An early morning picture taken at Matla Power Station in Mpumalanga Province. Picture: Dumisani Sibeko

Johannesburg -

The Department of Environmental Affairs will have allowed itself to be “bullied” by Eskom if it gives the embattled utility the power to exceed air pollution standards at two-thirds of its plants.

The department’s long-awaited decision on Eskom’s controversial application for postponements from compliance with air quality standards, which require it to meet existing plant standards by April 1 this year, and stricter new plant standards by April 1 2020, could be announced as early as next week.

Among environmental groups opposed to Eskom’s application, it is widely believed that it could be granted postponements from complying with the Minimum Emission Standards (MES) under the Air Quality Act, on the condition that it conducts so-called air quality “offsets”.

But Dominique Doyle, the energy policy officer at Earthlife Africa Johannesburg, along with other leading environmental groups, are highly critical of this potential move.

Air quality off-setting, says Doyle, “is nothing more than a permission slip for dirty industry to continue doing more of the same”.

It enables companies like Eskom to “continue polluting” while undertaking small interventions towards improving air quality, such as providing households with free electricity and electric stoves.

“It looks like a decision on the postponement applications will be taken by the end of February. It looks like they won’t be denied but that off-sets will be a requirement.”

Doyle explains: “There’s been no example in the world where air quality off-setting has actually worked. The problem is that the department can’t stand up to industry. It is being bullied by Eskom.”

Air quality off-setting allows environmental law to be undermined completely, she believes. “The pollution from Eskom’s power stations spreads so far; who exactly will benefit from these offsets?” she said.

Then, there’s Eskom’s crippled state of affairs. “Eskom is broke. How is it going to pay for off-sets?”

The department’s decision on the 37 postponement applications submitted by industrial facilities across the country also include Sasol’s Natref and Synfuels facilities.

Robyn Hugo, the head of the pollution and climate change programme at the Centre for Environmental Rights, agrees: “It’s not clear which postponements will be granted and which refused, but yes, we understand that what are called ‘off-sets’ may well be added as conditions to at least some of the postponements.

“In other words, if a facility seeks to postpone compliance with the MES, they may get that postponement granted… on condition, among other things, that they take certain steps to improve air quality within the larger airshed.”

In principle, she says, off-sets or compensation are intended to be the very last option available in dealing with negative environmental impacts, “after avoidance, minimisation and mitigation.

“The major concern is that, in granting these postponement applications, we would be allowing our most polluting industries to delay compliance for as much as five years with long-awaited standards aimed at reducing harmful pollution.”

As the standards come into effect on April 1, there is concern industries will argue there is not enough time to ensure compliance - if their applications are refused.

Pretoria News Weekend