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Pressure from the British government and energy companies has encouraged the European Union to drop new regulations that could have led to the closure of Drax and other heavily polluting coal-fired power stations within six years.

The sector was facing tougher emissions targets but has been given an extra three years' grace period to 2019 after Britain argued it faced an "energy crunch" before large-scale wind farms and nuclear stations came on stream closer to 2020.

The lifeline for up to half a dozen coal or gas-fired power facilities, which could lead to 60m tonnes of extra C02 being released into the atmosphere by Drax alone, has angered green groups but been welcomed by power providers.

The decision follows a vote on the industrial emissions directive in the European parliament's committee on environment, public health and food safety in Brussels. This has to be endorsed by the parliament in July but is unlikely to be rejected.

Environmental groups had argued that the new regulations should be enforced as soon as possible to ensure that Britain and Europe met their climate change goals.

"Extending the life of these coal plants will slow down investment in the low-carbon economy, and set us back in the clean technology race," said Ruth Davis, chief policy adviser at Greenpeace UK.

"Europe should take its lead from Spain, which is already generating half its electricity from wind power – not cling onto outdated technologies like dirty coal."

While Kirsty Clough, a campaigner in the climate change team at WWF, said the successful lobbying by Britain sent "completely the wrong message" to Europe and the rest of the world about how serious Britain was about moving to a low carbon economy.

The government, large power companies and the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) argued that energy generators need longer to comply with the directive to give them enough time to build other low-carbon energy sources to prevent a wider energy supply crunch.

"There is a risk that the UK will not be able to build other low-carbon energy sources in time to replace lost capacity," said Sean McGuire, director of CBI Brussels. "A phased introduction for this directive would allow the UK to make a smoother transition to a more balanced energy mix. The committee's proposal to extend the timescale for power plants to comply with the industrial emissions directive from 2016 to 2019 is helpful, but it still does not go far enough."

The decision does not impact on the EU's large combustion plant directive (LCPD) under which all coal and oil-fired power stations not equipped with flue gas desulphurisation to remove harmful sulphur dioxide emissions will need to close by 2015. Companies such as E.ON have decided it is not economic to fit this at Kingsnorth, Ironbridge or Grain coal-fired power stations so they will close as expected in five years time.

The issue under discussion is the restriction that will require mainly large coal-fired power stations to reduce emissions of nitrogen. Operators have to decide whether to fit new clean-up equipment called selective catalytic reduction (SCR), or accept that their power station can only run for limited time and then must close.

The Department of Energy and Climate Change said it was not right to comment at this stage because no final decision had yet been made at the EU but it confirmed it had been lobbying hard.

"Government is engaging at all levels with officials and elected representatives in Brussels, with member states and with industry to work towards an agreement which is acceptable to the UK," said a DECC spokeswoman.

A spokeswoman for Drax said the issue was very important for its future: "To meet the new limits [on nitrogen emissions] would mean huge investments and given other uncertainties after 2020 it would be an incredibly difficult decision to make ahead of 2016."



Why shouldn't Kellingley and Thoresby have remained open into 2018?

In a report prepared for the NUM and TUC "Merits of UK Coal State Aid Application" it is argued that rather than close Kellingley and Thorseby in 2015 they could remain open until 2018. Other EU member states have and still are benefiting from the fund whilst making a case for extended funding.

"It can be seen that our European competitors are taking a strategic decision to support their coal industry during managed wind down of uncompetitive coal mines, and are providing substantial sums under European State Aid regulations. As an example, Germany’s closure plans are designed to address the social impact of job losses, and specifically to allow sufficient time to enable direct and indirect supply chains to adjust. To date the UK has made little use of state-aid provisions for the sector, either under the previous regulations or current Closure Aid."

The full report can be read here

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