Sasol pulls an Eskom on air quality

2014-04-20 15:00

Petrochemical giant Sasol has followed in state-owned power utility Eskom’s footsteps by asking for numerous postponements and exemptions from new air pollution standards that are supposed to kick in next year and in 2020.

This week, Sasol released its draft “motivations” for these waivers for public comment. Final versions will ultimately be taken to the department of environmental affairs.

The requests for postponements and exemptions cover parts of Sasol’s major facilities around Secunda and Sasolburg, as well as the Natref refinery and Sasol Nitro, east of Pretoria.

Sasol anticipates a severe backlash from NGOs similar to that received by Eskom since it made its motivations public in December last year.

Sasol’s project manager for the motivations, Lauren Rota, pre-emptively briefed media this week on the company’s “risk-based” approach to air quality.

The new minimum emission standards were announced by the department in November last year.

According to Sasol, some of these limits are achievable on time while others will only be achievable if Sasol is given more time. But for some of them, Sasol claims compliance is technically impossible with current technology. In these cases, Sasol is asking for higher alternative limits.

The company is also challenging the department on matters of principle, arguing the entire approach to air pollution is flawed and will possibly cost a great deal, without real benefits for air quality.

The minimum emission standards set absolute ceilings for how much of a pollutant can be emitted at any given time. Sasol prefers ambient standards because this implies room to manoeuvre through so-called offsets.

Instead of focusing on the emissions at their source, an ambient approach looks at the existing levels of pollution in an area.

Sasol also argues average emissions are a better measure than whether or not a company crosses an absolute limit from time to time.

The company says it needs the higher limits simply to accommodate the unavoidable spikes in emissions that form part of normal operations. It argues the average emissions of its plants is far lower.

But Sasol and Eskom take this one step further. Instead of ambient pollution only, they are trying to focus attention on indoor air quality, where the major bogeyman in these coal-rich areas is allegedly not big businesses. Rather, they argue, it is the use of coal for cooking and heating by the underprivileged.

According to Rota, research shows that people using coal indoors might as well be living inside an industrial smoke stack, that’s how dirty the air gets.

The law at this point makes no provision for this kind of scheme, but the department has an offset policy in the works.

Sasol and Eskom have announced “pilot” projects that involve insulating houses and weaning people off coal.

Unlike Eskom, Sasol has not made public the probable cost of compliance. In Eskom’s case, the cost of meeting the minimum emission standards is allegedly R190?billion?–enough to ruin the parastatal’s already fragile state of financial affairs.

Eskom has only applied for postponements, but says it will need multiple, consecutive postponements??up to 2026.

Sasol is against Eskom’s approach.

“Multiple postponements would be neither appropriate nor adequate to provide regulatory certainty for its operations since, in these cases, compliance is neither reasonable nor achievable,” it argues.

According to Rota, the legal term “exemption” is unfortunate because what Sasol really means is that it cannot do it now.

She adds technological improvements in the future could change that.

Minimum emission standards

The quality of air

The most recent set of minimum emission standards, released by the department in November last year, places limits for emissions of various pollutants at the “point source” - smoke stacks of industrial facilities or power plants.

Pollutants include everything from dust, technically called “particulate matter”, to sulphur and nitrogen dioxide.

Sasol is focusing on the dust issue because it views the standards as difficult to reach?–?and it is the one thing where blame can’t be placed squarely on big industry.

The minimum emission standards stem from the Air Quality Act but seem to contradict the set of regional “ambient” standards that are based on the same act.

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