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Editorial | NEPA’s responsibility in coal debate

Published:Sunday | August 14, 2016 | 12:00 AM

Though still faint, the developing bays are audible and the outline postures apparent. In the circumstances, it is critical and urgent that Chairman Danville Walker and CEO Peter Knight ensure not only that the National Environment and Planning Agency (NEPA) has the competence to adequately advise the Government on the efficacy of Jinquan Iron and Steel Company's plan for the Alpart alumina refinery, but is willing and ready to engage the public in a credible dialogue on the issues.

Until it was bought in July by Jinquan, Alpart was owned by the Russian mining company, UC Rusal, but has been mothballed for six years in the face of the soft market and low prices for its product. It has not helped that Jamaica's alumina refineries are in the mid-range of the efficiency in global production, giving them their best shot when demand is strong and prices are high.

Jinquan has said that it will modernise the plant and increase its capacity by 500,000 tonnes, or more than 30 per cent, to 2.1 million tonnes a year. That, in itself, would be a significant economic development for Jamaica. For Alpart, back in production at that level of output, implies gross exports annually of around US$500 million.

But Jinquan is projecting far more. It is talking of establishing a 500,000-tonne-a-year aluminium smelter, which could be fed for at least 30 years from Alpart's proven reserves. It if happens, it would also fulfil a more-than-40-year Jamaican ambition, on which, at various times, Kingston has sought to entice Mexico, Venezuela and Trinidad and Tobago, whether jointly or separately.




Jamaica has been unsuccessful at having an aluminium smelter for one primary reason. It need loads of cheap energy to be competitive, which we have not been able to deliver. This is a problem the Chinese firm says it will solve by installing a 1,000-megawatt, coal-fired power plant as part of a long-term US$2-billion investment that would transform the Nain region of St Elizabeth, where Alpart is sited, into an industrial hub.

To put this into perspective, the Jamaica Public Service Company, the monopoly electricity transmission and distribution company, has access to installed capacity of 820MW.

The issue here is that although it produces half the electricity in the United States and remains the major driver of the emerging economies of Asia, coal is not considered the cleanest of fuels and is under pressure in many countries. The efficacy and economics of emerging clean-coal technologies still struggle for legitimacy, despite the arguments of proponents and companies like Jinquan.

So, in Jamaica, the environmentalists, on the one hand, have, for the most part, already rejected Jinquan's proposed coal-fired plant out of hand. On the other, politicians are doing the dance of circles, seeking an opportunity to deliver the Government a bloody nose. The upshot: Phillip Paulwell, the mining and energy minister in the former administration, took credit for largely negotiating this deal before his party was chucked from office in February. Now, Ian Hayles, the shadow environment minister, is warning the Government against jobs and energy at any cost.

This ought not to be a political debate, or a high-pitched one dominated by environmental ideologues. It demands a rational, fact-based, data-driven dialogue in which science is not expropriated by the side that makes the most noise. NEPA has an obligation to lead.