Fri, Mar 15, 2019 - Page 13 News List

Highways and Byways: Exploring Kuantien’s gas fields

In addition to a number of gas wells, this area in central Tainan also has an ecological park and a district known for its good fengshui

By Steven Crook  /  Contributing reporter

The roof at Longhuyan Temple has lost much of its ceramic-applique decoration.

Photo: Steven Crook

It would have made for a fairy-tale presidency. Local boy wins election to the highest office in the land — and then it’s discovered that the town where he grew up in poverty is sitting on a hugely valuable natural gas field.

It didn’t quite happen like that, of course. Former president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) was born in 1950 in what’s now Kuantien District (官田), smack in the middle of Tainan. He isn’t, to put it mildly, the most revered ex-politician in Taiwan. It’s been many years since tourists queued to see his childhood home in the village of Sijhuang (西庄), a few hundred meters north of the Zengwen River (曾文溪). Nor has Kuantien become Taiwan’s Qatar.

In June 2004 — a few months after Chen narrowly won a second term in office — media reports said that the Kuantien gas field contained an estimated 400 million cubic meters of reserves valued at NT$2.5 billion. The following year, however, the numbers were scaled back to 150 million cubic meters worth NT$1 billion. Then, in December 2012, a report on the Liberty Times (the Taipei Times’ sister newspaper) Web site pointed out that the 86 million cubic meters of natural gas which the authorities hoped to extract from the only productive site in the area, Kuantien No. 4 Well (官田4號井), would be enough to meet Taiwan’s gas needs for just three days.

Gas-extraction infrastructure is visible to anyone traveling by train between Tainan and Chiayi. Kuantien No. 2 Well (官田2號井) is just inland of Longtian Railway Station (隆田車站), and best approached via Taiwan Highway 1. Arriving by bicycle, I found the intersection of Highway 1 and Highway 165, then took the little farmers’ road opposite. It heads west, straight toward the railroad, and after 100m or so, I saw the gas well on my left.

Unlike the four or five places in southern Taiwan where natural gas seeps out of the ground and burns throughout the year, this isn’t a conventional tourist attraction. A sturdy fence stops outsiders from getting too close to the red, yellow and silver equipment that caps and monitors the well. The entire area within the perimeter has been covered with gravel, like a Zen garden that’s never raked. There are no trees or bushes; whenever grass tries to establish a foothold, the upkeep crew responds with herbicide. The site looks perfectly maintained — for reasons of safety, no doubt, but also in case a technological advance makes extraction financially worthwhile.

Signs on the fence tell people entry is forbidden, and that smoking isn’t allowed. The latter is charmingly old-fashioned: A red line through the kind of tobacco pipe my grandfather smoked, and which I don’t think I’ve ever seen in Taiwan.

Another place of interest is located less than 1km southwest of Kuantien No. 2 Well. The Pheasant-Tailed Jacana Ecological Education Zone (水雉生態教育園區) was created in the late 1990s after environmental groups protested that the high-speed railway would run through wetlands at Hulupi (葫蘆埤), a key breeding location for the Pheasant-tailed jacana.

This wader species isn’t globally endangered, but the population in Taiwan dwindled to a few hundred because many of its habitats were drained and developed. Conservation efforts seem to have reversed the bird’s decline, but pedaling through the countryside here, I saw plenty of evidence of another ecological problem.

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