EU legacy fund paid ‘most toxic’ coal company to buy air pollution gas

The German energy company RWE was granted EU funding to buy sulfur dioxide (SO2) – the same toxic gas they emit by burning coal in their power plants, documents obtained by META reveal. 

A successful funding application to the European Commission’s Research Fund for Coal and Steel (RFCS) included an RWE budget with €8,000 allocated to purchasing the gas for use in an experiment. The money was granted to RWE in 2017 for a project called ‘Cost Effective Conversion of Lignite and Waste to Liquid Fuels’.

Last month META revealed how the same fund is being used to pay the wages of coal industry lobbyists in Brussels.

SO2 in one of a number of harmful pollutants pumped into the air when coal is burnt. As air pollution it causes inflammation and irritation, and is particularly dangerous for people suffering from asthma and heart and lung diseases.

Although RWE is not the biggest polluter in Europe in absolute terms, they are the most harmful to health, because their plants are located close to a highly populated areas: 46 million people live within 200 km from their four dirtiest plants in North Rhein-Westphalia, with citizens of west Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands experiencing lower air quality as a result.

A report by Europe Beyond Coal estimates that in 2016 toxic emissions from RWE coal plants caused €5.4 billion worth of health costs including 1,880 premature deaths, 690 new cases of chronic bronchitis and 3,000 asthma symptom days in children. 

Source: Last Gasp: The coal companies making Europe sick

According to the document obtained by META, RWE bought SO2 as a raw material to develop fossil liquid fuels from lignite – the dirtiest kind of coal – and municipal solid waste. The proposal refers to ‘Fischer-Tropsch’, an old technology used in 1930s Germany to turn coal into fuel for tanks.
It is not clear whether the experiments conducted as part of the project were deemed successful by RWE and their partners, which include:

  • the universities of Ulster (UK) and L’Aquila (Italy), and the Technical University of Darmstadt (Germany)
  • the Greek National Center for Research and Technological Development
  • the Polish Institute for Chemical Processing of Coal
  • the German corporation Thyssenkrupp Industrial Solutions.

Christian Schaible, a policy manager at the EEB compared the revelations to the EU’s ‘polluter pays’ principle –  the idea that those responsible for polluting the environment should pay the price for cleaning up their own mess:

This appears to be a case of‘polluter gets paid’! RWE pumps more than thirty thousand tonnes of this substance into the air we breathe every year and then has the audacity to take EU funds to cover their costs of buying SO2 for dodgy experiments. It’s frankly almost unbelievable that the EU is allowing this.”

Schaible argued that any EU money invested in research should be limited to new green technology, adding:

“It’s hard to see how the activities of this fund fit with new Commission president Ursula von der Leyen’s vision for a European Green Deal.

Paying for more than SO2

The Research Fund for Coal and Steel was originally set up by the EU’s predecessor, the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC), to support research and innovation projects in coal and steel sectors. With the transition from the ECSC to the EU, €1.6 billion in assets was placed under the control of the European Commission.

Questions of conflict of interest have been raised about the fund as representatives of organisations that have received funding – including Euracoal and RWE – are members of a group that advises the Commission on how the RFCS money should be spent.

Last month Michael Bloss, a newly elected Green MEP from Germany, told META:

“The voters in the European elections gave us a clear mandate: we must end the climate crisis. Giving taxpayers’ money to pay pro-coal lobbyists will never be understood by the citizens and must end.”

Members of the Parliament now have the opportunity to put the European Commission under pressure by asking about the role of the RFCS, and whether it is appropriate for a EU fund to finance the coal industry activities instead of promoting the transition to a greener Europe.