A turf war has broken out over who has the best interests of traditional fuel users at heart.
Environment Minister Eamon Ryan wants to ban smoky solid fuels to tackle air pollution and associated health problems, but Government TD Barry Cowen claims that will leave his turf-burning rural constituents to freeze.
A furious Mr Cowen said he would not support any move to extend nationwide the smoky coal ban which is already in place for towns with populations of over 10,000.
He said the Programme for Government did not provide for the Minister’s additional proposals to ban the commercial sale of sod turf and restrict the burning of wet logs, peat products and other manufactured fuels that did not meet strict low-smoke standards.
The Fianna Fáil TD represents Offaly which has by far the highest proportion of turf burners in the country with around 40pc of households using sods for home heating.
“I know these people, I live with them, I meet them every day of the week. Nobody is going to tell me what’s good for them,” he said.
“I won’t be a member of a Government whereby they have no heat or hot water next year because of this change.”
Mr Ryan has stressed that people with their own turf will not be stopped from cutting it for personal use.
A spokesperson for the Minister added: “Any changes will be phased in and take into account how they will affect people. That’s why we’re having public consultation.”
The consultation runs until April 2 and includes an online survey and an invitation to make written submissions.
Three live ‘town hall’ events will also take place online on March 5, 16 and 26 to give people a chance to question officials and experts and put their own concerns across.
The Solid Fuel Trade Group is meeting next week to decide a formal response but warned that a ban on turf sales would be tricky as much of it took place informally.
“Our main issue is with enforcement,” said chief executive Eddie Scaife. “We have lots of examples of products being sold that breach the existing low smoke zone designations.
“Enforcement at the moment is the responsibility of local authorities but we’d have to ask how well-resourced they are to do this and how they can take on a bigger role.
“If all we end up doing is driving more people to burn informally sourced turf and wet wood, it will be every bit as harmful as if we had no new regulations.”
Health campaigners have welcomed the proposed restrictions but some householders are more concerned about the health of their finances.
Small ads offer a tonne of turf for sale for €45-€100 while a tonne of smokeless coal from a formal retailer costs more than €300.
Energy expert Professor Brian Ó Gallachóir of UCC said while smokeless coal was a better source of energy, producing more heat for longer, people would still need to be convinced it was a better option.
“A dual strategy is needed, with retrofitting of open-fire homes running parallel with the roll-out of regulations,” he said.
“There are 400,000 households receiving the fuel allowance and they should be first to be checked to see what their fuel needs are and how their homes can be made energy efficient.
“We all know there are 1,300 deaths related to air pollution from solid fuel burning each year but there are 2,500 deaths related to cold too. We don’t want to solve one problem and make another worse.”