This fortnight

Silence on thermal plants

Print edition : January 19, 2018

ON December 7, one month after concerns resurfaced about the national capital becoming a “gas chamber” owing to air pollution, a group of civil society organisations wrote to Union Minister for Environment, Forest and Climate Change Dr Harsh Vardhan, reminding him about a deadline his Ministry had set for thermal power plants to abide by the latest pollution standards. It was the last day of the deadline for implementing the new standards, which were notified on November 7, 2015, and the thermal plants had not even begun preparing themselves to adhere to the new standards.

The civil society organisations wrote, “We write to you on behalf of more than 1,35,000 Indians who demand strict action from MoEF & CC to implement the emission standards for coal-based power plants and achieve breathable air quality across the country. These emission standard norms were announced two years ago, however we have not seen any action; instead we have witnessed intense lobbying by the power sector to (make) the norms appear redundant. We’re at a critical stage, either we can be leaders or laggards in combating air pollution. On one hand, we have ambitious targets for producing renewable energy, but we must address the air pollution crisis simultaneously and urgently.”

Calling it a “national crisis of monstrous proportions”, the letter mentions an annual death toll of 1.2 million Indians and costs of 3 per cent on the GDP annually on account of air pollution.

In the debates about air pollution in north India, particularly the National Capital Region (NCR), crop burning in Punjab and Haryana appeared to be the villain and the contribution of thermal plants to air pollution had been either ignored or understated. A report prepared by two professors of Indian Institute of Technology Kanpur for the Delhi government in 2016 lays bare the sources of all pollutants that contribute to air pollution in the NCR. As per this report, thermal power plants located in and around 300 kilometres of Delhi are one of the significant sources of nitrogen oxides (NOx) and sulphur dioxide (SO2)—two pollutants that contribute to the formation of fine particles (PM 2.5) which have the potential to cause serious heart and lung diseases.

The report states, “NOx emissions are even higher than PM10 emission ~ 312 t/d. Nearly 52% of emissions are attributed to industrial point source (largely from power plants) followed by vehicular emissions (36%) that occur at ground level, probably making it the most important emission. DG sets contributes 6% to NOx emission and is followed by Aircraft emission (2%). NOx apart from being a pollutant itself, it is (an) important component in formation of secondary particles (nitrates) and ozone.” About the SO2 emissions, the report observes, “SO2 emission load in the city is estimated to be 141 t/d. Industrial point sources account for above 90 per cent of total emission; most of the emissions are from power plants. It appears there may be a need to control SO2 from power plants. SO2 is known to contribute to secondary particles (sulfates).”

According to a study cited in the Economic Survey for 2016-17, the health costs of coal combustion, a process involved in thermal power production, are the following: “The health impact of coal combustion is manifested in the form of negative impact on the respiratory system, cardiovascular diseases, neurological effects, etc.... The annual number of deaths linked to coal based power plants pollution is estimated to be around 115,000 and the total monetary cost is around US$4.6 billion.”

The MoEF & CC-notified new standards seek to govern two specific aspects of thermal power production: a) extent of water consumption; b) quantity of hazardous pollutants, NOx, SO2 and mercury, that the plants can emit in the atmosphere.

The standards ran into rough weather with power producers, who cited large costs as reason for either not upgrading their plants or delaying the deadline. Power Ministry officials even had long discussions with MoEF & CC officials explaining the concerns of the power producers. RTI applications revealed lobbying carried out by some power producers in government ever since the notification was filed. It appears that these efforts bore fruit because the MoEF & CC recently amended the notification to ease the quantity of water permitted for consumption by power plants. The Power Ministry also prepared a road map that essentially gave thermal power producers, who contribute two-thirds of the total power produced in the country, more time to adhere to the watered-down norms.

Evidently, the government had chosen to not act on its own decision of regulating the thermal power sector. In fact, Ministry sources said that on account of the strong resistance from power producers to postpone the deadline for adhering to the new standards, the government had yielded to this demand, too.

It is little surprise then that in one of its concluding paragraphs the citizens’ groups wrote, “Along with these 1,35,000 Clean Air Nation campaigners, we are calling on the Government of India to take strict action on the power plants which are in violation of the law and to immediately come up with a time bound plan for implementation of emission standards for each and every power plant in the country.” In an affidavit filed in the Supreme Court on December 13, the MoEF & CC cited the Power Ministry’s road map for power producers and informed the court that the new standards would be implemented by 2022. The Supreme Court is expected to hear civil society groups’ submissions on January 8.

Akshay Deshmane