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Court rejects environmental group's shale oil plant permit complaint

Judge's seat in an Estonian court (photo is illustrative).
Judge's seat in an Estonian court (photo is illustrative). Source: Rene Kundla/ERR

A court has rejected a complaint from an environmental group over a the building permit for a proposed shale oil production plant in the eastern Estonian town of Narva-Jõesuu, primarily on the grounds that the complaint relates to the operation of the plant, rather than its construction – which is the stage at which the project currently lies.

The plant, dubbed Enefit280, would produce oil and other by-products from oil shale, and has been granted a construction permit by Narva-Jõesuu city government.

Kertu Birgit Anton, board member of MTÜ Loodusvõlu, a non-profit climate activism group, says that the organization is considering appealing the decision with the Supreme Court.

Anton said: "The climate crisis is not arriving in the future, but rather has already arrived."

"In the current situation, it is irresponsible to build a new fossil fuel plant at the Estonian people's expense, which will deepen the climate crisis and restrict young people's freedom to live in the future," Anton added.

"Young people should not be forced to go to court against their country, but if the decision-makers do not otherwise understand that the production of fossil fuels must be stopped in order to protect the Estonian people and all of humanity, then we will make that clear to them in court."

The second-tier Tartu District Court declined to uphold MTÜ Loodusvõlu's complaint about the permit issued by the city government in Narva-Jõesuu, a resort town to the north of Narva and on the Estonian-Russian border, issued for the proposed Enefit280 oil-shale-fired plant in the town. Enefit is a subsidiary of the state-owned Eesti Energia.

The court found that the city of Narva-Jõesuu had no basis for concluding that the proposed building or construction would have any significant environmental impact that could not be sufficiently avoided or mitigated.

This meant that the court left in place a decision by the first-tier Tartu Administrative Court, from June 4 last year. 

In considering the prospects for the success of the appeal and the interests at stake, the circuit court also found the application for interim relief in respect of the case unjustified.

 The plans cover the construction of four oil-shale plants, a post-processing complex and the buildings serving them.

The circuit court did not find that the proposed construction would exceed the limits of the building right specified in the detailed plan or that there would be any conflict with the detailed plan in any other respect. Loodusvõlu did not submit any allegations that would call into question the compliance of the construction project with the detailed plan, the court found.

 Loodusvõlu claimed in the court proceedings that the detailed plan provided for the construction of oil plants and post-processing complex is also illegal. Namely, that in the opinion of the NGO, the strategic environmental impact assessment prepared in the detailed planning procedure was not sufficient to determine the environmental impact of the oil plant under construction.

The circuit court ruled that the operation of the oil plant does not exceed the limit value for compounds and particles released into the environment that are assessed as dangerous to humans. The court also found that the Narva-Jõesuu city government was not obliged to collect additional evidence on the environmental impacts when granting the building permit, and that the environmental impact assessment had not been lawfully initiated.

Furthermore, the potential problems raised by the applicant in the environmental impact assessment concern the effects of operating the oil plant and not its construction, the court found.

It is appropriate to assess the environmental impacts caused by the operation of the oil plant when applying for the integrated environmental permit required for the operation of the plant, and the Environmental Board (Keskonnaamet) has begun to assess the respective impacts, the court noted.

The decision has not entered into force and it is possible to file an appeal, in cassation, with the Supreme Court within 30 days of the ruling.

The €286 million oil shale plant got the go-ahead in 2024 and is scheduled to go online in 2024.

While shale oil can be used in fueling power plants – an industry which falls foul of the EU's climate change goals – it has many other applications.

The energy crisis and the need to de-couple from Russian oil, natural gas and electricity have also raised the profile of alternative energy sources – speaking more broadly these are themselves likely to be seen by Russian leader Vladimir Putin as a threat to Russian energy hegemony, according to a recent FT podcast.

MTÜ Loodusvõlu is the NGO which was behind the "Fridays for Climate Change" protests some years ago.

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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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