Seanad amendments Nos. 1 to 3, inclusive, and 29 to 34, inclusive, are related and may be discussed together.
Circular Economy, Waste Management (Amendment) and Minerals Development (Amendment) Bill 2022: From the Seanad
I intend to amend the Environmental Protection Agency Act 1992 to allow the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, to consider applications for integrated pollution control and industrial emissions licences that are subject to the provisions of section 181 of the Planning and Development Act 2000. I addressed this issue by introducing amendment No. 33 on Committee Stage in the Seanad. Amendment No. 33, therefore, provides for the provision whereby the EPA can accept and process licence applications, in line with existing provisions, under section 181(2)(a) and section 181(2A) of the Planning and Development Act 2000 which, currently, it is unable to do.
Section 87 of the Environmental Protection Agency Act 1992 sets out the requirements to which the EPA must adhere when assessing an application for a licence or a review of a licence. To accept a licence application for an activity that involves development that requires a grant of permission under the Planning and Development Act 2000, an application for planning permission or a specified approval must have been made or a grant of permission or a specified approval under the Planning and Development Act 2000 must be in place. Section 87 of the Environmental Protection Agency Act 1992 does not reference the new provisions of section 181 of the Planning and Development Act 2000 that were inserted in 2021.
Amendments are required to ensure the EPA can examine a licence application and, if that application is successful, grant a licence or revised licence in accordance with new provisions of the Planning and Development Act 2000. The changes are simply to update and align the Environmental Protection Agency Act 1992 with amendments made to the Planning and Development Act 2000. The intention is to amend the Environmental Protection Agency Act 1992 so that the application for approval under section 87 of the Environmental Protection Agency Act 1992 will also include an application for approval under section 181(2A) of the Planning and Development Act 2000. Similarly, it is intended to amend the definition of "grant of permission" in section 87 of the Environmental Protection Agency Act 1992 to include an order signed under section 181(2)(a) of the Planning and Development Act 2000.
Without these amendments, temporary electricity generation proposals which are now being prepared to progress through section 181 of the Planning and Development Act 2000 would not legally be able to apply for and obtain the necessary environmental licence to operate. This amendment is an enabling one and it will allow for the seamless linking up of licence application and process, as envisaged in the 2021 changes made to the Planning and Development Act 2000. The full independence of the EPA in determining whether to grant or refuse licence applications is not affected by this amendment. The EPA remains fully independent in that function and there is no statutory role for a Minister in that regard.
Amendment No. 34 creates a new part in the Electricity Regulation Act 1999 to transpose the requirement in Article 59(1)(b) of the internal market for electricity directive, to give the Commission for Regulation of Utilities the power to ensure compliance by market participants that are not electricity undertakings with their obligations under the directive. These market participants include smaller actors in the electricity market, including citizen energy communities that are not engaged in the activity as their main business or economic activity, and therefore it is not appropriate to subject these actors to the more onerous licensing regime already in existence for electricity undertakings.
This is a significant new development in the Irish electricity regulatory framework that creates a regulatory framework for the participation of new actors in the electricity market and is an essential step in providing new ways for customers and a greater diversity of actors, including citizen energy communities, to participate in the market via electricity activities, including generating and trading electricity, aggregation, demand response and energy storage. It is an important component in building resilience in the electricity market in Ireland and it will help to accelerate the decarbonisation and democratisation of the market. By doing so, this new framework acts upon the European Commission's call to speed up the transposition of the internal market for electricity directive, which is the subject of a letter of formal notice and is designed effectively to allow consumers to participate in energy markets, as set out in the European Commission's recent communication, REPower EU, which sets out the Commission's response to the war in Ukraine.
There is a double urgency to transform Europe's energy system, to end the EU's dependence on Russian fossil fuels, and to tackle the climate crisis. The shift away from fossil fuels towards renewables is part of the circular transition, as provided for in the circular economy strategy.
The strategy is a key addition to the Government's drive to achieve a 51% reduction in overall greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 and to get on a path to reach net zero emissions by not later than 2050, as per commitments in the programme for Government and the Climate Action and Low Carbon Development (Amendment) Act 2021. The less we use non-renewable material resources like fossil fuels, the more circular and less resource-intensive the economy becomes.
Amendment No. 3 provides for the immediate commencement of these provisions on the enactment of the Bill. Amendments Nos. 1, 2 and 29 to 32, inclusive, provide for a change in Long and Short Titles of the Bill to the Circular Economy and Miscellaneous Provisions Bill to take account of these changes.
I thank the Minister of State for his introductory remarks. I repeat the same thing I have heard said many times this week by quite a number of Teachtaí Dála and Opposition Members, that is, what is happening here with legislation and last-minute changes shoehorned into Committee and Report Stages in the Seanad is deeply disturbing and an attempt by the Government to bypass the Dáil and any scrutiny of contentious and often complex legislation. Moreover, in many cases this week it is legislation that has the potential to have profound effects on the lives and rights of many people for years to come.
In formal terms, I must acknowledge that with this Bill we had a good Second Stage debate and Committee Stage discussions and the Minister of State took on board some Opposition suggestions in some areas, though not in any of the more important sections of the Bill and areas we felt urgently needed attention.
My problem with the Bill from the outset is it has very little to do with the circular economy. Much of it was taken up with changing the law around the use of CCTV, for example. However, I now find that while the select committee spent hours looking over the provisions of the Bill, such as they were, we now have before us a different animal entirely, with two substantial amendments from the Government to two completely different Acts coming back from the Seanad. There are substantial amendments here to the Environmental Protection Agency Act and the Electricity Regulation Act. The Minister of State may well say these are vitally important, necessary and good amendments. It is hard for us to know that, considering we have had absolutely no time to consider or examine them or to question him on them. Now we have 30 minutes to discuss them. I do not want to gobble up all the time from other Deputies but for a Government that loves to lecture the Opposition on shoddy legislation and unintended consequences of poorly drafted Bills, it has taken some liberties this week with the entire legislative process.
On the changes to the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, and the issuing of licences, yet again a substantial change to existing law is proposed because of the urgency and the need to speed through the emergency purchase of electricity generation to head off power cuts in the period 2023 to 2034. I say again this entire crisis and the panic is, despite repeated denials from the Minister of State's party and Government Ministers, rooted in the insane policy of this and other Governments on the proliferation of data centres. I am certain we will be proved right on this in the end. The Government can deny it as much as it wishes but there are clear warnings from the Commission for the Regulation of Utilities, CRU, that it is data centre proliferation that is driving up the unforeseen demand for electricity. It is not the electrification of transport or other areas and none of this is a natural by-product, but instead the policy of the Government is responsible for this. While decrying attempts to ban or place a moratorium on data centres, Ministers are now saying we effectively have a moratorium through the CRU's instructions to EirGrid. We have a delay for new applications but we know up to eight massive centres have approval and will be connected in the coming years. Therein lies the panic and the sight of Green Party Ministers justifying the purchase of what will be gas-fired emergency generators. When these arrive, the very fact of their existence and the need for them will be further used to justify support for, and the building of, liquefied natural gas, LNG, terminals here. All of these, needless to say, will have an impact on our emissions targets and on any hopes of cutting CO2 in the coming years to the level required by the Climate Action Act or indeed the Paris Agreement.
I frankly do not know if the changes to the EPA process of issuing these licences is a simple thing or a good thing. I do not know if it is a box-ticking exercise with no unintended consequences down the road. What I know is we are being bounced into this because of a panic caused by a policy to allow data centre expansion and that will, I have no doubt, come back to haunt us.
I wish to speak to amendment No. 1 in respect of applications to the EPA for licences. I highlight to the Minister of State an anomaly of which I am sure he has been made aware. It relates to polyethylene terephthalate, PET, plastics and the ludicrous situation whereby we have the facilities to recycle those plastics in this State, but according to information Deputies and Senators have received, a substantial quantity, if not the vast majority, of PET plastic collected in this State is exported internationally for recycling. At the same time, those indigenous operators that can carry out such recycling are forced to import similar quantities of PET plastic. That indicates the exact opposite of what a circular economy should be.
There are a number of reasons for this. The first ludicrous situation is that the PET that is exported, which brings an increased carbon footprint, is actually subsidised by Irish taxpayers. We pay those people who collect that plastic material and then export it with no obligation on them to try to ensure the most environmentally sustainable mechanism by which to recycle it.
The second glaring issue concerns the taxation of virgin plastic material. This Government, our green Government, is refusing to enact a tax on virgin plastic, as other member states have. Instead it says this needs to happen at a co-ordinated EU level. However, the Government has no problem when it comes to putting charges on ordinary workers and families for their use of products to which they by and large have no alternative, as they pick them off the supermarket shelves. The Government can introduce taxation arrangements at a domestic level almost immediately but it will not do it when it has an impact on large multinational corporations. In this instance it is the corporations using virgin plastic material. This is important because, as other member states have taxation arrangements on that material, producers of plastic commodities want to use recycled plastic. What are they doing as a result? They are paying above the odds for Irish bottles that have been put into our recycling bins. I am sure the Minister of State accepts that is an absolutely crazy situation.
The reason I have an interest in this and am so aware of it is one of the companies, if not the only one, with the capacity to carry out this recycling is Shabra Plastics in my constituency. It is an excellent company and an excellent employer. It is a company that should be a flagship of this Government's promotion of the circular economy. Instead, this Government's actions could put that company out of business. I urge the Minister of State and the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications, Deputy Ryan, to come to County Monaghan, visit Shabra Plastics and see what is in place. Then they should put in place a taxation regime for virgin plastic and for once target waste at the source in relation to those companies producing plastic commodities rather than ordinary consumers. The second action is to stop subsidising the exportation of plastic material out of this State when that material can be recycled here in this State. I make that appeal to the Minister of State. I hope he can give us a substantive and positive response.
In the interests of brevity, I will make a quick point just to have it on the record again. We dealt with the EirGrid Bill.
Pre-legislative scrutiny was waived, under protest, on Second Stage and Committee Stage. We in the Opposition were pontificated to. We were told we had ample time and opportunity to discuss matters but we most certainly had not. Every time we engaged on the Bill, there was additional information. Gaps in the information remain. Not only that but because of the rushed nature of the process, the Government has had to bolt miscellaneous provisions onto the circular economy Bill. The approach taken to the EirGrid Bill, in particular, was not a good way to do legislation and this is another case in point. I wanted to put that on the record as I have on every Stage of that Bill. The same approach has now transferred to the circular economy Bill.
I support the comments made by Deputy Carthy in respect of the perverse situation in which we are left. A crazy set of circumstances has led to a situation whereby products which could be delivered in a circular economy on the island of Ireland are having to be transported over and back to mainland Europe. The effect of that is that the carbon footprint is 48 times more intense and impactful than it would otherwise be. I appeal to the Minister of State to intervene directly. I know he is interested in this and as Deputy Bríd Smith said, the Minister of State has taken on board recommendations from the Opposition in a way I have not seen from other Ministers. I personally appeal to him to intervene in that case, take a personal interest in it and go to County Monaghan.
I thank the Deputies. I have been in Monaghan on a number of occasions in the past year. I met Deputy Carthy's brother in Carrickmacross. I asked my Department to engage directly with Shabra Plastics some time ago. They have been engaging and that will continue. In general, our facilities infrastructure for recycling plastics in Ireland is not well developed. One of the consequences of this Bill is that there will be a greater supply of segregated material as a result of directing better streams and better segregation, particularly from the business sector. There will be more material available, which I expect to facilitate more plastic recycling and other types of recycling, including food recycling, throughout the State. That will help. I am, of course, always happy to listen to and engage with any company that is having difficulty, and particular in this sector.
The amendments which relate to the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, are directly consequential to changes to the Planning and Development Act 2000 that happened last year. They are a necessary corollary. They are needed now because of the emergency legislation to ensure we do not have power cuts. That is why they are included here.
Deputy Bríd Smith asked what is the connection between CCTV and the circular economy. The connection is that if an illegal commercial operator is being paid money to dispose of waste material by throwing it into a field instead of bringing it to a recycling bin, it is avoiding the circular economy. Littering and commercial waste dumping are problems that are a facet of the circular economy.
I am well aware of that. I was merely pointing out-----
It has been very hard to tackle those problems for local authorities because they have been prevented from gathering evidence by legal constraints due to privacy concerns and the general data protection regulation, GDPR. They have found it difficult to get the evidence that is required in order to bring a case against the people who are carrying out that crime, which affects us all. We have had to balance in those provisions the right to privacy, on one hand, and the right to live in a clean environment on the other. The result will be a more circular economy.
The electricity amendments are straightforward. They are required because of a European directive. We received a notification reminding us we have to include them. They are a good thing. They allow local communities to take part in the electricity market. They can generate and store electricity, and manage demand. For example, a group of farmers can come together and take part in the electricity market, which they were not allowed to do in the past. We have set it in such a way that those farmers do not have the same burdensome amount of bureaucracy to go through as would be the case for the ESB or somebody else. That is what these amendments are for.
I thank the Minister of State for his response on the perverse situation in respect of PET. I want to tease out his response a little. We talk about recycling but what we do in Ireland is collect and separate. We have a small recycling capacity. Shabra Plastics is an example of that in the PET area. Because of the incentives within the market, the subsidies on the one hand and the taxes elsewhere, there is a risk that the small industry in existence will be uncompetitive and will struggle to be sustained. Those levers within the market are disadvantages to companies. There are subsidies for export and virgin plastic taxes elsewhere, which we can introduce but have decided not to on the basis that we want to move as a part of the European Union as a whole. The company in question is affected every working day by the implementation of levies elsewhere. Does the Minister of State see the perfect storm at play here in respect of the industry as it exists? I wish to ask the Minister of State about those two specific measures, the subsidies for export and the virgin plastic taxes elsewhere. How does the Minister of State intend to develop an industry here when the existing industry is struggling because of those measures? Somewhere along the line, the Government is going to have to address these issues or there will be no industry. It will be always more profitable to send products somewhere else, with a massive carbon footprint, to the detriment of local economies in Ireland and certainly to the detriment of the environment. Why do we not address those market anomalies now?
I am happy to go into that. If there is a situation whereby there is a virgin plastic tax in a nearby jurisdiction, that creates an incentive to export goods from Ireland to be processed in that jurisdiction. There is a mismatch in that regard. It makes it harder if that country is no longer a member of the EU and is not subject to the same rules. We must decide if we are going to impose a plastic tax in Ireland at the same rate and consider whether that is the right thing to do. At the same time, we must consider what the effect will be on consumers and prices. We must also ensure not to create something like the cash for ash situation where a particular payment is unsustainable and unpayable. I accept we need to watch the incentives available in other countries. We must ensure our market is not distorted and that is why we are continuing to engage with the company the Deputy mentioned earlier, which I believe is the only PET recycling firm in the country. I take the Deputy's points.
The Minister of State dealt with one arm of my contribution, which was the issue of virgin plastic tax elsewhere. We need to keep an eye on that. The point is that we are subsidising companies here and supporting them financially to export. They are being subsidised to the point that the business model means it is profitable to export. We are not competitive here and we are not competitive in other markets either.
This is the solution. If the Government is not going to introduce a virgin plastic tax here, will it take away the subsidy for people to export? It is not recycling; it is exporting for recycling. One cannot be looked at without the other because they are directly related to each other. It is a fundamental point regarding the development of a proper sustainable industry on this island.
One of the other issues that affects price of plastic is the EU rules and the minimum amount of recycled plastic that has to be used. For example, if a company is making plastic bottles, it has to use a certain minimum percentage, and those percentages are going up. What that is doing is forcing up the price of recycled plastic to the point where recycled plastic, for example, the plastic that the Deputy puts in his green bin in his kitchen, is now more valuable per tonne than virgin plastic that is produced. That is what the effect has been of changing the target. It is not always about subsidies and taxes; it can just be that there is a law saying that a certain product has to be used, which pushes up the price.
On export subsidies, I am not aware that we are subsidising people to export plastic. If the Deputy, perhaps outside of this Chamber, wants to tell me how that is happening, I will be interested to hear that, because I am not aware of it. Perhaps it is some kind of indirect subsidy. I am not sure.
I will not take up any more time. The incentive is there because of the market conditions. Effectively we are subsidising the export. It is not deliberately a subsidy for export. I will come back with more details. I would appreciate if the Minister of State would take a personal interest in this issue.
Seanad amendments Nos. 4 to 11, inclusive, and Nos. 13 to 28, inclusive, are related and will be discussed together.
These amendments are all related and, in many cases, address technical drafting issues. They have the cumulative effect of providing the Minister with the power to impose a levy not just on single-use disposable cups, but also on certain reusable alternatives to those cups that are supplied to the consumer below a certain price point, which will be set out by the Minister in secondary legislation.
The issue the amendments seek to address arose both on Committee Stage in the House and Committee Stage in the Seanad, namely, to address the potential for nominally reusable flimsy plastic cups to be supplied for free to consumers as a means of avoiding the disposable cup levy.
Amendments Nos. 7 and 8 define two new classes of reusable item, namely, “reusable alternative item” and “relevant reusable alternative item”. Amendment No. 11 then expands the definition of “single-use item” to include relevant reusable alternative items.
These amended definitions then facilitate amendment No. 14, which amends section 11(1)(a) to allow for environmental levies to applied to such class or classes of reusable alternative items as may be prescribed in secondary legislation. When so prescribed, these class or classes are then treated as single-use items for the purpose of the Bill.
Amendment No. 15 then amends section 11(2) to make unambiguously clear the price at which an item is supplied can be a factor in the level of material wastage associated with that item, including where it is supplied for free. These changes will cumulatively allow me to specify in regulations that, for example, the supply of plastic cups to customers below a minimum price point will incur the levy, thus addressing the potential problem of flimsy plastic cups.
The remainder of the Government amendments are consequential technical drafting amendments to ensure consistency between the new provisions and the language used in the rest of the Bill.
This is in line with what we have with the plastic bag levy. Deputies will be aware that there is a minimum price that people must charge if they are selling a reusable bag. The technical specifications of a reusable bag are defined in the regulations. That is to make sure that people are not bypassing or finding a loophole.
I thank the Deputies and Senators who brought this issue to my attention. I hope that the scenario where these cups are introduced into the market does not, in fact, arise. However, I am satisfied that if it does arise, these amendments will allow us to address it.
This is a minor drafting amendment relating to the drafting of a poverty impact assessment under section 7. The amendment ensures that the Minister can procure the services of an expert group or body to carry out the assessment if that is required, and it does not have to be carried out by the Minister’s Department.
The time permitted for the debate having expired, I am required to put the following question in accordance with the order of the Dáil of 12 July: "That the Seanad amendments not disposed are hereby agreed to in committee and agreement to amendments is accordingly reported to the House."
A message will be sent to Seanad Éireann acquainting it accordingly.