Photo: Greg McNevin / Europe Beyond Coal

Coal industry fails in legal bid to extend ‘permission to pollute’ 

Coal-fired power plants all over Europe will be forced to cut their toxic pollution after an industry attempt to annul new EU air quality protections was rejected by the Court of Justice of the EU.

The case, which was filed by European coal lobby group Euracoal and backed by the German brown coal industry, was thrown out by judges in Luxembourg.  

Some of Europe’s biggest polluters had objected to being forced to clean up their plants using technology that is widely available and deployed at industrial facilities all over the world. They argued that meeting the new limits would be too expensive and “disproportionately burden” the plants’ owners.

Court documents show that an alliance of polluters supported the case. Europe’s most toxic coal company, RWE, was represented by the German lignite industry association (Deutscher Braunkohlen-Industrie-Verein e.V.). 

A recent report ‘Last Gasp: The Coal Companies Making Europe Sick‘ revealed that pollution from RWE’s plants alone is responsible for health impacts totalling more than €5.4 billion 

The stricter limits on toxic coal pollution were adopted in 2017 after more than 125,000 people called on their governments to back new rules that green groups claimed could prevent more than 20,000 premature deaths caused by air pollution.  

At the time the EEB said the rules could “hasten the end” of coal in Europe while Germany was heavily criticised for opposing their adoption.  

Christian Schaible, the EEB policy manager who took part in the six years of negotiations that drafted the rules said:  

“It’s actually outrageous that this case was ever brought. Coal-fired power plants all over Europe have been pumping tonnes of toxic pollution into the air we breathe for years, even though there are a range of tried-and-tested techniques that can significantly – and cost-effectively – cut pollution.”

Schaible also pointed the finger at the national and regional agencies responsible for issuing the permits that plants need in order to operate: 

“The ‘permission to pollute’ culture that plant operators have enjoyed until now thanks to the complicity of permit writers should hopefully change. We would expect public servants to rigorously implement the stricter pollution range as the only justifiable approach.”

Last year META reported how German hard coal plants pollute significantly more than necessary because permit limits are weak enough to allow owners to save money by using emissions-reducing equipment below its maximum capacity. Updated plant permits with stricter limits could force these plants and others to reduce their impact on the environment. 

The court’s dismissal of the case was revealed in documents issued shortly before Christmas.  

The EEB and environmental law group ClientEarth had asked the court to be allowed to take part in the case – which was brought against the European Commission – in order to defend the new rules.  

Euracoal Secretary-General Brian Ricketts told META he welcomed the clarity of the court’s decision but did not rule out a challenge later this year:

“We have until late February to appeal and will take that decision at our next General Assembly meeting.  In the meantime, we note that the related case brought by Poland raises other important procedural issues.  We look forward to the Court’s ruling on that case, following an oral hearing.”

But commenting on the separate challenge to the new rules brough by the Polish government, ClientEarth energy lawyer Maria Jolie Veder said:

“Governments need to stop wasting time fighting these new environmental standards and start using them to protect the health of their people and the planet.”

She warned that those opposed to the new rules were “in denial” about the future of energy in Europe and criticised plans for new plants and mines in Poland. Veder promised: 

“ClientEarth will continue to bring legal challenges to hold plant operators, governments and regulators to account.”