Editorial | Wanting to hear from the Gov’t about Alpart
Three months ago, not long after China's Jinquan Iron and Steel Company formalised its acquisition of the Alpart alumina refinery in Nain, St Elizabeth, we urged an open and frank and very public cost-benefit analysis of Jinquan's plans for the facility, especially with respect to the fuel the new owners intend to use to generate power.
The matter, we felt, was urgent and that Jamaica, if required, should recruit expertise from abroad to help in this effort. We still hold those views. Further, we are concerned that the Government doesn't appear to be seized of the same urgency we feel on this matter. Two developments recently have forced this matter back on the agenda. One is the suggestion, based on the recent reporting by this newspaper, that arms of the Government in making decisions on the Jinquan project were not critically applying their minds to the issue.
For instance, Peter Knight, the CEO of the National Environment and Planning Agency (NEPA), a member of which agency went to China as observer at the signing of the agreement between Jinquan and Alpart's former owners, UC Rusal, made clear that NEPA had not yet received a request for permission to establish a coal plant at the refinery.
The presence of NEPA officials in China, he stressed, was not to "give any advice" or to participate in the negotiations. "(We) only went to look at what people were talking about as a (coal) plant," Mr Knight said.
There a number of observations on this point. First is that, based on all the public declarations about the Alpart refinery, coal is central to what Jinquan wants to do there. First, it intends to modernise and expand the alumina refining capacity by 30 per cent to 2.1 million tonnes, which is of itself a significant development. An efficiently operating plant would employ hundreds of people, and on the basis of exporting alumina only, would add around US$500 million annually to the economy.
But, Jinquan doesn't want to limit itself to refining alumina. It has proposed smelting aluminium and rolling and extruding iron and steel. That, if it happens, would add hundreds more jobs. But these processes require huge amounts of energy, and that energy has to be cheap for the business to be profitable.
Jinquan's solution to the energy problem is to use coal. It proposes a 1,000-megawatt coal-fired plant, which is about 20 per cent more than Jamaica's current installed electricity-generating capacity and over 40 per cent higher than peak electricity demand. The problem is that coal usually comes with negative environmental issues, which Jinquan believes it has the technology to overcome.
The absence of a government narrative on Jinquan's ideas is happening against last week's conversion by Jamaica Public Service Company of its 120-megawatt power plant in St James from oil to natural gas, with similar plans for a 190 MW plant planned for Old Harbour. Gas is not as cheap as coal, but is less expensive than oil. And it is cleaner.
It doesn't require a formal environmental impact assessment to be lodged with NEPA before the Government begins to share its own thinking with the public.