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New EU environmental standards for chemical industry fall short of Green Deal ambition

Progress towards air quality goals will be witnessed on new EU standards to prevent emissions from chemical installations (WGC BREF). However, the vague methodology set to calculate pollutant mass flows will leave the door open to deregulatory chaos, NGOs warns. 

Technical experts concluded last Friday 2 July on the Best Available Techniques (BAT) for Waste Gas Management and Treatment Systems in the Chemical Sector (the so-called WGC BREF). 

These BAT conclusions will constitute the binding ‘safety net’ standards for preventing, or, where not technically feasible, for reducing air pollution from EU’s chemical production installations for the next decades. This includes emissions to air of carcinogenic, mutagenic and reprotoxic pollutants or CMRs. The European Commission has estimated that the establishment of the new standards will affect the emissions to air of around 5 000 chemical installations [1]. 

The drafting of BREFs is coordinated by the European Commission in consultation with representatives from member states, industry, and environmental protection groups.  

Aliki Kriekouki, lead on the WGC BREF discussions for the EEB, says: 

‘We welcome the new standards and the significant progress made especially regarding the abatement of diffuse emissions to air. On the other hand, we regret that the concept of mass flow thresholds for channeled emissions is still retained in the final text; what makes things worse are the unclear provisions accompanying these thresholds. 

The EEB had already warned, during the negotiations, that this issue would, at best, lead to an uneven level playing field among member states, and, at worst, to a deregulation mayhem, but the warnings have fallen on deaf ears’ 

What is good 

Significant progress has been made regarding the abatement of diffuse emissions (such as fugitive emissions from e.g. equipment leaks, and non-fugitive emissions from e.g. tank venting or bulk storage), through a new approach underpinned by a management system for preventing, reducing and quantifying such emissions. This is a major step forward because diffuse emissions represent a high fraction of the total emissions from chemical installations. 

Nevertheless, EEB regrets the absence of a stronger focus on emissions prevention, through the clear promotion of the use of high integrity equipment (HEI) as the main technique for fugitive emissions (equipment leaks) abatement. As the text stands, the use of HEI (which is already standard practice in the sector in Germany), is merely featured as an option among other techniques. 

What is concerning 

We further regret that mass flow thresholds (below which thresholds the BAT-Associated Emission Levels or BAT-AELs do not apply) are still retained in the final text for channelled emissions (such as stack or chimney emissions). This means that emission limits may be set, or not, in such cases, depending on whether the emission source in question will be classified as a ‘major’ or a ‘minor’ source respectively by the national or regional competent authority. 

 This includes harmful emissions of volatile organic carbons (VOCs), even for activities, such as the production of organic compounds, the production of polymers or the production of pharmaceuticals which are large emitters of VOCs with about 40 000 tonnes emitted to air each year. Mass flow thresholds (although lowered) were even retained for the sum of VOCs classified as CMRs. What makes the situation worse is that the methodology of calculating the pollutant mass flows (in order to compare against the mass flow thresholds) is not clarified in the final text. 

 ‘(…) where waste gases with similar characteristics, e.g. containing the same (type of) substances/parameters, and discharged through two or more separate stacks could, in the judgement of the competent authority, be discharged through a common stack, these stacks shall be considered as a single stack’, the text reads. 

This vague formulation could lead to the ‘splitting’ of emission points (so-called ‘salami tactics’): operators may slice up their emissions into multiple stacks, each discharging below the BAT thresholdSome EU member states, such as Germany, would likely be able to cut emissions under the new BREF because they currently calculate pollutant mass flows based on a ‘virtual stack’ approach that adds up all relevant waste gas flows at installation level rather than at the level of individual stacks. But member states that do not use a virtual stack approach face the prospect of operators using the above-mentioned tactics. 

What needs to change in BREFs negotiations 

The drafting of the WGC BREF further revealed some already well-known weaknesses of the process itself: the issue of deriving standards from data deemed by the industry as ‘confidential business information’, and the issue of industry lobbyists talking on behalf of member states, as was the case this time with the Portuguese delegation. 

EEB call upon the European Commission to address these issues once and for all through the ongoing revision of the EU Industrial Emissions Directive, via the opening of BREF review rules [2], [3], [4].  

‘The European Commission needs to walk the talk and act on the ambition of their Green Deal, instead of chewing over the ‘big on big, small on small’ mantra of Junker’s deregulation era’, conclude Christian Schaible, Policy Manager for industrial production at the EEB. 

Next steps: 

  • The BAT conclusions will have to be adopted by the IED Forum  
  • A member state experts committee (IED article 75 committee) needs to give their approval by means of a positive vote 
  • The European Commission will formally adopt the BAT conclusion as the Commission implementing the decision, and will publish it at the EU Official Journal. 
  • After its publication, the document will become the new environmental reference for the chemical sector: the publication will trigger a four-year deadline for operators across Europe to comply with the requirements. New installations which receive a permit after the publication of the standards must comply immediately with the new requirements 

ENDS

Relevant link 

  1. ‘Green Deal Commission’ needs to walk the ‘zero pollution’ talk (eeb.org) 
  1. Burning questions about the new EU Waste Incineration Standards – META (eeb.org) 
  1. ‘Enough is enough’: EEB walks out of BREF talks (endseurope.com) 
  1. How industry polluters hijack negotiations on emission standards – META (eeb.org) 

Notes for editors: 

[1]: New EU environmental norms for the chemical industry | EU Science Hub (europa.eu)  

[2]: Letter sent by the EEB to the European Commission regarding the handling of ‘confidential business information’ and industry infiltration within Member State delegations in Technical Working Groups of the EU BREF process 

[3]: On-going review of the IED:  

The Industrial Emissions Directive – Environment – European Commission (europa.eu) 

[4]: The BREF review rules: EUR-Lex – 32012D0119 – EN – EUR-Lex (europa.eu)