The proposal, initially put forward by the European Commission in 2007, will require some 52,000 industrial operators to obtain permits from national authorities to release pollutants into the air, soil or water.
It attempts to combine seven existing EU air pollution laws, including the directive on integrated pollution prevention and control (IPPC) and the Large Combustion Plants Directive.
According to the EU executive, tightening emission limits on large combustion plants (LCPs) alone will reduce health costs by €7 to €28 billion and prevent 13,000 premature deaths every year.
But a consensus has been slow to emerge as many EU member states fear that stricter rules will come with too high a price tag. Yesterday, the Czech EU Presidency was given high marks for engineering a compromise.
The issue of large combustion plants proved to be the most divisive. The Commission originally proposed to tighten emissions limit values by forcing plants to adopt Best Available Techniques (BATs) by 2016. BAT technologies are deemed to be the top of the range on the market in terms of effectiveness in reducing emissions.
Environment ministers agreed to a Czech proposal to apply current BATs to new combustion plants earlier than envisaged by the Commission, within two years after the entry into force of the directive. For existing plants, the deadline was set to 2016, with a transition period.
The presidency had suggested giving national authorities until the end of 2019 to define "transitional national plans" for reducing emissions of NOx, SO2 and dust, with a gradual decline in annual national ceilings.
But at the insistence of a group of member states led by the UK, Poland, Italy, Slovakia, Slovenia and Romania, ministers decided to extend this flexibility by another year - until the end of 2020 – in order to give member states more flexibility.
The Council also set a 96% rate of desulphurisation of fossil fuels for LCPs that cannot meet the agreed SO2 limits.
Derogations to set limits
One of the Commission's main concerns in the revision of the legislation was to grant a greater role to the Best Available Techniques Reference Documents (BREFS) in the permitting process at EU level. The EU executive was hoping to leave member states with only limited scope to deviate from the BATs when handing out permits to their industries.
The Commission found allies in Germany, France, Denmark and Austria in demanding stricter rules for deviating from BATs. But after the Netherlands switched sides, a bloc headed by the UK and Italy and including many new member states won assurances that there would be more flexibility in the new system.
The compromise would consequently allow member states grant operators permission to exceed the set emission limits in specific cases where the technical characteristics of the installation, geographical location and local environmental conditions.
Difficult second reading ahead
The directive now returns to the European Parliament for a second reading, where it is expected to be set for a rocky ride.
Indeed, the Parliament's first-reading position adopted in March called for a "safety net" of minimum emission limits, set at EU level, that no installation is allowed to exceed. But many member states say the provision would involve greater administrative costs.
Moreover, the issue of including CO2 emissions in the remit of the directive could surface again in the second reading. CO2 standards were flouted by a group of MEPs in the first reading, but the amendment was deemed inadmissible by the chair of the environment committee in January (EurActiv 23/01/09).
However, due to a change in the Parliament's rules of procedure agreed in May, MEPs in the environment committee will have a free hand in introducing amendments.
Moreover, the position negotiated by EU member states seems fragile. While most member states agree that derogations from emissions limits should not be touched again as this would unravel the carefully-negotiated text, others are keen to see stricter environmental protection inserted into the final legislation.