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Turkey: Pollution Problem Threatens Producers And Consumers

  • Michael Lelyveld

A dangerous case of air pollution at a power plant in Turkey is the latest symptom of energy shortages throughout the region. Consuming countries like Ukraine and producers like Russia are both likely to feel environmental effects this winter as demand rises for cleaner-burning gas.

Boston, 3 November 2000 (RFE/RL) -- A serious air pollution problem in Turkey seems to be a sign of the problems that many countries in the region may face this winter due to energy shortages and high prices for fuel.

The trouble is in Yatagan, a district of Turkey's southwest Mugla province. The area near the Aegean coast is some 450 kilometers south of Istanbul. In the past week, residents have been told to stay indoors unless it is absolutely necessary go out. The problem is that sulphur dioxide in the air has risen to 10 times above normal levels because of emissions from a coal-burning power plant.

The mayor of Yatagan has warned that the pollution may soon become lethal. He has threatened that citizens may stage protest marches and hunger strikes. The Turkish Daily News reported that two units at the power plant are already shut down, but a third is still operating without filters in its smokestacks. The electric company says it cannot close the plant without risking a blackout in the entire area. The Energy Ministry has decided to keep running the power station in its current state for another two months.

The crisis is a symptom of power problems that have become particularly acute in Turkey. Although officials have been trying to draw attention for years to the country's growing demand for electricity, they seem to have been unprepared for the sudden shortages that started last month.

The coldest weather in 13 years has already driven daily rates of gas consumption up eightfold in Ankara, causing gas pressure there to drop. Citizens are said to be turning to coal, raising pollution in the capital. Industrial users may follow their example. Turkish officials have proposed a series of temporary measures like emergency generators to deal with the long-term failure to invest in new power plants. But emergency generators will not reduce the need for more fuel.

Last month, Russia promised to increase its gas supplies to Turkey. This week, Bulgaria agreed to pass on the increase, assuming that it comes through the pipeline from Ukraine, which has its own pressing energy needs. Russia's EES electricity monopoly has also agreed to raise its exports of power to Turkey.

But the problems seem almost as serious in Russia, which is the source of nearly four-fifths of Turkey's gas. For the past several months, Russia's Gazprom has been putting pressure on EES to reduce its reliance on gas and shift to using more coal.

Gazprom's motivation is to sell more of Russia's gas in Western Europe, where it commands a far higher price. Last month, Gazprom temporarily cut back on its gas deliveries to EES, citing unpaid bills.

The conflict seems particularly bitter this year, when world gas prices are rising and Russian gas production is dropping. In the first half of this year, Russia's gas output fell 2.2 percent, but its exports rose 2.7 percent, further stretching domestic supplies. Officials have blamed Russia's low investment in gas production on the low prices that are charged for the fuel at home.

EES has also been shutting off power to customers who fall behind in their payments. The entire process is likely to lead to more fuel substitution, increasing the use of higher-polluting fuels like coal this winter for power and heat.

To make matters worse, much of the coal that is used in the region is lignite, or soft coal, that results in high emissions when burned. In other cases of substitution, fuel oil is likely to take the place of gas at power plants, leading to more air pollution.

On Thursday, Ukrainian News reported that the country's thermal-electric power plants cut their gas use by two-thirds after Russian gas trader Itera said it would halt all deliveries due to non-payment this month. Emergency supplies of fuel oil are being shipped to the plants so that they can ignite the coal that they burn.

The problems across the region appear to be following a troubling pattern. Cleaner fuels like natural gas are being replaced due to high prices and demand with more polluting energy sources like fuel oil and coal. As export prices for gas rise, the problems seem likely to affect consuming countries like Turkey and Ukraine, as well as producers like Russia, raising the threat of poorer air quality for both.