Kunming PX Environmental Assessment Under Fire

Environmental groups have attacked the impact assessment report for a planned PX plant near Kunming, published late last month following major protests against the project. The report deemed risks from the plant “acceptable,” but made no mention of the public concern that forced its release. From Luna Lin at chinadialogue:

According to Ma Jun, IPE’s founder, “There isn’t any proof of public participation in the EIA report or its appendix … Also, the conclusion section of the report lacks a summary of public attitudes towards the project.”

The current temporary regulation for public participation in environmental impact assessment requires all EIA reports to include sections on public participation. Green Watershed’s director Yu Xiaogang said that the lack of this section means the approval given by the Ministry of Environmental Protection does not accord with the existing regulation. “Therefore, approval should be revoked,” he said.

[…] Though the release of the EIA report itself could be seen as progress – a government official said in May that the EIA report of the refinery project was listed as an official secret – environmentalists were unimpressed.

“Given the great public environmental interest in this project, PetroChina’s Kunming refinery has disclosed very limited information at this early stage,” said Li Bo from Friends of Nature. [Source]

chinadialogue editor Liu Jianqiang cites this episode in response to industry and official claims that PX has been unfairly demonized, including a recent suggestion in People’s Daily that the chemical is no more carcinogenic than coffee. He argues that “furtive” opacity on the part of businesses and local governments is the real cause of public distrust and opposition [in Chinese - English translation to follow].

“What I don’t completely understand,” he writes, “is why industry and local government would sneak around keeping a project so harmless and so very significant to the national economy under wraps. […] They must come to realize that what incites public suspicion, panic and opposition is not necessarily a particular project’s ‘toxicity’, but policymakers’ irregular and ‘demonizing’ conduct. However good a project is, procedural irregularities will inevitably bring about ‘demonization,’ placing obstacles in its path. If only things are managed publicly, transparently, legally, and with respect for locals’ rights, people will be able to resolve these issues in a regular and rational way.”

The problem does not stop at China’s borders. The Kunming PX plant is part of a broader scheme focused on $5 billion gas and oil pipelines through Myanmar from the Indian Ocean. These may help alleviate China’s energy security ‘Malacca Dilemma’, but bring their own complications as the formerly reliable satellite state drifts into a less predictable orbit. In a Caijing article republished at chinadialogue, Li Yi explains that Chinese companies’ failings in public communication are proving a serious liability in Myanmar’s changing political climate:

With Thein Sein’s elected government replacing the military junta and Aung San Suu Kyi freed, China is facing new problems in Myanmar. The change of government has seen repeated setbacks at two of its major projects, the Myitsone dam and the Letpadaung copper mine. The other major project is the oil and gas pipelines, strongly opposed by locals and NGOs since the start, but which were built with the support of the old junta.

[…] French oil giant Total similarly encountered opposition when building a gas pipeline to Thailand in the ocean south of Rangoon – locals and NGOs resisted the project. Total set up a public relations office dedicated to maintaining its image locally, and has continued that work for more than a decade. Jiang Heng, a researcher with the Ministry of Commerce’s Transnationals Research Institute, explained: “How detailed are an international oil firm’s evaluations of potential conflict? How often do demonstrations happen locally? How often are roads blocked? What is the history and status quo of conflict between the different stakeholders and between different projects? There will be a systematic evaluation of these prior to investment, and real-time monitoring during operation. It’s all quite scientific.” But Chinese firms fail almost completely to do this.

[…] “For a long time we just worried about government licenses, we didn’t care about a ‘social license’ from civil society. That meant huge losses, and Chinese firms should realise that,” said Jiang Heng. [Source]

The Myitsone dam’s own environmental impact assessment, apparently ignored and kept secret for almost two years, found the project not only harmful, but unnecessary. On the other hand, Total’s south-east Asian operations have not been blemish-free either, with accusations surfacing in 2009 that forced labor was used in Myanmar to build part of its Yadana pipeline.