Academic journal article China Perspectives

Resisting Naphtha Crackers: A Historical Survey of Environmental Politics in Taiwan

Academic journal article China Perspectives

Resisting Naphtha Crackers: A Historical Survey of Environmental Politics in Taiwan

Article excerpt

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Environmental discontent in the "petrochemical kingdom"

The petrochemical industry, which consumes energy and water while at the same time releasing massive amounts of toxic air, wastewater, and greenhouse gases, exacts a heavy environmental toll, particularly in resource-poor and densely populated Taiwan. Its expansion has given rise to widespread resistance, propelling the development of Taiwan's environmentalism. However, the existing literature in English gives scant attention to this type of environmental grievance. It was a research topic for some earlier dissertations, (1) and there have been attempts to understand the local and religious dimension of anti-petrochemical protests.(2)A nationallevel survey of its trajectory over the past three decades is long overdue.

Comparatively, the movement against nuclear energy seems to have garnered more attention, presumably because its high political profile has repeatedly triggered intensive partisan struggles. (3) There are, however, inherent limits to understanding the contour of Taiwan's environmental politics exclusively through the lens of anti-nuclear protests. The nuclear controversy has mainly concentrated on the ill-fated fourth nuclear power plant, which was planned in the early 1980s and is still being constructed amid increasing opposition. There has been no further expansion of nuclear energy since then. Hence the dispute, for all its intensity and visibility, has been largely contained in terms of the region and population directly affected. Taiwan's petrochemical industry, on the other hand, has undergone steady up-grading and up-scaling in capacity since the advent of the mass environmental movement. Geographically, it has also spanned different regions as petrochemical producers constantly seek new sites (see Map 1). Moreover, petrochemical development in Taiwan was often planned as a mega-project involving large-scale land reclamation and the construction of harbours and industrial complexes. While the fourth nuclear power plant was heavily criticised for its inflated budget (NT$274 billion), it is dwarfed by petrochemical projects (the Kuokuang project of 2008 was estimated to require NT$620 billion in investment). With this in mind, this article takes a close look at the historical evolution of popular reaction to petrochemical pollution.

In terms of its natural endowments, Taiwan is not an ideal location to develop a petrochemical industry. Not only is the island deficient in the production of natural gas and petroleum, but its high population density also aggravates the health consequences of pollution. Unforeseeable historical contingencies, however, have turned out to be a more potent force than geographical preconditions, transforming Taiwan into what economic officials like to call a "petrochemical kingdom" (shihua wangguo...).

In 1941, as the Japanese colonial government was preparing for the coming Pacific War, a petroleum refinery was built in Kaohsiung (...) to service the imperial fleet. The Sixth Navy Fuel Plant, then the second largest in Asia, laid the foundations for the state-owned China Petroleum Corporation's (zhongguo shiyou gongsi...) Kaohsiung Refinery in the postwar era. The United States advisors recommended a privately-owned plastic industry to stimulate economic growth, and American loans helped establish the Formosa Plastics Group (tai su jituan ...) when it began manufacturing polyvinyl chloride in 1954. A joint investment by American Gulf Oil and China Petroleum Corporation brought lubricant production to Taiwan in 1963.

The termination of American aid in 1965 made it necessary for Taiwan to be more economically self-reliant. There was an ambitious state-sponsored plan to produce upstream petrochemical materials for domestic consumpThe tion. China Petroleum Corporation built its naphtha cracker No. 1 (yi qing ...)(4) in 1968. During the "Ten Major Development Projects" (shi da jianshe. …

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