BEIJING — In the short space of several weeks, two provinces in China have seen three protests against the construction of oil refinery plants. Protesters say they are concerned about the possible health and environmental impact of the plants. The protests not only highlight how environmental activism is growing in this country where speaking out about touchy topics can easily land one in jail, but the need for more transparency.
Protests over oil refineries and petrochemical facilities in China, particularly those that produce paraxylene or PX, are becoming increasingly common. PX is a suspected carcinogen that is used to make a range of products from polyester clothing to plastic bottles.
Since 2007, at least three planned PX plants have been canceled in China following local protests. This month, protesters in the capitals of China’s Sichuan and Yunnan provinces rallied in opposition to pending PX projects in their backyards, hoping for the same results.
One resident who has participated in the protests said that Kunming citizens are not boycotting the project entirely, but that they need more transparency and want to know more about why the location of the plant was chosen.
“Kunming residents are not boycotting the project, we just want to know more about why the location was chosen and are demanding more transparency," said Ma.
Chinese officials approved the oil refinery project in Kunming in January, but news of the planned plant was not released until March.
The company building the plant, state-owned China National Petroleum Corporation has tried to assure the public the project is safe and that it will not involve PX. But during a press conference earlier this month, one official from the company said there would be no PX at the plant while another said there would be PX.
Ma said the public needs more information, adding that as long as the government does not openly discuss the environmental impact of the project or list measures it will be taking to ensure safety, the public will continue to be afraid.
Xu Nan, with China Dialogue, a website that focuses on environmental issues in China, said that while individuals are becoming more emboldened to speak out against projects, officials are also getting better at handling them.
Kunming officials have met with local residents and the mayor even established an account on China’s Twitter-like microblog feed, Weibo.
In the space of just three hours on Friday, he gained nearly 20,000 followers. Comments piled in by the thousands, the majority of which focused on the oil refinery project.
Xu said that even though there is a strong economic motivation for such projects, government officials do not dare to overreact and get the public more worked up.
“These projects have a very strong economic incentives, but the Chinese government also has a clear understanding that social stability is too high a price to pay," said Xu. "In the past, movements would be easily repressed, but now government officials don’t dare to overreact and upset the public.”
Yang Fuqiang is a senior advisor on energy at the Natural Resources Defense Council in Beijing and says that while there are many refineries around China, not all have PX as a by-product.
Yang said there is high demand for products made with PX and that that is why companies build the plants even though they have a big impact on the environment.
"There is high demand for products made with PX and that is the driving economic force behind companies’ decision to build these plants that have such a big impact on the environment," said Yang.
Energy analysts said the refinery project in Kunming is crucial because it is first of its kind in the land-locked southern province of Yunnan.
The province is also the first stop of the Burma-China pipeline, which is scheduled for completion this month.
Currently, most of China’s oil and gas from Africa and the Middle East is shipped through the Straits of Malacca.
The Natural Resources Defense Council’s Yang said the Burma-China pipeline will be more cost effective for the province. Right now, Yunnan brings oil and gas in from China’s coastal areas.
Yang said that Yunnan’s economy relies heavily on tourism and that local officials want it to be a source of future economic development for the area.
"Local officials are using this project as a source of future economic development because there are no refineries in the area,” Yang noted.
Making that case to the public, however, will continue to be a challenge. Residents said their fears will continue as long they cannot be assured that there is no impact to their health, especially their children.