British petrochemical company Ineos is facing a legal challenge over plans to build a giant plastics plant in Antwerp.
Legal NGO ClientEarth launched an appeal on Friday against Antwerp’s decision to grant Ineos a permit to build a chemical facility to produce ethylene from fractured US shale gas, The Guardian has learned.
Ineos billionaire owner Sir Jim Ratcliffe announced a €3 billion investment in Antwerp in January 2019 at a signing ceremony with leading Flemish politicians. “We will be stronger in Europe as a petrochemical player,” said the businessman, an ardent Brexiteer, who lives in Monaco’s duty-free zone.
Acting for 13 green NGOs, including Greenpeace and WWF, ClientEarth said the project has failed to meet the EU legal requirement for a full impact assessment on the environment, including greenhouse gas emissions and wildlife.
“We already have more plastic than we need,” said ClientEarth attorney Tatiana Luján. “Beyond the local effects on nature and human health [Ineos] project one would cause, we cannot ignore that the base of this project is fossil fuels, and they will be used to create the basic components of plastics”.
NGOs say the project will boost the production of single-use plastics, thus failing to meet the requirements of the EU’s waste reduction strategies and climate commitments. Antwerp authorities, who granted the permit last December, are also accused of failing to consider greenhouse gas emissions over the lifetime of the plant, as well as the damage that nitrogen pollution would cause to local wildlife. .
Separately, the Dutch province of Zeeland announced this month that it would appeal Antwerp’s decision, arguing that “no proper assessment has been made” of the impact of increased nitrogen on its nature reserves.
Flanders already suffers from an excess of nitrogen, as a result of intensive agriculture and industry, according to local NGOs. Across the northwestern region of Belgium, nitrogen emissions have turned purple heather to straw, clear water to brown mud, and hastened the demise of flowers, bees, and butterflies.
Ineos says the ethylene cracker is Europe’s largest petrochemical investment in a generation and will create 450 jobs at the site and up to 2,250 at other companies. Construction is scheduled to begin later this year in the port of Antwerp, where the company has its roots.
Using intense heat and pressure, the facility “breaks” the bonds in ethane gas to create ethylene, which can then be converted to polyethylene, which is used to make plastic containers and bottles.
Ineos disputes the claim that the cracker will fuel single-use plastics, noting that ethylene can also be used to make water and gas pipes, health care products, lighter cars and wind turbine blades.
It also claims that ethylene buyers could save 2 million tons of COtwo emissions per year by buying from its plant, rather than older rivals.
The NGOs are not convinced. “Maybe this plant is more carbon efficient than other crackers we have,” Luján said. “But cookies have a lifetime. If you create a new one, it blocks the extraction of fuels and the production of plastics for another 30 years, when what we should be doing is reducing our use and production of petrochemicals for plastics.”
The EU has pledged to phase out some single-use plastics, including cutlery, cotton swabs, straws and stirrers, but campaigners fear a wave of cheap fractionated US shale gas will spark a new boom in plastics.
Others say anti-plastics regulation could mean the industry overexpands, leaving taxpayers in a bind as expensive facilities are no longer needed and become stranded assets.
“One of our biggest fears is that we will not only use Flemish taxpayers’ money to secure an economic activity, which is such a bad thing from an ecological point of view at the moment, but that we will be linked to an economic activity that is not economically viable as a first thought,” said Frank Vanaerschot of FairFin, one of the NGOs backing the case.
The Flemish region prompted Ineos to build the cracker with a government guarantee worth €250m to €500m (£209m to £418m), according to local media, though that was before the project was scaled back.
Last year, Ineos announced that it would suspend plans to produce propylene in Antwerp, another raw material used to make plastics.
Vanaerschot fears that the plant will create perverse incentives for Belgium, which is not on track to meet its 2030 climate goals. “There will be a conflict of interest between having strict ecological regulations, which we really need, and the economic interests of this company.”
An Ineos spokesperson said: “We have submitted a comprehensive permit application of thousands of pages. The province of Antwerp has granted us permission [at the] late last month in close consultation with many other authorities and after a rigorous process and extensive review.”
The assumption that the cookie would only be used for single-use plastic was “simply wrong”, the spokesperson added, highlighting ethylene’s end use in numerous products such as insulation materials, mobile phones and Covid self-tests.
The spokesman added that the cracker would have the lowest emissions of any such facility in Europe, which would encourage the industry to go greener. “Do we want to see a renewal in Europe or do we just want to maintain the status quo and have our industry move to regions where environmental standards are much less stringent?” they asked.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism