Skip to main content

The undisclosed air pollutants (downtoearth,)

Policy can be perverse. This much we know. What we should be amazed about is how policy can be counterproductive, retrograde and deadly, but still remain undisclosed and undiscussed. But what am I ranting about, you would ask? Allow me to take you through my journey over the last few months, all to unravel a key cause of air pollution.

Some months ago, sitting in a meeting of solar energy entrepreneurs, I heard them say that concentrated solar power (CSP) plants were not viable. But why? After all, solar prices have crashed and government is keen to subsidise and incentivise this growth of clean energy. Yes, solar prices have crashed, but so have prices of oil, and today, cheap furnace oil (FO) use is growing. FO is a bottom of the barrel product—it is the last grade of oil that refineries produce; it is high in sulphur and so is highly polluting. This issue rankled me as Delhi slipped into its worst pollution episode. We choked, suffocated and could not breathe. Could FO be one of the causes of pollution?

So, I asked: is FO being used in Delhi or in its vicinity? What is the quality of FO? Who uses it and for what? Suddenly, it seemed that the answers dried up. It was literally a black hole. What was clear was that way back in 1996, the Delhi Pollution Control Committee (the city’s pollution control agency) had notified a list of “acceptable fuels”. This did not include FO, but it did say that fuel with low sulphur—in those defined as 18,000 parts per million (ppm) of sulphur (today diesel has 50 ppm of sulphur)—could be used.

With efforts, the pieces trickled in. We learnt FO was indeed being sold in the National Capital Region (NCR); we tracked down consumers and tankers. The data showed that much more was being sold in the current year over even last year. All public sector oil companies sold FO; but only Reliance Industries sold it in Delhi. When we pushed, it was explained that the point of billing was Delhi. But the list of customers outside did not add up.

We finally tracked down the customers of oil companies. The list included the who’s who of companies—from large multinationals to clean energy firms. They used FO in their industry to generate power or in their furnaces simply because it was cheaper. The price of FO is deliberately kept lower than natural gas, its key substitute, which is much cleaner. Then FO is exempt from state taxes, but gas is heavily taxed. Worse, power is in surplus in this region; coal and gas plants are working at roughly 20 per cent of their capacity. But electricity supply is unreliable because of the mess in distribution and then its price is higher than the cheap FO. So, clean energy is available, but even as we cry hoarse about pollution, it is not being used. Is this not perverse policy?

During visits to industrial areas, we found there was yet another missing piece—pet coke. This is a byproduct of refineries, with high calorific value. So while being more expensive than coal, it is cheaper to use. But it is highly polluting. There are no specifications for this fuel and nobody has a clue where it is being consumed. It is also being dumped—China is imposing restraints on its domestic use because of pollution, so prices have crashed. Import data shows that this year, India has imported some 7 million tonnes in just 5 months, as against 10 million in 2015-16.

We collected samples of FO and pet coke and sent these for laboratory analysis. The results are truly shocking. The sulphur in FO was between 15,000 to 20,000 ppm; in pet coke, from 69,000 to 74,000 ppm. Just consider diesel has 50 ppm of sulphur and even with all the after-treatment devices in our cars, it continues to pollute. Coal burnt in power plants like Badarpur has 1,000 ppm of sulphur. The pollution potential of these fuels is obvious and deadly. The fact is there is also no control (no standards) on sulphur emissions, which is a gas, but gets converted into particulates with air-moisture interaction. The IIT-Kanpur study on Delhi’s air pollution estimated that 20-25 per cent of winter pollution was from secondary particles—sulphur and nitrogen dioxide.

So we need to do something about this, and we will. Our effort now is to do the following: notify the list of acceptable fuels that can be used, this time not just in Delhi, but in the entire NCR. This would ban the use of highly-polluting fuels like FO and pet coke. Simul-taneously, we must also control the unrestricted import of pet coke (it is best used only in cement manufacture, where pollution is controlled). And three, obviously, incentivise clean fuels.

But the most important learning is that we live in our airshed—rich or poor Delhi; in Delhi or near Delhi. In the mid-1990s, when Delhi banned its polluting fuels, banned even its industries, they simply moved to the areas bordering the city or into illegal areas in the city and continue to pollute. The other lesson is that policy has to stay ahead of “underground” developments. There is yet another missing puzzle, still missing. There are many other fuels (called everything from C9 to CBFS) that are still used, with no specification and no clearance. It just happens. This is why bad air happens. This is why we choke.


Popular posts from this blog

SC asks Centre to strike a balance on Rohingya issue (.hindu)

Supreme Court orally indicates that the government should not deport Rohingya “now” as the Centre prevails over it to not record any such views in its formal order, citing “international ramifications”.

The Supreme Court on Friday came close to ordering the government not to deport the Rohingya.

It finally settled on merely observing that a balance should be struck between humanitarian concern for the community and the country's national security and economic interests.

The court was hearing a bunch of petitions, one filed by persons within the Rohingya community, against a proposed move to deport over 40,000 Rohingya refugees. A three-judge Bench, led by Chief Justice of India Dipak Misra, began by orally indicating that the government should not deport Rohingya “now”, but the government prevailed on the court to not pass any formal order, citing “international ramifications”. With this, the status quo continues even though the court gave the community liberty to approach it in …

Khar’s experimentation with Himalayan nettle brings recognition (downtoearth)

Nature never fails to surprise us. In many parts of the world, natural resources are the only source of livelihood opportunities available to people. They can be in the form of wild shrubs like Daphne papyracea and Daphne bholua (paper plant) that are used to make paper or Gossypium spp (cotton) that forms the backbone of the textile industry.

Nothing can compete with the dynamism of biological resources. Recently, Girardinia diversifolia (Himalayan nettle), a fibre-yielding plant, has become an important livelihood option for people living in the remote mountainous villages of the Hindu Kush Himalaya.

There is a community in Khar, a hamlet in Darchula district in far-western Nepal, which produces fabrics from Himalayan nettle. The fabric and the things made from it are sold in local as well as national and international markets as high-end products.

A Himalayan nettle value chain development initiative implemented by the Kailash Sacred Landscape Conservation and Development Initiati…

NGT terminates chairmen of pollution control boards in 10 states (downtoearth,)

Cracking the whip on 10 State Pollution Control Boards (SPCBs) for ad-hoc appointments, the National Green Tribunal has ordered the termination of Chairpersons of these regulatory authorities. The concerned states are Himachal Pradesh, Sikkim, Tamil Nadu, Uttarakhand, Kerala, Rajasthan, Telangana, Haryana, Maharashtra and Manipur. The order was given last week by the principal bench of the NGT, chaired by Justice Swatanter Kumar.

The recent order of June 8, 2017, comes as a follow-up to an NGT judgment given in August 2016. In that judgment, the NGT had issued directions on appointments of Chairmen and Member Secretaries of the SPCBs, emphasising on crucial roles they have in pollution control and abatement. It then specified required qualifications as well as tenure of the authorities. States were required to act on the orders within three months and frame Rules for appointment [See Box: Highlights of the NGT judgment of 2016 on criteria for SPCB chairperson appointment].

Having fai…