The Central Electricity Authority (CEA) has given more than 300 thermal power plants a two to five-year remission from adhering to the strict air pollution standards that come into force this year, thus disregarding new environment regulations, as reported by Business Standard.
The CEA has extended the time to install essential pollution abatement technology for the plants to 2020 instead of the previous deadline of 2017.
The new environmental policy requires the installation for the abatement of the air pollution techniques by the end of December 2017. This would mean that the over stressed thermal power sector would need to put off a capital investment ranging between Rs 50-75 lakh per megawatt in the least, estimate experts.
Incidentally, the government has decided to work on this without making any amendment to the regulations that require the thermal power plants to comply with new pollution standards from December 2017 under the Environment Protection Act, 1986.
In 2015, post consultations with the power ministry, the environmental ministry had set in place improved norms for the pollution control for the thermal power industry. These rules came into force this year and require all the thermal plants to become more water efficient and to further reduce the pollution emitted – hazardous oxides of sulphur (SOx) and nitrogen (NOx), mercury and particulate matter.
To meet the new pollution norms, the thermal power plants are required to install a new mechanism called flue-gas desulfurization or FGD which helps remove sulphur dioxide from exhaust flue gases of fossil-fuel power plants. Industry estimates suggest FGD installation costs about Rs 50-75 lakh per megawatt of plant capacity. Apart from this, the industry, the power ministry and power sector regulators also require planning on how the costs would be calculated for tariff setting and the downtime that plants would need to fit the technology.
The time needed to adhere to previous pollution standards was lesser and the investment cost lower. But the new set of regulations require both in abundance and the for the same reason, the thermal plants ought to have started way back in 2015. Instead, almost the entire industry began arguing back with the government against the rules once they had been officially notified, thus delaying the process.
The power ministry too presented the views of the industry to the environment ministry with at least two meetings held at the ministerial level. A decision to officially amend the notification lowering the standards or postpone their implementation was not taken.
Instead, the CEA has now allowed 300 thermal power plants an extension in their deadlines from 2020-2024 to set up the FGD technology. The four others plants have been given a deadline of 2019. If one goes by the CEA’s “Phasing Plan”, none are expected to comply with the pollution norms before that.
Neither the CEA nor the environment ministry has been responding to emailed or written queries about how long the thermal power plants could be allowed to delay the implementation of the pollution control measures.
However, officials from the environment ministry have spoken off the record, explaining the ministry’s position. “We are clear that we are not going to lower the standards. But, we have principally agreed with the power ministry to look at it on a case to case basis to defer the implementation. The CEA is yet to send us its proposed plan for installation of the technology in the thermal power plants. When it does the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) shall review it on a case by case basis and decide or negotiate the right time frame for each plant to install the technology,” said one of them as reported by The Wire.
He added that no amendment of the notification would be necessary because the ministry would be working with the power plants on one to one basis under the Section 5 provision of the Environment Protection Act, 1986 – the industry eventually follows when the laws are enforced under this provision.
The official has further mentioned that Sulphur Dioxide levels in the atmosphere have not reached to an extent where the power plants would need to implement the latest technology for combating pollution by 2017.
However, the Centre for Science and Environment estimates that about 45% of the SOx pollution from the industrial sector comes from thermal power plants, causing respiratory diseases like asthma, bronchitis and even heart diseases.
As per Business Standard, the documents accessed by it clearly showed that the CPCB had last year dismissed all excuses by the thermal power industry to not follow the new norms by giving detailed reasoning.
Discrepancies between the power ministry and the environment ministry have complicated the matter further. In an earlier reply to an RTI, the environment ministry had said there were no plans to change the new norms. Contrastingly, Minister of Power Piyush Goyal had told the media in February, “We took up the issue with Environment ministry. They agreed with us that the deadline should be extended, so that old polluting plants can be replaced with supercritical super-efficient plants. This will reduce the pollution to just 10% of the existing (emission) levels of these old plants.”
The environment ministry is also facing a case before the National Green Tribunal where the petitioners have claimed that the ministry had not enforced the new and stricter regulations in case of a number of new thermal plants. The government has defended itself by saying that while the project proponents have not proposed following the norms in their mandatory environmental impact assessment, the environment ministry requires them to do so when it sets either the scoping standards or approves the project.
High levels of toxic air pollution are a problem plaguing most parts of India for several years now and thermal power plants are a major contributor to Sulphur Dioxide and Nitrogen oxide levels in the country.
The Logical Indian urges the CEA , the environment ministry and the power ministry to not take this lightly and implement stricter regulations for thermal power plants to abate air pollution.
There is an ongoing petition addressed to Dr Harsh Vardhan, Minister of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, against the CEA’s decision to allow the 300 power plants to function without adhering to environment norms. If you too wish the Ministry cancels the extension, sign the petition here.