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Environment

WWF-Hong Kong fears lack of oversight over offshore natural gas facility as council meeting to discuss environmental impact is scrapped

Members of government committee play down concerns, saying majority sit on subcommittee that has already vetted CLP Power’s report

PUBLISHED : Monday, 10 September, 2018, 9:16am
UPDATED : Monday, 10 September, 2018, 9:15am

A council meeting of government advisers to discuss the environmental impact of a planned offshore natural gas facility near Lantau Island has been scrapped, raising concerns from a green group that any decision will be “rubber-stamped”.

The Advisory Council on the Environment shelved the full council meeting as a subcommittee had already vetted CLP Power’s environmental impact assessment (EIA) thoroughly.

The EIA subcommittee – which 17 of the 22 council members sit on – gave the nod for the project, an offshore liquefied natural gas receiving terminal, on July 23, attached with six recommendations and 11 suggestions.

The terminal – estimated to cost about HK$6 billion and take at least 21 months to build – was proposed in 2016 to allow the city to buy natural gas from a wider range of sources at more competitive prices. It currently relies on a limited piped supply.

The council will make an official recommendation, pending comments and concerns from other members, and pass it onto the director of environmental protection, its chairman Stanley Wong Yuen-fai said.

But there will be no public deliberation in council, and the project’s backer will not have to present its case again.

“I’ve never heard of this happening before, at least for a project of such scale,” said WWF-Hong Kong conservationist Samantha Lee Mei-wah, whose group strongly opposes the project.

Lee’s group has argued that the facility would harm marine life and compromise a planned marine protected area nearby.

Offshore gas facility is ‘environmentally acceptable’, CLP Power report says

“If the full council doesn’t have to discuss anything, how is it to serve as a gatekeeper?” Lee said.

The conservationist said the full council would normally meet to discuss even the most obscure and trivial of agendas.

But, council and subcommittee members were not too worried.

“I don’t think this is too contentious,” said member Dr Eric Tsang Po-keung, who is also an expert on EIAs at Education University. “If most members are on the subcommittee anyway, and have no major disagreements, the council can come to a decision via circulation.”

He stressed the subcommittee meeting, like the full council one, was also open to members of the public and press.

If anything, Tsang said, the discussion should be whether technical requirements of EIAs should be tightened to hold supporters of a particular project to higher standards.

“Under the law, it is hard for any EIAs to be rejected,” he said.

Council member Dr Hung Wing-tat, one of the more outspoken and critical voices on the statutory body, agreed.

“Usually only controversial projects, like the airport’s third runway system, where members are not in agreement, are discussed again in council,” he said. “But I can tell you these things almost always get endorsed.”

With many conservative voices on the body, dissenters were rarely able to block an endorsement, Hung added. Figures show that very few EIAs have been rejected since the EIA Ordinance came into effect in 1998.

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Wong, the chairman, said such arrangements were not the exception, but the norm, particularly for projects that were not considered large.

“Basically, there was unanimity in the subcommittee,” Wong said.

A spokesman for the Environmental Protection Department said: “According to [standard] practice, if there is nothing on the agenda other than the report that the EIA subcommittee has already accepted, the council meeting may be cancelled.”

But, Lee argued: “This is not a small project at all. It sets a bad precedent. Can they also skip meetings to discuss controversial projects like land reclamation in the future?”

The government wants the city to burn less coal and be generating at least half of its power from relatively cleaner natural gas starting in 2020.