In the past, Flemish energy minister Zuhal Demir (N-VA) used to blow out against the Greens, but now the Flemish employers are also getting a kick out of it. ‘That Voka chairman Wouter De Geest will come and tell me which industry I should no longer permit in exchange for gas-fired power stations.’
Nitrogen, gas plants, climate policy, the concrete stop, and the battle with 3M over PFOS pollution. At the restart of the political year, all the precarious files in the Flemish government seem to come together with Minister of Environment and Energy Zuhal Demir (N-VA). And each time it concerns a clash between nature and the economy.
She is convinced that both can be reconciled, she says in a conversation in the shadow of the Ghelamco Arena in Ghent, where the N-VA holds its annual faction days with all MPs. However, she is already drawing two guidelines that she does not want to cross: the energy bill may not rise for ordinary Flemish people and judges must not find themselves in the situation where they have no choice but to refuse all permits, because there is already too much nitrogen in Flemish soil. and air.
Anyone who thought that the employers’ organization Voka is still the boss of the N-VA in such cases, as N-VA chairman Bart De Wever once said half-jokingly, is mistaken. Last Monday, Voka chairman Wouter De Geest said that additional gas-fired power stations should be built in Flanders to absorb the nuclear exit. ‘Permit applications must be viewed critically, but not in a biased manner,’ said De Geest. It read as criticism of Demir’s policies. It must decide this autumn whether the gas-fired power stations of Ghent, Vilvoorde, Dilsen-Stokkem and Tessenderlo will receive a permit.
‘The bath is full’
If you let Voka do it, you end up in a permit freeze.
Demir reacts icy when we present De Geest’s statements to her. ‘I note that Voka is letting go of the nuclear power plants. In contrast to De Geest, I am still concerned about the extra CO₂ emissions and the security of supply during a nuclear phase-out. Gas-fired power stations also emit a lot of nitrogen. If you let Voka do it, you end up in a permit freeze. Are gas-fired power stations no problem for Voka? Good, but then Wouter De Geest should come and tell me which industry I should no longer license in exchange for those gas-fired power stations. I keep repeating it: the bath is full, the nitrogen emissions must be reduced.’
Do you understand his point that energy supplies should be organized locally and Flanders should not become dependent on Walloon gas-fired power stations?
Zuhal Demir: ‘Flanders already has six large gas-fired power stations. In Wallonia there are only four. So that analysis does not hold. Voka is apparently no longer concerned about the affordability of the energy bill. However, you can already see that the price of CO₂ emission rights is rising and this is passed on in the energy price via gas-fired power stations. You don’t have that problem with nuclear power plants. The question is what the nuclear phase-out will mean for the bill of SMEs, households and our energy-intensive industry. Unlike Voka, I’m still worried about that.’
‘Look, it’s good that Voka is behind the climate goals. We are in the process of entering into energy policy agreements with industry, agreements to reduce electricity consumption. I assume that the industry – its supporters – will make a strong effort if Voka makes such voluntaristic statements.’
Investors also demand predictability and legal certainty. It did not help that you already stated that permitting gas-fired power stations in Flanders is becoming difficult.
Iron: ‘I’m just working on that certainty. Federal Energy Minister Tinne Van der Straeten (Groen) said not so long ago: ‘We have a Flemish minister who says from day one that he will not grant permits’. That is not true. I just said from day one that the gas-fired power stations must also follow the Flemish procedures. And I have warned that objections may arise to a permit procedure, as now appears for all files.’
‘Van der Straeten is simply looking for a scapegoat for if the nuclear exit fails due to disagreements in the Vivaldi coalition. But I don’t accept that role. She knows well enough that she will have to keep those two youngest nuclear power plants open. The MR, Open VLD and even Conner Rousseau (Vooruit) have a different attitude to it than Groen and Ecolo.’
Gas-fired power stations would price very polluting coal-fired power stations in Eastern Europe out of the market through emissions trading. Do you understand the argument that in that global picture the CO₂ emitted in Flanders is not the only thing that counts?
Iron: ‘In Flanders, we ask families to give up their oil boilers or to invest a lot of money in renovations. But are we going to push CO₂ into the air with the explanation that there is an international price to be paid for it? That’s a luxury we don’t have. I don’t even think that’s worth discussing.’
‘It’s also about affordability and security of supply. The youngest nuclear power plants account for almost 20 percent of electricity production. They are there now and will last another ten years. The European Commission also says that nuclear energy has its place in the energy mix. I ask Van der Straeten not to look away dogmatically anymore.’
With the focus on the nuclear exit, don’t you turn your gaze away from the climate efforts that Flanders must make?
Iron: ‘In Flanders it will indeed be very difficult to reduce our CO₂ emissions. Not to mention: we’re going to do something more with those gas-fired power stations, that’s not for me. The Flemish climate plan is ready. We are already working on renovations, hydrogen, heat networks, energy sharing and renewable energy. With Flanders we have already licensed 400 megawatts of wind energy, twice more than the target.’
Tinne Van der Straeten is looking for a scapegoat if the nuclear exit fails due to disagreements in the Vivaldi coalition.
But Flanders must step up its efforts after the European climate plan, which aims to reduce emissions by 55 percent across the EU?
Iron: ‘Over the next ten years, it will already be a feat to achieve the 35 percent that we agreed upon earlier. Especially when you know that we have only reduced emissions by 5 percent in the past 15 years.’
So Flanders will limit the CO₂ reduction to 35 percent?
Iron: ‘We do as much as we can. Europe asks that Belgium emit 47 percent less. We still have to divide that effort among the federal states. I have to negotiate with the other ministers, such as Van der Straeten or Zakia Khattabi. They are almost all green ministers. That promises to be fun. How far Flanders will go depends on the proposals I receive from my colleagues from agriculture, economy, mobility and housing, among others. I’m already looking at what else we can do in my domains.’
‘Don’t forget that this is about more than CO₂. A gas-fired power station easily emits 100,000 kilos of ammonia and 500,000 kilos of NOx per year. So nitrogen. For an average farmer, this involves 8,000 kilos of ammonia. I can’t explain to the farmers, who have to make strenuous efforts to reduce emissions, that gas-fired power stations are just being added.’
‘In Flanders we have reached the limits for nitrogen. After the nitrogen ruling in February, I had no choice but to issue strict rules. Otherwise you threaten to go to a Dutch permit stop. More than 20,000 permits were suspended there. People were no longer allowed to build there, they had to drive more slowly on the motorway and farmers were bought out.’
Is such a license freeze in Flanders a realistic scenario?
Iron: ‘I know that there will still be nitrogen detentions in Flanders. Experts tell me that they will also become stricter and sharper. The previous judgment still gave us the opportunity to adjust the policy. I don’t know if that will be the case with the next one.’
‘So far we have been able to avoid a licensing freeze. People can keep building, roads are still being built and entrepreneurs can expand. But it will be with less emissions. Now we have to work on a definitive nitrogen policy that is legally robust, so that we can maintain our prosperity in the coming years. Because that’s what it’s about. If you can no longer license companies, you are playing with the prosperity of Flanders.’
What will that policy look like? Will agriculture still be dealt with more severely than industry?
Iron: “I can’t prejudge a decision.”
Does Flanders intend to expropriate farmers, just like the Netherlands?
Iron: ‘That too will be discussed in the government. In Flanders, we have known the system of ‘red envelopes’ since 2016: farmers who are not allowed to renew a permit because of nitrogen emissions are compensated if they stop. In Diest, a ‘red company’ recently did this. We now have 37 million for that. An agreement has already been reached with 15 of the 58 ‘red companies’. But it is done voluntarily, it is not expropriation.’
It is not easy to find enough money for that. Climate plans also cost money. And that at a time when Minister of Finance and Budget Matthias Diependaele (N-VA) wants to save.
Iron: ‘It will certainly not help if every minister says that he is not making any efforts. Within my domain I will do my part. During the pandemic, we spent a lot of money to keep education, healthcare, civil society and the economy afloat. If we hadn’t had such a good budget at the start, we wouldn’t have had that luxury. Well, I don’t think we can leave a budget deficit of billions. We can’t go on the federal budget tour.’
Can that lead to tensions? Or have they never gone away because you argued for a PFOS Commission of Inquiry without consulting the rest of the government last summer?
Iron: ‘There were indeed tensions. And there has been a lot of talk about it in the government. I admit I should have tested the idea in government first. But everyone in parliament did vote for the commission of inquiry.’
I admit that I should have tested the idea of a commission of inquiry in government first.
“When I see 3M’s obstinacy in the Commission of Inquiry, I’m glad it’s there. The 3M top did not want to answer the question whether they would pay for the pollution. The MPs can now be more compelling: request all documents, have the site manager of Zwijndrecht or the American top come. That would be much more difficult with a regular hearing.’
You sent a notice of default and bailiffs to the 3M site in Zwijndrecht and the US headquarters. Does that threaten to jeopardize the legal investigation?
Iron: “I am responsible for what we do today. Now I want to know if that company will pay for the pollution. I don’t understand why 3M doesn’t feel the gravity of that. Other companies have done that in the past. Nyrstar has given residents within a 9 km radius the opportunity to remediate their gardens. But 3M shows no sense of guilt in the commission of inquiry.’
Are you afraid that 3M will leave Flanders?
Iron: ‘New. The Flemish expect you to tackle polluters.’