Lithuania threatens to block EU climate-change program

Lithuania will refuse to close its Soviet-era Ignalina nuclear power plant as planned unless the European Union provides adequate compensation, Lithuanian Economy Minister Vytas Navickas said on Thursday, reported dpa.

"Unless the energy security problems Lithuania would face after closing the Ignalina plant in 2009 are solved, we will not approve the climate change program," Navickas told the Baltic News Service in an interview shortly before flying to Luxembourg for a meeting of EU energy ministers on Friday.

Members of the European Union, including Lithuania, have agreed to cut emissions by 20 per cent by 2020 to help protect the climate.

Lithuania agreed to close Ignalina as one of the conditions of its EU membership in 2004.

However, a planned replacement to be built in partnership with Estonia, Latvia and Poland is unlikely to be ready before 2015 at the earliest.

Politicians and the public are fearful that a six-year energy gap would increase the country's energy dependency on Russia and hurt the economy.

Such is the strength of feeling that Lithuania's general election, to be held on Sunday, will include a referendum asking voters if they would like to keep Ignalina open until a replacement is ready.

Navickas said he intends to tell his EU counterparts that Lithuania will keep the Ignalina plant open until 2012 unless it is given around 1 billion euros (1.37 billion dollars) in aid and allowed higher emissions tariffs than are presently planned.

"If our proposals are approved, the energy ministers will ask the European Commission to prepare a plan of action to cope with the critical situation that would arise if we closed the Ignalina NPP (nuclear power plant) in late 2009," Navickas said.

Europe's Energy Commissioner Andris Piebalgs has repeatedly denied that Lithuania will be allowed to operate the Ignalina plant beyond its scheduled decommissioning date, at the end of 2009.

"The closure of Ignalina was negotiated in Lithuania's accession treaty to the EU. Therefore it's not a unilateral decision by Lithuania but it's something which was agreed with all the member states of the EU," a spokesman for Piebalgs told journalists in Brussels.

"The law has to be respected. The commission, as the guardian of the treaties, will make sure that it is respected and Ignalina has to be closed on December 31, 2009 at the latest," he said.

Lithuania has received "substantial" EU assistance towards closing Ignalina since the decision to shut down the Chernobyl-type plant was taken, totalling 529 million euros between 1999 and 2006, with a further 837 million planned for 2007-13, he said.

"The commission is ready to listen to the Lithuanian authorities (and) to take any measure that is in the hands of the commission to help Lithuania facing any possible problem of security of supply that they may have, except prolonging the life of the Ignalina nuclear power plant," he stressed.

The EU's climate-change laws are to be decided by qualified majority, meaning that Lithuania cannot block them single-handedly.

However, Lithuania's neighbour Poland is reported to be trying to assemble enough support to block the proposals over concerns that they will lead to a massive boost in electricity retail prices, making Lithuania's stance a potentially important one.

Navickas' threat may have as much to do with domestic Lithuanian politics as EU policy. The ruling coalition, of which his Peasants' and People's Party is a member, faces the possibility of being kicked out of office on Sunday. Appearing to 'stand up to' the EU in the national interest is likely to boost Navickas' populist credentials at just the right time.

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