Fireplace Smog Pushes Oil Tax Cut

ATHENS – Dangerous levels of smog caused by fireplaces as Greeks unable to afford heavily-taxed heating oil and having their electricity turned off for non-payment has raised the alarm not just of environmentalists but Members of Parliament from the ruling New Democracy party who want the rate reduced.

After the Athens Medical Association warned people about what they burn – some are using furniture, plastic, construction debris and whatever else burns – the lawmakers said they were concerned that the big hike in heating oil tax had backfired, bringing in fewer revenues as people stopped buying it, and forcing many to turn to other ways to stay warm.

Multiple warnings have been issued in the past week over the high levels of air pollution in Athens, Thessaloniki and other major Greek cities as a result of households burning wood to stay warm rather than using expensive heating oil. The air at night smells like a chimney and leaves a smell on hair and clothes.

In some places, air pollution briefly exceeded 150 mg/m3, which the government last week set as a the trigger level at which it would offer free electricity to poor households, but it wasn’t said if that went into effect.

The medical group also called the government to create a more comprehensive policy to deal with the problems people have in heating their homes. The same problem occurred last winter and the government promised to do something but didn’t and so far hasn’t responded to this call either.

On Dec. 22, the Health Ministry warned the elderly and asthma sufferers that smog levels in Athens and other urban areas were at dangerous levels due to weather conditions and the high number of people burning wood to stay warm.

The Health and Environment ministries had issued a statement the night before asking people not to use their fireplaces so much, but offered no other help for them to keep warm. There were no reports about a shortage of heat in the Parliament or government buildings.

These developments prompted 41 New Democracy MPs, about a third of the party’s total lawmakers, to table a question in Parliament about the possibility of dropping the tax on heating oil, which was raised to the same as vehicle fuel last year to combat smuggling.

In an interview with To Vima newspaper, Alternate Finance Minister Christos Staikouras suggested that reducing the tax would increase the consumption of heating oil but that the country’s international lenders aren’t buying the argument.

The lawmakers, all but three of whom represent rural constituencies, cited a study by the IOBE think-tank showing heating oil consumption has dropped by about three-quarters since 2009. In terms of revenues from heating oil tax, the government was more than 200 million euros behind its target at the end of November.