On 11 Nov 2020, the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEFCC) brought out an Office Memorandum (OM) that allows thermal power plants to change the source of their coal without having to get their Environment Clearance (EC) amended. It is a highly retrograde dilution of environmental safeguards, and seems especially brought in to enable ease of marketing for the private players who have put in winning bids for coal mines in the recently concluded commercial coal mining auctions.
|A coal stockpile at a coal mine. Representative picture. Photo by: Author|
Coal Quality Influences Environmental Impacts
The environmental impacts of a thermal power plant (TPP) depend significantly on the quality of coal used. Hence, when a TPP is accorded environmental clearance (EC), safeguard measures prescribed have to consider the characteristic parameters of the coal to be used. These parameters include the ash content (which can influence ash re-use and disposal, particulate matter emissions, water use), sulphur content (impacting SO2 and particulate emissions), mercury content etc. This is the reason why environmental regulations till now prescribed that the source of coal had to be specified during the environment impact assessment (EIA), and in case the source of coal was changed after the EC was granted, the project needed to seek an amendment to the EC and its conditions (safeguards) in case it was deemed necessary.
Naturally, this involves time and effort, but is necessary for ensuring environmental safety. But project prompters have found this bothersome, as they do with anything that is deemed important to protect the environment.
The OM of the MOEFCC now removes this requirement. And MoEFCC has not been shy of stating the reason upfront.
The OM says:
“The Ministry has been receiving several proposals regarding change in coal sources…the linkage period granted through short-term linkage and e-auctions vary from 3 months to 1 years, making Project Proponents to approach the Ministry for granting amendment in EC each time…”
The OM adds that the Ministry of Power has also issued an advisory to TPPs using imported coal to shift to domestic coal under the Atmanirbhar Bharat initiative. Further, the OM describes the process of getting the EC amended in case of coal source change, and says that “The whole process would approximately take about 2-3 months.”
Looking at all these difficulties, the OM says,
“In order to simply the procedure for change in coal source and encourage thermal power plants to use domestic coal, the Ministry has decided the following procedure…All thermal power plants…can change the coal source…without seeking amendment in the EC…”
This raises some very important questions. For one, a 2-3 months’ time frame for getting the EC amended is hardly such a long time. The plant can well make the application a few months in advance so that when time comes to make the shift to a new coal source, the EC amendment is in hand. After all, a new source would be under discussion / negotiation well before the time of availability of the earlier one ends.
Second, consider the argument that the coal linkages are given for shorter periods and hence project proponents are made to approach the Ministry every now and then. This is a problem with the management and regulation of the coal sector, and the solutions to that must be found in reforms and changes in the coal sector. One cannot address a deficiency in the coal sector by amending and doing away with environmental safeguards.
Last but not the least, the reason that this is also being done to “encourage thermal power plants to use domestic coal” is totally untenable. For a plant to shift from an imported coal source to domestic is a onetime process, so the EC amendment would be needed only once. It’s likely that the process of just making this shift – identifying the source, the negotiations etc. - would itself take several months. So getting the EC amended can just be included as one more part of making this shift. It shows utter disregard for the environment and skewed priorities of this Government that an initiative to promote self-reliance needs to come at the cost of removing environmental safeguards. Or maybe the atmanirbhar Bharat initiative is deliberately being used as a cover to remove environmental safeguards.
Indeed, the entire amendment OM is justified on the basis of the problems of the coal sector and the inconveniences caused to the project power plants. The easy solution is to “simplify”, or remove, the environmental regulation.
The Ministry must have realised that this change would come under criticism so has tried to provide some justification for the amendment. The OM states that:
“The various environmental impacts due to change in coal source viz. increased ash quantity and its management, increased emissions, and impacts of transportation have already been addressed and adequate mitigation measure have been stipulated by the Ministry vide Notifications dated 7.12.2015, 28.6.2018 and 21.5.2020.”
That the impacts of change in coal source have already been addressed by the said notifications is an utterly laughable assertion. Virtually none of these provisions have been implemented.
Take the case of the notification dated 7.12.2015. It mandates limits on emissions on SO2, NOx, PM and Mercury. It also puts limits on the water consumption, mandates zero waste water discharge for all new plants, and requires all inland plants to switch to circulating cooling. The deadline for all this was Dec 2017.
After virtually no effort at implementation, the industry, with the support of Ministry of Power, pushed MoEFCC into postponing the deadline for achieving SO2 norms to 2022. Even here, only a handful of TPPs are on track for meeting the deadline. Now, the Ministry of Power has brought in a new proposal that will exempt many plants from the norms, and require meeting of the norms in 10-15 years. The mandated norms for NOx emissions were also not implemented. In fact, the industry has successfully pushed for their dilution in 2020. Similar dilution of the water use norms was done in 2018. There is no centralised system of monitoring the compliance of these norms (except for SO2 limits, in the form of Flue Gas Desulphurisation or FGD installation). Information obtained by Manthan Adhyayan Kendra (of which this author is a member) in 2019 revealed significant non-compliance of water use norms.
Regulations have always required (since 1999, but especially since 2009) for TPPs to achieve 100% utilisation of the fly ash they generate. These norms have been consistently, blatantly and extensively violated. The Central Electricity Authority (CEA) which brings out ash utilisation reports every six months notes this with monotonous regularity (See page 19 of the latest available 2018-19 report). Due to this, ash has emerged as one of the most serious source of pollution in areas around TPPs, contaminating air, water, land and soil, impacting people’s health, agriculture and other livelihoods.
Interestingly, imported coal mostly has much less ash content than Indian coal; which means that shifting to domestic coal will result in much higher ash generation. Managing this will be an additional load and to expect that TPPs which are not able to manage even existing ash generation will take care of the additional load, requires a stretch of imagination. Knowing this fully, the OM creates a loop hole – while it prescribes that “additional ash pond is not allowed due to increase in the ash content in the raw coal”, but then immediately also says that “in case of exceptional circumstances, project proponents may approach the Ministry for seeking permission to use an emergency ash pond…”.
|Fly ash dumped in open fields near water source. Representative picture. Photo by: Author|
Creating Ease of Business at Cost of Environment
Looking at all the above, it is clear that the sole aim of the OM is to remove “inconveniences” for thermal power plants, and for the private miners who will for the first time enter the coal sector in India as independent market suppliers of coal. This OM is in fact a part of several relaxations in environmental regulations that have been brought in the recent months, which are aimed at ease of sale, transport, use and marketing of coal at the expense of environmental protection. On 21 May 2020, the Ministry withdrew the requirement that supply, use or transport of coal beyond a certain distance from the mine could only be done with ash content of below a certain percentage (34%). The May 21, 2020 notification now permits “Use of coal by Thermal Power Plants, without stipulations as regards ash content or distance”.
On 20 Oct 2020, the MOEFCC issued a clarification which effectively means that TPPs/ coal mines can continue to use trucks to transport coal almost indefinitely, without any limit. In theory the MoEFCC requires coal transport to be done by rail and/or conveyors as road transport can be highly polluting as well as a safety risk for local communities.
Given all this, it is clear that the recent OM is one more link in the continuing saga of MoEFCC’s blatant abdication of its responsibility of protecting the environment.