A row has broken out among the Coalition parties over a new Bill that proposes to give horticultural peat extractors the right to continue harvesting peat from Irish bogs for the next five years.
The Horticultural Peat Bill 2021 was jointly published by Fine Gael Senator Regina Doherty and her Fianna Fáil colleague, Robbie Gallagher, on Tuesday. They claimed it could provide a pathway for overcoming a 2019 High Court ruling which effectively brought large-scale peat extraction in Ireland to a halt.
However, the Green Party only learned of the Bill following its publication.
“Our noses were put out of joint by the lack of consultation in advance,” said one party source privately. The Greens have questioned the basis of the Bill.
Ms Doherty and Mr Gallagher referred to peat being imported from Latvia and Sri Lanka as an illustration of the crisis affecting the sector, which includes mushroom growers and the horticulture industry and employs 17,000 people.
However, Senator Róisín Garvey of the Greens questioned if there really was a crisis when huge volumes of peat were being exported out of Ireland at the same time – 500,000 tonnes in the first nine months of 2021 alone.
“We currently have hundreds of thousands of tonnes of peat being exported, 20 times more than what’s being imported,” she said.
Central Statistics Office data obtained by Friends of the Irish Environment show that 1,419,624 tonnes of peat have been exported from the State between the beginning of 2020 and now, a multiple of what has been imported.
A High Court ruling in 2019 held that a dual consenting system for large-scale peat extraction was required and that such sites could not be exempt under planning laws. For sites over 30 hectares, planning permission is needed including an environmental impact assessment. In addition, the development needs to be licensed by the Environmental Protection Agency and have an integrated pollution control licence.
The Bill published by Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael proposes that any enforcement action under planning laws in respect of peat extraction for the purpose of horticulture shall be stayed. It has included an end date of December 2026 but that can be extended to 2030.
Andrew Jackson, assistant professor in environmental and planning law in UCD, questioned the legal standing of the legislation. “In my view this new peat Bill is very clearly inconsistent with EU and international environmental law,” he said.
Green Party Senator Pauline O’Reilly also said the Bill was not consistent with European law. Referring to the large volumes of Irish peat being exported, she said: “How can we actually justify this narrative that we need importation of peat? There is illegal extraction going on in plain sight, all over this country.
“The Greens will not support a Bill that allows widespread extraction of peat without environmental impact assessments which is what this Bill will do.”
Asked on Tuesday about exports, Ms Doherty said the Bill was very much designed with the domestic horticulture industry in mind but Ireland’s membership of the EU precluded the Bill from confining the market to Ireland alone.