After two and a half years of discussion, the EU is close to agreement on a draft law to control the pollutants that cause acid rain, polluted rivers and contaminated soils. Negotiators from the Council of Ministers, the European Parliament and the European Commission are scheduled to have what is supposed to be a final meeting next week (17 June) on the industrial emissions directive.
If agreed, this law – also known as the integrated pollution prevention and control (IPPC) directive – will affect tens of thousands of factories across the EU, from steel-works to meat-processing plants.
But an early agreement could yet be thwarted. The Parliament and the Council are at odds over how much flexibility national authorities should have to grant plants exemptions from the law, which will replace seven existing EU laws, including an old version of the IPPC directive. Both MEPs and the Council are reading up on the conciliation procedure, the next phase of negotiations if there is no agreement at a legislative proposal’s second reading.
The inter-institutional poker game is complicated by the big differences that persist between different member states. Germany is far ahead of southern and eastern countries in industrial practices to limit pollution. Germany – along with Austria, Ireland and Denmark – refused to back the Council’s common position agreed by environment ministers in February. MEPs have also divided along national lines. Holger Krahmer, a German Liberal MEP who is steering the directive through Parliament, has just about succeeded in keeping MEPs together, but at the cost of ceding some of his ambitions for a strong directive.
Last month the Parliament’s environment committee voted – against Krahmer’s wishes – to give some of the worst-polluting large combustion plants more time to implement the law. While the Commission wanted the directive to apply to large combustion plants from 2016, MEPs voted for a stay of execution until the end of 2019, much closer to the Council’s position, which calls for a delay until the end of 2020.
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Krahmer managed, however, to keep his proposals for tough application of “best available techniques”, which would ensure the use of the most-advanced technologies and practices to reduce waste and hazardous substances. The Parliament wants to restrict national authorities’ ability to deviate from ‘best available techniques’, while the Council is insisting on flexibility.
This dispute is important, because national governments’ shortcomings in implementing air-pollution laws were the Commission’s main problem when it published the IPPC proposal in December 2007. Then, only half of the 52,000 factories meant to be covered by the old IPPC directive had the required permits. The Commission wanted to extend the use of best-available techniques. Krahmer went one step further and proposed EU-wide emission values to limit industrial emissions.
This idea has alarmed European industries. The IPPC Alliance of Energy-Intensive Industries, which includes steel, metals, mining, paper and chemicals producers, contends that it would be impossible to have an EU-wide cap on industrial emissions that would apply to all plants across the EU. Danny Croon at the European Confederation of Iron and Steel Industries (Eurofer) emphasises that raw materials and industrial techniques vary from plant to plant. It would be impossible, he says, to take into account all the local conditions in one document drafted at EU level.
This is a point echoed by Astrid Volckaert at the European Ceramics Industry Association (Cerame-Unie). Setting a cap on one type of pollution could have the perverse effect of increasing other pollution, she suggests. For example, an attempt to reduce dust in the ceramics industry by increasing water-spraying could result in more emissions into water. “You cannot force every member state to be at the German level,” she says. “It took them 30 years to get to where they are now.”
Best available techniques
But closing the gap between the best and the rest is exactly what the Parliament wants. Krahmer, who declined to be interviewed for this article, is making one last bid to keep his best-available techniques plan. He has promised member states that the Parliament would accept their position on large combustion plants if they agree to MEPs’ position on best-available techniques. But so far national governments have not been in a mood to compromise.
As European Voice went to press on Wednesday (9 June), senior national government officials were meeting to discuss whether they could meet the Parliament halfway, along the lines of another compromise proposal drafted by the Commission. The outcome of this meeting could make the difference between getting a deal next week or a further game of poker in the conciliation saloon.