Wednesday,19 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1286, (10 - 16 March 2016)
Wednesday,19 September, 2018
Issue 1286, (10 - 16 March 2016)

Ahram Weekly

The battle over coal

Coal is being added to Egypt’s industrial energy mix, provoking strong opinions for and against this inexpensive fuel that could potentially damage the environment, writes Mahmoud Bakr

Al-Ahram Weekly

Egypt’s growing demand for energy cannot be met through wind and sun power alone. With an anticipated 5.6 per cent increase in the annual consumption of energy (more than twice the rate of population growth), coal must be added to the country’s mixture of energy resources. This will be crucial to supply the economy with its energy needs and to achieve a seven per cent growth rate.

With this in mind, Al-Ahram Weekly met with government officials, experts and investors to learn more about the use of coal in Egyptian industry.

According to Minister of State for Environmental Affairs Khaled Fahmi, “gasified” coal will be increasingly used in Egypt to produce energy for industry and for other industrial purposes, notably in the manufacture of brake linings. Coal itself has been used for a year or so in Tura on an experiential basis, in accordance with the regulations governing this resource, Fahmi said. He added that the government has moved to introduce coal into the bundle of energy resources used in industrial facilities on the basis of an environmental impact evaluation of each.

The Ministry of State for Environmental Affairs is drawing up a set of standards for assessing the environmental impact of the use of coal as a supplementary fuel in Egypt, Fahmi said. A draft set of environmental standards for the use of coal was prepared in cooperation with a committee drawn from the relevant ministries, universities, experts and concerned civil society groups. The document, following European and World Bank criteria, has been approved by the cabinet and implementation will be subject to strict control.

Fahmi noted that the environment law passed by parliament prohibits the use of coal apart from in certain activities. But he stressed that the introduction of coal into the mixture of fuels used in industrial facilities would only apply to certain activities and only after an environmental impact study has been completed. Permissible uses include the manufacture of iron and steel, metallurgic coke, and the type of aluminium used in electricity pylons.

“We added to the regulations the manufacture of cement,” Fahmi said. “Coal has to be included in the mixture of energy resources to realise a basic aim, which is to give the economy its energy needs in order to achieve a seven per cent growth rate. The use of coal will not be allowed without a permit issued by the relevant authorities and then only with the approval of the Ministry of State for Environmental Affairs on the basis of an environmental impact study.

“This will need to be renewed every two years, after receiving approval from a special committee that reviews the environmental performance records of the facility. Violators of the regulations will be liable to heavy penalties,” he added.

Fahmi said that he plans to install special screens in parliament with links to all factories that use coal so that the parliament’s environmental committee can monitor the emissions of these on a daily basis. He added that a number of factories have already received approval to use coal, but some of these will need to introduce compliance measures before they can go into operation.

“It is essential that factories are closely monitored to ensure that they do not use coal in a manner that pollutes the environment,” Fahmi said. “An agreement had been reached with German experts who will inspect coal-using factories every two months and prepare reports that will be publicised via the Internet.”

He explained that the problem was not so much the pollution resulting from the use of coal per se as the carbon dioxide emissions from coal that have an impact on climate change.

“We are working to reduce these through offset programmes such as international carbon certificates or the establishment of Clean Development Mechanism projects like farms, forests and other measures that will counter the effects of carbon dioxide emissions,” he said.

“Right now, we are focussing on developing port facilities so that within a year these can import coal. We are also addressing other fuels than coal, such as clinker, which is more polluting than coal because it is moist,” he added. Fahmi stressed that it is forbidden to burn coal for any purposes whatsoever in residential areas and that factories are prohibited from making coal available to any party not licenced to use it. Violators could face penalties including heavy fines and prison, he said.

On the standards for the use of fossil or “gasified” coal in power stations, the minister said that such facilities must be located away from the Nile Valley, the Red Sea and Mediterranean coasts and other environmentally sensitive areas, as well as from tourist centres and areas crucial to tourist activities.

In the event of a dispute over a location, the Ministry of State for Environmental Affairs would refer the question to the prime minister for a decision, Fahmi said. Pollutant dispersion models would be used to identify places that could potentially be affected by CO2 emissions, taking into account target energy production levels when projects are complete and the need for future expansions.

In addition, the quantity of coal used per year must factor in an efficiency rate of no less than 30 per cent, or between 340 and 380 grams of coal per kilowatt/hour of energy produced. As for shipping and freighting, coal for electricity purposes would need to be laden and unladen at specially designated and equipped platforms in train stations, in accordance with the criteria used in seaports.

“These are the measures that must be followed,” the minister said at the end of the interview with the Weekly. “If the parliament calls for the rescinding of the law or for amendments to it, we will be the first to abide by and carry out its decisions.”

Criticisms of coal: Civil society organisations have expressed their surprise that at a time when governments elsewhere in the world are drawing up medium- to long-range plans for eliminating coal as a source of energy because of its environmental and health risks, Egypt is moving in the opposite direction and importing coal because it is not available inside the country.

Such organisations have stressed that any dependency on imports for this purpose “will reap nothing but harm, while companies will gain huge profits for which we will have to pay the costs while ignoring the renewable and environmentally friendly energy resources we have in abundance in Egypt”. They have added that 85 per cent of the coal used worldwide is used in the countries where it is extracted.

In a joint statement, the organisations said that some leading industrialised nations, such as Germany and Holland, which have long relied on coal as their chief source of energy, are now moving away from coal to solar energy and biofuels. In Germany, 61 per cent of the energy used in the cement industry is now generated from refuse. In 2009, 98 per cent of the energy used in the cement industry in Holland was derived from refuse, the statement said.

The organisations noted that in countries of the South with a similar level of technological development to Egypt, such as Morocco and Kenya, strategic plans have been drawn up with an eye to protecting public health, safeguarding the countries’ sovereignty over energy, and ensuring an economy not reliant on coal or imports. Kenya aims to derive 50 per cent of its energy needs from solar power by 2016, and Morocco plans to generate 42 per cent of its energy needs from renewable sources by 2020, they said.

Magdi Allam, secretary-general of the Federation of Arab Environmental Experts, also disapproves of the construction of coal-powered power stations at a time of declining petroleum prices, in light of what the Zahr natural gas field will produce, and the 70 million tons of hard waste than could be used for fuel.

He has also objected to the Ministry of Electricity’s announcement regarding using coal to generate 16,000 megawatts of electricity by 2030 at a cost of up to $38 billion, describing the government’s plans to use coal to fuel cement plants and power stations as setting up a “coal fair” from Aswan to Alexandria. He said that this would constitute a violation of Egypt’s commitments to last year’s Paris Agreement on climate change.

“The government’s decision means substituting bad with worse,” Allam said. “It has decided to import coal to use in industry and energy production under pressure from international cement companies that will sell their cement at the highest prices while obtaining Egypt’s natural resources for pennies in the absence of anybody holding them to account.”

He continued, “Under the pretext of privatisation, governments worldwide have sold the goose that lays the golden eggs to these companies so they can rake in billions. When the economic crisis hit, they found that coal was cheaper than gas and fuel oil, so why should they import the more expensive commodity when they can import the cheaper one and make Egyptians pay the price in the form of bronchial diseases?” he asked.

He pointed out that according to a World Bank international environment report, governments, companies and individuals pay $2.8 billion a year on illnesses related to air pollution, and this does not take into account costs accrued from sick leave and shortages of manpower in the workplace. Half the amount of money that would be used to import coal should be allocated to generating electricity from nuclear energy, which Allam said is cleaner than coal.

Allam said that Egypt’s ministers of electricity and the environment might “fall into the clutches of the international coal lobby” at a time when the industrial nations are moving away from coal. He said that the lobby might hope to recover its losses from developing countries, “just as occurred when the cement, steel and ceramics industries moved to Egypt when they were being cut back in Europe”.

Some countries have natural reserves of coal, calling these an “inland” resource, he said, in contrast to others that are dependent on coal for energy and have to import it. “But there is a third alternative: those countries that do not have coal, but have the option to use resources other than coal. These countries should think very carefully before choosing coal as an alternative,” he said.

If the Ministry of State for Environmental Affairs has told the Ministry of Electricity that coal is harmless and has licenced 14 cement factories to operate on coal, then “we, as protectors of the environment, should lodge an official complaint against the Ministry of State for Environmental Affairs,” Allam added.

However, according to Sherif Al-Gabali, chairman of the Chamber of Chemical Industries at the Egyptian Federation of Industries, there are no objections to the use of any type of fuel to generate energy for industry, whether gas, coal or others. He said he is not concerned about the use of coal as an option for producing energy as long as there is strict adherence to international criteria and safety measures that should be put in place to protect the environment and public health.

Coal kiln regulation

COAL-producing kilns use vegetable refuse to produce bio-coal and charcoal, which is used for some medical purposes as well as in water pipes and to cook food. They rely on a primitive form of production that entails burying the refuse for 21 days, causing polluting emissions during the process.

The process is unlicenced, and the best-known area where this kind of coal is produced is Aghour in Qalubiya Governorate. The industry is harmful to agricultural land, uses child labour, and pays no taxes or social security. Moreover, it has expanded since 2011 despite all attempts on the part of ministers and provincial governors to counter it.

According to Minister of State for Environmental Affairs Khaled Fahmi, the government has banned the export of coal produced by any but environmentally approved facilities. Efforts are underway to solve the crisis of primitive coal kilns that has haunted the government for years. He said that Egypt exports around 70 per cent of its total production, or the equivalent of LE50 million, of this type of coal, according to figures from the Central Statistics Bureau.

“This is a thorny issue. We are embroiled in a real battle with the producers,” Fahmi said, adding that his ministry has developed short- and long-range plans to convert the kilns from open burning to more advanced methods. This would allow proper regulation and authorisation to take place that would lead to the issuing of the required certifications for export, one being a certificate from the Ministry of State for Environmental Affairs that the coal designated for export conforms with environmental safety standards.

Fahmi explained that bio-coal or charcoal producers have reached an agreement with the ministry over steps to regulate the industry and to introduce strict measures to prevent open burning and shift to more advanced kilns. He added that within seven years the industry will be moved to a proper industrial zone equipped with water, electricity, a sewerage system and other essential infrastructure.

Fahmi has also met with Abdel-Aziz Seifeddin, president of the board of the Arab Industrial Organisation, to discuss the manufacture of modern kilns for the production of bio-coal and charcoal. Cairo University is currently in the process of evaluating three advanced coal kilns, one locally developed and the others imported. They are being tested to assess their environmental friendliness, safety and feasibility. Testing and measurement will take 21 days and cost LE5,000.

The minister added that he will present the results of the tests to the cabinet so that it can take the appropriate decisions. The Social Fund has also agreed to offer loans to kiln owners to help them replace old equipment with new technology, he said.

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