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Campaigners take Estonian government to court over plans to build new shale oil plant

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Estonia's state of the art Enefit280 oil shale refinery pictured in March 2013.
Estonia's state of the art Enefit280 oil shale refinery pictured in March 2013.   -   Copyright  AP Photo/Gary Peach
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Environmental organisations are taking the Estonian authorities to court over plans to build a new shale oil plant.

Fridays for Future Estonia argue the new plant, to be operated by subsidiaries of the state-owned Eesti Energia company, is not compatible with Estonia's obligations under the Paris Agreement.

They are being supported by Friends of the Earth (FoE) Europe who also accuse the government of using the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown measures banning gatherings - and therefore protests - to push through the proposal.

Their legal case was accepted by the Tartu administrative court last month, which subsequently rejected their application for an interim injunction to halt construction work.

FoE said that the government, which will pour €125 million of public funds into the project, is "gambling on the failure of international climate agreements, a continued dependence on fossil fuels and the subsidising of the declining oil industry."

In a statement to Euronews, Fridays for Future Estonia argued that the world is currently in "a climate emergency" and that "every action a country takes should be made in accordance with that knowledge, because the actions taken right now have a life-or-death consequence."

"Construction of the new oil shale plant is in direct opposition to moving towards a sustainable future where our lifestyle does not exceed the Earth’s limits," it added.

It also flagged that "Estonia is currently on track to miss the greenhouse gas emission reduction targets set for 2030 in the national development agendas – a course which is incompatible with Estonia’s obligations under the Paris Agreement."

Ninety public figures have also signed an open letter to the government calling for the plant's building permit to be revoked and for public funding to be withdrawn.

"The investment is in direct contravention of the European Union's climate protection strategy, even though Prime Minister Jüri Ratas has publicly promised to invest in mitigating climate change," they wrote.

"The construction of the new oil plant violates section five of the constitution, according to which Estonia's natural resources constitute national wealth that needs to be used sparingly. The construction of an oil plant clashes with sustainable development goals and obligations pursuant to the Paris Agreement, inevitably raising the question of why invest in yesterday," they added.

Energy sector responsible for 88% of emissions

Shale oil is produced by heating oil shale rock fragments to convert the organic matter within the rock into synthetic oil and gas. It is one of the dirtiest oils because production typically leads to more greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions than conventional oil extraction. It can also require a huge amount of water to produce and generates a lot more waste material which then needs to be disposed of.

The Baltic country had the second-highest GHG emission per capita in the EU in 2017 after Luxembourg, according to Eurostat.

The latest report from the Ministry of the Environment states that emissions of carbon dioxide decreased by nearly 50 per cent between 1990 and 2017.

The report also reveals that the energy sector is by far the country's largest producer of GHG emissions, accounting for 88.76 per cent of all emissions in 2017, adding that "since 2009 the GHG emissions are strongly related to the volume of exported electricity that is mainly produced from oil shale".

The share of renewables in the country's energy mix has meanwhile increased from 16.1 per cent in 2006 to 29.2 per cent in 2017.

The national development plan for the energy sector plans for renewables to produce 50 per cent of all domestic final electricity consumption by 2030.

Euronews has contacted the Department for Energy for comment.

Paris Agreement and Green Deal

Spokesperson for Eesti Energia Priit Luts, s told Euronews that the construction of the new plant "does not interfere in any way" with the country's obligations under the Paris Agreement.

"The agreement only obliges the parties to report on their actual emission levels, the measures taken to reduce emissions and the results achieved by those measures," he said.

"For achieving the 2050 climate neutrality goal we do not see a direct contradiction here either. The payback period of the new oil plant is less than 10 years. If no competitively priced carbon capture and storage or utilization technology has been developed by 2050, then Eesti Energia is ready to close the oil plant that has paid off by then," he added.

He also argued that the company is closing older electricity generation plants, thus reducing its carbon footprint and that the country should focus on reducing emissions from sectors outside the EU emissions trading scheme, including transport, housing and agriculture.

The EU has pledged to become the first carbon-neutral continent by 2050 as part of its "Green Deal" policy to transition the economy into a more sustainable one.

Kadri Simson, the EU Commissioner for Energy and a former minister of economic affairs and infrastructure in Estonia, told Euronews that "it is every member state’s prerogative to decide on their energy mix and the path towards their climate targets" set out in the Paris Agreement and the European Green Deal.

"That said, I urge all EU countries, including Estonia, to focus on forward-looking and future-proof investments."

"The Commission has proposed a €750 billion recovery plan that would allow member states to significantly scale up their investment in the green transition, to ensure a sustainable recovery and more resilient, competitive future economies. These funds cannot be used to finance projects that go against the ‘do no harm’ principle," she added.