South Korea’s Environment Minister Looks to Cancel POSCO coal power plant

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A March 2016 protest by Korea Federation for Environmental Movements (KFEM) at POSCO’s head office in Seoul objecting to the proposed Pohang coal plant. Photo: Seongsoo Lee/KFEM (Flickr)

Jieon Lee

A coal-fired power plant proposed by industrial conglomerate POSCO is likely to be cancelled by South Korea’s Minister for the Environment on the grounds it would be inconsistent with the government’s commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and cut deadly fine particle air pollution.

POSCO had proposed the construction of a 500 megawatt (MW) coal-fired plant at its vast Pohang Steel Industrial Complex in Pohang.

However, local residents and environmental groups opposed the proposed project as it would contribute to a worsening of air pollution which is already affected by both POSCO’s massive steelworks and the adjoining Pohang Port through which coal and iron ore are imported.

Across the country, deteriorating air quality has become a hot political issue. While the South Korean Government estimates between 30% and one-half of the country’s air pollution originates from China, the remainder comes from coal power plants, industry and domestic vehicle emissions.

A 2016 report by Greenpeace East Asia estimated the country’s existing coal plants caused an estimated 1100 premature deaths each year. Based on a methodology developed by Professor Daniel Jacob at Harvard University, it was estimated the construction of 20 more proposed coal units by 2022 would increase the death toll by a further 1020 a year.

With growing concern about air pollution the Government announced in June it would introduce new fine particle pollution control measures aimed at cutting emissions from private coal-fired power plants. The Korea Herald editorialised the government needed to “come up with genuinely extraordinary measures” to cut air pollution.

Ultimately the Ministry of Energy hedged its bets, stating it would only close 10 old coal-fired power plants with a capacity of 3300 MW by 2025. However, it also proposed to allow 20 new coal plants (18,100 MW), to be built by 2022.

Communities living with already high air pollution objected. In July 2016 an estimated 900 people protested against another proposed project, SK Group’s proposed 1160 MW ‘Dangjin Eco Power’ project. The protest and a one-week hunger strike prompted the South Korean Government to indefinitely postpone consideration of the project.

With growing public pressure the government grew wary about POSCO’s proposed Pohang project.

At a late September parliamentary hearing [in Korean] Environment Minister Kyeonggyu Jo stated “as the importance of greenhouse gas emissions reduction increases, the government has discussed about construction of coal power plant in Pohang with the point of view not to allow it.”

Jo also stated the Ministry of Trade, Industry, and Energy and the Ministry of Strategy and Finance agreed the proposed coal plant should be rejected when the standards on fine particle pollution are announced in late October.

Opposition to the proposed plant spans the political spectrum with Seo Hyeongsoo, a Member of the National Assembly (Democratic Party), voicing opposition to the project. According to the disclosed discussion documents between the Ministry of Environment and related agencies, released by Seo, the government decided to reject POSCO’s proposal to construct a coal-fired power plant.

The likely rejection of POSCO’s Pohang plant reflects not only the increasing strength of South Korea’s environmental movement and residents’ groups but the growing trend of countries to reject proposed coal plants as one of the easiest first steps to take in honouring their commitments under the Paris Agreement.

Jieon Lee is the Climate and energy coordinator with Friends of the Earth Korea/ Korea Federation for Environmental Movements. His Twitter feed is here.