EARTH Thailand

Give power to the people

Bangkok Post 26 September 2017 | EDITORIAL

The government has once again turned opportunity into needless confrontation over its stubborn stance on energy. Its decision to go ahead with an Egat-run coal-fired plant in Songkhla's Thepa district speaks volumes about the problem.

The Thepha project has drawn criticism from locals, activists and academics over its public hearings, a condition set in the EIA and/or EHIA study process. But Egat dismisses the concerns, and despite the dispute the Office of Natural Resources and Environment Policy and Planning (ONRE) has endorsed the project and defended its stance.

In its explanation, the state officials said concerns over the problematic EHIA process for the Thepa project were a non-issue.

While questions remain over the the controversial project's EHIA, the ONRE, an arm of the National Environment Board, has proposed changes to public-hearing regulations in the Environmental Protection Act that will give more freedom to state authorities and operators of megaprojects to come up with schemes which mostly do more harm than good.

This has prompted activists under the Peoples Network for Sustainable Development to oppose the move. Last week they turned up in Bangkok to voice their concerns.

Currently, public hearings are mandated and, to be blunt, the government and operators of megaprojects go through the motions, a process rendering the studies as meaningless. This was evident in the cases of Thepha and also Krabi, another designated site for a coal-fired plant which has been shelved after irregularities in the EHIA were revealed.

Energy policy is remarkably outdated despite numerous promises made by Prime Minister Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha to update it and make it of vital importance.

The government has pursued tired old strategies from the last century. Huge national projects and numerous deals with foreign governments are the mainstays. The highly disputed coal-fired plants planned for the South are just some of many controversial projects in the pipeline.

Laos, Myanmar and Cambodia have all been co-opted to build hydro-electric projects. Those governments are even more cavalier towards public opinion than Thailand. The Mekong and Salween Rivers in particular are being affected by Thai-backed projects which this government, like others, liken to "the battery of Thailand".

With energy reserve margins exceeding 40%, Egat's ongoing pursuit of new power plants is not justifiable, given the damage they will cause local communities. What we need is a revision of the National Power Development Plant that is more realistic and doesn't unnecessarily burden local people but also consumers in towns.

The Thepa project will -- no argument on this -- destroy Gulf fishing communities in lower Songkhla province, and upper Pattani. Equally destructive, the proposed coal-fired plant in Bamnet Narong district of Chaiyaphum also faces strong opposition as the project will displace hundreds of people and sap much of the region's water to cool the plant.

But if the state insists on continuing to push this, it must pay heed to activists and local people who only ask for meaningful public hearings and proper, modern health and environment impact studies.

These are too much, however, for a government operating under policies fashioned for the industrial revolution of the past. Indeed, experts conclude that Egat's desire to wildly expand power generation is misplaced. The country will not need most of the proposed electricity coming online.

The government and Egat continue to resist implementing a modern energy policy that's more in line with its own "Thailand 4.0" programmes. That would mean, for starters, that alternative energy would get top billing instead of coal. But the government risks potentially dangerous showdowns in the near future, and not just with civil society. The public must have influence in any large and possibly harmful projects.