The political agreement reached between negotiators from the European Parliament and member states last Wednesday (16 June) recasts the Integrated Pollution Prevention and Control (IPPC) Directive, combining it with six other pollution laws.
It was endorsed by member-state experts on Friday.
The agreement seeks to close loopholes in the previous legislation to ensure that industrial installations meet stricter limits on the pollutants they release.
It obliges industrial operators to obtain permits from national authorities based on best available techniques, which are considered the most cost-effective means of achieving a high level of environmental protection. The permits include precise limit values for atmospheric pollutants that cause acid rain and smog, such as sulphur dioxide (SO2), nitrogen oxides (NOx), volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and dust.
Environmentalists, however, regretted the weak provisions on large combustion plants (LCPs), a result of hard lobbying by member states such as the UK, Poland and Italy, which wanted to ensure the widest possible derogations for their ageing coal-fired plants.
Countries may therefore delay meeting more stringent pollution standards until 30 June 2020 by drawing up transitional national plans to ease the burden of cleaning up their industry.
MEP Holger Krahmer (Germany, ALDE), who steered the legislation through Parliament, called the discussion on large combustion plants "a European tragedy".
"Allowing Transitional National Plans for a whole decade are nothing else than legalising air pollution from ancient coal-fired power plants. Member states which already fulfill the requirements will be penalised for their early action," he said.
Moreover, operators of combustion plants can avoid meeting the higher pollution standards if they close by the end of 2023 and do not operate them for more than 17,500 hours.
Christian Schaible, industrial emissions policy officer at the European Environmental Bureau (EEB), regretted the decision to allow "some of the oldest and dirtiest large combustion plants" to avoid meeting the best environmental standards possible.
"Instead of bringing an end to this practice, EU policymakers have now decided to reward these operators with the opportunity to avoid the techniques, through derogations, and fill their pockets with money whilst European citizens are left to pick up the bill to cover both health and environmental costs," he said.
As a trade-off, the Parliament managed to restrict the scope member states have to deviate from best available technologies (BATs), which are the basis for permitting industrial installations. Derogations may be required to account for local conditions, but they will only be allowed where the application of BATs would lead to "disproportionately higher costs compared to the environmental benefits," according to the text.
In addition, MEPs obtained a provision that the European Commission would assess the need for minimum emission limits for individual activities every three years. They had originally advocated a much more ambitious system of EU-wide minimum requirements that could not be exceeded in any case, the so-called European safety net, but dropped the demand after if became clear this would never pass the national capitals.
The full Parliament is now set to vote on the compromise in its July plenary.