Needed: Alternatives to the Kuo Kuang Petrochemical Plant
China Times editorial (Taipei, Taiwan, ROC)
April 8, 2011
An anti-Kuo Kuang Petrochemical Plant banquet has once again stirred up economic and environmental controversy. The Changhua Medical Association and related groups recently held an "All People's Just Say No to Kuo Kuang Petrochemical, Ten Thousand Man Health Promotion Banquet" in Fangyuan. DPP presidential contenders Su Tseng-chang and Tsai Ing-wen made personal appearances, as did President Ma Ying-jeou, Tsai Ing-wen and Su Cheng Tsang seldom appear in the same venue as potential rival President Ma Ying-jeou. Tsai Ing-wen and Su Tseng-chang tested each others' mettle. Tsai and Su were both applauded for signing a memorandum of understanding. President Ma on the other hand, refused to play along. The next day President Ma traveled south for the second time, and paid a visit the Kuo Kuang Petrochemical Plant wetlands building site.
During these anti-Kuo Kuang ideological debates, Tsai Ing-wen suggested moving the Kuo Kuang Petrochemical Plant to the Middle East. Su Tseng-chang stressed that when the ruling DPP first promoted the Kuo Kuang Petrochemical Plant project, the site was in Yunlin, and that the DPP government never pulled its punches. The EIA failed to pass. Nevertheless he refrained from exerting any pressure. Now however, the current administration wants to build it within a large city. He feels this must not be allowed to happen, Valuable wetlands must not be destroyed. Tsai Ing-wen wants to move the petrochemical industry to the Middle East. Former President Lee Teng-hui also entered the fray. He said Tsai Ing-wen did not understand the issues. He said the current administration has provided accurate information to the public and is moving in the right direction.
President Ma Ying-jeou is being relatively cautious. Su Tseng-chang and Tsai Ing-wen have expressed open opposition to the Kuo Kuang Petrochemical Plant project. But when President Ma visited Changhua and discussed the issue with local officials, they informed him that when Su Tseng-chang was premier and Tsai Ing-wen was vice premier, Su and Tsai backed the project, full force. Su and Tsai referred to their flagship project as "a major investment that would provide an abundance of warmth." Su and Tsai have cavalierly performed an about face. They have disowned their own policy with the wave of a hand. But the construction of the Kuo Kuang Petrochemical Plant project is crucial to Taiwan's environmental sustainability and industrial policy. President Ma attended the banquet. His presence represented a willingness on the part of his administration to exercise caution.
The Kuo Kuang Petrochemical Plant project is crucial to both continued industrial development and environmental sustainabity. The issue has rightly been elevated in importance, to something that the president considers relevant to national security.
Consider the economics. This is a huge investment of over 400 billion NT. Economically, it is absolutely essential. But environmentally, the Kuo Kuang Petrochemical Plant will emit huge quantities of greenhouse gas. It will also consume huge quantities of water. The selected site raises concerns over wetland conservation. Add to this the problem of endangered white dolphins. Groundwater pumping has led to serious problems with ground subsidence. Therefore the fate of the Kuo Kuang Petrochemical Plant will be determined by a combination of old and familiar economic and environmental factors.
In the past, such controversial economic and environmental hot potatoes were passed on to environmental impact assessment officials. Everyone in authority said that as long as it cleared the EIA, it could be built. If it failed to clear the EIA, it could not be built. But this did not resolve disputes. Failure to clarify matters merely generated greater confusion. It discredited the environmental impact assessment process in the minds of the public.
The environmental impact assessment process enables decision-makers to better understand environmental issues and environmental impacts. Policy makers can then weigh the economic, environmental, and other factors to arrive at a decision. Public dissatisfaction can be expressed through the machinery of democracy. Therefore the environmental impact assessment process should allow more alternatives. It should enable scholars and experts to assess the feasibility and merits of alternative solutions. Its conclusions would ultimately be submitted to decision makers, who would make the selection.
Consider the Kuo Kuang Petrochemical Plant. Currently the only site undergoing EIA review is the one in Changhua. Suppose Su Tseng-chang's proposal could be built in other locales? Suppose Tsai Ing-wen's proposal to build the plant in the Middle East was also an option? Every solution has its advantages and disadvantages. For example, if one rules out shipping the Kuo Kuang Petrochemical Plant overseas, one immediately runs into a problem. Shipping the plants overseas leads to domestic unemployment. According to Ministry of Economic Affairs estimates, the Jen-wu and Ta-shi Petrochemical Zones employ nearly 120,000 people. If one includes sock manufacturing, an industry well down the production stream, that number reaches as high as 400,000. But this represents only the economic aspect. If one sets up factories overseas, then Taiwan will have no problem with carbon dioxide emissions, because there will be no domestic pollution.
The EIA of the Kuo Kuang Petrochemical Plant project is not yet complete. But the controversy has already reached the policy level. Therefore the EIA must address the fundamentals. It must consider alternatives to the Kuo Kuang Petrochemical Plant. If the Kuo Kuang Petrochemical Plant is not built, or if it is not built here, what will beconme of Taiwan's petrochemical industry? Do we have any alternatives? How many people will be affected? How can we minimize the damage? If the project is built, or if it is built on another site, will that address the environmental problems? Will that allay public fears? These issues must undergo detailed assessment. In the end, decision makers must exercise their best judgment. If voters choose intelligent leaders, disagreements can be resolved, and we can emerge from our dilemma.