How environment ministry compromised on norms for thermal power plants

In 2015, the environment ministry announced stricter pollution norms for 474 thermal power plants, which would kick-start in 2017. It was a salutary move. Pollution standards for thermal power plants had not been overhauled for 25 years. The ministry, in keeping with the best traditions of governance, had engaged deeply with the industry, the power ministry and others to set the standards and give the industry due time to achieve them. 

Now the environment ministry has taken a U-turn. Defying its own regulations under the law, it has asked the thermal power plants to comply with these norms by 2022. Additionally, it wants many thermal power plants to be exempted from the norms entirely. 

The environment ministry recently said as much to the Supreme Court in its affidavit in an on-going omnibus case about pollution, inviting strong reservations from the judiciary. The Supreme Court, unwilling to accept such a long extension of the deadline, asked the government to come back with a better plan. But the 2017 deadline has already been breached. The environment ministry, at best, is expected to ask that 2020 be set as the deadline for some of the power plants, say multiple sources in government. 

How many power plants the ministry will ask to be allowed to pollute in breach of the regulations remains to be seen. The environment ministry has defended its changed stance by claiming the power ministry and industry came back to it claiming the deadline of 2017 was impractical for various reasons.

But documents accessed through Right to Information (RTI) Act and reviewed by Business Standard show the same arguments were made by the power ministry and the Central Electricity Authority and some thermal power plant companies when the norms were being formulated and then right after they were promulgated, in March 2016. At both these stages, records show, the environment ministry and its technical arm, the Central Pollution Control Board, assessed and reviewed the comments of the power ministry. Both times it concluded that there was no valid reason to delay implementing the new pollution norms. 

But as the pressure from the power ministry piled up, the environment ministry began to bend backwards to accommodate the industry. 

A year and a half after the norms had been set in 2015, and the deadline to implement the norms looming close, the Central Electricity Authority sent a report to environment ministry in July 2017 saying the implementation of the standards should begin in 2019 and stretch as long as 2024. The environment ministry’s experts did not agree and instead suggested that the time-line for installation of FGDs (pollution abatement technology) “may be revised to a maximum of 3 years, that is by 2020”. The ministry partly agreed with other relaxations in standards, for example for power plants older than 25 years and less than 500 Mw. This was the first point on which the environment ministry began to backtrack.

But yet another meeting of the officials was held between the power and the environment ministries. The minutes of this meeting show both arms of the government decided to give the thermal power plants another two years’ extension. The minutes of the meeting read, “The time period may be reduced to a maximum of three years, that is 2022, as it was also decided between Honourable minister for environment, forests and climate change and the minister for power in the last meeting.” 

Oddly, the minutes show the officials even muddled the math: Three years beyond 2017 would have taken the deadline to 2020, but the agreed new deadline of 2022 is five years after the original 2017 deadline.

Several exemptions for different category of thermal power plants and relaxation of different parameters under the new norms were also accepted by both ministries as the new line to be taken before the Supreme Court. 

The Supreme Court-appointed panel of experts to deal with pollution-related issues, the Environment Pollution Prevention and Control Authority (EPCA) later noted in its report that the reasons proffered by the environment ministry did not stand scrutiny either on the basis of science, availability of technology, financial costs or logistics. The report was submitted to the Supreme Court in April 2018. Responses from National Thermal Power Corporation under RTI also confirm that some of the difficulties the environment ministry has offered for delaying the implementation of standards have not afflicted India’s largest power utility.

All this while, the formal notification under the Environment Protection Act, 1986, requiring the industry to meet the norms by December 2017, continues to stand, but in breach. Thermal power plants continue to flout it and the ministry has written allowing them to do so. 

For the thermal power industry, already reeling under financial stress for other reasons, some relaxation of the pollution norms is definitely in the offing. But the industry will have to keep a watch on how the Supreme Court takes to the new plan the environment ministry offers this month.

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