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Indonesian utility PLN ordered to disclose coal plants' emissions data

Mongabay - January 31, 2024

Hans Nicholas Jong, Jakarta – The Indonesian government's freedom-of-information clearinghouse has ordered state-owned electricity utility PLN to disclose emissions data for some of the country's biggest coal-fired power plants.

The decision by the Public Information Commission (KIP) comes in response to a complaint filed in 2023 by Margaretha Aquina, a lawyer for the international program at U.K.-based advocacy group Earthsight. The complaint centered on PLN's refusal to disclose upon request emissions and waste management data for its coal plants in Suralaya, Banten province, and Ombilin, West Sumatra province.

In its Jan. 18 decision, the KIP said the data in question are public information, given that PLN is owned by the state and thus funded by the public, and should therefore be released to the public. But while the KIP ordered the release of the emissions data from Suralaya, a fleet of eight coal-fired plants, and Ombilin, a single plant, it ordered the release of waste management data only from the Ombilin plant.

PLN had argued that the requested data constituted trade secrets and could be misused to spread disinformation, and thus should be kept out of the public view.

"If data like this that benefits the public [if disclosed] is treated like a trade secret, then imagine the consequence," Margaretha said at a press conference last year. "Imagine how journalists could assess where does the pollution in Jakarta come from. Imagine if there's a captive coal plant that's so polluting and its emission data is treated as confidential."

She cited past instances in which the government had disclosed the emissions data of another power plant, in Indramayu, West Java province, to environmental NGOs after they requested it.

"We couldn't find a concrete article in the trade secret law that protects the data that we asked for," Margaretha said. "And even if it is considered a trade secret, there have been precedents where [emissions data] documents were shared in the past. So it's questionable."

Data for public health

Activists welcomed the KIP's decision, saying it sets a precedent on public information and advocacy for public rights to a clean environment. They called on all institutions and companies that pollute the environment to proactively disclose their emissions data without having to wait for the public to request the data. Emissions data is vital for public health, they said, and as such, data transparency should be a basic norm to protect public health.

Alfi Syukri, a lawyer from the Legal Aid Foundation (LBH) in Padang, West Sumatra, where the Ombilin power plant is located, said the data release would allow the public to monitor the plant's operations and detect any emissions exceeding allowable limits.

"Publicly available information could be used to inform the public on the emissions and waste management of the Ombilin coal plant, to ensure [the plant operator] doesn't violate [environmental safeguards] over and over," he said.

Airlangga Julio, a lawyer who represented Margaretha in her complaint to the KIP, said the dispute underscored how PLN, despite being a state-owned company, doesn't understand the importance of public transparency in protecting public health.

"It's about time PLN and all state-owned companies and private firms open up their data to the public," he said in a press release. "Some countries have implemented public transparency well so that their people can prevent or avoid the impacts of environmental pollution. PLN and other state companies should start revamping [themselves] and realize the importance of public transparency for a clean and healthy environment."

'Disease' of non-disclosure

Activists also urged the KIP to ensure that PLN complies with the order, citing a long history of government agencies and state-owned companies ignoring previous KIP orders.

Novita Indri, a campaigner for the NGO Trend Asia, which advocates for a sustainable energy transition, said PLN's case is part of a larger trend where government institutions tend to withhold data from the public.

"This sickness is prevalent in all ministries under the current administration" of President Joko Widodo, Novita said. "It's hard for the public to access information. The response [from the government] is always the same, that the information is excluded from public information. Or there's no response at all."

Emissions from coal power plants have come under increasing public scrutiny in recent years as a driver of the often toxic air quality in some cities in Indonesia, particularly the capital, Jakarta.

Last year, Jakarta's air quality got so bad that the city was ranked the most polluted city on Earth for several days. That's why it's crucial to have access to power plants' emissions data to allow the public to determine how much the plants contribute to air pollution and to advocate for cleaner air and more stringent environmental safeguards, Margaretha said.

Source: https://news.mongabay.com/2024/01/indonesian-utility-pln-ordered-to-disclose-coal-plants-emissions-data