Eskom says it can clear the air ... but it's you who'll pay
Govt wants to close loopholes in air pollution laws, but it faces a fight from Eskom over the cost implications
Power utility Eskom has said that it could meet proposed, significantly stricter pollution emissions standards, but that the South African public will have to, literally, pay for it – in the forms cold hard cash and millions of litres of water.
This comes after the Department of Environmental Affairs gazetted proposed changes to key pollution legislation – changes that will dramatically impact by when industries, including but not exclusively Eskom, will have to meet emissions targets.
The proposals, published on May 25, state that, among other things, companies will only be allowed to postpone compliance once, and for a five-year period – as opposed to the rolling postponements they are currently allowed. This means that all plants will have to be compliant by 2025 at the latest.
Companies will also be allowed to apply for a permanent exemption from compliance, but only if they can show that the facility will be shut down by 2030.Environmental groups have welcomed the proposal, saying that it finally closes the loopholes in law that allow the ongoing postponements of compliance deadlines. The current, and continued, emissions, the groups said, contribute to the “deaths and ill health of thousands of South Africans” yearly.
Under current laws, many companies, including Eskom, are allowed to emit 3,500mg/m³ of potentially fatal sulphur dioxide (SO2). But new laws, which take effect in 2020 and 2025 depending on the age of the facility, are seven times stricter at 500mg/m³.
Eskom’s media centre told Times Select they would be raising their concerns over the new legislation, saying that the Environmental Affairs Department has suggested the changes “without the full knowledge of the economic implications of these changes”.
“The draft legislation, as it current stands … could lead to material socio-economic implications to South Africa through an increase in Eskom’s capital cost of between R250-billion to R300-billion and Eskom’s operational cost by an estimated R3-billion to R4-billion per annum – resulting in the need for an electricity tariff increase of at least 7%.“In addition [meeting the requirements] would require an additional 67 million cubic metres of water per annum by 2025, a 20% increase,” the power utility said.
While Eskom said it welcomed the amendments’ attempts to “bring about a greater longer-term clarity around what is required to ensure the constitutional rights of all people in South Africa to an environment that is not harmful to their health or well-being”, it feared that they veered too far away from balancing the country’s socio-economic requirements.
“As set out in the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, there is the need to recognise the interrelationship between the environment and development – the need for the protection of the environment while at the same time to recognise the need for social and economic development. There is the need, therefore, to maintain the balance in the attainment of sustainable development,” Eskom said.
The Environmental Affairs Department said on Wednesday that it would only be able to reply to questions on Thursday.A joint statement by Earthlife Africa, groundWork and the Centre for Environmental Rights (CER) welcomed the proposed new laws, saying that the current legislation allowed Eskom to be “let off the hook by government – not only allowing them to postpone their compliance with air pollution standards, but failing to take enforcement action against Eskom for its pollution”.
“The new rules would mean that all of Eskom’s stations must make the necessary investments in time to comply with new plant standards by April 1 2025, unless they have been granted the suspension, and will decommission by not later than 2030. If they cannot meet the standards by this date and have not been granted a suspension, they can no longer operate,” the joint statement read.
Robyn Hugo, head of the Centre for Environmental Rights’ pollution and climate change programme, welcomed the proposed amendments.
“So far, Eskom’s strategy has simply been to apply for what it terms ‘rolling postponements’ of compliance with pollution standards: re-applying for postponements of compliance every five years until the plants are eventually decommissioned. That head-in-the-sand strategy must now come to an end,” she said.
However, Hugo raised concerns that, under the current proposed wording of the legislation, companies would be allowed to comply with the very weak old plant standards until their decommissioning.
“This would mean that government would simply allow Eskom to keep polluting and causing ill health and death of South Africans. This is an ongoing violation of human rights which the Life After Coal Campaign, together with communities living with Eskom’s pollution, will take to the Constitutional Court if necessary,” she said.