/ 27 July 2023

Sasol’s application for Secunda emission limit for sulphur dioxide falls outside legal framework, say Just Share

Sasol Getty
Sasol says it remains committed to ambient air quality improvement and legal compliance (Waldo Swiegers/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

The recent refusal of Sasol’s application for alternative sulphur dioxide (SO2) emissions limits at its Secunda operations by the national air quality officer, Patience Gwaze, has been welcomed by the nonprofit shareholder activism organisation, Just Share.

In June last year, the petrochemical and energy company applied to be regulated for load-based emission limits (the mass and the rate of the pollutant emissions) instead of a concentration limit (the mass of pollutant per cubic metre of air emitted), as provided for in the minimum emission standards (MES). 

Sulphur dioxide is a notorious pollutant that causes significant harm to human health and the environment.

Gwaze’s decision details how, on 23 February 2015, Sasol Secunda was granted a 10-year postponement from meeting new plant standards for SO2, in respect of boilers in the steam plants until 31 March 2025.  

It lodged a second application for postponement of new plant standards compliance timeframes in March 2019 for the steam plants, among others, for two pollutants — particulate matter and oxides of nitrogen. 

In June last year, Sasol applied to Gwaze and the Nkangala district authority for an alternative emission for SO2, for the boilers in its steam plants at Sasol Secunda, which are operating in terms of a postponement. 

According to Gwaze’s ruling, Sasol Secunda concluded that in its view the implementation of its integrated air quality and greenhouse gas reduction roadmap, involving the turning down of boilers not only to reduce SO2 emissions but with additional benefits, intended to be realised from 2025 onwards.

This, it concluded, is the “best approach towards ambient air quality improvement without causing other significant environmental impacts while trying to reduce SO2 emissions”. It indicated that it cannot adopt coal beneficiation as a compliance solution for SO2 emissions from the boilers at the steam plants as previously thought.

Not compliant

Gwaze said that for an application to be considered, the plant must be in compliance with other emission standards. 

“Sasol Secunda steam plants are not compliant as they are currently operating in terms of a postponement for particulate matter and oxides of nitrogen. Accordingly, the application falls to be refused on this basis alone.”

Sasol was required to demonstrate previous reduction, measures and direct investments implemented towards compliance, but had failed to do so and the “application falls to be set aside for this reason alone”. 

Gwaze said Sasol Secunda operations are in the Highveld Priority Area, where the national ambient air quality standards for sulphur dioxide and particulate matter are frequently exceeded. 

“Accordingly, there is no material compliance with the national ambient air quality standards in Secunda and for this reason alone, Sasol Secunda’s application is refused.” 

Gwaze is “not empowered” to grant an application for an alternative limit where a once-off postponement has already been granted. “Indeed, to permit such indulgence into perpetuity would defeat the objective of the National Environmental Management: Air Quality Act,” she said.

Sasol said it will appeal Gwaze’s ruling with Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment MInister Barbara Creecy because the “appeal process allows the minister to consider the application afresh”.

Weak SO2 standard

South Africa’s 2020 SO2 standard — which exists to protect people’s health and human rights — is about 28 times more lax than in China, and 10 times weaker than India’s, said Robyn Hugo, the director of climate change engagement at Just Share.

“The means of reducing SO2 emissions are well-known and not controversial. The costs and benefits of compliance are also well-known. SA’s SO2 emission standards are weak, compared even to other developing countries, and Sasol has had an inordinately long time to prepare for compliance.”

Hugo said Saso not only downplayed the effect of its application for a “load-based emission limit for sulphur dioxide”, but framed this as a positive intervention which would allow the Secunda operations to “exploit synergies”. 

“The reality, however, is that Sasol’s application fell outside the legal framework, including because it would have resulted in non-compliance with the minimum emission standards beyond 31 March 2025. The national air quality officer recognised this in her decision, which refused the application.”

Hugo pointed out that even if Sasol’s application were only applicable for a period before April 2025, and “it was not”, it did not meet other requirements for an alternative emission limit. Among these other considerations is that there must be “material compliance with the national ambient air quality standards in the area for pollutant or pollutants applied for”. There is not, according to Hugo.

Sasol is a major contributor to the high levels of air pollution in the Highveld Priority Area where its Secunda operations are situated, she said. The high court, in its 2022 Deadly Air decision, found that this pollution violates residents’ constitutional right to an environment that is not harmful to their health and well-being. 

Achieving compliance

Sasol said its emission sources at its operations in South Africa are regulated in accordance with atmospheric emission licences, which are based on the minimum emission standards. 

Clause 12A of the MES allows existing plants to be regulated on an alternative emission load, as opposed to the current concentration-based limit (the mass of pollutant per cubic metre of air emitted) specified in the minimum emission standards, it said. 

Since 2015, it has implemented several projects at Secunda, Sasolburg and Natref, to progressively reduce emissions to comply with the minimum emission standards. It said it had spent more than R7 billion over the past five years on emission reduction projects.

“As such, we have achieved MES compliance for 98% of our emission sources at these operations. The remaining sources (2%) are part of our ongoing journey to enable MES compliance by 1 April 2025.”

The only remaining challenge relates to achieving the concentration-based limit for SO2 emissions from the boilers at the Secunda Operations’ steam plants, it said.

An integrated emission reduction roadmap, which intends to deliver emissions reductions in terms of both greenhouse gas emissions, SO2 and other pollutants, was identified as the optimal approach and best aligned with the objectives of the National Environmental Management: Air Quality Act and the purpose of the minimum emission standards, it said. 

“This involves the turning down of boilers, reducing coal usage and ramping up our imports of renewable energy to 1 200 megawatts by 2030, which is aligned to Sasol’s strategy.”

The company said it has already seen a reduction in emissions through the implementation of energy efficiency projects and is progressing the deployment of more than half of the committed renewable energy target from 2025 onwards. 

It “remains committed” to ambient air quality improvement, legal compliance, and “transforming our operations and reducing our environmental footprint in line with our strategy”.