If you thought the controversy over the coal-fired power plant planned for the southern province of Krabi is over, and it’s back to Square One, think again.
In fact, both the government and those opposed to the scheme have simply decided to take half a step back. The protest at Government House was called off after the government said it would relaunch the project’s EIA (environmental impact assessment) and EHIA (environmental and health impact assessment) last week.
Neither side can really claim victory. The confrontation could resume if a new round of talks fails to produce a mutually acceptable solution.
The temporary truce came as a surprise to most observers. Tensions had risen when protesters at Government House got news that the National Energy Committee, chaired by the prime minister, had given the green light for the controversial project. The anti-coal groups immediately stepped up their rhetoric. Overnight, however, the Cabinet beat a retreat, declaring the plan would have to wait because studies of its impact on the local environmental and health had yet to be completed.
What seemed a major climb-down by the government prompted victory celebrations among activists. That sense of joy proved short-lived, however. The next day, officials were quick to caution that the decision shouldn’t be interpreted as a move to scrap the scheme. In fact, the project was still very much alive. The only change was the order to redo the impact studies.
The crux of the issue now is whether the fresh EIA and EHIA studies will satisfy those who remain sceptical over initial findings that coal is “safe” enough for the South.
Opponents spearheaded by the Save Andaman from Coal conservation group insist that the new panel assigned to conduct the studies must be truly independent. They add that the Electricity Generating Authority (Egat) not be given the sole authority to decide who should be handed that important task.
The main contentious points therefore are: How independent and professional are the EIA and EHIA panels? And, what methods will be adopted to arrive at conclusions that will be used to decide whether to go ahead or to scrap the coal-fuelled power project?
The pace won’t be speedy and the process won’t be easy. The two studies could take up to six years to complete – and by then, the whole energy-supply landscape may have undergone another upheaval.
Even if the studies end up supporting Egat’s arguments that coal is “clean” enough to produce power for the South, the opponents intend to insist on an extra clause: All members of the study groups must sign an agreement with the Krabi residents to the effect that, if any negative impacts are detected in the implementation process, they will personally pay compensation for the losses involved, both human and material.
That condition inevitably increases the threat of failure hanging over the renewed negotiations.
No doubt, the anti-coal movement will continue to question Egat’s main contention that energy supply security will be at risk if the power plant is not launched on time.
Those questions include:
1. How reliable is the forecast that the South may run out of power in the near future if the Krabi power plant is not built?
2. Why insist on coal? Why is it that the options to use alternative energy sources have been dismissed completely?
3. If the claim that coal is cheaper and more efficient is verified, what will be the “actual cost” in terms of potential damage done to the local environment, health and tourist attractions?
4. If, as Egat claims, the push for the coal-fuelled plant has nothing to do with the state enterprise’s investment in coal mines in Indonesia, why is it so insistent on using only coal?
The debate will continue to simmer, and the public deserves to be updated regularly with full and transparent information on the pros and cons of the project. Otherwise heated controversies will overwhelm what is a crucial national issue.