Oil refinery snub marks arrival of Taiwan's environmental movement

Taiwan has sidelined a proposal for a new factory that would have threatened endangered dolphins, signaling a new priority on environmental considerations.

By , Correspondent

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    A pink dolphin swims in the Rio Negro in Brazil. In Taiwan's west coast, a steep dropoff of rare pink-hued dolphins is blamed largely on pollution from the high number of coastal factories that have driven economic growth at the cost of the environment over the past three decades.
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About 100 rare pink-hued dolphins still swim off Taiwan's west coast, a steep dropoff blamed largely on pollution from the high number of coastal factories that have driven economic growth at the cost of the environment over the past three decades.

Now, rebuilding the dolphin population is getting priority over building more factories.

In the latest signal that Taiwan is increasingly placing environmental concerns over economic growth, President Ma Ying-jeou of the historically pro-development Nationalist party announced over the weekend that he opposes building a massive petrochemical plant on the west coast that would have further threatened a dolphin population only discovered in 2002.

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The president's response, after three years of wrangling over the the $24.1 billion, 300,000 barrels-per-day Kuokuang Petrochemical refinery complex, came after public hearings April 21 and April 22 drew more than 400 people. Project opponents came by the busload to remind the government that it must consider a maturing, expanding environmental movement.

The showdown over the petrochemical plant and the president's condemnation of the project signal that the industrialized island's environmental concerns have reached a critical mass where officials are suddenly factoring in popular sentiment before issuing permits. The refinery's fate is likely to set a tone for future projects that threaten air quality, open space, or wildlife – a shift from decades of fast economic growth that led Taiwan to become one of Asia's four economic tigers in the 1980s along with Hong Kong, Singapore, and South Korea.

"Taiwan's public has begun to consider whether we need more heavy industry," says Kan Chen-yi, secretary of the Taiwan Mazu Fish Conservation Union, a group that led the petrochemical plant opposition. "Everything has an economic angle, and the GDP is a consideration, but it's not the only one anymore."

Dolphins rally opponents

Environmental groups feared that the refinery complex, led by Taiwan's state-run CPC Corp, would foul the air and hurt the population of pink-hued Indo-Pacific humpback dolphins that swim near the already polluted shore. The past 30 years of industrialization has negatively affected the dolphin population "and there is no reason to believe that the causes have stopped, or even slowed," according to the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

CPC declined comment on the project last week. Its only recourse now is to reapply from scratch.

"The government does not support Kuokuang Petrochemical's position on investment in Changhua County," President Ma said in unusually blunt language April 23, referring to the area where the project may threaten migratory dolphins and air quality.

He did not completely nix the plant, saying project leaders would "use this opportunity to review Taiwan's whole industrial structure and policy direction, promote an upgrade of the petrochemical industry, and move toward high-value development."

How environmentalists gained a voice

The president's remarks are a milestone victory for Taiwan's environmental movement after decades of seeing their concerns ignored. Environmentalists first became active here in the 1980s, especially after the deadly Chernobyl nuclear meltdown in 1986, but made little headway under a previous Nationalist government that staunchly backed development.

When the opposition Democratic Progressive Party held power from 2000 to 2008, officials brought environmental concerns into the fold, killing a Bayer pharmaceutical factory application and freezing earlier plans for a fourth nuclear power plant. But the opposition was widely faulted for stalling economic development, holding back wages and job creation.

But since 2008, environmental protests led by people who have seen enough development, particularly in their own backyards, have reached a new intensity as activists improve on organizational skills, media savvy, and making friends in parliament.

Over the past year, they have brought tougher air-quality inspections to an existing petrochemical plant that caught fire twice last year and organized large-scale antinuclear protests since the March 11 Japan earthquake and subsequent nuclear crisis.

"It has been building for a long time," says Linda Arrigo, a US citizen who works with Taiwan's Green Party. Media images and films on climate change have raised public consciousness, she adds. "I think that has left a big mark in people's minds."

Balancing business with green initiatives

Seeking a balance between development and environmentalism, the government has made permit reviews more transparent, started monitoring the greenhouse gas output of major polluters, and set the ambitious emission reduction targets of cutting carbon dioxide by 2020 to 2005 levels of about 257 million metric tons.

These measures come as a stubborn haze often blankets much of industrial southwest Taiwan and the dense 23 million-population island's emblematic mammal, the Formosan black bear, dwindles to between 200 and 300 due to habitat encroachment.

Clean air and space for animals are not the only reasons behind the government's attempt to balance economic development, say economists and business leaders.

Although some foreign firms may avoid Taiwan in favor of regions with laxer regulations, others – especially those that prize social responsibility – will prefer the island over some of its Asian peers as environmental rules become more transparent or predictable even if they are more numerous, they say.

Case-by-case decision-making that allows some projects but scraps others would discourage outside investment.

"The reason is because of a lack of policy transparency and consistency, as firms would have difficulty in ensuring that their investment projects will go smoothly even if they got approval from the government," says Cheng Cheng-mount, chief economist with Citibank Taipei.

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