Environmental groups take legal action to defend EU rules from coal industry attack

Steam or pollution coming from smoke stack in power plant against blue skies.

Coal industry lobbyists, and the owners of the some of Europe’s dirtiest coal plants and mines, are suing the European Commission over a decision to update limits on harmful air pollutants. Environmental groups including the European Environmental Bureau (EEB) today applied to intervene in the case to defend the rules.

The EEB is Europe’s largest network of environmental citizens’ organisations with around 140 organisations in more than 30 countries.

The case, which is backed by the German lignite industry, challenges the decision to recommend stricter limits on emissions of nitrogen oxides (NOx) and mercury from European brown coal plants.

Pollution from European coal plants is linked to around 20,000 premature deaths, 458,000 asthma attacks in children and more than €50 billion of health costs every year, yet the coal lobby’s case claims the new measures “disproportionately burden the installation operators”.[1][2]

Jeremy Wates, Secretary-General of the EEB said:

“Air pollution from coal knows no borders. Emissions from one country are a problem for people and the environment across Europe. It is essential and inevitable that we move Europe beyond coal and the sooner we do it the better for our health, our climate and our environment.

The updated limits introduced last year are a modest step forward and only require plants to reduce pollution in line with tried-and-tested techniques that have been used for decades already. Industry’s opposition is a desperate attempt to ensure their permission to pollute at higher levels for decades to come. We have applied to join this case to ensure it cannot succeed.”

Updated emissions guidelines were formally adopted by the Commission following a vote of member states in April last year. They were welcomed at the time as a victory for cleaner air and as likely to hasten the end of Europe’s dirtiest power plants. [3]

While the case contests only the limits imposed on emissions of NOx and mercury from lignite coal plants, it nevertheless includes a call for the entire decision to be annulled. Because the adopted standards apply to around 2,900 large combustion plants, burning various types of fuels, the coal lobby’s case therefore threatens updated environmental standards for a wide range of industry.

Air pollution has been the subject of increased political attention recently after Poland was found guilty of failing to act quickly enough to clean up its toxic air by the European Court of Justice and nine other coal-burning countries face similar legal action next month. [4]

Legal limits on air pollution are currently breached in 130 cities in 23 of the 28 EU member states and court cases in the UK and Germany have focused on the measures national governments are taking to tackle the problem.[5] While inner-city breaches are most often linked to dirty diesel cars and low-quality fuels being burned to heat houses, giant coal-fired power plants provide a baseload of pollution across Europe.

Environmental lawyers ClientEarth are filing a separate application to join the same case.


[1] Data on the health impacts of coal pollution in Europe from Europe Beyond Coal.

[2] Case T-739/17, Euracoal and Others v Commission (Application published in the Official Journal of the EU, 8 January 2018).

[3] New rules hasten end for Europe’s dirtiest power plants (EEB Press Release, 31 July 2017) and Cleaner air the winner after Germany fails to block new EU rules (EEB Press Release, 28 April 2017)

[4] Polish air quality ruling is warning to ‘toxic bloc’ governments (EEB Press Release, 22 February 2018)

[5] UK Government loses third air pollution case as judge rules air pollution plans ‘unlawful’ (ClientEath Press Release, 21 February 2018) and Deutsche Umwelthilfe erwirkt Grundsatzurteil für die „Saubere Luft“ in unseren Städten – Dieselkonzerne müssen alle Betrugsdiesel technisch nachrüsten (Deutsche Umwelthilfe Press Release, 27 February 2018).

Further information:

Which measures are being challenged?

The case concerns the binding Best Available Technique (BAT) Conclusions of an environmental standards document called the LCP BREF. Read our LCP BREF Q&A. The LCP BREF and its BAT Conclusions are part of the EU’s Industrial Emissions Directive.

Who are Euracoal and Others?

Euracoal is an industry lobbying group that describes itself as “the voice of coal in Europe”. The German brown coal industry is represented by the following Applicants:

  • Lausitz Energie Kraftwerke AG (LEAG) – operating the lignite power plants Jänschwalde, Schwarze Pumpe, Boxberg and Lippendorf (Unit R) and four lignite mines;
  • The German lobby association of the lignite industry (DEBRIV) ‘Deutscher Braunkohlen-Industrie-Verein e.V’;
  • MIBRAG the ‘Mitteldeutsche Braunkohlengesellschaft mbH’, owning two major lignite mines and operating smaller lignite power plants (Deuben and Wählitz);
  • Eins energie in Sachsen GmbH & Co. KG’, which operates one lignite-fired power plant in Germany (Chemnitz Heizkraftwerk).
Where can I find more information about the new EU limits?

The EEB published a report: ‘Lifting Europe’s Dark Cloud: How cutting coal saves lives’ in 2016. This report showed how the health impacts of coal power would be slashed if stricter limits were imposed. The report was published in German in April 2017 under the title: Die dunkle Wolke über Europa lichten.

How is this case related to Poland’s objection to the new rules?

Poland has also challenged the decision to adopt the new standards in a separate case (Case T-699/17). Like the Euracoal case, Poland’s case – which is supported by Bulgaria – also centres on claims of procedural errors ahead of the adoption of the new measures. It is possible that the court will decide to consider the two cases together.

For more information:

Anton Lazarus, Communications Officer