Fight over compliance with minimum emission standards set to intensify

Fight over compliance with minimum emission standards set to intensify

2nd August 2019 BY: MARLENY ARNOLDI 

Several companies across energy- intensive industries are failing to meet South Africa’s minimum emission standards (MES).

These firms, many of which are facing serious financial pressures, generally depend on mature, fossil-fuel-intensive technologies and processes. Converting these technologies and processes to cleaner-production solutions is either technically challenging or, in those instances where the solutions do exist, expensive to implement.


Nevertheless, there is growing pressure on government to enforce the MES, owing to the negative impact air pollution is having on human health, especially the health of people living in close proximity to power stations, smelters, factories and refineries.

Cliffe Dekker Hofmeyr (CDH) corporate and commercial environmental and mining director Sandra Gore tells Engineering News that cleaner technology and compliance with the MES are both necessary. “But whether it is feasible in the South African economy is another story.”


CDH corporate and commercial environmental and mining associate Alecia Pienaar adds that stringent air emission regulations are challenging to meet in a context where South Africa’s energy sector is locked into the coal route in terms of providing electricity.

For this reason, Gore expects government’s capacity to actually enforce the MES to be a challenge. “Most industries that are required to meet the MES will unlikely comply, but I do not foresee government closing down companies that provide jobs. On the flipside, there are nongovernment organisations (NGOs) that will focus on specific ‘polluting’ industries and hold them liable in the courts.”

In such a context, it is becoming increasingly important to find an acceptable solution that balances the interests of the environment and improving human health with the need to sustain industrial activities that generate economic value and sustain employment.

Regulatory Background
The MES is a regulatory mechanism aimed at addressing emissions that impact on human health. When a company is involved in any activity listed in the MES, it is required to have an air emissions licence.

The MES was set to manage air quality and ensure that the cumulative air pollutant concentrations from multiple sources are maintained within acceptable levels.

If companies exceed the emission standards specified in their licence, the licence can be revoked or an NGO, or government’s Green Scorpions, can take court action, with criminal penalties a possible consequence of noncompliance.

Former Environmental Affairs Minister Nomvula Mokonyane had proposed an amendment to the MES that allowed solid fuel combustion installations such as coal boilers, which State-owned power utility Eskom’s power stations and petrochemicals giant Sasol’s 17 coal boilers use, to emit double the amount of harmful and health-hazardous pollutant sulphur dioxide (SO2).

The so-called doubling provision was first published for implementation by acting Environment Minister Derek Hanekomas an amendment in October 2018 without inviting public comment as the Air Quality Act requires. Following the institution of litigation by environmental organisation groundWork, Mokonyane published a second notice, inviting the public to comment (up to June 21 this year) on the same proposed amendment to the MES.


Pienaar notes that the intention of the amendment is to provide for existing plants to comply with a SO2 minimum emissions limit of 1 000 mg/Nm3 instead of 500 mg/Nm3, which may be indicative of the Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries’ (DEFF’s) appreciation of the relevant industry’s inability to comply at present. This means that existing plants need to reduce emissions from the 3 500 mg/Nm3 standard to 1 000 mg/Nm3. 

The list of activities provides that an existing plant must comply with the MES for a “new plant” by April 2020; however, an existing plant could apply for a postponement of the compliance timeframe (a maximum of five years).

All Sasol and Eskom coal facilities have obtained this postponement in relation to the SO2 MES, which means that they have until April 2025 to comply.

A further amendment to the MES in 2018 restricted postponement applications to a “once-off” opportunity for facilities to be decommissioned by March 31, 2030. The outcomes of those applications are pending, but facilities that are successful in their applications will be delayed in being required to meet the new plant MES.

The MES was identified for listed activities falling under the following categories: combustion installations; the production of gaseous and liquid fuels, as well as petrochemicals from crude oil, coal, gas or biomass; carbonisation and coal gasification; metallurgical works; mineral processing; organic or inorganic chemical works; thermal treatment of hazardous and general waste; pulp and paper manufacturing; and animal matter processing.

Pienaar explains that the MES activities are identified according to their detrimental impact on the environment in terms of the National Environmental Management: Air Quality Act. To regulate it, the DEFF published the MES for each activity for various substances emitted.

Achievement Challenges

Achievement of the 500 mg/Nm3 SO2emission standard required the installation of limestone-based wet flue gas desulphurisation (FGD), which was the biggest cost driver in pollution abatement technology, the DEFF stated in May.

However, although the SO2 emissions removal efficiency rate of the technology is 95%, the typical cost for a 400 MW power plant is R13-billion, with an additional R3-billion-a-year operating cost.

These costs are “very high for a slow-growing fossil-fuel-based economy”, the DEFF said.

As an added downside to FGD, the installation of the technology would require additional water resources and the mining of new limestone as input material, which, in turn, would put pressure on South Africa’s already constrained water resources.

The DEFF also pointed out that, with limestone absorbing SO2 from the flue gas, gypsum was formed in the process, for which the market was inadequate in South Africa.

With the new mines that would be required, it would present additional environmental problems. Good-quality limestone mines are located in the Northern Cape, which is a considerable distance from the existing major sources of SO2 emissions and transport would add to greenhouse-gas emissions.

Alternatively, the DEFF suggested that dry sorbent injection was another type of FGD that did not require as much water and its capital cost to install was cheaper; however, its SO2 removal efficiency was only between 50% and 60%.

Greenpeace Africa climate and energy campaign manager Melita Steeleexplains to Engineering News that China retrofitted about 250 GW of existing coal-fired capacity with FGD from 2005 to 2011, bringing the share of capacity with SO2 emission controls from 14.3% to 89.1% in six years.

Subsequently, China has been retrofitting existing power plants to meet ‘ultralow’ emission standards of 26 mg/Nm3, which was 100 times as strict as South Africa’s MES for SO2 in 2015, which was 3 500 mg/Nm3 at the time, she points out.

“China remains the world’s largest emitter of nitrogen dioxide and carbon dioxide, and one of the largest emitters of SO2, but the country’s success in reducing emissions and improving air quality rapidly over this decade shows how much can be achieved with a coordinated action plan that requires major polluters to comply.”

Steele adds that India is aiming to bring its entire coal fleet into compliance with stricter standards than the MES by 2022, requiring retrofits of much of its 220 GW operating capacity.

Centre for Environmental Rights attorney and pollution and climate change programme head Robyn Hugo points out that the MES for coal boilers has been known since March 2010 and, because of the postponements granted to them, Sasol and Eskom are required to comply with the so-called ‘new plant’ standards only 15 years later – by April 2025.

Analysis by Lauri Myllyvirta, lead analyst of Greenpeace Global’s Air Pollution Unit, found that the doubled SO2 limit would result in an estimated 3 300 premature deaths. Failure to retrofit FGD would increase mercury emissions by an estimated 15 000 kg per year.

Eskom has applied for multiple postponements of the MES compliance timeframe. All applications have to be accompanied by an air pollution assessment, a detailed justification and reasons for the application, and a concluded public participation process.

Greenpeace Africa and other organisations have since opposed Eskom’s latest applications for the postponement of compliance with the MES. The organisations scrutinised Eskom’s atmospheric impact report, stating at the time that it was factually incorrect and that the utility underestimated the impact of its emissions.

“Between April 2016 and December 2017, 14 of Eskom’s coal-fired power stations reported over 3 200 exceedances of their daily atmospheric emission licence limits for particulate matter, SO2 and oxides of nitrogen,” Hugo says.

Steele highlights that Eskom exaggerated the costs of compliance with the new plant MES for SO2 at least fivefold. “[Eskom’s] costing of the installation of FGD equipment was based on outdated research from 2006, before China, India and other emerging countries started deploying FGDs at scale and the costs dropped.”

Having evaluated Eskom’s cost-benefit analysis of additional pollution controls, the findings of international air quality and health experts Dr Michael Holland and Dr Joseph Spadaro – published in March – in a report commissioned by Greenpeace, indicate that the benefits of MES compliance will exceed costs by a factor of five or more.

Eskom said in June that it was implementing a pollution reduction plan to minimise the negative impacts on the health of communities living near its power stations across the country.

The utility plans to install pollution abatement technology on new power stations, as well as on existing plants, and aims to spend more than R46-billion over the next five to ten years in this regard.

Eskom also announced it would decommission several power stations before 2030, which would reduce ambient pollution. This is an ambitious plan, particularly considering Eskom’s debt levels and financial constraints. Nevertheless, the investment will fall well short of what is required to comply with the MES.

It is equally doubtful that other polluting industries will be in a position to comply, which means the fight over the MES is likely to intensify over the coming months and years

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