DILI Thursday, June 18, 2009 5:51 AM By Gabrielle Dunlevy DILI, Timor, June 18 AAP - A plan to use second-hand, heavy polluting power stations from China to supply Timor Leste's future energy needs is headed for the courts.
The fledgling nation's government last year announced it would buy three heavy oil power stations and the associated infrastructure from a Chinese company for $US381 million ($A480.76 million).
The government promised the plan would give continuous electricity to the nation's population of one million by the end of 2010.
But critics have questioned the choice of heavy oil, which would have to be imported to the gas-rich nation at a high cost, and would create problems around transport and waste.
Among those against the plan is the Fretilin opposition party, which is preparing a legal challenge on the basis the proposal was not subject to proper scrutiny.
Fretilin spokesman Jose Teixeira said the government had settled on the technology in a closed tender process and without an independent assessment, despite countries around the world deciding to phase out heavy oil, viewing it as toxic and obsolete.
"The law is in place that says that you have to look at the environmental impact first," Mr Teixeira said.
"Also our constitution is one of the few in the world that stipulates that the development of the nation is to be done in an ecologically sustainable manner."
The government has been guarded about the deal with the Chinese Nuclear Industry 22nd Construction Company, refusing to release documents to the media or the opposition.
It continues to be rocked by accusations of corruption and nepotism relating to government contracts, the most notable involving Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao last year awarding a lucrative rice contract to his friend Germanu da Silva, who is also a member of his party.
Fretilin says the secrecy and haste of the plan raises further suspicions.
Mr Teixeira said overseas developers were eyeing Timor Leste for luxury hotels and casinos, and questioned whether the government was not rushing to accommodate their power needs, rather than those of the population.
The Asian Development Bank had reported Timor Leste's future power needs were only 110 megawatts by 2025, while the heavy oil plan would supply 220 megawatts within two years, he said.
"Most people still only need electricity to have a light - people still can't afford to have fridges, televisions and all of those things," Mr Teixeira said.
Fretilin is not the only party with concerns about heavy oil.
Partido Unidade Nacional MP Fernanda Borges said the government had its priorities wrong, and agreed there was greater potential for corruption when the government was pushing plans through parliament without transparency.
"They want to get quick results, and quick results can only come with these big projects - that are not geared towards poverty reduction but really just to show that we have succeeded in terms of getting East Timor to post-war standards, but standards only for a few," Ms Borges said.
"I also think that this (project) is likely to happen because in big projects like that it's easy to get corrupt monies."
Environmental organisations including Timor Leste's Haburas Foundation will team up with Fretilin for the legal challenge.
Biologist with Haburas, Rui Miguel Pinto, said heavy oil had been linked with acid rain, air and water pollution, and high carbon emissions.
"When it comes to air pollution, the company claims they're going to use the highest environmental standards from the Chinese government - wow," he joked.
"In terms of noise, `Fear not (they say), we are going to plant trees around to increase the beautification of the project'.
"They might divert the only source of fresh water to a whole community just to cool the machines and generators."
A report by Australia's National Toxics Network earlier this year describes heavy oil as "essentially hazardous waste oil from oil refining" that could have disastrous effects on the long-term environment in the case of a spill.
The report says the plants would release extremely toxic chemicals known as dioxin and furans, that can drift through the atmosphere for thousands of kilometres, potentially contaminating neighbouring countries.
The group called on the Timor Leste government to conduct an open tender process, considering renewable energy sources such as wind and hydro-electricity, which has already been subject to an environmental study.
According to local media reports, land at one of the power plant sites, at Hera, near Dili, is already being cleared.
(AAP Reporter Gabrielle Dunlevy travelled to Timor Leste with the Asia Pacific Journalism Centre. Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao declined several invitations to meet with the group.)
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