After months of debate about importing coal, Egypt’s Cabinet says it has made the most decisive step yet towards allowing coal imports, while environmentalists vow to continue their fight against the highly polluting fuel.
According to a statement on the Cabinet’s official Facebook page, Prime Minister Ibrahim Mehleb approved the use of coal as an energy source following a Wednesday afternoon meeting attended by the ministers of tourism, industry, trade and investment, petroleum, environment, health and electricity.
At the same time, the statement continues, the Cabinet committed to developing controls and standards for the importation, trade, storage and use of coal, and to using technology to reduce emissions. Ministers also agreed to increase the use of municipal and agricultural waste as a fuel source for the cement industry, with the goal of powering 40 percent of cement production with waste “as soon as possible.”
The Cabinet also committed to following World Health Organization protocols regarding handling coal, and to work to amend Egyptian law to increase penalties for those who violate environmental standards, and to tax users of coal, in line with international practices.
A Cabinet spokesman told Reuters that the decision did not require approval from the President, since it was taken by the Cabinet and was not a new law. However, others have questioned whether the meeting could have produced a binding decision.
A decree has to be released, have an official number, and go before a full Cabinet meeting, which will not happen until Thursday, said Ahmed Droubi, coordinator of the Egyptians Against Coal campaign.
“Today the prime minister’s office issued a press release. That was it. Saying they will decree the use of coal, very generally,” Droubi said.
This is not the first time official sources have released unclear, or even contradictory updates on the coal issue.
In March, official statements from the Ministry of Industry indicated that the government had reached a decision to import coal. At the time, Minister of Environment Laila Iskandar, a staunch opponent of coal imports, denied the reports, telling Mada Masr that an agreement had only been reached to study the energy mix used in Europe, which includes coal.
At press time, officials from the ministries of industry, electricity and the environment were not available for comment.
The announcement comes on the back of a week of frequent, extended electricity blackouts, which have highlighted Egypt’s energy crisis. Months before the summer, when Egypt’s demand for energy peaks, fuel shortages have hit industry hard, reducing productivity at a time when economic growth is sorely needed.
In particular, representatives from the cement industry claim that their natural gas supply has been reduced by 50 percent, causing a similar drop in production.
Cement producers have been leading the push for coal imports, with support from officials in the ministries of industry and electricity. According to the Ministry of Industry, switching factories from natural gas to coal would save 450 million cubic feet of natural gas per day, freeing vital supplies for other industries.
According to a Ministry of Industry and Trade press release, at a recent conference Minister Mounir Fakhry Abdel Nour said that by refusing to import coal as an alternative for natural gas, Egypt risked unemployment and political and social turmoil.
He also emphasized that many Western countries use coal as an energy source, and have developed technologies to do so safely.
Environment Minister Laila Iskandar, on the other hand, reaffirmed her objection to coal imports while speaking at a conference on March 24. “The ongoing debate right now around using coal in the cement industry cannot be considered a struggle but … an issue related to Egyptians’ health, especially the poor, who, for the past 30 years, have not had access to medical care for diseases resulting from environmental pollution,” Iskandar said.
Egypt’s tourist industry has also opposed importing coal, citing potential damage to tourist attractions due to pollution, as well as larger public health issues.
The Ministry of Tourism is “completely against” importing coal, said Mahmoud Kassiouni, environment adviser to the minister of tourism, reached while abroad in the United States. “This is a shocking piece of news.”
“This government is a temporary government, they shouldn’t take such a permanent decision that’s going to effect the lives of the people,” he said. “I consider it an unpatriotic decision, because it’s going to seriously affect our lives and medical care. I don’t know what’s going to happen after this.”
Others question whether importing coal would solve Egypt’s energy problem, pointing out that a shortage of fuel is only part of the issue. Even at full capacity, Egypt’s power plants cannot currently produce enough electricity to meet peak summertime demand.
“The entry of coal will not stop electricity from cutting. They are abusing this crisis for their personal gain,” Droubi said, referring to industry.
“If this decree is actually issued, we will take the government to court. This is a crime,” said Droubi. This is a crime against Egypt, its economy, the health of its people and its environment.”