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Power Politics in Prague

by TOM CLIFFORD

The largest polluter in the Czech Republic is expected to get approval for expansion despite a report advising against the move, objections by environmental groups and an apparent conflict of interest on the part of the public official making the decision.

Approval of the imminent Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) report would expand the CÉZ-run Pruné?ov coal-fired power plant and extend its operational life by 25 years.

The plant’s expansion was opposed by former Environment Minister Jan Dusík who commissioned and relased a non-binding report and highly critical report earlier this year which led to a furious row with Prime Minister Jan Fischer. Consequently, Dusík was forced to resign in March, claiming he was put under intense pressure to issue a favorable EIA for CÉZ.

So confident are ?EZ of a favorable report that they have already ordered technology worth several billions of crowns and due to a penalty clause would have to pay millions of crowns if the report went against them.
Rut Bízková, 52, is the third environment minister in two months and worked as a press spokesperson for ?EZ in the1990s. There are growing fears that her appointment was to rubber stamp the report, due to be relased imminently, in favor of ?EZ.

The situation is so unprecedented and bizarre that it prompted the Chief Justice of the Constitutional Court to ask who is running the country?
“Is it ?EZ or the cabinet,” Chief Justice Pavel Rychchetský asked and accused the energy giant of destablizing the country’s politics.

Martin Bursík, a former envirionment minister, has accused Bízková of “playing into ?EZ’s hands.”

Bízková was appointed by Prime Minister Jan Fischer despite the fact that an election is less than six weeks away. The timing and manner of Bízková’s appointment appear to be skewed in ?EZ’s favor, flying in the face of a pledge by the caretaker government, not to take non-urgent decisions that would have a long-lasting impact.

Bízková replaced Jakub Sebesta earlier this month who was in the post for just three weeks. Sebesta had replaced Jan Dusík who resigned as Environment Minister in March after a bitter dispute with Fischer over the coal-burning power plant in Pruné?ov, north Bohemia, that is a part of the ?EZ power company.

In January Dusík called in international experts to carry out an environment impact assessment of plans to modernize and extend the life of the Pruné?ov coal power plant.

He then released the critical non-binding report commissioned from DNV, a Norwegian firm, which slammed the technology ?EZ planned to use.

Consequently he was forced to resign in March after a row with Fischer whom he accused of putting him under intense pressure to agree the 25 billion K? ($1.3 billion) plan for the reconstruction of the big coal-fired power plant.

Greenpeace backed the DNV report. “?EZ wishes to save money at the expense of the health of local people and the climate by installing outdated and inefficient scrap at Prunerov,” Ben Jasper of the organization’s Prague office said. “The DNV expert report provides more than enough grounds to disapprove the Prunerov expansion plan.”

The power station is the largest single source of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide (CO2) in the Czech Republic. In 2008 it emitted 9,210 million metric tons of CO2, a figure higher than the output of 100 countries. ?EZ said that its aim is to reduce emissions of nitrogen and sulphur—the main pollutants in Northern Bohemia, where the plant is located. It describes CO2 as a “harmless gas, inhaled by plants and creating bubbles in beverages.”

Bízková is now set to decide just how much of an upgrade the power plant in north Bohemia will undergo. The decision will have a major impact on the environment and the economy.

Despite being in the post for less than two weeks she has already made controversial decisions that her critics say show she is unsuited for the post and has been accused by a former minister of selling out.

Within days of taking up her position she downgraded the climate protection department and terminated the position of Deputy Minister. The climate protection department has been moved to the economic section of the ministry.

“This has obviously been done to force through approval of the EIA regardless of the huge problems which have been highlighted by a wide range of experts” Jasper said. “Bízková unfortunately seems more concerned with ?EZ’s prosperity and naive interpretations of climate science than with Prunerov’s contribution to climate change and its harmful transboundary impacts.”

Bízková said the previous set up had not been effective and the decision had been made in order to streamline and simplify the ministry.

“It will save a number of jobs and it will now operate much more effectively in my opinion,” she told The Prague Post.

“Climate protection will remain a priority for the ministry. The tasks will be dealt with more pragmatically under the new arrangement.”

The shock move comes just three years after then Greens leader Bursík set up the department when he was environment minister.

He said the move reveals that Bízková is merely a pawn of her former employer, ?EZ where she served as press officer from1994 to1998.

“Bízková has quickly confirmed fears that she will play into ?EZ hands,” he said. Environmental group Greenpeace claim that Bízková helped push through the so-called National Allocation Plan in 2006, which despite the opposition of environmental organizations, allocated ?EZ several million more allowances for greenhouse gas emissions than the corporation actually needed. ?EZ, Greenpeace said, subsequently earned several billion crowns from selling the surplus allowances.

Earlier this year the police accused ?EZ employees of blackmailing customers who did not pay their bills; prosecutors are investigating 13 of them on the lesser charge of “subjugation”. The company dissolved the unit concerned in February and apologized for its behavior.

TOM CLIFFORD is the news editor with The Prague Post. He can be reached at: tclifford@praguepost.com.

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Tom Clifford is a freelance journalist and can be reached at: cliffordtomsan@hotmail.com.

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