UK agrees drastic cuts in acid rain pollutants: Treaty will further squeeze coal industry

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BRITAIN yesterday signed an environment treaty which will drastically curb acid rain. But the agreement which John Gummer, Secretary of State for Environment, endorsed in Oslo yesterday means the squeeze on Britain's shrinking coal industry will continue well into the next century.

UK emissions of sulphur dioxide, the chief contributor to acid rain, will be cut to one- fifth of their 1980 level by 2010 under the UN's sulphur protocol. Power stations burning high-sulphur British coal are responsible for more than two-thirds of those emissions.

The most likely scenario beyond 2000 is that only two or three British coal-fired power stations fitted with expensive pollution abatement equipment will be working full-time, at full capacity.

About a dozen other large, modern coal-fired stations will be working part-time at half of their capacity or less; the remainder will be shut.

The purchasers of the soon- to-be-privatised British Coal are unlikely to see sales rise above the 30 million tons it will provide for power stations this year. Sales may decline still further and more of the 16 remaining pits close.

Britain has already cut sulphur dioxide emissions by 37 per cent since 1980. Yesterday, Mr Gummer confirmed a cut of 70 per cent by 2005 and 80 per cent by 2010.

He was able to make these commitments because of the building boom in gas-fired power stations. Ten have been built, with more planned or under construction. They produce virtually no sulphur dioxide and by the turn of the century gas is expected to have overtaken coal as the leading fuel for electricity generation.

Coal could be burnt at today's levels without producing acid rain but the power stations would have to be fitted with gas desulphurisation equipment which extracts most of the pollutant.

Only two coal-fired stations have been fitted with this equipment - National Power's Drax plant in north Yorkshire and PowerGen's Ratcliffe-on-Soar plant in Nottinghamshire. Neither generator plans to install it elsewhere because the high cost would make coal uncompetitive with gas. They have spent almost pounds 1bn on gas desulphurisation plant.

The two large power stations are expected to burn about 15 million tons of coal a year well into the next century. National Power and PowerGen hope to persuade the Government's pollution inspectorate to allow them to burn coal 'dirtily' at other power stations on a part-time, less than full capacity basis.

In the early 1990s, almost half of Britain's land area was receiving more acid rain than it could cope with and the soil was being chemically altered. In the worst affected areas, the natural upland vegetation had been transformed and fish wiped out. But by 2010 only 5 per cent of the country should be affected and the damage to buildings will also be reduced.