EU agrees stricter rules on industrial emissions

Large plants could have until 2023 to comply

Factories and power plants will have to take further steps to cut the emissions that cause acid rain, pollute rivers and soils, following an agreement struck between EU governments and MEPs yesterday (18 June) on new legislation on industrial emissions. Industrial plants are expected to have to comply with the new rules by 2012 although some of the most polluting plants will be exempt from the law for up to 13 years, a loophole that a leading MEP described as “a European tragedy”.
 
The law will require industrial plants – from steel-works to meat-processing plants – to use the most-advanced technologies and practices to reduce waste and hazardous substances, known as “best available techniques”. The law tightens emission limits for a wide range of pollutants, including nitrogen oxides, sulphur dioxide, dust, asbestos and heavy metals.
 
The biggest disputes between governments and MEPs had been on how much leeway plants should be given on applying best available techniques. The European Parliament had wanted tightly-defined European standards, while environment ministers had insisted on the need for flexibility.
 
In the end, the ministers mostly won this battle. National authorities will be allowed to give licences to plants that do not use best available techniques, if they would lead to “disproportionately higher costs” compared to the environmental benefits. However, the European Commission and Parliament believe they have wrung an important concession, because, for the first time, the law defines when authorities can depart from best available techniques, this restricting some flexibility.
 
The European Parliament was also forced to give in to governments on extending the life of large combustion plants, typically found in power stations, petrol refineries and steel works. The final agreement means that large combustion plants do not have to comply with the directive until 1 July 2020. This is a small concession from the Council: it is six months earlier than they originally suggested, but later than the 2016 deadline that the Commission had sought.
 
Some plants nearing the end of their useful life, will also be allowed to continue operating until the end of 2023, although they are limited to 17,500 hours of active service.
 
Holger Krahmer, a German Liberal MEP, who led negotiations for the European Parliament, said: “The discussion on large combustion plants is a European tragedy. Allowing transitional national plans for a whole decade [is] nothing else than legalising air pollution from ancient coal-fired power plants. Member states, which already fulfil the requirements, will be penalised for their early action.”
 
Germany, Austria, Ireland and Denmark had criticised the directive for its lack of ambition and refused to support the common ministerial position agreed earlier this year. Germany’s deputy ambassador to the EU told his counterparts that Germany was still unhappy with the flexibility in the directive, but that Germany would not block it. The other three countries had promised to support the directive, despite earlier misgivings, leaving Germany unable to muster a blocking minority.
 
Karl Falkenberg, the director-general of the European Commission’s environment department, told European Voice that the final outcome was a compromise in the EU tradition. “We would have hoped for more discipline and fewer exemptions…but it certainly is a step forward and when Parliament and Council are finding a basis for agreement, we cannot stand in the way.”
 
Krahmer agreed that “the agreement was an improvement on the existing directive”, but he conceded that “it is not a big jump”. “We have to accept that more from the current position is not achievable,” he said.
 
The Parliament will vote on the draft law in July and ministers have to give a formal rubber stamp in the autumn, but neither process is expected to stop the law getting into the EU’s rule book before the end of the year.
 

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