BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Coal-fired power plant operators can avoid having to cut the emissions that cause acid rain if they promise to shut down altogether by 2024, European Union countries agreed on Friday, disappointing environmentalists.
Power stations that operate into 2024 and beyond must start cutting out pollutants such as sulphur and nitrogen oxides that damage human health and soil and water quality, under the deal on the Industrial Emissions Directive.
Though the rules do not cover carbon dioxide emissions, they have an indirect impact by allowing big emitters to keep going.
"After more than two years of difficult negotiations we have a compromise," said German liberal politician Holger Krahmer, who represented the European Parliament in the talks that ended in an informal deal on Wednesday.
Krahmer said the deal, which was formally approved by EU ambassadors on Friday, improved the regulation of most industrial installations. But he described the opt-outs for coal-fired power plants as a "European tragedy."
Countries that are struggling to get the industry cleaned up can get a delay until June 30, 2020, under the deal which weaves together and updates six complex air quality laws with the old Large Combustion Plant Directive.
"Allowing Transitional National Plans for a whole decade is nothing else than legalising air pollution from ancient coal-fired power plants," said Krahmer.
Under the "limited lifetime" derogation for individual power stations, they must close by the end of 2023 or after 17,500 hours of operation, whichever happens first.
The deal must be formally approved by parliament in the coming weeks before becoming law, but sources say that is almost certain.
The deal replaces another set of existing laws, which contain so many loopholes that many of the 52,000 European installations have managed to avoid cleaning up.
The quest for new rules has been slowed by a row between countries such as Britain and Poland, which have many old coal-fired plants, and others led by Germany that have already invested millions in cleaning up.
Britain argues that the flexibility will allow it to leapfrog to the next generation of renewable power, without replacing old coal facilities with gas power plants in the meantime to plug a potential supply gap.
"This reduces the implicit reliance on gas imports through the same period, potentially leading to even more subdued gas prices in the intervening time," said power analyst Kash Burchett at UK consultancy Datamonitor.
Burchett's colleague Alex Desbarres noted mixed messages from Britain.
"In Brussels, the UK government has claimed that it needs derogations for large combustion plants to prevent an energy gap; but in the UK it is denying that an energy gap exists," he said.
Environmentalists said the public would pay the price.
"EU policy makers have now decided to reward these operators with the opportunity to ... fill their pockets with money whilst European citizens are left to pick up the bill to cover both health and environmental costs," said Christian Schaible of the European Environmental Bureau.
Additional reporting by Kwok W. Wan, editing by Anthony Barker and Sue Thomas