Changes in planning rules will mean commercial peat operators will not have to seek planning permission and allow them to operate without comprehensive environmental controls, according to Friends of the Irish Environment (FIE).
The group has criticised changes granted by statutory instrument last week on the basis that extraction of large volumes of peat undermines Ireland’s ability to capture carbon as burning peat produces higher carbon dioxide emissions per unit than coal.
Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government Eoghan Murphy published the new law without public consultation or Oireachtas debate, which makes peat extraction involving an area of 30 hectares or more exempt.
Minister for Climate Action and Environment Richard Bruton has published a supporting statutory instrument.
“The combined intent of Minister Murphy and Minister Bruton’s laws is to put in place a new regulatory regime for commercial peat operators to exempt them from the requirement to obtain planning permission,” FIE said.
An Bord Pleanála previously ruled industrial extraction requires planning permission; a decision confirmed by the High Court in December 2018.
The change offered a “free pass” to unauthorised operators to continue extracting peat without planning permission or environmental controls until at least mid-2021, FIE said, or as long as it takes thereafter to be assessed for a new licence by the EPA.
The Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government said peat extraction was coming under a consent system operated by the agency – a new regulatory framework is to be developed for smaller scale peat extraction.
Aside from horticulture and use as a fuel, peat is in demand for the mushroom industry and recently was recommended by Teagasc as a "viable alternative" for animal bedding.
“This change will remove the industry from our open planning system with its independent appeals system. Further, given the EPA record in the licensing process and the impact of the increased workload, this decision will give these companies many years to continue their shocking destruction of the remaining raised bogs in the midlands without control or conditions,” FIE added. “Consequences for human health, habitats and climate change do not appear to have been considered adequately or at all.”
Uncontrolled peat extraction can contaminate drinking water, kill fish and cause habitats destruction, while removing millions of acres of peat annually emits carbon and contributes to climate change, FIE said.
Meanwhile, the ESB has lodged an application to An Bord Pleanála to allow its peat power plant at Shannonbridge, Co Offaly, to reduce peat tonnage until 2027, with progressive switching to forest timber.
Permission for the continued operation of peat burning is due to expire shortly.
The ESB’s plan to burn peat and timber “is wrong for climate action and energy efficiency, wrong for the economy of the Midlands and wrong for causing deforestation in other countries,” An Taisce said.
The project “prolongs peat burning into the end of the next decade and delays rehabilitation and restoration of ‘cutting supply’ bogs”.
Burning shredded forest timber was not “zero carbon”, and was fundamentally inefficient because of heat waste, it noted.
“Better employment and climate benefit can be achieved by investing in energy efficiency and decarbonisation,” it added.
The new peat regulations will “ensure that, for the first time, all commercial peat extraction in sites over 30 hectares will now be subject to licensing by the EPA, which will include a mandatory environmental impact assessment (EIA),” a spokeswoman for the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment said.
Under the old rules, EPA licensing was only required for peat extraction on sites of larger than 50 hectares. “Sites that were under 50 hectares were subject to a different regime ie planning permission through the local authority and an environmental impact assessment carried out where required, rather than a mandatory requirement as provided for under the new EPA licensing regime,” she said.
Because of the EPA’s new role as the single licensing authority for all sites over 30 hectares, it is no longer necessary for local authorities to have a role through the planning system.
“The EPA has built up significant expertise in this area and will be well placed to act as the single authority overseeing environmental impact assessment and licensing of these sites,” she added.
Publication of the regulations do not alter Bord na Móna's plans to wind down production of peat over the next decade, in line with their recently launched "Brown to Green" strategy, the spokeswoman said. "The Government is committed to making Ireland a leader in responding to climate change. Transitioning to low carbon fuel sources is crucial to achieving that ambition."