Kuo Kuang Petrochemical Plant Relocation Should be Swift
China Times editorial (Taipei, Taiwan, ROC)
April 20, 2011
The Kuo Kuang Petrochemical Plant project is about to undergo its fifth EIA review. Environmental groups have announced anti-Kuo Kuang protest marches all over the island. Environmental groups are making a great show of opposing the Kuo Kuang Petrochemical Plant project. This is reminiscent of similar scenes during the Chen administration. This time however, it is the Ma administration that must deal with the problem. The Kuo Kuang Petrochemical Plant reflects problems with Taiwan's industrial rise and transformation. These problems require solutions. Taiwan has limited land and limited resources. It is caught between demands for environmental protection and economic development. The questions it must answer are multiple choice questions, not yes or no questions. Assuming it still has a choice, the Ma administration must be decisive. It must seek the best solution. If it must relocate then it must act boldly. It should not allow the matter to drag on, and degenerate into a insoluble political controversy.
The petrochemical industry is a key industry. Many developing economies depend upon their governments to vigorously promote the petrochemical industry. And so it is on Taiwan, The petrochemical industry has brought a great deal of foreign exchange into Taiwan's economy. It has made a substantial contribution to economic growth. But environmental consciousness has increased. The petrochemical industry is water hungry, highly polluting, and socially divisive. According to EPA statistics, during the two decades between 1981 and 2002, 60 percent of the major environmental protests on Taiwan involved the petrochemical industry. Environmental disputes have continued. Most people acknowledge the petrochemical industry's role in economic development. But they do not want petrochemical plants in their own backyard. The Formosa Plastics Group's Sixth Naphtha Cracking Plant project in Ilan met with resistance. At one time it was to be relocated to Mainland China. Under intense pressure from then President Lee Teng-hui, it was relocated to Yunlin. Since then, further development of the petrochemical industry on Taiwan has been difficult.
The petrochemical industry has made enormous contributions to the national economy. But as early as 1978, Premier Sun Yun-suan adopted World Bank economist Bela Balassa's recommendation that "non-oil producing countries develop technology-intensive industries, and not the petrochemical industry." As a result, plans for the Petrochemical Plant Number Five were shelved. A decision was made to transition gradually to lower energy consumption and technology-intensive industries. This led to the development of the Hsinchu Science Park.
In 1981, the global oil crisis ended. The CEPD reconsidered its plan for the petrochemical industry. It decided to resume development of the petrochemical industry. During the 1990s, the government continued its political liberalization. Environmental protests made development of the petrochemical industry difficult. The government was unwilling to give up. But Mainland China and the Southeast Asian countries long ago replaced Taiwan as a source of cheap labor. Profits from petrochemical exports fell. The unavoidable question was did we really need to pay such a high political, social, and environmental price for the petrochemical industry?
During the Chen administration, the government accepted the argument that we still need a petrochemical industry. It finalized plans for the Kuo Kuang Petrochemical Plant project. Environmental groups resisted full force. EIA members attempted to block the project, but to no avail. Then Vice Premier Tsai Ing-wen personally championed the project, making telephone calls "expressing concern." For these policy decisions, then Premier and DPP presidential primary candidate Su Tseng-chang was forced to issue a public apology. But when Su and Tsai simultaneously signed the anti-Kuo Kuang Petrochemical Plant petition, the Kuo Kuang Petrochemical Plant project inevitably became a political football.
Based on the need for industry clusters, Yunlin was the first choice. The public in Yunlin had already accepted the Sixth Naptha Cracking Plant. But they did not want the Kuo Kuang Petrochemical Plant in addition. Changhua, adjacent to Yunlin, vigorously fought for the plant. When the decision was made to build the Kuo Kuang Petrochemical Plant in Changhua, the government hardly expected so much pressure from environmental groups. Last year, the Changhua County Environmental Protection Union won the Executive Yuan Sustainable Development Award. This group is explicitly opposed to the Kuo Kuang Petrochemical Plant. But environmental groups are not the only ones opposed. Even Public Works Commissioner Lee Hong-yuan, a new member of Premier Wu's cabinet, signed the anti-Kuo Kuang Petrochemical Plant petition. His reasoning was simple. Changhua and Yunlin both have serious problems with ground subsidence. They are not suitable for further petrochemical industry development.
The Ministry of Economic Affairs attempted to resolve the environmental disputes. It stressed that the strictest environmental standards had been met. The survival of dolphins was not threatened, because a migratory corridor had been provided. But the fact that the dolphins must use the migratory corridor means they have already been affected. The Ministry of Economic Affairs stressed also that old petrochemical plants must be phased out. If the Kuo Kuang Petrochemical Plant is not constructed, then the old plants cannot be decommissioned. The old plants would have an even greater impact on the environment. But the Kuo Kuang Petrochemical Plant will also become old some day. Ten years down the road, will Taiwan face another Kuo Kuang Petrochemical Plant style controversy?
Thirty years ago, Sun Yun-suan saw the need for industrial transformation. Thirty years later, we once again face a difficult choice. Do we have a premier with Sun's boldness and vision, able to make critical decisions about Taiwan's industrial development? President Ma Ying-jeou personally stood on the front lines when he attended an anti-Kuo Kuang Petrochemical Plant banquet. The event was subject to political manipulation, making deeper understanding of grassroots environmental concerns impossible. But President Ma personally visited the Ta-Chen wetlands and sampled the oysters. Surely he realizes that ordinary citizens at the grassroots level depend on nature for their livelihood. The Chen administration considered relocating the plant when it was in office. The Ma administration should consider relocating the petrochemical industry. Do not destroy the beautiful environment that Mother Nature has bestowed upon Taiwan.