The Government has faced criticism in the Dáil this afternoon for inaction on extending a smoky coal ban across the country. 

Fianna Fáil leader Mícheál Martin brought up the issue following reports in today's Irish Times about a letter from the Clean Air Alliance to the Minister for the Environment, Richard Bruton. 

The group of scientists, academics and environmentalists say that four people in Ireland die every day from the effects of air pollution and Irish citizens' lives are under threat by Government inaction.

Mr Martin reminded the Dáil that a ban on smoky coal was brought in in the 1990s by Mary Harney.

He said it took "courage and foresight" and 30 years later it is "incomprehensible" that Fine Gael has "refused" to make it a nationwide ban on smoky coal.

During Leaders' Questions Mr Martin cited Enniscorthy, Longford and Roscommon as examples of towns that suffer pollution that is 20% higher than Dublin and Cork because there is no ban on smoky coal.

He cited today's Irish Times where Professor John Sodeau from UCC warned that Enniscorthy risks becoming the New Delhi of Ireland.

He asked why the lives and health of people living in these towns, that are without a smoky ban, are not valued as much by the Government? And he called for the ban to be extended across the country. 

Responding, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said it is very much a Government priority to improve the air quality of our cities, towns and rural areas.

Mr Varadkar explained: "The difficulty that we are running into, is that a number of coal firms have indicated that they intend to challenge the introduction of a nationwide smoky coal ban, which is Government policy."

He said that Minister Bruton has received advice from the Attorney General on this issue and is working to finalise a legally robust plan, which will improve air quality particularly in towns and cities. 

"Banning the use of smoky coal would have a positive impact on public health, particularly in urban areas. But the difficulty that we are running into is that a number of coal companies have indicated that if the Government attempts to extend the smoky coal they will challenge the new ban as well as the existing ban that applies in Dublin.

"So, if successful, not only would we fail to go forward we would end up going backwards," said Mr Varadkar.

He said that the coal companies have indicated they would challenge the ban on the grounds that the Government should also ban other fossil fuels that they claim do as much harm in terms of air pollution - that would be wood and peat.

The Taoiseach said that the Government will "have to give this proper consideration" to avoid the ban in Dublin getting reversed.

The Fianna Fáil leader said the Taoiseach's response was "pathetic".

He said that 30 years after the ban was introduced the Government cannot say it will not widen the ban.

He said the smoking ban would not have come in if the government at the time was afraid of the legal challenges from the tobacco industry.

The Taoiseach said that powers do exist for local authorities to extend the smoky coal ban to various areas.

During Leaders Questions today, People Before Profit TD Bríd Smith asked the Taoiseach to give her evidence as to how the Government is acting in response to climate change. 

She said that in the last week, she has discovered that the Minister for the Environment "slapped a money message" on her climate action bill.

She said she has "painstakingly tried to rescue the bill from the hostage position the Government has kept it in".

This evening, the Government outlined that there are benefits to using indigenously sourced gas during the transition to a low-carbon economy.

Seán Canney, Minister of State for Rural Affairs and Natural Resources, addressed the Government's concerns over Ms Smith's bill, which is seeking to ban oil and gas drilling in Irish waters.

He outlined that as part of its role in meeting the goals of the Paris Agreement, Ireland has a target of a 30% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030.

But there still will be a need for some oil and particularly gas out to 2050.

He said: "If we know and accept that we need some oil and gas during the transition to a low-carbon economy, then there are several clear benefits of using indigenous sources over imported sources. 

"It has a less harmful impact on the environment, as energy does not have to be moved over long distances, the State will get a tax return, which is up to 55% in the case of the most recent licencing terms, and there can be obvious energy security benefits as seen by the Kinsale and Corrib gas fields. 

Mr Canney told the Dáil: "This tax income could be re-invested in the energy transition by helping with the extensive capital investments we must put towards renewable energy and energy efficiency, in particular in our heating and transport systems."