Govt set to dilute 3.5-year-old air pollution norms for thermal plants

The power ministry wants that most of the functional or under construction power plants be allowed to pollute up to 450 gm/Nm3 of NOx pollutants
Three and a half years after they were first notified, the government is set to partially dilute air pollution standards for thermal power plants. The decision to dilute the standards retrospectively comes after the Central Government has already delayed their implementation by five years, shifting the deadline for full compliance from 2017 to 2022.

The government has informed the Supreme Court, in an on-going case on air pollution, that the standard for oxides of nitrogen (NOx) emissions from thermal power plants installed between 2003-16 will be raised from existing 300 gm/Nm3 to 450 gm/Nm3.

This comes after the power ministry disagreed with the Centre’s apex environmental standard setting body, Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) and insisted that the norms be diluted. Ultimately, the power ministry prevailed and the standards are now set to be lowered.

Until early this year, CPCB had contended that the average levels of pollution emitted by a majority of existing power plants was already below the norm being proposed by power ministry.

But the Supreme Court order dated August 5 notes that ultimately a consensus was reached between the power ministry, the environment ministry, CPCB and the court appointed Environment Pollution Control Authority to dilute the standards.

Correspondence reviewed by Business Standard shows the power ministry and the CPCB did not agree till early 2019. The power ministry demanded that the standards for NOx emissions from thermal power plants should be substantially diluted. Existing rules require power plants installed before 2003 to emit less than 600 gm/Nm3 of NOx, for plants installed between 2004-2016 to emit less than 300 gm/Nm3 and those that go operational starting 2017 do even better and emit below 100 gm/Nm3 of Nox.

The power ministry wanted that most of the functional or under construction power plants be allowed to pollute up to 450 gm/Nm3 of NOx pollutants. This is even above the average levels of pollution emitted by a majority of existing power plants, the CPCB said .

The power plants that come up in future, too are now likely should be shown leniency, the power ministry has contended, asking that standards for them be considered after pilot studies, being carried out by National Thermal Power Corporation (NTPC) are completed. The apex court has asked for a report to be submitted on these pilot studies within three months.

NOx pollution causes respiratory symptoms and lung damage on acute exposure, increasing the risk of chronic diseases if people are exposed to it over long term. After vehicular traffic, power plants are the next largest cause of NOx pollution in India.

The power ministry has been pushing for these dilutions for a while. Last year it had told the Supreme Court, which was hearing a petition on the matter, that the government might consider these dilutions after the pilot study being conducted by NTPC on use of NOx-reduction technology under conditions in India produces results. The results were to be shared by end of 2018 but that has not been done so far. But, without awaiting the results, the power ministry wrote to the Union environment ministry asking that the standards be diluted immediately for majority of existing power plants and also be considered for dilution for future plants after these results are out.

The Union environment, forests and climate change ministry is in charge of setting such environmental standards on the recommendation of scientists from Central Pollution Control Board. The ministry did so for air pollution and water consumption by thermal power plants in December 2015 after months of consultations with industry and experts. The implementation date was set for December 2017, giving the thermal power industry time to retrofit existing plants to relatively easier norms and to build future power plants following yet more progressive standards. That did not happen. Instead, the ministry of power renewed its arguments for delay in implementation and dilution of norms even with such a delayed timeline.

The matter reached the Supreme Court and environment ministry took a backseat. The power ministry and the central electricity authority began to play a more active role in negotiating a delayed timeline for implementing the standards. After the insistence of the power ministry and the Central Electricity Authority, it was eventually decided that the standards would become fully applicable from 2022 instead of 2017.

The experts at Central Pollution Control Board who set the standards were repeatedly asked for their views through 2017-18 on the technical and logistic reasons power ministry and the Central Electricity Authority put forth for the delay and dilution of air pollution norms. Each time CPCB scientists pointed out that there was neither technological nor logistical reasons to do so either in the case of NOx emissions or for other pollutants. The CPCB contended that the pollution abatement technologies existed and could be retrofitted for existing plants and ensured for future power plants at reasonable costs.

Documents show that as late as October 2018, the CPCB concluded that the relatively cheap technology existed to implement the NOx norms. It reached this conclusion after also studying NOx pollution emitted by currently working thermal power plants. Currently a majority of thermal power plants emit between 250-350 mg/Nm3 and 26 of the 64 power plants tracked were found to emit below the 300 gm/Nm3 standard – well below the 450 gm/Nm3 standard the power ministry has demanded.

The CPCB also detailed the array of technology options available for power plants to install, how much these would cost and how effective these would be. At the lower end a 30-50% reduction in pollution loads could be achieved with investment in the range of Rs 0.35-0.7 million per Mega Watt (MW) and at the higher end of the technology spectrum a 62-86% pollution reduction could be achieved by capital investment of Rs 1.4 million – 2.8 million per MW. Depending on the plant, CPCB said the plant operators could pick from these existing technologies. It had earlier concluded that the new standards once in place would lead to about 48% reduction in NOx pollution from the power plants.

Oddly, the power ministry rejected the environment ministry’s real-time monitored data of thermal power plants, claiming it was likely to be faulty and provided its counter saying the existing NOx pollution levels are much higher than what the CPCB was finding from its much-touted online automated monitoring systems, which the environment ministry has introduced over last few years has often claimed to be state of art.

In the submission made by the government the apex court was informed that “After detailed discussion, it was agreed in principle to revise the NOx norms from 300 mg/Nm3 for thermal power plants installed between 2004-2016 and same will be presented for a final decision to Secretary, environment and power ministry.”

The ‘consensus’, the government informed the court, was reached after a, “Joint monitoring was carried out in 7 units of 4 thermal power plants by joint team of CPCB and CEA during the period of 13/02/2019 to 02/04/2019. Out of 07 monitored units only 05 units were found complying with the NOx emission standards of 300 mg/Nm3 at full load only.”

This joint monitoring was undertaken after the power ministry rejected the data presented by the CPCB from its real-time monitoring of power plant pollution.

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