30 April 2020
Major Ineos plastics refinery faces delays after legal action
A planned €3bn plastics refinery extension in the Port of Antwerp is facing delays of over a year following a legal challenge by legal groups ClientEarth and Equal Partners, and several Belgian campaign groups.
Known as “Project One”, the facility would be petrochemicals company Ineos’ biggest investment yet, producing plastic pellets to be sold on for the manufacture of different plastic products.
Ineos had initially tried to carry out three separate Environmental Impact Assessments (EIAs) for the project. Presenting authorities with these palatable ‘chunks’ makes it harder to gauge the full impact of a project and therefore much easier to get approval for it. This approach, nicknamed “salami-slicing”, is illegal under Belgian and EU law and the first EIA submitted, for deforestation of the area, was met with a legal challenge by the environmental groups.
Ahead of the hearing, in a win for the lawyers and NGOs, Ineos has now indicated that it will publish an EIA that takes the impacts of the full project into account. A new scoping report, the precursor to an EIA, has just been published. But although the scoping report is more comprehensive, crucial information is still missing.
And though the new report looks like a positive development, ClientEarth and campaigners in Belgium insist that the problems with the EIA are just the tip of the iceberg – and the story is far from over.
ClientEarth lawyer Maria Jolie Veder said: “Both Ineos and the relevant Flemish authorities need to take into account the bigger picture with this project, and not just focus on local environmental impacts. Air pollution from the plants will travel far beyond what Ineos has stated so far – and while escaped plastic pellets are doing unchecked damage on Flemish and Dutch shores and riverbanks, we are seeing the impacts of plastic pollution and runaway climate change worldwide.
“We don’t see how a facility that exists to transform fossil fuels into the building blocks for yet more plastics can be justified in a market already showing unmistakeable signs of oversupply.
“We have a lot of issues with the way Project One is attempting to obtain approval, and we will continue to take legal action to make sure the project is subject to the scrutiny required by law.”
Katrin Van den Troost, spokesperson for Antwerp Shale Gas Free said: “It has now become clear to everyone how financially risky the shale gas supply and debt structures on which it is based are proving to be. The shale gas industry is collapsing and yet this project continues. Is Ineos going to pass this type of financial and climate risk on to our society? It will only exacerbate certain problems in our iconic port. It is imperative that we start thinking beyond fossil products and create jobs with a future.
“The fact that Ineos is announcing a new environmental procedure in the middle of a pandemic is also cause for serious concern.”
Joeri Thijs from Greenpeace Belgium said: “At a time when the world is considering a just and sustainable reconstruction after the coronavirus crisis, it is unthinkable for us that projects with such a disastrous impact on the climate will continue. In a sustainable world where we respect the limits of our planet, there is simply no place for Project One.”
A public consultation on the new overview of the project’s environmental impacts is open to the public until May 1.
ClientEarth and a coalition of local campaigners will be responding to the consultation, and are ready to react at the next stage.
Notes to editors
Ineos’s ‘Project One’ is an extension to its existing plastics refinery in the Port of Antwerp. The new facility would consist of a propane dehydrogenation (PDH) unit and an ethane cracker.
The facility is expected to import fracked shale gas from the US, and use a carbon-intensive process to refine it into plastic pellets. The company will then sell these pellets on to be used in the manufacture of plastic products.
The permitting procedure
To get permission for a project of this kind, an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) is needed. The project sponsor must first go to the relevant authority to agree the scope of the EIA, and then prepare it for final approval.
Ineos had originally asked authorities to consider the plant’s environmental risks separately from each other, making it easier to approve the project.
This would have entailed EIAs for the deforestation of the area in question, for the PDH unit and for the ethane cracker.
Its first EIA (and the only one so far) was submitted and approved last year. This was met with a legal challenge by ClientEarth and StRaten-Generaal, working with lawyers at Equal Partners, and supported by several Belgian NGOs (Greenpeace Belgium, Klimaatzaak, Vogelbescherming, Ademloos, Hart Boven Hard and BOS+).
The groups asked that Ineos be required to issue an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) that considers the impacts of the facility as a whole.
Ahead of the legal hearing, Ineos has indicated that it will do just this, in a win for the lawyers. It has published a new ‘scoping report’, laying out what a new, more comprehensive EIA would look like and opened this to the public for views.
But there is still a risk the company will pursue its original “salami-slicing” approach, depending on the outcome of the ongoing legal action. If Ineos’ first EIA is not annulled, the company might still start irreversible preparatory works, including deforestation, with minimal delay and before the full impacts of Project One are assessed and approved.
Does Antwerp need another plastics refinery?
Resistance to the plant is already dynamic in the local area. There is a prevailing problem with plastic pellet pollution – these lentil-sized ‘nurdles’, which escape from the existing plant and are ingested by local wildlife, posing a real ecological hazard. Awareness-raising ‘nurdle hunts’ have taken place in the area, which is under Natura 2000 designation, a scheme specifically designed to protect EU wildlife and habitats.
Plastics regulation is tightening in the EU as the bloc moves to realise a more circular, less wasteful and less polluting economy. These regulations pose a major risk to investors in this type of operation.
As oil producers consider their options in an age where hydrocarbons are falling out of favour, plastics supply has ballooned. Analysts all over the world are pointing to a major emerging oversupply issue.
It is estimated that 40% of Europe’s plastics production goes towards disposable packaging.