Poland on collision course with Brussels over ‘illegal’ coal plant

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EXCLUSIVE / Euro MPs and environmentalists are urging the European Commission to take rapid action to prevent Poland from building two huge new 900MW units at a coal plant, in violation of EU laws on Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS).

The Polish Prime Minister, Donald Tusk, has said that he will build the €2.7 billion units in Opole, even though they have not been assessed for CCS-readiness, as required by an EU directive that Warsaw currently faces infringement proceedings for defying.

Any Polish success in facing down Brussels on the issue could affect the fate of other European climate laws which the country has not ratified, such as the renewable energy and emissions trading directives.

Jo Leinen, a Socialist (S&D) MEP, told EurActiv that the proposed build at Opole was “illegal” and should not take place without adequate modern standards for climate protection.

“It is very urgent that the Commission gets active and puts some pressure on the Polish authorities to follow EU rules,” he said. “Opole is a test case for whether our policies are valid or existing only on paper.”

Leinen and five other MEPs from five political groups last month tabled parliamentary questions on the issue to the EU's climate action commissioner, Connie Hedegaard.

Emissions from Opole are expected to top 1.5 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide over the next 55 years and could prevent Poland from meeting its target of generating 15% of its energy from renewable sources by 2020, according to a study by the Polish Climate Coalition (PCC).

The Polish government says that tighter European Commission emissions controls require it to shut down or upgrade up to 5GW of old polluting coal-fired plants by 2016 and so new capacity is needed to prevent power shortages.

But the PCC study found that renewable energy on the Opole plant’s 1.8GW blocks would produce 60% more energy, while reducing carbon emissions six-fold.

Carbon compromise

The carbon compromise between coal and renewables – CCS technology that could one day transport and bury planet-warming emissions – is not on the Polish table. 

Poland is the only EU state not to have notified the Commission of any measures it has taken to comply with the CCS directive, which compels space for future technology to be left vacant next to any new coal plants.

Two years ago, the Commission launched infringement proceedings against the coal-dependent central European country as a result.

But the Polish prime minister, Donald Tusk, has made new construction at Opole a litmus of his energy policy – despite concerns about its profitability – and confrontation with Brussels seems likely.

“The government will find the funds and a way for this investment to be carried out,” Tusk said on 6 June.

Nine months earlier, Poland’s Supreme Court had ruled that Opole's extension was legal, because the government had not written the CCS directive onto national statute.

The writ of EU law

That in turn has called into question the writ of the EU’s law, with potentially serious financial consequences for Warsaw.

In the EU’s case against Poland’s non-transposition of the renewable energy directive, Brussels has asked the European Court of Justice to fine Warsaw €133,000 a day until it complies. No ruling has yet been handed down.  

But in a sign of the high stakes involved, Brussels and Warsaw are remaining tight-lipped about it.

“There is nothing we can tell you at this point in time,” a spokeswoman for the European Commission’s climate directorate said stonily. “Internal examination is on-going.”

A Polish government source told EurActiv that because the environmental group ClientEarth had filed a domestic lawsuit against Opole, “until the procedure is finished in the Court no one will comment.” 

But legal issues are not the only hurdle that the Opole plant extension still needs to clear. 

Financial problems

Last April, the plant’s owner Polska Grupa Energetyczna (PGE), pulled out of the project, citing concerns about its profitability, although it later relented under government pressure.  

On 14 August, the French energy giant Alstom was reported to be joining the Polish builders Rafako, Polimex-Mostostal and Mostostal Warszawa in building the new power plant. 

But plans to begin construction in mid-August have been delayed until 15 December, according to Polish media reports. And that gives Brussels a window to act, say environmentalists.

“The European Commission must move quickly to ensure that facts on the ground are not created while the specific conditions of the CCS directive remain unmet,” Julia Michalak, a spokeswoman for Climate Action Network told EurActiv.

Once construction of the two new units has begun, it is unlikely to be reversed.

Timeline: 
  • 15 December 2013: Work slated to begin on constructing new coal units in Opole
  • End of 2013: Second phase of NER300 awards to be announced
  • 2020: First EU CCS demonstration expected to come online
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