The Union Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change has come up with a clever way to dilute the new air pollution norms for the thermal power industry. Instead of amending the norms itself, for which it would certainly face criticism from environmentalists and the National Green Tribunal, the ministry has asked the Supreme Court to do so.

The new norms, notified in December 2015, require thermal power plants to reduce the emission of pollutants – mercury and hazardous oxides of nitrogen and sulphur – below specified limits. The deadline for doing do was December 7, 2017, and any power plant that has still not capped its emissions is violating the law.

But on Wednesday, the environment ministry told the Supreme Court thermal power plants would require another five years to meet the emissions standards and asked it to pass an “appropriate order”. “In view of the practical difficulties highlighted by the MoP [Ministry of Power] and with regard to the fact that the coal based TPP [thermal power plants] contribute to 80% electricity requirement of the country, there appears to be some substance that some more time is required for meeting the standards by TPP,” the ministry said in an affidavit.

The court is yet to decide on the plea.

The ministry did not clarify if it would amend the 2015 norms that make the December 7 deadline legally binding on thermal plants. It could easily do so with the environment minister’s approval.

The environment ministry’s request to the court is in line with the plan laid out in June this year by the Central Electricity Authority, under the power ministry, which requires thermal power plants to start following the new standards only in 2020. This “phased plan” was intended to help the thermal power industry, on whose demand it was prepared, to dodge the December 7 deadline.

In its affidavit to the Supreme Court, the environment ministry did not mention that it was facing a case in the National Green Tribunal for not implementing the new rules.

In that case, brought by the non-profit Greenpeace India, the ministry has not clarified if it would enforce the new rules and, consequently, punish the power plants that have breached the December 7 deadline.

New standards

Coal-fired power plants are a major source of air pollution. They emit oxides of sulphur and nitrogen, inhaling which can lead to airway inflammation and bronchoconstriction, and worsen the symptoms of asthma.

India did not have standards for the emission of sulphur and nitrogen oxides and mercury until December 2015, when the new norms were notified under the Environment Protection Act of 1986. The only standards that existed were for particulate matter – tiny pollutant particles that can easily enter human lungs – and these too were quite lax when compared to global norms.

The new rules imposed limits on the emission of sulphur and nitrogen oxides as well as mercury, and lowered the cap on the emission of particulate matter. They also limited the amount of water thermal plants could consume.

The rules required existing fossil fuel-based power plants to be retrofitted to reduce their emissions in line with the new standards by December 7, 2017. All plants coming up after January 1, 2017, were mandated to follow the new rules from the beginning.

Defiant industry

However, as reported in October, none of the 16 power plants which became operational this year adhered to the new rules. Yet, the environment ministry did not take any action against them.

Existing plants too refused to abide by the December 7 deadline. To meet the new emission limits for sulphur oxides, thermal power plants are required to install flue-gas desulphurisation, a technology that helps remove sulphur dioxide from the exhaust gases. The industry argued this technology was expensive and it would take years for them to install it without affecting operations.

Records reviewed by show the ministries of power and environment held several meetings last year to consider the industry’s demands. The Central Pollution Control Board under the environment ministry, which drafted the new standards, refused to dilute them saying the industry’s concerns had been taken into account at the time of the drafting. It was then that the Central Electricity Authority came up with an alternative time frame for the industry to meet the standards.

The records show that during a meeting of the High Level Committee on Air Pollution held on November 21, the power ministry demanded that the new standards must not be apply to power plants built before 2003 as they do not have the “extra space” required for retrofitting. For the plants built after 2003, it insisted on the “phased plan” of meeting the standards by 2022. The thermal plants in the National Capital Region would take at least 18 months to meet the new emission standards, the power ministry said.

This is the plan the environment ministry has now taken to the Supreme Court. Its affidavit states:

“Ministry of Power has expressed its commitment to comply with new environment norms subject to technical feasibility and time required to install emission control equipment. After the issue of new environment norms for TPPs, Central Electricity Authority has been continuously engaging with power utilities to install the pollution control earliest practical feasible plan extending up to 2022 has been prepared for installation of FGDs and other pollution control equipment at the identified coal based units in consultation with regional power committees and utilities.”

Sunita Narain, director general of the Centre for Science and Environment, said it was unfortunate that the environment ministry has supported the power ministry’s position “to delay the implementation of new emissions standards for thermal power plants by seven years”. “These standards were notified in 2015 and were scheduled for implementation in December 2017,” she added. “But now, the government has appealed for further extension to 2022. This is unacceptable.”