Big win for one of South Africa’s biggest air polluters

 ·8 Apr 2024

Sasol has won a major battle against air quality regulators, allowing it to tackle its emissions targets through alternative processes that deviate from South Africa’s established regulations.

In July 2023, the National Air Quality Officer (NAQO) refused an application from Sasol, in terms of the Minimum Emission Standards (MES), to regulate its emissions on a load basis instead of a concentration basis.

In simple terms, regulations require groups like Sasol to limit the concentration of sulphur dioxide emitted by their operations. However, Sasol is now able to address its emission targets by cutting its load (ie, the number of boilers operating) instead.

This applies to Sasol’s Secunda operations, which are already on a 10-year postponement for the targets, set to end in March 2025. Instead of meeting the concentration of SO2 targets, the group applied to have its targets determined by limiting the load from its 17 boilers.

NAQO said it was not empowered to grant permission for this change, dismissing Sasol’s application, which the group took on appeal.

Last week, Minister of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment Barbara Creecy upheld the appeal and set aside the NAQO’s decision – allowing Sasol to apply load-based limits from 1 April 2025 until 31 March 2030.

Sasol previously said it would have to wind down its Secunda operations if the appeal was not granted.

Responding to the victory, the group said that it would engage with the minister to finalise the regulatory requirements for the decision to take full effect, including having its atmospheric emission license changed accordingly.

Activists not happy

Non-profit shareholder activism organisation Just Share, which was an interested and affected party in the appeal decision before the Minister, said that the decision made a mockery of South Africa’s emission regulations.

It added that the upholding of the appeal would result in emissions significantly above the permitted by the MES, which is already weaker than comparative standards worldwide.

“The negative air quality and health impacts of these emissions are significant,” said Just Share.

“This decision means that the government has permitted a private company to set its own pollution limits, making a mockery of pollution laws and constitutional rights, and of any claim by the government to take public health seriously.”

During the appeal hearing, Just Share’s expert said that compliance with the MES would reduce premature deaths and negative health impacts by between 40% and 60%, while Sasol’s proposed limits, even by April 2030, would only reduce the impacts by 5% compared to Sasol’s 2022-2023 emissions.

Granting Sasol’s appeal will result in roughly 50-130% higher negative impacts than MES compliance, the group said.

Sasol’s emissions have often been a point of contention with environmentalists and investors.

In a report by Carbon Majors, the Sandton-based company was named as one of the 57 companies worldwide directly responsible for 80% of all greenhouse gas emissions from 2016 to 2022.

Not all bad

Although Just Share questioned how certain information regarding Sasol’s investment in energy efficiency projects was not made available, it did note that Creecy does not condone Sasol’s load-based limit.

“The appeal decision points out that Sasol did not provide adequate information to support its view that its ‘integrated solution’ is the best practicable environmental option,” said Just Share.

“The Minister also emphasises that Sasol has failed to comply with the MES despite having many years to do so.”

“She states that she does not condone Sasol’s continued operation in terms of the alternative load-based limit and that the additional leniency should be temporary in nature: Sasol should comply with the MES as soon as is reasonably possible.”

The National Environmental Consultative and Advisory (NECA) Forum, the Minister’s expert advisor, also expressed doubts about Sasol’s ability to achieve its claimed benefits within the given timeframes.

It stressed that Sasol’s condition for further indulgence is that it implements a solution to achieve a reduction outcome that corresponds with the MES on time.

The appeal before the Minister can be found below:

Read: Another Reserve Bank shake-up on the cards for South Africa

Show comments
Subscribe to our daily newsletter