Breaching Regulations, Deadline for 300 Thermal Plants on Adoption of Air Pollution Norms Extended

The Central Electricity Authority has given the plants two- to five-year reprieve from adhering to the strict air pollution standards that come into force this year.

Disregarding new environment regulations, the Central Electricity Authority (CEA) has given more than 300 thermal power plants two- to five-year reprieve from adhering to the strict air pollution standards that come into force this year. The CEA has set in place a roadmap for the plants to install essential pollution abatement technology earliest by 2020 instead of doing so by end 2017.

The new environmental regulations requiring the installation of this technology kick in from December 2017 for all existing thermal power plants. For the stressed thermal power sector this implies a deferment of capital expenditure ranging between Rs 50-75 lakh per megawatt in the least, experts estimate.

The government has decided to do so without amending the regulations which require thermal power plants to adhere to the new pollution standards under the Environment Protection Act, 1986 from December 2017.

After consultation with the power ministry, the environment ministry set in place improved pollution norms for the thermal power industry in 2015. These rules came into force this year. They require all the thermal plants to become more water efficient and to further reduce the pollution they spew into the atmosphere. These include the hazardous oxides of sulphur (SOx) and nitrogen (NOx), mercury and particulate matter.

To meet the new pollution norms for SOx the plants are necessarily required to retrofit or install a technology called, flue-gas desulfurisation or FGD which helps remove sulphur dioxide from exhaust flue gases of fossil-fuel power plants. Industry estimates suggest installing the FGD costs about Rs 50-75 lakh per megawatt of plant capacity. Besides the costs involved, the industry, the power ministry and power sector regulators also needed to draw up a plan for how the costs would be calculated for tariff setting and the downtime that plants would require to fit the technology.

The time needed for meeting other pollution standards was relatively shorter and the investment lower. To meet the norms by 2017 the plants should have begun working to install the pollution abating technology from 2015 when the norms were put in place giving the two-year window period. That did not happen. Instead, almost the entire industry began arguing back with the government against the rules once they had been officially notified.

The power ministry too represented 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 defer their implementation was not taken.

Instead, now the central electricity authority has given 300 power plants the deadline ranging between 2020-2024 to put the FGD technology in place. The rest four plants have been given a deadline of 2019. None are expected to adhere to the pollution norms before that if one goes by the CEA’s “Phasing Plan”.

The CEA did not respond to emailed queries asking how the plants could be allowed to delay implementation of an existing environmental regulation.

The environment ministry too did not respond to written queries. But officials explained the ministry’s position on the issue speaking off the record. “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 to case basis and decide or negotiate the right time frame for each plant to install the technology,” an official said.

He added, “We do not need to amend the notification. We shall decide on a case to case basis for each plant and accordingly use the Section 5 provision of the Environment Protection Act, 1986. Our experience shows that industry eventually follows when we enforce under these provisions.”

He also said that in many cases countrywide ambient air SOx emissions were not breaching safety levels requiring thermal power plants had to necessarily meet the standards by 2017 itself. He explained that SOx standards had been mandated also because they add up to the generation of secondary particulate matter pollution load.

The Centre for Science and Environment estimates that about 45% of the SOx pollution from the industrial sector comes from thermal power plants.

Documents accessed by Business Standard show that the CPCB has over last year dismissed all excuses by the thermal power industry to not follow the new norms by giving detailed reasoning.

In an earlier reply to an RTI, the environment ministry had said there were no plans to change the new norms. This contradicted what the power minister Piyush Goyal had reportedly told media in February 2017. He was reported saying, “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. In it, the petitioners have claimed the ministry had not enforced the new regulations in the case of several new thermal plants. The regulations require new plants to adhere to the stricter norms from 2017. The government has defended itself claiming 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.

By arrangement with Business Standard.