Editor's Note: This is the second of two parts. You can read the first part here.
Haluk Direskeneli says he's “an engineer, not an environmentalist.” But he's been threatened with a lawsuit for criticizing Turkish energy investors who disregard the environment, as several environmentalists who have opposed power plants have been lately.
An energy consultant and member of the Chamber of Mechanical Engineers in Ankara, Turkey's capital, Direskeneli says that he doesn't object to power plants as long as they follow environmental regulations.
But after he published an article on weaknesses in the licensing process for new power plants in Turkey, he was told to retract it—or prepare for a lawsuit.
In his article, Direskeneli described problems with certain energy projects throughout the country, but did not name specific energy companies behind them.
Nevertheless, a lawyer for one company threatened to sue Direskeneli for damaging its reputation.
“A company lawyer's job is to sue you if you hurt their name, and Turkish law permits them to sue over online content,” Direskeneli says, referring to Turkish Law No. 5651, “The Regulation of Publications on the Internet and Suppression of Crimes Committed by Means of Such Publication.”
Enacted in 2007, the law became notorious for leading to the banning of YouTube in Turkey. Earlier this year, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe called on Turkey to stop using the law, which it says censors its citizens.
Tolunay Demirci's experience has been similar. Demirci was a high school teacher in the province of Zonguldak in 2007, when the Eren Energy Power Generation Corporation tried to seize his land to build one coal-fired thermal power plant out of a cluster of three.
Demirci took Eren to court over flaws in its environmental impact assessment (EIA) report. Companies must submit EIA reports to the Turkish Energy Market Regulatory Authority (EMRA), a supervisory commission established in 2001, before they can receive a building license.
In court, Demirci argued that Eren Energy had not planned to adequately control pollution from the plant, and won his case.
But a few months later, Eren Energy managed to get another building license. After that, they counter-sued Demirci because his case against them had caused banks to raise interest rates on the loans Eren Energy took out to construct the plant.
Demirci was forced to pay the company 205,000 TL, or about $140,000. Eren Energy has now completed two of the three plants in Zonguldak.
Demirci declined to comment for this article.
He is “very tired right now. He was making this struggle for years by himself, and his lawyer is recommending that he not speak much to the media to avoid further court cases,” according to Hilal Atici, head of the Mediterranean branch of Greenpeace, who has been in touch with Demirci.
Energy Demands Soaring
Direskeneli and Demirci belong to a breed of environmental watchdogs currently burgeoning in Turkey. Though increasingly common, so far they're not winning. They could not cite an example of a grassroots opposition movement preventing a plant from being built.
Energy demand—and the capacity to meet it—is booming in Turkey. And EMRA is rejecting fewer and fewer applications from investors to build plants.
Ordinary citizens are increasingly aghast at how liberally the government gives out building permits for those new power stations, regardless of their environmental or structural integrity.
According to EMRA’s website, for instance, the committee has denied building licenses to sixty-eight proposed projects over the past six years. But the vast majority of those denials occurred before 2008; in 2008, only four were rejected. In 2009, none were turned down, and in 2010 so far, only one has been denied.
A spokesman for EMRA initially agreed to produce a statement commenting on the decrease in permit rejections but never did, and did not respond to follow-up calls.
EIA by Template
“Environmental issues are not seen as important. What's important is the investment, and the government goes along with the investment,” says Oğuz Turkyılmaz, chairman of the Energy Commission for the Chamber of Mechanical Engineers in Ankara. “Even if the EIA report is canceled by the court, the investment continues. The level of social conscience is low in this country.”
In theory, the EIA report process should weed out the poorly planned energy projects and only allow the environmentally responsible ones to continue. Turkey's EIA standards are largely based on the norms set by the European Union. But the environmental ministry rarely holds energy companies to those standards, according to Direskeneli.
Instead, outside consultants compose EIA reports for companies from a reliable template that often includes laughably oversimplified or incorrect technical information. They then sell the plants to the communities they hope to locate them in with the promise of jobs. “In order to get approval, the investors promise employment,” Direskeneli says.
So far, public statements by environmental groups are drawing lawsuits, not stopping plants.
Energy companies are currently soliciting investors for about fifty new thermal power projects throughout Turkey, according to Hilal Atici, who led the climate/energy campaign for Greenpeace Mediterranean until two months ago, when she became head of the regional branch. Two thirds of those new projects, Atici says, will be fueled with imported coal.