Egyptian cabinet decision to greenlight coal stokes controversy

Lamia Hassan, Friday 4 Apr 2014

Egyptian cabinet has provisionally approved the use of coal in cement factories, despite criticism from campaigners and the environment ministry

A labourer carries a pack of cement at a construction site on the outskirts of Cairo (Photo: Reuters)

A government announcement on Wednesday that Egypt would import coal in an attempt to meet its power needs has not dampened the opposition to the plans; on Friday, the hashtag “Stop Coal” was the top trending phrase on Twitter in Egypt.

After months of debates and fierce battles between the Ministry of Environment and the cement sector, the Egyptian cabinet on Wednesday announced that they will allow the import of a coal for power generation within cement factories. The announcement came following a meeting between Prime Minister Ibrahim Mahlab and the ministers of electricity, environment, investment, trade and industry, health, petroleum and tourism.

According to a statement on the cabinet's official Facebook page, the cabinet agreed on standards and controls to allow the import and use of coal. The controls include issuing Environmental Impact Assessment reports at all stages of importation, storage and use of coal, as well as using technology to reduce carbon emissions as much as possible.

The controls also include increasing the use of agricultural and municipal waste as a fuel source for cement production, with a goal of fueling 40 percent cement production through these methods. The statement also includes increasing the use of renewable energy to reach a controlling percentage in the energy mix, to reduce the harmful emissions, especially in touristic areas and residential areas.

In the statement, the cabinet also says that they are committed to abide by the protocols that the World Health Organisation (WHO) follows regarding the handling and use of coal, and oblige companies and factories to commit to those protocols.

Finally, the statement says that the cabinet will work on amending Egyptian environmental law to increase penalties for those who violate environmental standards, and impose a tax on coal users as is mandated by international standards.

In March, the cabinet commissioned the Ministry of Environment to present a report on the standards and energy mix used in cement factories in Europe. Four days before the cabinet's announcement, Magdi Allam, an advisor to the Minister of Environmental Affairs, told Ahram Online that they were still conducting their studies and that the studies were not specifically about the use of coal, but the energy mix and alternatives and the Refuse Derived Fuel (RDF).

The coal issue was first brought on the table in March 2013 under president Mohamed Morsi, and was discussed by the industry and energy committee in the Shura Council. It was brought up again in June and debates started once again during Hazem El-Beblawi's cabinet, following Morsi’s ouster.

Following statements from the cabinet about giving the green light for coal import, Medhat Stefanos, chairman of the Cement Association, praised the decision and said that the cabinet understands the situation and understands that this is right.

“Our next step now is to study the decision and to see on what basis and conditions it was approved to see how and if these conditions will be applicable on the ground,” Stefanos told Ahram Online.

“We will also study the fastest way to get this new technology working in factories to avoid wasting any more time.”

Stefanos said that cabinet approved the use of coal for the cement factories and for power generation.

Refuting claims that say the coal will not be able to solve the problem of the cement industries quickly and that it will take at least a year or two to be fully operational, Stefanos said that these claims are not true and if they start working right away, the factories will be able to use coal before the end of this year. He also said that if the factories that brought coal in a few months ago had been allowed to use it since then, they would be now working entirely with coal.

“The up-to-date technology in 80 percent of the cement factories in Egypt will make the process faster and easier to substitute the current technology with fuel,” says Stefanos. “Only a small percentage of the factories, that are bit old, will have to wait longer before they are able to use coal.”

On the other hand, Ahmed Droubi, an environmental activist and a member of the 'Egyptians Against Coal' campaign, says the Wednesday announcement is not official. He said that the cabinet office issued a press release with the decision they are supposed to take in their next meeting, but there has to be a decree with an official number before the decision can be considered final.

“The battle is not over yet,” says Droubi. “If they decide to approve the use of the coal, we will file a lawsuit at the State Council because such a decision is a crime against the Egyptian people and against Egypt and will not only destroy the lives of Egyptians in general, but specifically those who live near the factories and near the ports where they will be using the coal.”

Droubi says that they will wait to see if the cabinet will announce the official decree in the coming days.

“[This decision] will affect the Egyptian economy and will affect Egypt in the worst possible way,” says Droubi. “Anyone who would allow such a decision will be tried one day. History will not forget it.”

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