THE era of turf production in Offaly and the Midlands will end soon, Cllr Eamon Dooley told Monday's meeting of the County Council.
“The whole peat industry, the production of peat, as we know it, is over. And the sooner we realise it the better,” the Fianna Fail member said.
Cllr Dooley, a lifelong Bord na Mona employee who is now retired, was reacting to the company's announcement that it will create new jobs and invest €1.6 billion in the next 10 years.
The Ferbane representative was also responding to an update from council chief executive Anna Marie Delaney on the work of the Regional Just Transition Team, a broadbased committee which is planning for Bord na Mona's exit from peat production.
The company employs about 2,000 people and its peat wind-down will hit Offaly hardest as the county has about 1,000 Bord na Mona workers.
Ms Delaney reported that Ireland had been accepted onto the EU's Coal Platform, a major aid project for countries most affected by decarbonisation, and said a group from Europe, with local representatives, will visit Offaly in December.
Under the platform, 120 days of “technical assistance” will be provided, with a view to developping a “holistic plan” for the “just transition”.
Ms Delaney also outlined the measures for the Midlands announced in the Budget and said up to 100 jobs will be created in bog restoration and up to 400 in retrofitting houses. A “Just Transition Commissioner” post is also being created.
Furthermore, she referred to Bord na Mona's announcement that it had agreed a deal with the ESB to supply to West Offaly Power in Shannonbridge until the end of 2020.
Cllr Dooley said away from the “spin”, the real situation was that more voluntary redundancies were being offered by Bord na Mona and milled peat production was being “closed off”.
Peat production is now scheduled to end by 2020 – 10 years earlier than the 2030 date originally announced by Bord na Mona.
He said An Bord Pleanala, the EPA, the Climate Change Advisory Council and An Taisce all had “an agenda to close out this”.
The councillor recalled several plans since the late 1980s and early 1990s which Bord na Mona had announced, dating back to an Eddie O'Connor proposal to go “into banking”.
A more recent chief executive, Gabriel D'Arcy, had planned to “take over Irish Water”, and his successor, Mike Quinn, had lost money in an English investment.
The current chief, Tom Donnellan, has plans for fish farms, expanding wind farms, and other projects.
“All of these things I take with a grain of salt. If we get 700 jobs, great, I don't see it happening,” said Cllr Dooley.
He said the Budget measures will have little impact on existing Bord na Mona workers and said the company would not be able to tender competitively for bog restoration work because of work practices and existing conditions.
He reminded councillors he had previously asked for an investment fund to be created from carbon tax receipts and the amount being granted did not reach the required levels.
The councillor also said the PSO levy (a subsidy paid to Bord na Mona by electricity customers) is coming to an end, further hitting the company's income.
He said less than three weeks ago the Bord na Mona chief executive told unions he “was borrowing to pay the wages”.
“And suddenly we're going to have no PSO and no income and we're going to be able to create 200 jobs for bog rehabilitation,” added Cllr Dooley.
He said Offaly would have to move quickly to ensure it had projects in place which can be aided by the Carbon Regions in Transition Fund which is being set up by the EU and on which he lobbied in Brussels earlier this month.
“If we position ourselves to be ahead of the posse on this one, have a number of projects in place and make sure that whenever that commissioner is put in place that we're up there to claim the best part of that fund because that's what we deserve,” he said.
He also rejected statistics cited by Cllr Neil Feighery, Fine Gael, that 80 per cent of Bord na Mona employees recently made redundant had gained employment since.
Cllr Feighery said over 380 workers had availed of the voluntary redundancy scheme and 180 more were about to do so, with 80 per cent going into full-time employment.
Cllr Dooley said he had “drilled down” into those figures after hearing and concluded there were based on “a sample of a number of workers”.
He said professionals in the Bord na Mona laboratory or drawing office in Newbridge would get work easily, unlike a man aged 45 who left school at 14 to work on the bog in Blackwater or Boora.
“I guarantee he won't find it too easy to get a job,” said Cllr Dooley.
Cllr John Leahy agreed with Cllr Dooley, declaring that the decline of Bord na Mona was “our Brexit” and he said he was disappointed that funding for retrofitting houses was going to be shared across five counties.
“This is not going back into the communities affected by Bord na Mona,” said the Independent councillor, stressing his own area, Kilcormac, would be the worst affected.
He said it would cost at least €50,000 to retrofit one house so the €20 million announced in the budget would only pay for 400 houses, and if Offaly received a one-fifth share “that's 80 houses in Offaly”.
Saying the funding was a “complete joke”, he said when the ESB closed Ferbane Power Station it left grant aid of €3 million for an area with a population of 13,000.
Cllr Leahy also claimed Bord na Mona was distancing itself from Lough Boora by its failure to appoint a successor to the man who developed the project there.
Cllr Feighery defended the Budget measures and said one commentator, Prof Stephen Kinsella, had remarked that there was a disproportionate influence of the Midlands on the Budget.
He would be lobbying for Offaly to get the bulk of the €20 million fund and said it would definitely create jobs.
“There might be scope for some of the work to be done on private houses as well,” he said, adding work such as pumping walls and insulating attics could be carried out by Bord na Mona workers after a brief period of training.
Cllr Sean O'Brien, Independent, said he had experience of training people for employment from his working career and he believed practical courses were needed.
“The bottom line I would see is we need jobs on the ground in Offaly,” said the Tullamore councillor.
“Bord na Mona has a corporate responsibility to the people of Offaly, people who have worked there for years and generations.”
Cllr Noel Cribbin, Fine Gael, said Bord na Mona will be investing over the next 10 years and €60 million alone will be pumped into waste recycling.
He said it was a difficult time for the company. “It's not easy when they're being dealt the hand they're being dealt.”
His Fine Gael colleague Cllr Liam Quinn called for the office of the Just Transition Commissioner to be located in Offaly while Cllr Declan Harvey said it was a pity the IDA was not working for the future like the Transition Team.
He called on the IDA to “get up off its backside”. Ms Delaney told him the organisation had been invited to address a meeting of Offaly County Council in November and it had a representative on the Transition Team.
Ms Delaney also said the council had co-funded a “scoping report” on Lough Boora with Bord na Mona and she said it was one of Offaly's key tourism sites.
Referring to a suggestion from Cllr Leahy that Bord na Mona staff would be well placed to help clear Offaly's rivers and open them up for tourism, she said the council had done some work on that matter.
Ms Delaney told Cllr Pippa Hackett, Green Party, that it was highly unlikely the PSO levy will be extended beyond this year.
Council chair Cllr Peter Ormond said the local authority would have to remain united on the issue of Bord na Mona.
“We need to continue to work together. The employees need to be central to all the decisions we make in terms of the communities and families they represent,” he said.