The Government is to ask the public if it wants to ban the burning of all smoky fuels – including turf, peat, wood and coal – as it backs away from a nationwide ban on smoky coal only.
The Minister for Climate Action, Richard Bruton, is also expected to announce before Christmas that the ban on burning smoky coal is being extended to 13 medium-sized towns with populations between 10,000 and 15,000.
A nationwide smoky-coal ban was the policy of a number of Mr Bruton’s predecessors – Phil Hogan of Fine Gael, Alan Kelly of Labour and Independent Denis Naughten – but coal firms from outside the State have threatened legal action.
They have argued that singling out smoky coal would be anti-competitive, since peat and wet wood produce similar levels of air pollution.
A nationwide ban is now seen as not as straightforward as was initially hoped. In order to deal with the legal concerns, a new consultation process – which will bring in the public, industry players and others – will look at an across the board ban on all smoky fuels, including peats, turf and woods in addition to coal.
The view in Government circles now, however, is that any legal challenge could not just stop the rollout of a nationwide smoky-coal ban but could potentially jeopardise the existing bans in place in Dublin, which was introduced in 1990, and 25 other urban areas.
The idea, according to sources, is to test if there is an appetite for a wider ban, which would be more legally robust.
In tandem with the new process, the smoky-coal ban is to be extended to a further 13 towns across the country, understood to include Killarney, Castlebar, Tullamore, and the Laytown-Bettystown conurbation in Co Meath, among others.
Under the consultation, county councils not currently covered by the smoky coal ban would have the choice to opt into a new, deeper ban.
At a meeting of the Cabinet subcommittee on the environment last week, Minister for Health Simon Harris is understood to have raised the health effects of burning smoky peat and wood.
Kevin Boxer Moran, the Minister of State with responsibility for the Office of Public Works, is said to have objected to a ban on peat and wood burning.
The Government has been under political pressure on the issue, which has been raised on numerous occasions with Taoiseach Leo Varadkar in the Dáil, most recently by Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin last week. Mr Varadkar said the Government was “keen to act”.
“We now know that peat briquettes and wood are as bad for air quality as smoky coal,” Mr Varadkar said. “Switching from smoky coal to those other solid fuels does nothing for air quality. There is also a serious risk of a legal challenge being taken on that basis that could bring the entire smoky-coal ban down. We do not want to risk that happening because that would be bad for air quality as well. We are, however, moving towards a solution.”
Mr Martin said it was a “terrible indictment of the Government that it is not standing up to vested interests from outside the State that are threatening to sue” and urged to enactment of a nationwide ban.
It had initially been promised that long-planned legislation on such a ban would come into effect in September 2019.