The Wild at Heart Legal Defense Association, a Taiwanese environmental organization, has been taking the government to task for a number of legal issues related to various permits issued to wind farms based on what it alleges are “deeply flawed” environmental impact assessments (EIAs) and other legally required procedures.
Wild at Heart has said that the project — which is one of the world’s largest energy development projects, with investment in the billions of US dollars — is certain to have severe ecological consequences, including the likely extinction of one of the world’s rarest cetaceans, the Taiwanese white dolphin (Sousa chinensis taiwanensis),Taiwan’s only endemic dolphin species.
The so-called “thousand turbine project” (3 gigawatt target for offshore wind by 2025) is just one of many planned infrastructure projects in Taiwan that are officially deemed environmentally sound, despite posing serious risks to the Taiwanese white dolphin, as well as a number of other unassessed or underassessed social and environmental impacts.
For example, construction is being proposed for more fossil-fuel facilities both in newly discovered “suitable” white dolphin habitat in coastal Taoyuan — along the northwestern coast of Taiwan — as well as in the confirmed dolphin habitat around the Taichung harbor.
The Taoyuan habitat is shared with a planned liquefied natural gas facility, as well as being adjacent to the ancient and extremely fragile algal reef that has raised public ire over the “incomplete and incompetent” EIAs, as well charges that the government (including state-owned developers/proponents CPC Corp, Taiwan and Taiwan Power Co) has ignored the relatively recently enacted Coastal Zone Management Act (海岸管理法).
All along Taiwan’s west coast the government has approved plans for other companies to expand petrochemical facilities, power plants, all at the expense of fishers, the Taiwanese white dolphins and countless other long-term inhabitants of the area.
According to marine acoustics and conservation experts, the EIAs that were carried out for the Taiwan coastal wind farms significantly underestimated the impact on this declining population of dolphins (fewer than 70 remain); in fact, no assessment was done on noise impact on their behavior.
In addition, whatever baseline noise data that might exist has not been made public and thus the estimated impacts and mitigation proposed by the developers cannot be independently assessed by third parties.
This is a dangerous trend and it could unravel the biodiversity and ecosystem services given the trophic significance of the Taiwanese white dolphin and the failure to date of the government to adequately address the other major threats to the dolphins, including gill net fisheries, lack of fresh water flow (impacts the dolphins’ prey) and one of the most seriously polluted coastal areas on the planet.
Apparently the government is just going for the investment and ignoring the environment with billions of dollars expected to be invested in the wind farms and other habitat-challenging projects.
While urgent action is needed to ensure that investment decisions account for projects’ real environmental consequences, developers understandably believe that the government’s EIA approval means they can go ahead without worry.
However, even for the meager “mitigation” offered by the wind farm developers, the government seems to have neither resources nor resolve to monitor and enforce.
While the parties to the UN Economic Commission for Europe agreed in 1991 to a convention on strategic environmental assessments (SEAs) in transboundary contexts and the majority of investment in Taiwan’s offshore wind farms is coming from Europe, one must wonder whether Taiwan is such an attractive place for European wind farm developers and investors on account of our lack of UN membership?
Taiwan did conduct a local SEA on this wind farm project, however, the SEA proponent, the Bureau of Energy under the Ministry of Economic Affairs, is the very government entity promoting the wind farm development; the SEA was simply a ploy to hasten the review of the individual development projects, which had been given a deadline of December 2017 to complete the EIA review — so the Bureau of Energy was basically dictating to the EIA agency, the Environmental Protection Administration, how long it could take to assess the development project.
So, once again, form over substance prevails. The reasoning behind the Taiwan SEA process was no different than that adopted by the UN: a recognition that SEAs are needed to ensure that the decisions taken by governments and companies do not cause undue damage to the natural environment or the people who depend on it.
However, as the examples cited above reveal, the Taiwan SEA for the wind farm project did fulfill their intended purpose under the Environmental Impact Assessment Act (環境影響評估法). This is largely because the technical specialists relied on in the SEAs and EIAs are hired and paid for by the project developers and the government agencies promoting the development — a practice that, as advocates have repeatedly pointed out throughout the world, is grossly unethical.
With the assessors frequently basing their conclusions on only a superficial appraisal of the ecological and market value of the affected ecosystems, it should be no surprise that damaging projects are often approved, despite failing to adhere to broadly agreed green development guidelines.
To play an effective role in protecting the planet and its people, SEAs must be rigorous, credible and transparent. This means that they must be conducted by well-regulated, impartial professionals.
To some extent, the laws and institutions needed to make this happen already exist: SEAs are legally required in many jurisdictions, and the International Association for Impact Assessment could provide self-regulation.
Robin Winkler is the founder and a board member of the Wild at Heart Legal Defense Association, Taiwan.
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