Despite green light, 'dirty' Thabametsi faces more legal challenges

Johannesburg - Minister of Environmental Affairs Edna Molewa’s decision to allow the Thabametsi coal plant to go ahead has drawn fire from environmental activists who say it is not sustainable in an era where South Africa will have to lessen its carbon footprint.

The activists have vowed to return to court to fight the controversial power station.

Molewa ruled at the end of January that the Thabametsi environmental authorisation will remain in place, after a court ordered her last year to reevaluate her decision after considering a new climate change impact study.

Her latest ruling stated that she was satisfied that the environmental risks could be mitigated.

The proposed coal-fired power station, funded by Marubeni Corporation in Japan and KEPCO in South Korea, was a preferred bidder project under the government’s Coal Independent Power Producer Procurement Programme.

The programme is on hold pending the release of South Africa’s long awaited, updated Integrated Resource Plan for Electricity (IRP) that will stipulate the country’s future energy mix.

READ: Green groups challenge go-ahead for new coal IPPs

Former energy minister Mmamoloko Kubayi said in September that all future IPP programmes would be put on hold, pending the new IRP.

In March the North Gauteng High Court delivered a landmark ruling which stipulated that a climate change assessment had to be done for any new coal-fired power stations in South Africa.

The court set aside the authorisation for Thabametsi and ordered the environmental affairs minister to reconsider Thabametsi’s environmental authorisation after a climate change impact assessment was conducted.

Centre for Environmental Rights (CER) attorney Nicole Löser said that Molewa’s latest action showed that the  government was moving backwards by continuing to approve unnecessary, dirty and expensive coal power.

Thabametsi made its final climate impact assessment available for consideration and comment to the minister in June last year.

The assessment showed that “the significant risk relating to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions could be very high” and pointed out that “emissions risks are very high and water scarcity risks are high and … the very high GHG emission levels associated with the project implies a high social cost”.

Löser said this assessment revealed that the plant would have staggering greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and that climate change will pose significant risks for the power station in terms of limited water availability and temperature increases. These impacts cannot be substantially mitigated, she said.

Then last month Molewa gave the project the green light, despite considering the new climate change assessment which raised concerns.

Molewa said in her ruling that “while the environmental and social costs associated with the proposed power station are high, this does not necessarily represent a fatal flaw, provided that the benefits are justified and can be motivated”.

She said that “having carefully balanced all relevant factors [including the threat of climate change], the final IRP 2010 – 2030 does not prohibit the establishment of new coal-fired power stations. Rather it permits that 6.3GW of new generation capacity may be derived from coal.”

Molewa was satisfied that “the overall assessment of the risks and impacts associated with the GHG emissions and climate change vulnerabilities is systematic, realistic, conservative and not understated”.

Löser said that this left civil society organisations with no choice but to return to court to challenge the minister’s decision. “On the face of it, the minister’s decision is not reasonable or rational.”

Environmental groups which have studied the project's impact assessment said the plant's emissions - 8.2 million tons of CO2 equivalent per year - are worse than existing and older Eskom plants. This would make it one of the highest emitting plants, emitting 60% more than Medupi or Kusile. The plant was also listed among the 12 Dirty Dozen projects in the world in December. 

Earthlife Africa activist Makoma Lekalakala said the minister’s decision shocked him. The climate change impact assessment clearly shows the devastating impacts that the power station will have, despite South Africa’s international commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.”

EOH Coastal and Environmental Services (EOH) conducted a peer review of Thabametsi’s climate change impact assessment for the minister, which also confirmed that the risks of harm are very high.

Löser said the review pointed out that the climate change impact assessment should have classified the emissions impact as “very high”, rather than “high”. She said despite this, EOH claims that this does not necessarily present a fatal flaw, provided the benefits are justified and can be motivated.

Elana Greyling, a resident of Lephalale and Earthlife Africa organiser said Molewa’s only reason for allowing this project is that it is aligned with the outdated IRP 2010.

Environmental justice organisation groundwork’s Bobby Peek also pointed out that the IRP 2010 did not reflect South Africa’s current electricity reality. “The country currently has surplus electricity capacity and renewables are now much cheaper than coal-based electricity.”

The Life After Coal Campaign also felt that Molewa should, at least, have awaited the revised IRP before making her decision.

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