The new move would see the deadline for cuts in sulphur dioxide emissions from power stations brought forward from 2005 to 2001. The existing target, set two years ago, was for a cut of 84 per cent in sulphur emissions, compared with 1991 levels. The reduction was needed to comply with a much tougher government strategy for improving air quality.
The targets mean sulphur emissions would have fallen from 2.3 million tonnes in 1991 to 500,000 tonnes in 2001. In addition, the agency is pressing for a further reduction in emissions to just 365,000 tonnes. Almost all the sulphur dioxide emitted from the power industry is produced from coal generation.
A consultation paper released by the agency yesterday argued that pollution from coal-fired power stations had dropped much faster than expected, largely because of the "dash for gas" and the extended operating life of older Magnox nuclear stations. As a result, less electricity would be needed from the remaining coal-fired stations than was predicted when the targets were approved in March 1996.
The agency insisted the targets would not mean excessive extra costs for generators. "We have taken into account the costs for the industry. These numbers haven't just been plucked out of the air. They are realistic," said a spokesman.
However coal generating stations might have to install desulphurisation equipment, currently fitted to just two power stations, to comply with the targets. Another possibility was for generators to burn lower-sulphur coal, which could encourage the industry to buy more supplies from abroad. British coal tends to have a higher sulphur content.
The proposals put further pressure on ministers as they grapple with the coal crisis. RJB Mining, the largest coal producer, faces a drop of around half in demand from generators when long-term contracts expire at the end of March.