Fuel for Thought
Can the Largest Petrochemical Plant in Europe Survive Legal Challenges by Environmental Groups?
May 17 2023
In what is shaping up to be a rather contentious court case, a consortium of environmental advocacy groups - including the widely influential NGO, ClientEarth – are prepared to argue that what will be the largest petrochemical facility to be constructed on the European continent in over three decades is illegal. A venture of Ineos, Project One, as the Belgian plant is known, will primarily involve the use of high heat and pressure to "crack" the bonds in ethane gas to produce ethylene, the gold-dust ingredient in most plastic packaging. The consortium set to challenge the plant's approval in a Flemish court maintain that the permission granted contradicts EU environmental laws. The site, whose ethane resources which will be supplied by North American fracking, will contribute to an escalation of the climate crisis and thereby imperil human health, say the prosecution, whilst contributing significantly to environmental degradation by expanding the continent’s plastic production volumes and an excess of nitrogen deposits damaging protected areas.
Tatiana Lujan, a representative lawyer from ClientEarth, notably described Project One as "a carbon bomb”, citing the mounting evidence of the harm caused by the extraction and usage of petrochemicals in plastic production, including degraded air quality in the surrounding regions. More technically, the plaintiffs have put forward their argument that the plant's permit failed to consider those indirect climate effects whose consideration is explicitly mandated by industrial legislation upheld in all member-states of the European Union. The plant, which was given the go-ahead by Antwerp authorities in December 2021, is accused of having overlooked the lifetime greenhouse gas emissions of the plant. As a result, the consortium claims, the greenhouse gas emissions resulting from the site’s activities have not been thoroughly assessed and are, therefore, not properly legal. Similarly, there is an allegation that an under-estimation of the plant’s nitrogen pollution, which can inflict damage on local wildlife, would make the approval illegal under both international and national laws. Lastly, ClientEarth alleges that Ineos Manufacturing Belgium, a producer of consumer plastic and Project One's primary customer, has plans to expand its plastic production to 780,000 tonnes a year, an expansion which the plaintiffs believe constitutes a significant environmental threat. Indeed, the United Nations have issued several warnings on what they regard as a plastics pollution crisis, citing detrimental impacts on climate, biodiversity and safety.
It’s not just environmental groups pursuing this line. With the Dutch border a mere four kilometres from the site on which Project One will be built, Zeeland and North Brabant authorities are also contesting the permit.
Nevertheless, Ineos maintains that the plant will be not simply be the largest but the "most environmentally sustainable cracker in Europe" and has demonstrated that the design of the site deliberately leaves room for the incorporation of carbon capture technologies as well as alternative fuelling once they solutions have suitably matured.
The ongoing legal battle will be heard before the Council of Permit Disputes, a Flemish authority. It's certainly a sign of the times, crystallising in a singular case the rising tensions between climate action and the demands of industry, and the way the verdict falls may well determine the general tone of European environmental legislation in what will likely be the century’s decisive decade for climate stewardship.
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