And what now? After the RIVM investigation on Thursday morning showed that the steel factory of Tata Steel emits substances that can be dangerous for children who play outside, it sounded from all corners: The Hague must intervene. At the very least, raise the standards and force Tata Steel to cut emissions. And maybe even close if nothing changes. Deputy Jeroen Olthof wondered aloud whether the steel industry in the IJmond could still exist otherwise. On Friday, State Secretary Steven van Weyenberg (Infrastructure and the Environment, D66) used similar terms: according to him, there is “no future” if nothing changes.
The reflex is understandable. If a factory does something that could be harmful to the environment, enforcement seems appropriate. In practice, however, the situation at Tata Steel is complex and intervention is difficult. How much the House of Representatives will insist on this next Thursday in a debate on Tata Steel that has been planned for some time. In a first reaction, Renske Leijten (SP) said that he wanted a “fierce” debate.
That comes on top of another file that the House actually wanted to discuss: making the factory greener. Tata Steel is responsible for 7 percent of the total national CO2 emissions. Many parties have very clear opinions about how it should be reduced. It promised to be a lively debate – and it has only become more so since Thursday.
Yet politics, both in The Hague and locally, is more or less powerless on both issues. In the health file, this was best visible on Thursday in the response of deputy Jeroen Olthof of Noord-Holland. The province is responsible for controlling Tata Steel, not the government, but Olthof said it was reaching the “limits of our possibilities” and asked national politicians for help.
Olthof’s problem: in fact, Tata Steel generally adheres to emission standards. The North Sea Canal Area Environmental Service is also keeping a close eye on this. Tata Steel is now one of the most inspected companies in the Netherlands, inspectors walk around almost every day.
The environmental service and the province have long wanted to impose stricter standards on Tata. After all, the concerns of local residents about the factory are not new, and the idea is widespread that the emission standards are currently not geared to what is in the dust. Legislation is now mainly concerned with the consequences for the environment, and less with health.
In permits – the factory has hundreds of them – more and more attempts have recently been made to impose stricter limit values, for example for sulfur dioxides at the sulfuric acid factories or for dust at the sinter factory. But the environmental service does not have free rein: just treating one steel factory more severely than another is not an option in Europe. The environmental service must substantiate a stricter interpretation of the standard. Otherwise it risks a legal conflict with the factory, in which it is then weak.
In fact, that’s the crux of the matter: steelmaking standards are often made in Brussels. And that is what The Hague pointed out on Thursday. In his first response, State Secretary Steven van Weyenberg said that stricter European standards are needed. He said he would urge the European Commission to review this.
For example, each level of government points further upwards, and there are few options in the short term – with closure still being the least realistic. However much some may want that and how much support for the factory in the Netherlands is ebbing.
However, that does not mean that there will be no improvement at all: Tata Steel is working on installing a cloth filter on one of the large chimneys that should reduce lead emissions, but this will only be completed in 2023. Its placement is not legally required, as are a number of other measures from a multi-year plan of 300 million euros (approximately the annual profit of the factory).
The situation is not much different in the greening file. Tata Steel is looking at two methods to reduce the CO2 to reduce emissions. by CO2 storing it under the North Sea and converting the factory in the longer term so that it runs on hydrogen, or by converting it immediately and first using gas to make greener steel, and later with hydrogen. The company has long been on the first route, but under pressure from the very influential FNV at the factory, the second option is now also very realistic.
The first results of an even longer-running feasibility study by consultancy firm Roland Berger showed on Friday afternoon that both options have advantages and disadvantages, but that the option of CO2 -storage presumably faster to a larger CO2 reduction (although this can also be achieved with additional measures for the hydrogen route).
This consideration is high on the agenda for many political parties. Although the Netherlands does have more highly polluting industrial companies that sometimes have CO2 emissions are hardly inferior to Tata Steel, by far the most attention is paid to the steel factory. Tata Steel is well-known, catches the eye in the Randstad and makes steel.
In particular, left-wing parties such as SP, PvdA and GroenLinks have so far tended strongly towards the hydrogen route. Earlier this summer, they submitted a barrage of questions to Minister Stef Blok of Economic Affairs and Climate. In it, the parties insist extensively on taking this option seriously. The rest is a “short-term solution,” according to the PvdA. The party wanted to exclude Tata Steel from greening subsidies to prevent it from starting with the CO with these subsidies.2 -storage project. The SP also supports the hydrogen plan, and even explicitly because it is seen as an FNV plan, and therefore as a plan of the employees.
Blok replied soberingly. On practically every one of the 23 pages he wrote that ultimately Tata Steel itself is about the greening of the company. Major polluters have to make their own assessments. The division of roles must remain ‘clean’. And excluding Tata Steel from greening subsidies is simply not allowed, according to Blok.
Politicians can want what they want – at Tata Steel they are largely on the sidelines. A debate about ‘the future of Tata Steel’, as it is called, is also little more than that: a conversation. Well, there can be a little bit. At the most, the House of Representatives and (a new) cabinet can determine the framework within which the company makes its own assessments. This concerns, for example, the amendment of the SDE++ scheme: the subsidy scheme for greening companies. At the moment only CO . falls2 storage underneath; making steel with hydrogen is not yet possible.
This is widely seen as at least one of the reasons why Tata Steel has long been heading for CO2 storage. But here too Blok immediately tempered expectations in his written answers: broadening such a subsidy scheme does not cost ‘a few weeks or months’, but much more. Research is needed and – there it is again – ‘European approval’.