The power firms rallied for support at the European Parliament for a transition period to comply with the forthcoming recast of the Directive on Integrated Pollution Prevention and Control (IPPC), due to be agreed next year.
The European Commission's original proposal, combining seven existing EU air pollution laws, including the IPPC Directive and the Large Combustion Plants Directive, foresaw that all industrial installations would have to apply tighter air pollution limits by 2016.
But EU member states adopted a common position in June that would allow transitional national plans between 2016 and 2020 for combustion plants that fulfil certain criteria.
Representatives of power companies with seats in Eastern Europe and the UK called on the Parliament to support the flexible approach in its second reading of the proposed legislation. However, they would like to extend the derogation until 2023.
If the power industry had to implement the technologies required by the new directive by 2016, then efficiency would suffer, said Vladimir Hlavinka, chief production officer at Czech power utility CEZ.
"We will not be able to do both greening of plants and improving efficiency," he said. He explained that this would lead to a situation where new processes would indeed cut emissions, but efficiency losses would require more fuel to be burnt to run them.
The industry chiefs were also concerned about securing the limited time derogation inserted by member states to avoid early closure of plants. This would allow plants to opt out of compliance with emission limit values between 2016 and 2023 if they operate for less than 20,000 hours during the period.
In Poland, where around 90% of electricity comes from coal-powered stations, the proposal would lead to an "economically ungrounded shutdown of more than 50% of installed capacity," claimed Kazimierz Szynol, director of Jaworzno III power plant owned by PKE SA, one of Poland's largest power companies. He said that the resulting costs would be impossible to pass on to customers as "socially-accepted prices".
"We would like to pay more attention to countries which have always based their electricity generation on coal," said Polish MEP Bogusław Sonik (European People's Party; EPP), vice-chairman of the Parliament's environment committee.
He was echoed by MEP Elisabetta Gardini (EPP), shadow rapporteur on the file, who said that she would work with her colleagues to ensure that the "key issues" are taken into account.
Health and environmental concerns
But many critical voices have been raised against exemptions from air pollution legislation, which is expected to bring important health and environmental benefits.
Christian Schaible, industry policy officer at the European Environmental Bureau (EEB), dismissed the industrialists' argument as a quest for short-sighted profit gains.
"These operators have long neglected to implement Best Available Techniques (BATs) properly. When they ask for a further time extension or run their plants for more than 20, 000 hours under a lax regime, the negative external costs to health, which are 3-10 times higher than the long overdue investment costs to the operators, are left to citizens," he said.
Schaible pointed out that the EU had signed up to reduce its emissions considerably by 2020, which would requiring drastic measures beforehand. Despite the need to consider renewable energy targets to be achieved by 2020, he added that an incremental thermal energy efficiency improvement of more than three percentage points could be linked to the use of BATs for existing plants.
Indeed, this is mentioned in reference documents on best available technologies (BREFs) for large combustion plants - used by member states to issue operating permits for installations - making efficiency loss a bad argument, he stated.
According to the latest information available, the Parliament committee is due to vote on a second-reading position in late February 2010, allowing the full plenary to endorse the position in May.
But many MEPs have expressed concern that any opportunity to derogate from the emission limit values would provide industry with an excuse to ask for further concessions.
An ardent proponent of strong pollution legislation, German MEP Holger Krahmer (ALDE), who is steering the dossier through the Parliament, advocated the use of binding minimum emission limit values for all sectors as a "European safety net" to avoid a widespread recourse to exemptions (EurActiv 11/03/09). But national capitals rejected the idea (EurActiv 02/03/09).
Even member states are a long way from presenting a united front in calling for longer compliance times. While Eastern European countries, the UK and Portugal are lobbying successfully for derogations, countries like Germany and the Netherlands would like to see stringent emission limit values, sources say. These countries have modernised power sectors that already by and large use best-available techniques.