The LRC filed an appeal challenging Gert Sibande District Municipality’s recent renewal of an atmospheric emissions license to a synfuels plant owned by Sasol in Secunda, South Africa. The renewal permits Sasol, an international chemicals and energy company, to continue with its coal liquidification activities at that plant even though the process, which has been banned by many countries including the United States, has been accepted internationally as highly polluting and inefficient.
Sasol Synfuels is the largest emitter of greenhouse gasses in South Africa. The plant in Secunda converts coal to liquid fuel and also powers the process by using coal to generate steam, emitting copious quantities of poisonous hydrogen sulfide gas, contributing to the poor air quality in the area. According to the American Association for the Advancement of Science, coal-to-fuel processes produce twice the amount of greenhouse gas emissions as oil-to-petrol processes.
Acting on behalf of the Vaal Environmental Justice Alliance, the LRC called for the license to be set aside and reconsidered in light of information related to the environmental safety and viability of this process. In 2004, Sasol gained direct access to a natural gas pipeline enabling it to import natural gas from Mozambique to Secunda. The LRC argues in its appeal that the municipality failed to consider Sasol’s ability to replace nearly all of its coal feedstock at the plant with this natural gas, thereby reducing greenhouse gas emissions by at least 12.7 million metric tons each year and avoiding damages caused by those emissions. This conversion would eliminate hydrogen sulfide emissions and other damaging air pollutants.
The municipality’s licensing authority was required to consider the effect that greenhouse gas emissions have on the environment and health conditions. As a guiding principle, the National Environmental Management Air Quality Act requires regulators to consider the Best Practical Environmental Option, providing the most benefit with the least harm at a cost acceptable to society. The appeal maintains that the licensing authority did not consider the Best Practical Environmental Option, as well as other relevant considerations, rendering the decision unlawful. If successful, the appeal could lead to a public examination of Sasol’s contribution to climate change and air pollution in South Africa.