Wed, Sep 15, 2010 - Page 8 News List

Kuokuang argument full of holes

By Tai Hsing-sheng 戴興盛

Even after recent concerns over the proposed Kuokuang Petrochemical Technology Co plant have been voiced on numerous occasions by both the public and academics, the government seems to be plowing ahead with its plans.

Minister of Economic Affairs Shih Yen-shiang (施顏祥), in an interview with the Chinese-language magazine Business Weekly, and then President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九), articulated the government’s reasons for wanting to press on with the project.

First, they said, it is important for Taiwan to have its own petrochemical industry lest it find itself having to rely on imports for ethylene within the next 15 years, given the increasing demand for the chemical. The decline of the industry would also put hundreds of thousands of jobs in mid and downstream industries at risk. Then there is the risk of putting all our eggs in one basket: With Kuokuang gone, Formosa Plastics Corp would be the sole remaining player in Taiwan’s petrochemicals industry. Finally, they say, Kuokuang has made efforts to clean up its act, and the latest plant will have less impact on the environment than previous incarnations.

These arguments are full of holes. Firstly the government, as it is wont to do, has pulled out a raft of industry statistics and reports to address people’s concerns over the huge potential environmental impact of the development. These facts and figures show that, given the increasing demand for the chemical products it is to produce, they have no alternative but to allow for the plant to go ahead. Their hands are tied. It is a necessary evil.

The problem is, behind these so-called industry statistics lie independently unverifiable assumptions. It’s the old sausage of manipulating figures by using extrapolations based on hypothetical outcomes. One can say that demand will increase in the future if incomes continue to increase at a certain rate, but that is a big assumption. Things are rarely that simple.

I will restrict myself to a single example. Many years ago the Environmental Protection Administration (EPA) recommended building more incinerators to deal with a potential problem based on the assumption that the amount of household garbage was getting out of hand.

That was just before people started having to recycle a significant proportion of household waste, which meant that the amount of general, non-­recyclable garbage actually fell. Suddenly, there wasn’t enough trash to feed the incinerators. Basically, the incinerator policy was based on a flawed assumption. In other words, it is possible to achieve a sustainable future with the correct combination of national policy and hard work on the part of the public.

Unfortunately, it isn’t often that the government considers alternative, more sustainable options to established policies that were originally based on misguided ideas or, worse, commercial interests.

VIABLE ALTERNATIVES

As citizens of this country, we have the right to demand that the government does its best to come up with viable alternatives and to expose the available options to fair competition on a level playing field.

Let’s say, for example, that the government manages to develop a policy that makes industry greener without actually having any adverse effects on the economy. Say they come up with a way to reduce the amount of petrochemical products we need, negating the need for a new plant and thus being more environmentally friendly. This would be a great achievement for the government, but it would also be good for the public.

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