'Ship Ahoy! 3 August 2019. Foynes Port, Limerick. The scene is set.'

I doubt if Todd Andrews or any of the other pioneers of the old Irish turf board ever dreamt of it but, instead of the bogs of the midlands, it's this deep sea port off the coast of the midwest that is soon to be the next centre of attention as management at the all new 21st Century Bord na Mona endeavours to try and sustain employment levels across six or seven counties.

It came as a bit of a shock to the Bord na Mona group of unions when they first heard of this development about ten days ago. Locked in prolonged discussions with the company over new work practices and what will happen to the 800 peat workers presently feeding the two peat-burning power stations in the midlands, they were taken aback when it was revealed that the future was almost here.

"The ship is on the high seas - from AUSTRALIA - we were told!" Willie Noone of SIPTU said. "37,000 tonnes of biomass will be here shortly and will be on the way to changing over the power stations to a new carbon friendly alternative that will prolong the life of the ESB operations there and their workers' careers."

The source of the biomass timber product certainly caught attention after that moment. A shipment from any part of Oz for the Emerald Isle is estimated to take up to ten weeks to complete and then there's the small matter of the diesel and the oil to get it here.

The union officials were surprised and more than curious. In a few days a query from this reporter to Bord na Mona's external communications officer Pat Salmon confirmed the full extent of what was going on.

"Bord na Móna is currently assisting ESB with their plans to conduct a series of biomass combustion trials at Lough Ree and West Offaly power stations during 2019 in preparation for potential (subject to planning) co-fuelling of biomass with peat when the peat PSO ends in December 2019" Pat's statement revealed, "a number of potential indigenous and overseas sources of biomass have been identified to meet current and potential future demands. One shipment of approximately 37,000 tonnes of sustainably sourced biomass is being shipped from Australia."

At last the mystery was solved. The source of the biomass had been somewhat of a semi-state secret for months now. At the public oral hearing into the planning for the new West Offaly power plant in Tullamore several weeks back, nobody in the room was in a position to tell the inspector from An Bord Pleanála precisely where the biomass was going to come from but, at last, here it was - confirmation at least for the trial period, that the long boat from Oz was to be the source on which the elongation of the life span of the two midlands power stations was to depend on.

An Taisce's Ian Lumley was one of those at that hearing and among the first to raise his eyebrows when RTÉ News told him of the source of the biomass. "This is not the solution - Australia is continuing to mine coal and is facing major climate change pressures," Lumley told us, "the export of wood from Australia to avail of an EU renewable energy accounting rule is unsustainable," adding that An Taisce will be seeking information on the location of and environmental impact of the timber being exported from Australia to Ireland.

The added cost of diesel and oil to run the ship in the new brave world of de-carbonisation certainly stuck firmly with the An Taisce veteran.

Bord na Mona responded by making it clear once again that the wood products coming from down under was not the only source of their proposed solutions.

 "Bord na Móna is developing a number of supply options for carbon neutral commodity for use in generating renewable energy in Ireland," Pat Salmon said, before insisting that the peat company is identifying "secure and sustainable sources of biomass to assist with the transition to a national electricity supply that is 70% based on renewables." 

As if to try and prove the point, Bord na Mona argued that what they have already done at Edenderry power station in county Offaly was the way to go . "Approximately 70% of the biomass that is co-fuelled in Edenderry is sourced in Ireland and co-fuelling with biomass has cut the carbon intensity of electricity generated at Edenderry by circa 40% since 2007," the firm said.

Ian Lumley wasn't impressed : "The continued import of 30% of the biomass in Edenderry shows that developing more biomass burning capacity in Ireland is unsustainable," he claimed, and "in any case burning wood for biomass is fundamentally an inefficient way of achieving energy return."

No matter how you look at the argument, this is a complicated issue that has huge repercussions for the workers of the midlands and their families. The argument over whether or not the burning of timber is actually carbon neutral is much older than either of the contributors to our debate. 

An Taisce claim only the EU carbon accounting rules see it as the best eco alternative.

"Clearly in this case there's the cost of transporting it all over the world," Lumley says, "and we still don't know where it was cut down from in the first place."

Nobody has even mentioned the fleet of lorries that will meet the ship at Foynes Port and bring the product on up and down the byroads of Offaly and Longford.