Giving the go ahead: Environmental Affairs Minister Edna Molewa says it was concluded that the harm that would result from new coal-fired facilities was outweighed by the benefits of having the additional energy-generation capacity. Picture: RUSSELL ROBERTS
Giving the go ahead: Environmental Affairs Minister Edna Molewa says it was concluded that the harm that would result from new coal-fired facilities was outweighed by the benefits of having the additional energy-generation capacity. Picture: RUSSELL ROBERTS

The government has flashed the green light again for a multibillion-rand coal-fired power station in Limpopo, but environmental watchdog groups have announced plans to go back to court to halt the project because of its climate change effects.

The exact costs of the entire 1,200MW project are not clear, although initial estimates for the first phase (a 600MW plant) have previously been estimated at R20bn.

In 2017, the High Court in Pretoria revoked environmental authorisation for the proposed Thabametsi power station in the Waterberg district following a landmark ruling that compelled the Department of Environmental Affairs to reconsider the impacts of coal-burning power stations in altering global climate patterns.

In a written decision signed on January 30, Environmental Affairs Minister Edna Molewa acknowledged that a peer-reviewed climate impact assessment study demonstrated that Thabametsi "will result in significant greenhouse gas emissions and will therefore have climate change impacts".

The report estimated that Thabametsi would generate 9,879,659 tonnes of Co2e every year (or about 304 Mt Co2e over 30 years). Co2e is the standard unit for measuring combined greenhouse gas footprints.

Molewa said the report cautioned that emission risks were "very high" and the water scarcity risks were also "high" but this did not necessarily represent a fatal flaw if the benefits were justified and could be motivated.

"Ultimately, the decision-makers concluded that the harms that would result from the establishment of new coal-fired facilities were outweighed by the benefit to the country of having the additional energy-generation capacity," she said

As a result, Molewa had decided to allow the project to go ahead, but the Centre for Environmental Rights attorney Nicole Loser said on Tuesday that the minister’s latest ruling would be challenged in court.

Molewa’s department and the Eskom media desk declined to comment.

The Life After Coal Campaign — a coalition of civil rights groups including GroundWork, Earthlife Africa and the Centre for Environmental Rights — said the government was moving backwards, "despite the increased groundswell towards addressing the urgent threat of climate change".

In addition to climate change effects, the Thabametsi plant would harm water quality and availability in the already water-stressed Lephalale area.

Earthlife Africa spokesman Makoma Lekalakala said: "We are shocked that the minister is allowing Thabametsi to go ahead when the climate change impact assessment clearly shows the devastating impacts that the power station will have, and despite SA’s international commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions."

The campaign stated that there was a growing body of research showing that no new coal power capacity was needed. "SA’s electricity needs can be met — at least cost — with renewable energy, which does not have the climate, health and water impacts of coal plants such as Thabametsi."

According to Engineering News, private investors involved in the project include Marubeni Middle East and Africa Power of Japan, along with Kepco of Korea. The proposed station would be supplied with coal from Exxaro’s proposed Thabametsi coal mine, near the group’s Grootegeluk colliery on the Waterberg coalfield.

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