Major EU row looms over air pollution

MEPs tell governments to rethink agreements on emission ceilings, power plant pollution

The European Parliament has set the scene for a big political scrap with EU governments by rejecting ministerial agreements on national emission ceilings (NECs) for key air pollutants and power station emissions. Both were arrived at only after difficult negotiations and MEPs' move to reopen them spells trouble.

The parliament's vote continues a consistent line of supporting tougher NECs proposed by the European Commission in 1999, despite its acceptance of last June's weaker ministerial compromise (ENDS Daily 22 June 2000). Today, MEPs pushed the council of ministers to accept the stronger limits on sulphur dioxide (SO2), nitrogen oxides (NOx) and volatile organic compounds.

However, they accepted the ministerial deal on ammonia, the fourth pollutant covered by the directive, under pressure from the intensive livestock industry, particularly in the Netherlands.

The parliament also maintained an insistence that the NECs include emissions from international movements of aircraft and shipping. In the longer term, it stressed, the EU must commit to not exceeding environmental "critical loads" of the pollutants by 2020, another goal the Commission says is currently unrealistic.

Regarding the planned revision of a 1998 directive on large combustion plants, MEPs voted for tighter controls on SO2 and NOx from power stations and large boilers, though not as strict as proposed by the parliament's environment committee last month (ENDS Daily 27 February).

For "existing" and "new" plants - built before the revision enters force - the assembly backed ministers' maximum SO2 emission limits. But it called for a lower plant capacity threshold at which tighter limits are introduced. This effectively tightens the proposed standards for large plants but not for small ones. Plants not operated full time should enjoy slacker limits, they said, but should adhere to the stricter ones after 700 operating hours instead of the 2,200 agreed by ministers.

In the case of SO2 emissions from "new-new" plants built after the revised law takes effect, MEPs called for tighter limits only in plants of 100-300 megawatts capacity. It also demanded lower NOx limits for plants of this size, irrespective of their construction date.

Another important amendment seeks to put a cap of 2012 on a derogation allowing some pre-1987 ("existing") plants to exceed the directive's emission limits for a 20,000 hour "quota" period beyond the 2008 deadline. The parliament also voted to remove planned derogations for plants burning dirty "indigenous" fuels such as lignite, which were demanded by countries such as Greece and Spain.

Follow Up:
European Parliament, tel: +32 2 284 2111. The parliament's amendments to both directives will be posted here tomorrow.

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