas, but also our rural areas. Many of us acknowledge that some jobs in industry will have to be phased out as we transition towards a green economy and this may have less effect on urban areas where other industries and sectors exist. How will the Government and this Minister of State deal with the closure and phasing out of high-emissions industries in our rural regions? We have plenty of precedents of Irish government neglecting rural Ireland, particularly in respect of jobs. There is massive concern, particularly in the midlands, about this issue at present. We cannot simply say to people living and working in rural Ireland "tough luck, we have to do this". They must be looked after and they must be given a real future.
I will finish by stating that we must ensure that the infrastructure of green transport, green farming and green jobs is in place or comes in parallel with the removal of jobs in high-emissions industries. The worker must not be punished for being employed in these industries now and the worker must be central to the Government's strategy in a just transition to a green economy.
I congratulate the Minister of State on his new role, I wish him well in it and I look forward to working with him over the next few years, particularly on issues of biodiversity. I am delighted to speak on this legislation, which I hope paves the way for the suite of legislative measures required if we are to meet our national and international climate action obligations.
This Bill has many remits, including the establishment of the climate action fund, which I will focus on in my contribution today. While I welcome the Bill, I have put forward amendments which will be discussed on Committee Stage tomorrow and which seek to further strengthen the capacity of the climate action fund. My amendments will ensure that funding from the climate action fund is sustainably channelled across various climate action projects that aim to reduce our carbon emissions, mitigate climate change and facilitate a just transition. My amendments also outline the need to increase our focus on the protection and preservation of biodiversity and natural heritage. This is something I feel strongly about and which has been the poor relation to climate action policy.
As a legislator, I am dismayed that climate action in all its variety has been split between three different Departments. At present, climate action remains in the Department of Communications, Climate Action and the Environment, while responsibility for the environment is now being spread across others, including water within the Department of housing, where heritage and biodiversity have also found their new home.
Waste, environmental awareness and climate are with the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment while forestry and the marine are within the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine. Environmental groups and organisations campaigned throughout the lifetime of the previous Government to have all aspects of climate and climate action under one Department. They now face another Dáil term doing the same all over again. Our first battle against climate change is with our ability to manage our response as a nation. This requires a unified Department for climate and nature under one Minister to ensure cohesion across all climate and biodiversity spheres.
For now, it is important that we strengthen the Bill as much as we can. I believe it presents an opportunity to address the policy and funding gap that exists between biodiversity and climate action which has plagued this country's response to climate change. One does not work without the other. They are two sides of the same coin but are often treated like different currencies altogether. For too long biodiversity has been viewed as an entirely separate process to climate action. The siloed nature of national climate action policy reflects this notion. To date there are separate plans, reports and actions both for biodiversity and climate. A widening gap is emerging between biodiversity and climate action with little communication between the two processes. I hope this is addressed somewhat in the forthcoming climate action Bill.
A more balanced national approach means incorporating the ecosystem into cross-sectoral adaptation policies and not treating them as separate processes but as complementary to our technological and economic measures. If we can do this it will make for more sustainable adaptation and a more comprehensive approach to climate change.
Too often national policy has been predominantly focused on the technological and economic aspects of climate action, resulting in a human-centric approach to climate change. Adaptation measures are decided by their impact on our economy and not on the environment while mitigation measures are focused on technological solutions as opposed to natural ones. While these are important, the Government has been too quick to overlook the major role nature can and must play in our response to climate change. We need to shift our national response towards a nature-based approach to climate action, building in nature-based solutions and moving away from viewing climate action entirely through an economic lens. If we continue to view climate action in this way we risk failing to identify the role nature-based solutions can have and we will fail to identify the impacts our climate actions are having on biodiversity and nature. If we do not integrate climate action and biodiversity effectively in national policy we could do more damage to nature in our bid to save the planet.
Emerging scientific research on biodiversity continues to endorse nature's role in the carbon cycle. Not only does nature help to regulate the climate, it contains myriad nature-based solutions for both climate adaptation and mitigation.
During the elections this year I had the pleasure of launching the Social Democrats biodiversity policy document on protecting our fauna and natural environment. It sets out exactly where we believe we need to go in terms of biodiversity. I urge the Minister of State to consider it as part of the climate action fund. The policy includes initiatives such as a requirement that State bodies first examine upstream natural-based solutions when considering works required to deal with flood relief and protection; a voluntary purchase scheme for unprofitable farmland to be converted into protected native woodland; incentives for the practice of agri-forestry and silvopasture; and incentives for the planting of native trees on private land and for sustainable felling and harvesting practices. We need to develop a blue carbon strategy that will identify blue carbon sites such as seagrass, kelp and salt marshes. We need other projects to incorporate biodiversity policy, as promoted by the Social Democrats, including the promotion and expansion of wildlife corridors across our country. We recognise the potential of rivers, canals and the road network as potential natural corridors. We need to encourage our local councils to create native woodland walks and wildflower meadows in existing and new parks. We need national legislation to significantly reduce or eliminate the non-agricultural use of pesticides and herbicides outdoors. There are many other proposals. I will not go through all of them today but I believe the Minister of State would agree with me on many of these measures and would probably have considerable interest in them as well. I am more than happy to sit down and discuss them further with the Minister of State.
The climate action fund presents us with an opportunity to address the financial shortfalls that plague our attempts to address climate change. No one is in any doubt that funding needs to be increased to protect our natural world. Since climate action has finally been put on the political agenda - and even long before that - Irish organisations and institutions tasked with conservation, environmental education, advocacy and protecting our biodiversity have all been underfunded, understaffed and under-resourced especially compared with our neighbours in Europe. We need to start treating the natural environment on a par with climate action and afford it the appropriate support. Some of our State agencies are struggling with the current funding deficit. The National Parks and Wildlife Service continues to be drastically underfunded. It is difficult for the service to proactively carry out the functions and duties under its remit, despite the best efforts of its staff, due to resourcing pressures.
The National Biodiversity Data Centre, which is tasked with the important role of monitoring our impact on biodiversity, cannot carry out the necessary research to inform us on policymaking. Its funding is based on short-term funding mechanisms but it needs a long-term funding strategy. If we cannot measure our biodiversity and identify a baseline, we cannot identify whether we are improving, or how we are impacting on our environment. The role of the Environmental Protection Agency needs to be expanded further to enable it to manage and inform the impact developments are having on our environment. For environmental NGOs funding is a constant struggle. The environmental NGO community has done incredible work with the little they have in fostering community engagement to protect biodiversity at a grassroots level. I am aware that members of the Irish Environmental Network receive approximately €1 million each year in core funding. The fact is that they need closer to €10 million to make the impact they believe is required to adequately protect our natural heritage. When we compare the €1 million for environmental NGOs, or the €16 million that the National Parks and Wildlife Service gets, with the €16 million that Bord na gCon receives annually, it really paints a bleak picture.
I want to go into greater detail on what incorporating biodiversity with climate action looks like and what kind of initiatives the climate action fund could help to support. These are initiatives promoted by the Social Democrats for the conservation of endangered and vulnerable native species. They include funding for councils and inland fisheries to map and remediate barriers to fish migration as well as State funding for the monitoring and eradication of invasive species.
The marine is another poor relation when it comes to climate action policy. It is time the Government stood up for marine biodiversity and coastal communities and committed to ending overfishing. Our network of marine protected areas needs to expand considerably to protect our rich vibrant marine ecosystem. This needs to be done on an ecologically coherent basis. That is why we need to ensure we have enough investment in our research so that we know what we are protecting and why we are protecting it.
Water pollution must be a thing of the past through the full implementation of key European directives that protect our freshwater sources from pollution and invasive species and ensure good water quality and healthy rivers, lakes and groundwater. We also need a new vision for our forestry to ensure timber production is in line with social, biodiversity and climate obligations. The current outdated tree farm timber production model is not working. A motion on forestry that was put forward in September 2019 called for a "fundamental change in forestry policy away from" the current emphasis on clear-fell short-rotation monoculture to the promotion of natural, diverse and long-term woodland plantations of neighbourhood and farmland trees.
The Covid-19 pandemic has demonstrated how critical our food security is and how fragile our export driven model is to external shocks. We must ensure that as a small island we are able to feed ourselves. In addition we must halt the catastrophic losses of farmland biodiversity and reward primary producers for restoring it, for protecting water quality and for meeting our climate change commitments. Affordable locally produced food must be at the heart of future plans and agrifood strategies. We must also consider the final recommendations of the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Climate Action, which placed considerable emphasis on the role of hedgerows in our ecosystem. The committee called for a national hedgerow conservation strategy which recognises the rich climate and biodiversity benefits of our natural hedgerow resource.
Of course none of this can be done unless we bring everyone with us. First and foremost, our duty is to protect vulnerable communities from the effect of climate change and the transition to a low-carbon economy. The climate action fund can help to prioritise projects that aim to facilitate a just transition. The climate action fund should prioritise such projects. Investing in nature-based solutions for climate mitigation will force us all to share the burden of climate change and thereby help vulnerable communities to withstand the disruptive transition to green jobs, new economic models and changes in our weather patterns.
I believe that now is the time to get serious about adopting the EU green deal. I spoke to the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, about it this morning. Its targets devise a comprehensive approach across all aspects of climate action to enable a fair and effective transition to a low-carbon economy. The targets we must implement will require a concrete shift towards a circular economy where waste and excessive consumption is targeted by national policies.
This will require greater investment and initiatives at a community level, encouraging the roll-out of reuse and repair workshops, as well as zero waste and upcycling businesses, particularly in rural areas where jobs can be created and communities upskilled through wiser sustainable use of our natural resources. We need strong target-driven legislation to be implemented and this needs to be backed up with science and nature-based solutions to help us achieve our climate action and biodiversity targets. Fundamentally, biodiversity and nature, and the capacity of a nature-based solution to deal with climate change adaptation and mitigation, is important. It is an area that has not been given the emphasis it requires. Its value and potential has not been recognised.
Climate change and biodiversity are intrinsically linked. We are not be able to address climate change without addressing biodiversity and the use of nature-based solutions. Our biodiversity will be impacted heavily by climate change and we need to address these two issues in tandem. Biodiversity and climate change are not two separate languages or currencies; they are, in fact, two sides of the same coin.
Like the Bill that was passed earlier, if we accept the rhetoric of this Bill, it is hard to argue against it on the face of it. Money from the current 2 cent per litre levy on petrol and diesel will now go to the climate action fund if we pass this Bill. We are told that fund will be used to help to reduce our emissions and reach our climate targets. What is not to like about that? However, a number of questions arise and there is a fundamental weakness in the logic behind this kind of policy, which becomes clear when one examines it closely. Anyone who reads about the history of the levy would be forgiven for thinking that the oil companies pay it. The association representing oil companies threatened to take legal action if the levy was used for climate action and put into a separate fund instead of being returned to the industry. Oil companies do not pay the levy, however, motorists do on every litre of petrol and diesel that they use. The oil companies simply collect the money. Like the general drift with carbon taxes, it is not industry that pays. Rather, it is the people, who often have no alternative but to use petrol or diesel cars. The €500 million fund trumpeted by the Government for years as a key plank in its climate action plan depends on the continued use of petrol and diesel to fund it. To me, there is a degree of irony in that. In fact, the recent Covid-19 crisis probably highlighted it, insofar as the reduction in the sale of petrol and diesel would have meant, I assume, a reduction in the amount that would have gone into the fund. I point this out to highlight the weakness in the policies that appear to be clever wizard ideas. It seems to me that behind this sort of logic that these kinds of funding streams propose, there is an element of rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic. We are all aware of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, IPCC, report on the dire timeframe for the far-reaching and radical action required in our transport, energy and entire social system to avoid catastrophic climate change, a wish that is increasingly impossible for the many parts of the globe which are currently experiencing that catastrophic climate change. These policies do not suggest that we understand the scale and pace of the change that is needed.
Projects currently being funded by the climate action fund present another problem. Should the emphasis in policy be, for example, on charging points for electric vehicles or facilitating a massive boom in the sale and use of electric vehicles rather than a revolution in public transport? Equally, I am unsure that funding for so-called environmentally friendly gas projects is anything other than wishful thinking.
In its work on climate action, the emphasis of Gas Networks Ireland on biogas projects will not result in our targets being reached or the kind of radical and far-reaching policies that are needed for our climate. There are logical problems with biogas, which relies on a supply of animal manure and plant biomass. I want to quote from the acclaimed non-governmental organisation Food & Water Watch. Its recent publication states:
Despite claims of environmental benefits, biogas is primarily made up of methane, a potent greenhouse gas. And the focus on the supposedly renewable nature of biogas ignores the many environmental and health threats posed by a major source of this gas: manure from massive factory farms. Biogas has no place in the world's clean energy future.
I want to comment on the proposed changes to the biofuel obligation. I again wish to point out that on paper it seems like an eminently sensible policy, but in reality it exposes weaknesses in the general overall approach. The obligation is meant to encourage the use of alternatives to fossil fuels in our energy use. It seems that has been the case. When it was introduced it was hoped there would be a boom in the local indigenous production of various forms of biofuel. In fact, because of the logic of the market it resulted in the closure of dozens of budding projects, as most of the biofuel ended up being imported from Holland. To quote one commentator, the biofuel obligation scheme has been the death knell of indigenous biofuel production in this country. As with biogas, there are major question marks over the sustainability of biofuels of all types and whether they result in any savings in CO2 emissions if we look at the entire life cycle of plants etc., and how they are used and transported. One report found that plans to shift Europe's coal plants to burning wood pellets could accelerate rather than combat the climate crisis and lay waste to woodland equal to half the size of Germany's Black Forest every year. Another study indicated that the sustainability of rapeseed biodiesel in the interpretation of the EU's renewable directive is, at best, questionable and in most scenarios is simply unjustifiable.
My overall point is that neither the NORA levy nor the climate action fund nor biomass and biofuels are delivering the far-reaching and fundamental change that the climate crisis requires. Ultimately, tinkering around the edges will not result in global reductions in emissions or tackle the causes of the crisis which, at its heart, remains the hold of the fossil fuel industry on energy, transport and the need of our current economic system to continually grow and provide profits over other concerns, whether that is sustainability or the sustainability of the lives of people on this planet.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on this important Bill. On my way to the convention centre, I remembered that it is now three years since I originally put forward this particular concept. I want to thank the current and former management and board of the National Oil Reserves Agency. They put in a tremendous effort to deal with a deficit, outstanding debt and the fact they did not have oil reserves available to them. Since the establishment of the fund, they have dealt with all of that and, as a result, have created the surplus that we are discussing today.
The Minister will know that there is a shortfall of €700 million in the fund. The original concept with which I came forward would have ensured a fund of €1.2 billion, something we will address on Committee Stage tomorrow. I hope we get support from the Government on that. While acknowledging the work of the staff, management and board of NORA, the issue of energy security still represents a major vulnerability for Ireland today. We cannot just brush it under the carpet. I ask the Government to consider the issue of energy security policy because we need to achieve set targets for indigenous energy supply in order to reduce or eliminate the importation of energy into this country, increase the Exchequer reserves and protect Ireland's energy security.
The Government needs to create an energy security advisory committee to develop that policy and the associated action plan that will be needed post-Brexit to protect our energy security. That is a role and capacity that NORA could have going forward.
The climate action fund was announced as part of Project Ireland 2040. Project Ireland 2040, despite criticism at the time, was a significant step forward in the approach, both in terms of scale and ambition, in investment in the whole area of climate change. The big difference between the promises that had been made by previous Ministers with responsibility for the environment was that the commitments were backed up by the funding to deliver on what was set out in Project Ireland 2040.
Some €22,000,000,000 went directly into climate-focused investment and a further €8.6 billion in sustainable mobility. That is €1 in €4 of capital spend by the State and State agencies over the next decade that is focused on climate action and emissions reduction. This is significant, not just in European terms but, in fact, in global terms. For Ireland, it represented a huge leap forward in our approach to addressing the issue of climate action. Of that €22 billion, some €4 billion went into energy efficiency upgrades, getting rid of dirty fossil fuels from our heating systems within a 200 month period, taking dirty fossil fuels of out power generation by 2025 and rolling out the smart farming initiative across the country which evidence has shown reduces emissions in agriculture by 10%.
If one wants to put another name on this particular legislation it is the "bring people with us" law, because that is the objective behind the climate action fund. From my experience as Minister with responsibility for the environment, environmentalists, in many instances, were far too focused on the vehicle rather than the end result to reduce emissions. Bringing people along the climate action journey was and is completely alien to many environmentalists. Instead, they want to take a continental European climate solution and shoehorn it into an Irish situation. One will not get a replica result by doing that. On top of that, the communities across this country in rural Ireland are firmly of the view that environmentalists are only interested in taxing people in rural Ireland to try to force them into our congested cities.
The objective and goal behind the climate action fund was to come up with innovative solutions to Irish climate problems because we have, believe it or not, unique challenges here. It is an alternative to the approach advocated by the Green Party leader of carpooling for people living in rural villages which is not realistic or practical. However, the climate action fund can fund initiatives that are practical, can be implemented in urban and rural areas and will have a direct impact on our emissions profile.
We need to acknowledge the fact we have by far the most dispersed rural communities anywhere in Europe. Some 37% of our population lives on 96% of the land mass of Ireland and the environmentalists need to wake up and realise that is not going to change any time soon. Live with the facts and let us come up with solutions that deal with those facts.
In 2018 in the city of Dublin just 50% of people used public transport. Huge public investment is going into it. That public transport solution is not available in rural Ireland but we should look at how we can maximise the utilisation of public transport in urban areas. Carbon tax will not do that because people in rural areas disproportionately pay more of that tax without any alternative. However, congestion charges, which have been dismissed to date by some people within the Green Party, are a solution to that. We also need to acknowledge that across the midland counties solid fuel is the only source of heating for one in five homes. That is a huge problem that needs to be overcome and we need to come up with a solution. District heating will not resolve that particular problem.
Ireland is unusual compared to other EU countries in terms of our emissions profile, because the greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture make up a much larger share of our emissions than anywhere else in Europe. In fact, one third of our emissions come for agriculture. Even though 90% of the beef we produce is exported, Ireland is penalised for being the most carbon-efficient beef exporter within the European Union because the rules state responsibility is on the producer rather than the consumer of that product. Relatively carbon-efficient beef production can, therefore, be replaced throughout the European Union with beef that is 35 times worse from an environmental perspective from the Amazon basin. That is okay according to climate mathematicians, but not our atmosphere.
Another challenge we have, bizarrely, here in Ireland is air quality. While we cannot see air pollution, it is a big problem. Four people per day are dying as a result of poor air quality. Air quality concerns people's health today. Climate action and climate change concerns the next generation's health in the future. It is two sides of the same coin and we need to be focused if we are going to bring people with us on the issues of air quality. Some 122,000 beds per year are taken up in our hospitals because of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, COPD. One in 12 people in Ireland suffer from COPD. One in five children in Ireland suffer from asthma. In fact, we have the fourth highest rate of asthma in the world. Improvements in air quality which reduce our carbon emissions profile has a direct impact on the health of Irish people today and on the impact of Covid-19.
The concept behind the climate action fund is to turn innovative ideas into climate action using the fund to support larger-scale projects that would not otherwise be developed without the support of Government. The fund is about a new way of problem solving in both urban and rural communities, in business and enterprise, on climate and environmental issues. I recognise that the Government does not have a monopoly on good ideas. That is why I was determined to have this particular fund established with its primary goal to drive innovative projects that will reduce Ireland's carbon emissions and deal with the unique challenges we have. The fund was planned to open up to support joint ventures, harness creativity and support initiatives coming from local communities and business as well as global corporations. The objective behind it is that it will be a blank canvas for everyone here in Ireland to come forward with innovative ideas that can help meet our climate and energy targets. It will be a blank canvas for anyone with a global interest in this area who is prepared to come to Ireland and try out that initiative which will have a direct impact on our overall emissions profile.
The core behind this fund, which was taken on board by Government and replicated into three other funds, namely, the rural regeneration fund, the urban regeneration fund and the fund within the Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation on new innovative ideas, was that there would not be a plethora of terms and conditions.
My view was that the criteria being laid down by civil servants and Ministers were choking creativity. The idea was to keep eligibility broad, to focus on the end result, which was reducing our overall emissions profile and let people come up with the ideas because effective climate change is about putting the levers of action into the hands of ordinary people the length and breadth of this country, and delivery requires fundamental transformation in our thinking as a society. The climate action fund, when it was announced, was the largest per capita fund of its type in the world, and there is some international interest in it.
The opportunities provided by the fund are endless, whether they be community-led electricity and energy or other projects. Earlier, the Aire Stáit mentioned the Three Counties Energy Agency project. As Minister, I was determined to reduce the overall emissions profile and electricity demand for local authorities throughout the country and through the climate action fund, we will reduce the electricity bill of every local authority by replacing all of the public lighting in the State. These are practical measures for which there was no Government funding but they could make a real difference to our emissions profile. I hope when this fund is established on a statutory footing that this core principle is accepted and that we do not have a situation where the fund is used by the Departments of Public Expenditure and Reform and Finance to wallpaper over other deficits or to fund projects that should normally be funded through other mechanisms of Government. Having listened to the Minister of State's contribution, I am concerned that the tentacles of Government Buildings are already getting into that fund. That was never the intention and should not be allowed to be the intention of that fund. That is why I will table amendments relating to the fund tomorrow.
Another amendment I will table seeks to have the fund increased to €1.2 billion. If one were to go back through the substantial file on this legislation within my former Department, one would see that my objective all along was to increase the levy from 2% to 3%, bring in an extra €700 million, paid for by the oil industry through the distributors, and in tandem with that reduce the amount consumers pay in carbon tax. The end result to the public in terms of fuel costs is that they would see no difference but it would mean that this tax was put on the oil industry. I cannot believe that a Government that is supposed to have such a green agenda and that has such a green hue is bringing forward legislation that does not increase the taxes on the oil industry but the Minister will get the opportunity to do that tomorrow. I look forward to him accepting my proposal tomorrow.
Finally, I want to bring up another aspect of this fund. This time last year I proposed that part of the fund would be specifically ring-fenced to support the rehabilitation work that was needed on the cutaway bogs in the midlands and to support employment of Bord na Móna staff, in particular, in east Galway, Roscommon, Longford, Westmeath, Laois and Offaly, that had been badly impacted upon by the fact that no harvest has taken place this summer. All of those seasonal staff are currently in limbo. They have received no communication whatsoever from the board or from Government as to if or when they will have a job. The only indication that this fund will be used is in the proposal on the day it was announced.
Nobody has bothered to address those staff who are living in limbo today. Some of them are in receipt of the pandemic unemployment payment while others are in receipt of the wage subsidy. All of them want to be back working on the bogs and are available and willing to do that. Unfortunately, some of the seasonal staff, who were not called back earlier in the year along with their colleagues, are getting absolutely nothing. These people have worked for ten or 15 years on these bogs, did not get called back in the early part of the season and as a result, they are living on fresh air, and that is being ignored. At the same time as we the taxpayers are paying, through Bord na Móna, the wage subsidy scheme and the pandemic unemployment payment to those who have been temporarily laid off, we have staff drawing those payments who have applied to Bord na Móna to take redundancy and their application is not being processed by the company. I believe that it is a public scandal that we are using taxpayers' money, which we are borrowing, to subsidise staff who have applied for a redundancy package, who want to leave and cannot get out the door, to remain on the books within Bord na Móna. I hope that the Minister of State will specifically address that issue. I have raised it with his predecessor, the Minister for Finance and the Taoiseach, all of whom are quite prepared to justify the paying of public money, but that is not a just transition. It is not a just transition for the taxpayer. It is not just for the employees who want to get out and it is not just for the employees who are living on fresh air and want to get back to work.
Is Deputy Michael Collins sharing with colleagues?
Indeed, with three other colleagues - Deputies Michael Healy-Rae, Danny Healy-Rae and Richard O'Donoghue. I wish the Minister of State, Deputy Noonan, the very best in his new role.
NORA exists in its present form to ensure that Ireland maintains its minimum stockholding requirements for oil and petroleum products. With regard to the proposed amendment of the principal Act, the Minister wishes to increase levies on oil and petroleum products to establish the climate action fund. These amendments will increase costs for consumers in Ireland at a very difficult time. While the ambitions of the fund are admirable, the fund amounts to a blank cheque for the Minister to hit each and every consumer directly in the pocket, and especially in rural areas, in a major area of cost to consumers, namely transportation and heating.
While we all have aspirations to have a world-class public transport system in Ireland, the main mode of transport for most people today is the car. This will increase costs for people at a particularly challenging time. Would it not be better to introduce an income tax increase to show citizens what the Government's climate action fund will cost instead of a sneaky levy? For example, under the proposed amendment to section 8 of the principal Act, the Minister proposes to pay the proceeds of a levy collected and recovered into the fund. Can the Minister of State confirm that this levy will be capped, and at what amount? Can he confirm that the levy will not remove or reduce funding for other critical parts of our economy?
Under the proposed amendments of section 37 to the principal Act, the Minister proposes to have dedicated expenses for the set-up of the fund. Can the Minister of State explain how much is budgeted for the management of the fund and whether there will be a cap on expenses for his Department in respect of the running of the fund?
I will also raise the critical issue of our security of supply for natural gas, which is dire. The Minister of State wishes to increase energy efficiency through his proposed amendment to the operation of the climate action fund but I believe we need to get our house in order first. While Ireland has an agency to safeguard a minimum volume of oil reserves, it has become increasingly clear that it is severely exposed to security of supply issues with regard to natural gas. As the Minister of State may have seen in the news, the Kinsale gas platform, one of our only indigenous sources of natural gas, was recently turned off. This will result in a loss of jobs in Cork but also means that we are now in an extremely vulnerable position with regard to our national security of supply for gas.
Ireland currently produces more than 50% of its electricity from gas. We import gas via interconnectors with the UK. We have no existing gas storage on the island of Ireland. The Corrib gas field will be exhausted within ten years. We will then be fully reliant on the UK for the importation of gas. The UK is also reliant on gas imports and has experienced its own decline in gas production in the North Sea. The UK is also exiting the EU, leading to new risks to our economy. While the UK and Ireland are now good friends, the same cannot be said of the UK and the EU, which are going through a messy divorce. If trade talks between the EU and the UK were to take a turn, there is not much preventing the operators of the British national grid from increasing tariffs on the interconnectors between the EU and the UK, which would directly hurt the Irish economy.
I strongly ask the Minister of State to improve the security of supply of natural gas and propose that he considers a floating liquefied natural gas, LNG, import terminal, which would guarantee our security of supply, while we develop offshore wind power and renewables. While we will make that move towards renewables in the coming years, it is clear that it will take time and we must be realistic. Gas can, and will, play a key role as a transition fuel and in the balanced power production from renewables in Ireland. Once offshore wind power production and other renewables are in a position to replace fossil fuels, we can either use a floating LNG terminal as purely a security of supply option or disconnect it entirely if that is desirable for our country. A floating terminal allows for this and we will not be left in the lurch while we make our move towards renewables.
I am aware of proposals from a company owned and located in Ireland, which is ready to put world-class LNG infrastructure in place and which will commit to importing conventional LNG as opposed to fracked gas. This will help to put Ireland's energy transition and economic competitiveness first rather than outsourcing our energy needs to the UK and other countries.
As the Minister of State will be aware, we are in very challenging times. Higher energy costs will hurt our economy. I, therefore, ask that he seriously considers a floating LNG terminal as a viable option to support our economy with competitive energy and to diversify and ensure our security of supply of gas to ensure practical implementation of the energy transition.
I wish the Minister of State well in his new role, which is very important. This debate, however, is the start of the knocking of, and the campaign against, people in rural Ireland. Early this morning on Newstalk, I had to defend people who want to build homes in rural areas because the Green Party has a policy whereby they will be asked to pay for the broadband they might receive in the future as a condition for the grant of planning permission by the local authority. This evening we are talking about more impositions being put on people in rural Ireland in particular.
With regard to energy security, there is a gaping hole in the fabric of our society because of the problems we will have with energy security in the future. There will be an over-reliance on energy from overseas, particularly in the post-Brexit era. Nobody knows what is coming down the road or what our relations with other countries will be in the future. Climate change, and what is proposed to deal with it, comes at an enormous cost. There is, again, an over-reliance on hitting the people who least deserve to be hit, the people living in rural Ireland.
This new Government has capitulated to the Green Party in dispensing with the proposed LNG terminal at Shannon. I was instrumental in ensuring that this project was promoted in the previous programme for Government. Not only is it not in the current programme, the Government is actively campaigning against it. Everybody must realise the enormous amount a private company spent on the Shannon LNG project. It did not have to be fracked gas. Nobody ever said it had to be fracked gas.
While we are talking about energy, we had a great supply of energy in our turf and in our peat industry. What is the Green Party doing in that regard? It is ending that industry and knocking it. I think back on all of the great people who worked in the midlands and around the country over the past 100 years, both harvesting and saving turf for themselves and working for the peat industry. We are now willing to flood, or rewet to use the polite term, the bogs. Such nonsense and baloney I have never heard in all of my life. It is the same as ending the beet industry. Every politician now rightly recognises that the beet industry in this country should never have been stopped. In the exact same way, the people of Ireland in the future will ask what was wrong with politicians when they shut down the peat industry. It is a stupid decision by stupid politicians who do not know what they are talking about. It is a horrible thing to do.
As I said, rural Ireland is being asked to pay a large price with regard to changing our "emissions profile". That term sounds great. It is lovely language but we must look at the cost and the imposition on people. Whether one lives in a town, a city or rural Ireland, one will be asked to pay a high price for this.
I compliment our farming community, the people who have genuinely been protecting our environment and who have been playing their part. They have improved their slurry storage facilities, built new sheds, put up new yards, and improved methods for spreading the slurry that must be spread every year. They have upped their game. They are playing their part as the custodians of our environment. They know a hell of a lot more about protecting our environment than any member of the Green Party ever will. I again compliment those people and the IFA, which has worked so diligently to defend our family farms.
The ending of exploration for oil and gas and the harnessing and harvesting of the great reserves we have around our coast was another stupid decision. Again, it does not make sense. Every other country in the world can go into its seas to look for gas and oil but we cannot because politicians think it is the wrong thing to do.
In my honest and humble opinion, the extra carbon taxes that are to come are unbelievable, unsustainable and unfair. Time will prove what I have said here this evening to be right. I thank the Acting Chairman for the opportunity to speak on this Bill.
I am glad to have an opportunity to speak on this very serious matter this evening. As I have stated several times, this proposal claims to be about national oil reserves or whatever but it is about raising carbon taxes and increasing the amount the ordinary punter will have to pay. The ordinary motorist, farmer, haulier and bus operator will have to pay more. All of those sectors will have to pay a sum to provide a shiny new fleet of electric buses for Dublin. Rural Ireland is being asked to pay for that.
I should have congratulated the Minister of State and wished him well in his new post but I will not support or vote for this Bill tomorrow evening. I will vote against it. In trying to come up to the mark and obey the rules that will pertain, people are trying to make electric excavators.
The fact is that they have made them already but they have to charge them all night with diesel generators. What is going on is absolutely ridiculous.
There is talk about electric cars but already the price for charging them has gone up. The cost of travelling 100 km in an electric car is €3.80 compared to €5 for a small diesel car, but we must take into account the cost of an electric car. Where will people charge electric cars? Where will they plug in an electric car to recharge when it stops? There is no place to plug it in. All of these things will cost people in rural Ireland because one cannot get anywhere there without a car and farmers cannot do anything without a jeep or a tractor. The Government had better realise that. What will this do only hurt the old people, who for one reason or another cannot cut turf any longer? What has been happening is wrong. Traditionally, we cut turf all around the county of Kerry to keep ourselves warm and we will keep doing that while we can but the Green Party does not want us to do that. It is wrong to make people do things or not do things that they have been doing for generations.
The Green Party is promoting public transport. In the past ten to 15 weeks, I only saw one or two people inside in the 51-seater or 52-seater buses and coaches. A massive Luas passed me the other day with only two people inside it. We are told to use public transport. That is what the Green Party is saying. At the same time, we are looking at advertisements on the television every night telling us not to use public transport, if at all possible. There is a complete contradiction there. I want the Minister of State to know something I have said several times: if we put out the lights altogether in this country and each and every one of us left, it would only make 0.13% of a difference in the worldwide context. There are other continents and big powers doing nothing at all about climate change.
I wish to speak about criticism of farmers and methane gas. The scientist who argued that farmers were creating so much methane gas emissions has now come along and said that he was two thirds wrong in his estimation. The Minister of State must be honest with people about what the Government is trying to do. People rang me from around the country tonight even from as far away as Kerry and Donegal about the problems that we have in rural Ireland. Rural pubs are being denied the right to open their doors while two thirds of pubs are wide open here in Dublin. The Government is hitting rural Ireland again. This is what the Bill is all about.
This oil Bill has already raised €3 billion in carbon taxes since 2010. The Green Party has included certain projects that its members want rural Ireland to pay for. Some €8.5 million is being provided for gas projects. Dublin City Council is to get €20 million for green heating systems. Some €4.5 million is being provided for the Tallaght district system, €7.5 million is being provided for local street lights and €1.4 million is being provided to improve the efficiency of heavy goods vehicles. Do Green Party members understand what happens in rural Ireland? Do they understand how food products get onto the shelves? It will be their fault when people are charged between €3 and €4 for a litre of milk because they are taxing rural Ireland, the same people who are feeding them every single day. All the food for people, whether they are vegan or otherwise, comes from rural Ireland, but the Green Party is taxing us.
Every new truck at the moment costs approximately €150,000. That is the minimum cost. A trailer for a truck costs approximately €90,000. What does the Green Party do? It gets everything into Dublin and lets rural Ireland pay for it. The Green Party has no concept of rural Ireland. I look at it from the point of view of all of its ministerial appointees. They are Dublin-based. The Minister of State should come down to Limerick for a full day and I will show him what is needed to get food onto the table in rural Ireland. All the bus infrastructure to schools is bust. Deputy Danny Healy-Rae mentioned an issue a moment ago. I am in the construction industry. The Green Party now wants every construction job to have an electric digger which gives two hours working time and needs to be charged by a generator for eight hours. Again, the Green Party members do not have anything between their ears because they have no experience of rural Ireland. They have no experience of how real life works. There is no infrastructure in rural Ireland, so we have to travel.
Farmers work 365 days a year, and 366 days in a leap year, to provide for the people in Ireland. All the Green Party can do is tax them and send all the funding into Dublin. The funding needs to come down the country. The Government has raised enough taxes. Why not incentivise farmers to produce a greener product? I know farmers who have been working for generations waiting for the next generation to take over farms, but they cannot do it because every time there is a change of Government it takes a full generation to get the next generation started. It should only take two generations to set up a family to go forward and to rebuild. Farming cannot rebuild with the amount of taxes the Government is putting on it. The Government must incentivise farmers and help them. They are helping the Government by paying €40 a tonne extra for fertiliser to help with emissions. What does the Government do? It puts on more tax to get the milk into the co-ops and it charges farmers more to go to shops to get their own food. When farming goes well, the community goes well. Every town and village has been closed down and no infrastructure has been put in place because the Government is moving all the funding to Dublin.
When the Minister of State goes home this evening he can think about it. When he sits down to have a cup of tea he will want a small drop of milk. He will bring out the butter and the bread and everything else. He will think about where that comes from. Farmers are working 365 days a year, yet all the Green Party wants to do is tax them more for its greener way. The Minister of State should come down to Limerick and cycle 15 or 20 miles to get his litre of milk. It is great to cycle into the Dáil and look good but the Minister of State should come down to Limerick and he can cycle every day if that is the way he wants to do it, but he will go nowhere and there will be no television to show the Government up for what it is doing. I congratulate the Minister of State, Deputy Noonan, on the position he is in, but if he wants to be educated, he should come down to Limerick for a day and I will educate him about real living and real life.
Níl a fhios agam cad atá le creidiúint ag an bpointe seo. Cheap mé go raibh an t-eolas ar eolas agam. Could you just clarify, a Chathaoirligh, if I ask questions will I get answers in the time available to me?
No, it is not a back and forth discussion. We are debating a Bill.
I think I wished the Minister of State, Deputy Noonan, the best of luck already in a previous interaction.
The Minister of State will respond at the end of the session, whether it is tonight or tomorrow morning.
We are finishing at 9 o'clock, are we not?
Yes, we are adjourning at 9 o’clock or we will finish before that if no one else offers.
There is no interaction. It is just a case of putting my questions.
Yes, if the Deputy puts her questions the Minister of State will have five or ten minutes at the end of the debate to respond.
I am beginning to doubt myself, but am I correct in saying there is no increase in the levy? Okay. That is the first thing to correct, that there is no proposal to increase the levy. What we are doing here is putting the climate action fund, which is already in place on an administrative basis, onto a statutory basis. Then we are extending the remit of the fund to use that money better and for more projects. The 3 cent is exactly what is there at the moment and we are now putting that on a statutory footing and taking it away from the power of the Minister to increase or decrease it. Is it the case that it can only be changed by legislation? Okay.
I welcome that it is going on a statutory footing. Like other Members I ask for clarification about what happens to the money that is held by NORA, because this Bill is not retrospective.
My ears are ringing so I have to go back to basics to look at this. I come from a city and I represent a constituency that includes what we like to think is a big city. My constituency also contains a rural area. The constant pushing of a divide between the rural and the urban is unhelpful. It is not going to help us to meet our climate change challenges. There is of course an obligation on both sides. There is an obligation on speakers to stand up for rural areas which I agree have been neglected. There is a lot of hypocrisy regarding the development of sustainable regional and rural areas and we really have to learn to make our words mean something. We have no choice but to face our obligations in combating climate change. The fact that we are a small country does not make a difference; it is time to show leadership on that. Our footprint is of course much bigger than that of the poorer countries which will suffer the most. I do not have time to go into how we have declared a climate and biodiversity emergency. We have to take action and that is it.
As I said, I welcome that this is going on a statutory footing. I share Deputy Bríd Smith's concerns about the levy. If we are really serious about tackling climate change then that levy should be reducing because there should be less and less fuel being used. We are reliant on €500 million - €50 million a year for ten years - and that is not sustainable.
I despair that we are sending out a message on a daily basis that people should avoid public transport. I used public transport for the last four years and I am now back to driving a car because there are no buses running for me from Galway. The train service is not convenient as far as the timing of the Dáil is concerned. I make no complaint. I simply wonder how we are going to recover from the message that is being sent out on a daily business that people should not use public transport. This is at a time when we should be building up our capacity, encouraging, facilitating and making it much easier for people to use public transport.
I thank the Oireachtas Library and Research Service again for its very detailed digest and the work that has gone into it. On the final page of the digest, there is a quote from the Irish Petroleum Industry Association, IPIA, that is of great concern. The IPIA, which represents 95% of Irish oil industry companies, did not want this to happen. I found myself in agreement with the previous Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Deputy Bruton, when he rejected the IPIA's criticism. The IPIA did not want this to happen. It wanted the money and the surplus to support oil users in the transition to low-carbon alternative fuels. Last year, the then Minister said:
The IPIA suggest that the NORA surplus could be used to create a fund to support current users of oil based fuels to transition to low carbon alternatives. That is exactly what the government is doing through the establishment of the Climate Action Fund.
I welcome that. It is very good, but I have a difficulty. I am looking forward to the next round, which I gather has not been done yet. I think the Minister of State, Deputy Noonan, mentioned in his speech that a committee will be set up. Perhaps it has been set up. If so, how representative will it be? What regional balance will be on it? Ultimately we want to sell this to all of our citizens and residents. I would love to see an emphasis on communities in Galway, in Connemara and in the rural areas of south Mayo to show what we are doing with this money and put it back into renewable energy as well as many other ideas that I will not go into.
The shouting about this issue prior to now has impacted on me. I want to use that, because it is a never-ending narrative that is not helpful to us in this House. We need to start acting responsibly and taking actions together. I have made the point repeatedly that we can only do that if we make language mean something. Theoretically we have a wonderful fund here at the moment, notwithstanding my reservations about what it is based on. How do we use that to the maximum effect to show people that they can benefit from the levy on fossil fuels? We should do it in the most transparent way possible and with proper advice from a committee that properly represents most people.
As I have said, I would prefer it if this were an interactive session because I wanted to ask a few questions on the Bill and to get some things confirmed. It is welcome that in governance terms, NORA comes under the Comptroller and Auditor General on a statutory basis and that the provisions of the legislation allow for this.
My final question is on Irish Water. It is also included here regarding getting advice and services from the NTMA which I welcome. At what stage is Irish Water going to come under the remit of the Comptroller and Auditor General and the Committee of Public Accounts? Perhaps the Minister of State might address that in his closing speech. It is absolutely vital that there be public oversight of Irish Water. It will have oversight of NORA, as it has over all public bodies, and it is time for Irish Water to come under scrutiny.
Beidh deis ag an Teachta ceisteanna a chur ar an Aire nó an Aire Stáit ar Chéim an Choiste. As there is no other speaker presenting, I call on the Minister of State to make his concluding remarks. He has three minutes or he can adjourn until tomorrow.
I will try to give a quick summary of some of the points that have been raised.
The comments of Deputy Connolly in particular are most welcome. I wholeheartedly agree with her. This fund will be driven largely by communities, it is very much open-ended and it will range from small community grants of €5,000 up to large-scale projects. That is what is innovative and unique about this approach. We certainly do not want the narrative that it is anti-rural or that there is an urban-rural divide. I disagree wholeheartedly with some previous comments that this is anti-rural. It is, if anything, the opposite. It is going to support rural communities to enable them to make the transition to low carbon. It certainly is a reducing levy. If it is effective, it will be tested by the reduction in the revenue coming from the oil industry over time. The NORA fund will reduce if it is working well as we decarbonise our society.
Comments were made about the levy increasing. There is no increase - it is a fixed 2 cent levy. Deputy Michael Healy-Rae said that this is the start of it, and it is. It is the start of a revolution in this country. It has been recognised as such and as a very innovative fund. It is about the rehabilitation of bogs. Deputy Whitmore mentioned nature-based solutions and that is what this fund will support as well. We certainly have no place for Shannon LNG and the importation of fracked gas into the country, or for oil and gas exploration to be continued. We have to keep it in the ground and this fund will support that.
I welcome the comments made by Deputies and the work done by the former Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Deputy Denis Naughten, in initiating this Bill. I will not say any more. Some of the more detailed questions that have been put to us will be teased out on Committee Stage.
In conclusion I want to say that the Government's aim is to enact this Bill quickly. While it is quite short, it serves two very important purposes. It establishes the climate action fund on a statutory basis and provides for the use of the NORA levy fund to finance it. Therefore, it is an important vehicle to support the State in achieving the overarching need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions while at the same time providing support for projects that will make a real impact on our economic recovery over the next few years. These projects will span urban and rural settings, public transport and biodiversity. All of those projects will be considered in this proposal.
The projects supported by the fund will be sustainable and innovative. It will upskill our workforce through apprenticeship programmes and the green economy and provide real benefits to communities in every region of the State.