Pomerants: drilling oil in Hiiumaa not in pipeline

Marko Pomerants oma keskkonnaministeeriumi kabinetis.

PHOTO: Sander Ilvest / Postimees

Proposal to retrain Ida-Virumaa miners into bakers and hairdressers isn’t serious says fresh environment minister Marko Pomerants (IRL), oil shale industry thus to remain dominant in the region.  

How are domains of ministries redistributed, according to coalition treaty?

While power agreement allows for further analysis of other sub-agencies or governmental topics under some other ministry, the transfer of Competition Agency from economy ministry to justice ministry was agreed without the need for additional analysis. The idea is that most of these whose prices are being regulated are in economy ministry’s domain – then there’d be no such seeming conflict. Coalition treaties are documents that, in turn, need deciphering and …

… and disinfecting?

Perhaps disinfecting also, so something can afterwards be left out as resulting from ponderings and analysis more thorough. An issue waiting to be solved at economy ministry is whether natural resources should be dealt with by environment or economy minister.

Geological Survey of Estonia is a separate matter. Here we have to do with a company under environment ministry domain which deals with researching the country’s resources and geological mapping. In a funny way, the agency once managed has become, by one governmental decision on an A4 format paper, a private limited company with a turnover close to €1.5m by now, into which the state pours a third of turnover by its orders. Now, it needs to become clear whether it will remain a company or become a national geology service – like in Finland. People trust that once it is the state that does the research, it can be trusted – now, the research capacity needs some more investment.

The other half of the issue is awarding usage of natural resources, currently under environment ministry’s domain. Somehow we will need to get rid of the inner conflict that, on the one hand, you are minister of environmental protection, and on the other hand the minister of utilizing the resources and of mining.

How do you intend to do that?

We would need to attribute environment minister the role of protector, and entrepreneurship minister the role of the miner. It cannot be that the entire topic with all officials moves into economy ministry and let the environment minister see to himself. We’ll analyse that. 

Interior ministry, in its turn, should again become a purely security ministry, and the regional domain will move into finance ministry, to be under minister Arto Aas. Spatial planning, however, would come to be under environment minister.

Passions flared regarding oil shale. Two ministers in the former government, feisty ladies Urve Palo and Keit-Pentus Rosimannus did cross swords regarding that – verbally...

In my opinion, not one natural resource may be singled out here. It cannot be that economy ministry deals with sand, clay, phosphate rock and limestone, and environment ministry deals with oil shale – or vice versa. When it comes to environmental impact, there’s no way around environment ministry: pollution, waste, environmental protection still are our domain.

Then there’s the separate issue of environmental fees and their being linked to global market prices. Economy minister needs to think how far the economic potential of the domain will stretch. Environment minister needs to stabilise it, to reveal the actual price of the pollution.

The oil shale chemistry industry – is it a source of Estonia’s long-term prosperity, or a phenomenon that pollutes and destroys our land?

Definitely, oil shale industry is not the only and main support of our economy. Meanwhile, in the absence of additional connections, it has been the guarantee of our energy independence.

In our gross domestic product, oil shale industry has its sure place – they are able to produce products of high added value, used for instance in electronics. What also matters are jobs in Ida-Viru County. It is nice to talk about these people somehow retrained into tourism staff, bakers or hairdressers. But such talk cannot be taken seriously. In Ida-Virumaa, it would be difficult to invent an activity other than utilisation of natural resources which would provide the locals an opportunity to survive and feed their families.

How likely is it, do you think, that Estonian oil shale chemistry industries might produce car fuel comparable in volume to the yearly amount used in Estonia?

As far as I understand, the plan to produce car fuel has actually been on the table; this is what led to cooperation among the current processors of oil shale. But the plan does heavily depend on global oil price. 

How do you explain that, as the oil shale company chiefs say, they are lacking mining volume, and yet the coalition agreement reveals an option to cut said volume by another quarter still – from the 20 million tonnes currently allowed to 15?

The preciseness of oil shale volumes does fluctuate between five million tonnes plus or minus. With 15 million, environmental topics are much better off, but the industry suffers; at 25 million tonnes, the industry has a good time but the environment is worse off. During Soviet era peak production, the record was 32 million tonnes a year.

In the new oil shale utilisation development programme, the talk is to the tune of 20 million tonnes, but the amount is not used up at the moment. Meanwhile, the companies have invested to process even more.

But, when it comes to separate companies, for VKG for instance the low oil price currently sets a limit. Without a limit themselves, yet unable to purchase from Eesti Energia at prices prior agreed. As a result of that, people were laid off and sent home.

In the heat of the elections, new parties presented totally new information regarding unheard-of natural resources to be found in Estonia ...

I think it was Vello Leito of the Independence Party who announced unheard-of oil fields near Hiiumaa. From that island via my Grandma, and educated as a geologist, let me say they did not teach me that in school. I cannot share the enthusiasm about the find.

I am convinced that our local energy sources will still be oil shale, biomass, as well as waste, winds, plus all kinds of local innovative solutions up unto solar batteries. In my opinion we will not see oil rigs off coast of Hiiumaa. If anything, perhaps it will be an open sea wind farm.

What would be the options to mine, in Estonia, ores used in nuclear industry? 

I do not know if this is true or just a legend, but they say that at the creation of Soviet Union’s fist nuclear bomb, uranium enriched at Sillamäe also played a role. In our dictyonema shale, lots of rare metals are to be found.

When it comes to using our natural resources, we will also need to consider the tolerance of the people. If we start talking about intent to mine phosphate rock or metals, we need to consider the opposition. Better not propose production of uranium. But we would need to increase our knowledge about natural resources, both the resources themselves and the environmentally friendly mining technologies. In times to come, it’s all up to reasonable timing and how great the need must be.

But it is not reasonable to say that there’s nothing to study, we know enough.

Phosphate rock verily is the single natural resource regarding the mining of which the coalition agreement says a definite «no».

In the decades to come, phosphate rock will not be mined. Even so, I do not believe that the knowledge accumulated in the 1980ies are all there is to know regarding phosphate rock. Often, increment cores from back then are unfit for research. There’s no need to frighten people that promptly we’ll be mining phosphate and promptly the water will disappear.

Regarding the coalition treaty clause promising to cleanse Estonian landscape from ruins; the issue arises: isn’t this a waste of money for what the nature would manage by itself.

Demolishing of ruins is already being executed out of public coffers, via Environmental Investment Centre. Now what we have added is EU support to help demolish these old specialised and dilapidated buildings, from cow houses to military objects to crumbling dwellings.   

Our landscapes need visual improvement. Many such buildings may also be dangerous for people. Surely, Estonia will never become a ruins-free zone without a single building falling apart.

Take, for instance, the abandoned rocket bases at Kadila or Rohu, in Lääne-Viru County. In the 1990ies, the woods over there hid hundreds of hectares filled with brick buildings and hangars. Happening to be there, recently, to pick mushrooms, I was amazed at what nature had managed to do with these structures. In two decades, trees and mushrooms have grown through the asphalt – not every time is there a need to intervene.

Even so, with each such object, pros and cons need to be carefully weighed, as in the environmental arena lots of discretion is needed. Not many mathematical solutions here.

Why are you doing away with support towards electricity and heat coproduction with mixed municipal waste incineration?

When the incineration support is cut off, mixed municipal wastes price goes up and this enhances collection of wastes by category.

Pursuant to coalition treaty, waste treatment business would be introduced free market elements. This the city of Tallinn does not like as they think that waste transport is best done by the city. How do you see the claim that free market channels trash into woods, but local governments ensure order?

Surprisingly, even now that trash transport is organised, quite a lot of trash is to be found in the woods. I’m not talking about Tallinn here. Last week, I was jogging around Ridali, Põlva County, with organised trash transportation... I was dumbfounded that they have trash in the forest while an 80 litre container costs half a euro.  

In a large city like Tallinn, free market can be established in a way that the local government has an overview from whom a registered immovable orders refuse collection. In our small local governments, refuse collection is always organised so the solution is logical and pocket-friendly. With refuse collection it’s not like electricity business with lines in nearly every village in every woods, and both Estonians and Latvians around with their offers. Also, electricity does not damage roads.

Estonia has lots of nature reserves with limits on economic activity. What alleviations will your government about to present to entrepreneurs in such areas?

To answer this, one reply will not suffice as natural conservation objects come with varying conditions. On top of Emumäe Hill, economic activity is out of the question, but on the slopes around it there are lots of fields. Ploughing the land does not interfere with preserving the hill. Meanwhile, at Lahemaa the emphasis is on cultural heritage as well as nice historic buildings. It would not be fitting to build a cinder block house in the midst of it all.

The thing is: will the state sufficiently compensate entrepreneurs the missed income. Naturally, the answer is no. So we have what to discuss, but it would be funny to start collecting money from entrepreneurs by some tax to be able to hand it back to them. Seeing we have nothing left over.

As the sun is setting, a wayfaring man puts up a tent among the trees at seaside. Nature protection inspector comes up, fines the guy. How could we make Estonia’s natural riches better available to those on holiday?

I do not believe the wayfaring man will encounter a nature protection inspector, late in the evening. Even now, a prudent hiker will find lots of places to spend the night. This could be a State Forest Management Centre (RMK) campfire site or an agreement with a land owner. Leaving the home just to see what will happen is not good – better have a bad plan than no plan... as already underlined by one-time environment minister Villu Reiljan.

MARKO POMERANTS

  • Born September 24th 1964 in Tamsalu, Lääne-Viru County.
  • Studied public administration and geology at University of Tartu. 
  • A long-time Riigikogu member, interior minister in 2009–2011 and social minister in 2003–2005, Lääne-Viru county governor in 1995–2003, Lääne-Viru county government environment at department head in 994–1995 and nature conservation department head in 1990–1994; Rakvere nature protection administration head in 1989–1990.
  • IRL member since 2002.
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