March 7, 2018
Issue 266  |  View Past Issues

Editor's Note

An emphatic US Supreme Court judgement in a case filed over a coal plant in India has opened the door to the World Bank and other agencies being sued for the impacts of their funding decisions. Meanwhile, a new United Nations report argues that air pollution, which causes about seven million premature deaths a year, should be viewed as a major human rights threat. A new report on the most polluted cities around the world has found that India, China, Pakistan and Bangladesh have all of the world’s 50 most polluted cities, with coal-burning one of the major contributors. In the US, a study has found that nearly all coal ash dams for which data is available are polluting groundwater systems. The Trump administration has also downgraded enforcement of rules to cut pollution from coal plants.

New data reveals that in 2018 renewables far outpaced new coal capacity in India, driven by their far lower costs. While much of the coal power building frenzy in India has now petered out, not everyone has got the message. The Madhya Pradesh Government is proposing two new 1320 megawatt (MW) plants, one in the electorate of its Chief Minister. Others are still behaving badly too. A Greenpeace investigation has found that Norway’s sovereign wealth fund still has investments in 34 companies which they argue do not comply with the fund’s existing guidelines. In Indonesia, the country’s latest power development plan has been launched with a façade of green rhetoric while proposed solar capacity has been reduced and coal’s share of new generation increased.

In South Africa, a government inquiry into ‘state capture’ was told that Eskom entered into a US$1.8 billion loan from a Chinese company in breach of internal procedures and misleading Treasury about its nature.

Bob Burton


China’s CO2 emissions surged in 2018 despite clean energy gains

New Chinese Government data reveals that coal demand grew strongly in 2018, driven largely by increasing electricity generation to cater for booming demand for steel and other construction materials, writes Lauri Myllyvirta in Unearthed.

The Gupta brothers’ ‘state capture’ of South Africa

Coal mining and favourable Eskom contracts featured prominently in the controversy over the ‘state capture’ of the South African Government by Gupta family companies, writes Karan Mahajan in Vanity Fair.

The end of coal in the NSW Hunter Valley is coming

The ‘last drinks’ bell is ringing for coal mining and exports from the New South Wales Hunter Valley, which hosts the world’s largest export coal terminal, writes Phillip O’Neill from Western Sydney University in the Newcastle Herald.


US Supreme Court rules World Bank arm can be challenged in court

The US Supreme Court has ruled 7-1 in favour of Indian farmers and fishers who sought to sue the International Financial Corporation (IFC), an arm of the World Bank, over its failure to enforce commitments made relating to a US$450 million loan for the 4000 MW Tata Mundra plant in Gujarat. In 2015, the plaintiffs sued the IFC for failing to require Tata Power’s subsidiary, Coastal Gujarat Power, to implement a social and environmental action plan agreed to as part of the conditions of the loan. In a lower court case the IFC successfully argued that they had absolute immunity from legal action under US legislation. However, on appeal the Supreme Court overturned the lower court’s ruling and acknowledged that in some cases the IFC could be sued. The ruling means the lower court will now have to reconsider the claim by over the Tata Mundra project and opens the prospect that other projects may also be open to challenge. (Reuters, EarthRights, Lawfare)

Top News

UN adviser warns air pollution breaches human rights: The United Nations Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment, David Boyd, has told the Human Rights Council that air pollution should be viewed as a violation “of the rights to life, to health, the rights of the child, and also violates the right to live in a healthy and sustainable environment.” Air pollution is estimated to cause the premature death of seven million people a year. Boyd noted that 155 countries have legally recognised the right to a clean environment and that this should be extended globally. One of the measures that governments are taking to cut pollution, he said, is “eliminating the use of coal-fired power plants.” (Reuters, United Nations Office of the Human Rights Commission)

Air quality report highlights India’s pollution problem: The IQAir AirVisual 2018 World Air Quality Report reveals that India, China, Pakistan and Bangladesh have all of the world’s 50 most polluted cities. The report, based on data from over 3000 cities that make air pollution data publicly available, found that all cities in Africa and the Middle East as well as well over 90 per cent of cities in South and Southeast Asia exceeded the World Health Organization’s annual exposure guideline for PM2.5 fine particle pollution. Coal consumption is one of the major sources of air pollution along with biomass burning, industrial pollution and vehicle emissions. (Greenpeace, IQAir AirVisual 2018)

Report finds nearly all US coal ash dams leak one or more toxics: A new report by the Environmental Integrity Project has found that a majority of coal ash dams at 265 US power plants have contaminated groundwater with unsafe levels of at least four pollutants. About one-quarter of coal ash dams in the US did not have to submit data either because they have closed or been granted an extension to comply with disclosure requirements. The report found that groundwater results revealed unsafe levels of arsenic at all the coal ash dams for which data is available and 60 per cent had high levels of lithium. It is estimated that less than 5 per cent of coal ash dams have waterproof liners to protect groundwater from contamination and 59 per cent are either beneath the water table or within five feet of it. (Guardian, Environmental Integrity Project)

Spotlight on Eskom’s Chinese loan: The South African Government’s inquiry into ‘state capture’, referred to as the Zondo Commission, has been told that senior Eskom executives violated the utility’s internal procedures in pushing for a 25 billion rand (US$1.76 billion) loan facility from China’s Huarong Energy Africa. The loan was proposed as a short-term source of debt to help relieve the utility’s growing financial crisis. However, the loan was not supported by Eskom’s board and was not backed by a government guarantee. The commission was also told the loan included a provision for a 400 million rand (US$28.2 million) signing fee and that Eskom gave the South African Reserve Bank incomplete and inaccurate information about the loan. Eskom’s then interim CEO, Sean Maritz, who approved the loan, had been scheduled to face disciplinary charges over alleged misconduct but resigned in March 2018 before a hearing was held. (Fin24, Business Day)

Eskom begins shut down of old coal plants: Eskom has confirmed that three 200 MW units at the 2000 MW Hendrina coal plant have been recently closed and a further three units are slated for closure between June 2019 and November 2022. Eskom is also planning to close other coal plants including the 1190 MW Grootvlei plant by 2020 and the 1000 MW Komati plant by 2021. Over the last decade Eskom mothballed units at all of the plants, recommissioned some units and, since 2017, has recommitted to their closure with the commissioning of new units at the Medupi and Kusile plants. (Fin24)

Charges laid over coal dust management at US mines: Glendal Hardison, the former manager of the now defunct Armstrong Coal’s mines in western Kentucky has been charged by a federal grand jury of conspiracy to defraud an agency of the US Government by deceit, trickery and dishonest means. It is alleged that Hardison and eight others who had been charged previously conspired to conceal the actual levels of dust miners were being exposed to. Court documents reveal that one of the eight previously charged in the case seeks to change his not-guilty plea to guilty on April 1, an indication that he may be willing to co-operate with the prosecution. The latest developments in the Armstrong Coal case coincide with the US Environmental Protection Agency revealing that it planned to downgrade enforcement action of its New Source Review rules on coal plants. (US Department of Justice, WFPL, Utility Dive)

Legal action launched to block new Polish mine: Client Earth has launched legal action challenging the immediate activation of an environmental permit which would allow the Polish energy utility PGE to begin immediate construction of its proposed Zloczew lignite mine. The proposed mine would require the destruction of 33 villages and displace about 3000 people. ClientEarth estimates the lignite mine would release five tonnes of mercury, 26 tonnes of cadmium and 168 tonnes of lead a year into the environment. The proposed mine would also require a new 50-kilometre-long railway to transport the lignite to the existing Belchatow power plant, the world’s largest lignite plant. Greenpeace Poland and local groups have been campaigning against the proposed mine. (Client Earth)


Australia: Protestor arrested after blocking railway to Adani’s Abbot Point coal terminal for 19 hours.

Australia: Adani to plead not guilty to charges of discharging water at eight times over the allowed limit into the Great Barrier Reef in 2017.

Finland: After 2029 coal phase-out adopted, Environment Minister wants European Union to go carbon neutral by 2050.

Germany: The federal parliament’s research service argues the government is not liable to compensate coal plant operators over closures as part of the coal exit strategy.

Indonesia: Government launches Bukit Asam coal gasification project in South Sumatra.

UK: Further delay to GCM Resources and Power Construction Corporation of China proposal to Bangladesh Government for new coal power plants.

UK: For the sixth year in a row, UK greenhouse gas emissions have declined, with nearly all of the fall due to the decline of coal.

US: Former coal lobbyist Andrew Wheeler has been confirmed as Administrator of US Environmental Protection Agency.

US: Owners of the 2250 MW Navajo Generating Station in Arizona proceed with December shutdown after Navajo-owned company baulked at taking on environmental liability.

US: Judge rejects Tennessee Valley Authority’s contractor’s bid to overturn jury verdict in toxic coal ash clean up lawsuit.

Zimbabwe: Construction work begins on Chinese-backed 600 MW expansion of Hwange Power station.

Zimbabwe: Power China enters agreement with RioZim to investigate 2000 MW Sengwa coal plant plan.

Companies + Markets

Despite costs and glut of stranded plants, Indian state pitches for more: The Indian state of Madhya Pradesh has called for bids for the construction of two new 1320 MW coal plants, one of which would be in Chhindwara within the constituency of Chief Minister of the state. Analysts estimate that power from the projects would be in the order of 6 rupees per unit (8 US cents), over double the cost of power from solar projects. The state is proposing private companies construct he plants on a build-operate-own basis even though there is an estimated 40,000 MW of stressed or stranded coal plants across India due to lack of finance, power purchase agreements or coal supply. (Business Standard)

Eskom appoints team to investigate coal failures as costs mount: South Africa’s Minister of Public Enterprises, Pravin Gordhan, has appointed 11 power industry experts to investigate the failures at Eskom’s old coal plants. Repeated breakdowns at the plants have contributed to recent widespread blackouts. The team of experts has been directed to report back within four weeks. Following a recent government pledge to bail out and restructure the utility, S&P Global Ratings increased Eskom’s outlook to stable from negative. However, the ratings agency flagged that further government financial support will be required. The National Energy Regulator of South Africa is expected to make an announcement this week on Eskom’s application for a 15 per cent increase in retail prices for each of the next three years. (Reuters, Fin24)

Norwegian wealth fund still has billions invested in coal companies: An analysis by Greenpeace Norway, Framtiden i våre hender and Urgewald argues that Norway’s Government Pension Fund Global retains investments in 32 companies that should have been excluded under the sovereign wealth fund’s coal exclusion criteria. It also found that the fund has invested in 16 companies that are currently building new coal-fired power plants. The groups estimate that the fund has US$7.2 billion invested in the global coal industry, including in major European coal plant operators RWE (US$186 million) and Uniper (US$97 million). It also has US$1.1 billion invested in Glencore and US$1.7 billion in BHP Billiton, both major coal exporters. (Urgewald)

Investors call on HSBC to end all coal power loans: ShareAction and a coalition of investors including Schroders and Hermes are pressing HSBC to end its financing of coal power plants in Bangladesh, Indonesia and Vietnam. HSBC’s energy policy, which was released last year, excluded the three countries from its ban on lending for new coal power plants. The fund managers have written to the chief executive of HSBC, John Flint, urging the bank to cease financing for new coal plants as is the case for other major banks such as Barclays and Standard Chartered. (Financial News)

Indonesia’s new power plan hypes renewables but backs coal: Contrary to expectations, Indonesia’s latest Electricity Supply Business Plan 2019–2028 has proposed an expanded role for coal power and a reduced share of new generation for renewables. The plan marginally trimmed the national electricity demand projection by 0.44 per cent to 6.42 per cent a year. However, this is far higher than the 4.6 per cent achieved over the last five years and ignores the growing overcapacity in the Java grid. Three coal plants the government had previously said were put on hold, PLTU Java-3, PLTU Java-9 and Java-10, have been revived. The plan also estimates only 908 MW of new solar capacity within the next 10 years, a 13 per cent reduction compared to the 2018 electricity supply plan. (Institute for Energy Economics & Financial Analysis.)

Sasol signals shift away from coal conversion to speciality chemicals: The CEO of Sasol, Bongani Nqwababa, has confirmed that the South African company will not pursue the development of new coal-to-oil or gas-to-liquids projects due to its assessment of future oil prices and shifting diesel demand. Nqwababa said that climate change was one of the drivers in the company’s emphasis on new projects with a lower carbon footprint than its existing operations. Sasol’s mining division currently produces about 40 million tonnes of coal a year, making it the third largest producer in South Africa. The company’s coal-to-oil production was a key element in the South African Government’s strategy to limit the impact of the 1980s oil embargo imposed during the apartheid era. “We have a coal strategy up to 2050 but what if the world is not prepared to buy our product?” Nqwababa asked. (ICIS, Reuters)

India’s rapid solar growth continues as coal fades: India added 16,300 MW of new power generation capacity in 2018 with solar energy accounting for 50.7 per cent and other renewables almost another 20 per cent. Coal power accounted for just 27.5 per cent of new generation capacity in 2018. The consultancy Mercom India estimates that solar installations were down by 15 per cent compared to the year before due to the impact of the solar import duties and other factors affecting utility-scale projects. However, rooftop solar capacity grew by 66 per cent in 2018. The consultancy expects the shift to renewables to become even more pronounced as old coal plants retire and the cost of solar continues to fall. (Economic Times, Mercom India)

Vietnam faces power price hikes to cover the cost of imported coal: Fitch Solutions, a division of the Fitch ratings agency, notes that the planned increase in coal power generation reliant on imported coal will force power prices in Vietnam up. Since 2015 Vietnam has been reliant on increasing volumes of expensive imported coal as new coal plants have been commissioned. However, losses by Vietnam Electricity have increased as government-regulated tariffs have failed to keep up with rising coal prices. With seaborne coal prices projected to remain high, the government’s current plan to significantly expand coal generation is not only encountering public opposition but faces a growing challenge from renewables as prices continue to fall. (VietNamNet Bridge)


Coal’s Poisonous Legacy: Groundwater Contaminated by Coal Ash Across the US, Environmental Integrity Project, March 2019. (Pdf)

This 80-page report finds that publicly available data reveals that nearly all US coal ash dams are unlined and polluting groundwater.

A Dark Outlook: the Aftermath of Coal, International Institute of Law and Environment, March 2019. (Pdf)

This 50-page report estimates that a 30 per cent fall in coal generation in Spain between 2015 and 2016 corresponded with a 40.5 per cent decrease in associated health impacts.