The call for significantly larger reductions in sulphur emissions will come in a consultation paper by the Environment Agency, which could be published before Christmas. Officials at the agency, which operates independently from Whitehall, believe that the demand is a matter of urgency.
The current targets set by the Inspectorate of Pollution last year are for power stations to cut their sulphur emissions by 84 per cent by 2005, compared with pollution levels in 1991. However the huge increase in gas- fired electricity generation has already produced an unexpectedly large reduction in emissions.
The existing target says most of the drop in sulphur output would come from new gas power stations, while older coal stations would account for just a 6 per cent cut. Though the new targets have yet to be signed off, they are certain to demand a bigger contribution from coal stations.
The Agency has submitted its revised plans in evidence to the Commons Trade and Industry Select Committee, which will today continue its investigation into the plight of the coal industry.
The extra environmental obligations look set to further tip the balance against coal, which has been hit by a plunge in orders next year from the big generators. The new targets also demonstrate the Environment Agency's determination to block any moves by ministers to reduce the pressure on coal by relaxing pollution standards.
The agency believes generators and mining companies could meet the obligations without an even bigger shift towards gas generation, which has much lower sulphur emissions. The paper will suggest a range of measures, including burning high sulphur content coal in the most efficient power stations and adding lime to the generating process.
Separately yesterday it emerged that plans by RJB to create a huge opencast mine between Leeds and Wakefield will not be challenged by the Department of Transport and the Environment. The group wants to extract more than 2 million tonnes of coal from a 620-acre site, but has faced intense local opposition.
The department confirmed that it had decided not to call in the planning application for ministerial consideration, a move which would have delayed the process.