The Cabinet has been caught in a dilemma over changes to the minimum wage, between considerations of the economy versus workers’ rights. After losing Council of Labor Affairs Minister Jennifer Wang (王如玄) over this policy, the government is now faced with another dilemma, between economic development and the environment.
The Environmental Protection Administration (EPA) has once again refused to approve the environmental impact assessment (EIA) of Formosa Plastic Corp’s naphtha cracker expansion in Yunlin County’s Mailiao Township (麥寮), a decision that has angered Formosa Plastics and the Ministry of Economic Affairs.
When the NT$6 billion (US$204 million) project failed its EIA, the ministry asked the EPA to explain why it was so concerned about volatile organic compounds being present in the paint on pipes. Restrictions placed on these compounds were why the project failed the EIA. If these restrictions were applied to industrial zones, science parks and private development projects across the nation, it would have a grievous impact on Taiwan’s ability to attract foreign investment.
Formosa Plastic’s naphtha cracker has a poor record on pollution and has caused several disasters that pose a threat to public health. However, both the plant management and the ministry were pretty confident that the expansion project would pass its EIA this time, keeping contact with the public or environmental groups to a minimum, and promoting the plan by themselves. It seems their confidence was misplaced. EPA Minister Stephen Shen (沈世宏) criticized the expanding the plant in an area where poor air quality already exceeds allowable limits.
This problem has resurfaced at a time when the Cabinet led by Premier Sean Chen (陳冲) is plagued by contentious issues such as placing a capital gains tax on securities transactions or raising the minimum wage. These policies are part and parcel of the “five pillars” — economic growth, social justice, a “green” environment, cultural development and talent cultivation — that President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) highlighted in his second inaugural speech. Now the government is discovering that some of these pillars are mutually exclusive, so it must choose which ones it will prioritize.
Given that the Cabinet seems to favor the economic argument, it is extremely likely the naphtha cracker expansion will be resurrected. However, it remains to be seen if Shen will insist on keeping to the Air Pollution Control Act (空氣污染防制法). If the expansion plan eventually does pass its EIA, Ma will have to square government policy with his rhetoric last year on the Kuokuang Petrochemical Technology’s own naphtha cracker expansion, when he said both the economy and the environment were important, but if there were any concerns about economic development damaging the environment, the latter would take precedence.
Of course there will always be differences of opinion within the Cabinet, but conflicts in policy implementation are certainly avoidable. The Cabinet should not be sacrificing important values such as social justice and environmental protection to concentrate exclusively on the economy at every turn.
The president, premier and the Cabinet should be very clear among themselves about issues and where the government stands on them — there is no need for the ministry and the EPA to come to blows. Senior officials should also not be using their clout to sideline environmental considerations.
The government should keep itself above these kinds of frays, ensuring everything is done according to the rules. It should demand that Formosa Corp’s naphtha cracker expansion complies with the requirements in the Air Pollution Control Act and to the satisfaction of the EPA. If it achieves this and presides over the final completion of the expansion, everyone will be content.