Environmental Protection Agency Shuts Down Hydroelectric Power Projects

February 1, 2005

On January 18, China’s State Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA) ordered a halt to 30 construction projects, most of them associated with electric power production, throughout the country. Authorities said the projects’ environmental impact assessment reports had not been approved, as required by the 2003 National Environmental Assessment Law. According to articles in Xinhua and the South China Morning Post (subscription only), three of the largest projects are part of the politically influential Three Gorges Development Corporation’s (TGDC) Three Gorges Project and Jinshajiang Project, components of China’s massive effort to harness the Yangtze River through a series of hydroelectric projects.

SEPA’s initiatives indicate a major struggle between political forces supporting economic development and those pressing for increased environmental protection, a struggle reflected in the same project managers’ apparently open defiance of SEPA’s orders regarding some construction projects. The South China Morning Post (subscription only) reported that the TGDC’s projects still have not halted construction, citing support from the National Development and Reform Commission. The article suggests that Premier Wen Jiabao is publicly supporting SEPA’s orders to halt the TGDC’s construction projects.

Articles in the Chinese news media (China Daily article, Southern Daily) suggest that SEPA’s moves may be a part of a larger initiative to cool off China’s red-hot economy by restraining illegal investment in local power projects. On December 13, 2004, SEPA announced a ban on 10 kinds of construction projects, specifically listing noncompliant projects involving steel, iron ore, aluminum, cement, and coke. An April 2004 Sina Hong Kong article specifically mentioned local investment in these types of enterprises as contributing to the overheated economy. Using the Environmental Assessment Law to target such projects allows officials not only to address and halt planned projects, but also to halt projects already under way, or even nearing completion.

Whatever SEPA’s broader motivation, its initial move to halt the construction projects is part of its own campaign SEPA to improve the management of environmental impact assessment. This plan includes such elements as halting the construction of illegal projects, decreasing civil unrest by implementation of democratic decision making, and strengthening organizations involved in environmental impact assessment. A December 2004 China Daily article reported that SEPA had ordered a nationwide evaluation of environmental impact assessment organizations. SEPA assessed penalties against 68 of the 926 environmental assessment organizations evaluated, according to the article.

Official emphasis on addressing social issues through vigorous enforcement of the National Environmental Assessment Law may be a response to civil unrest resulting from the construction of hydroelectric projects. The South China Morning Post (subscription only) and Singapore Straits Times (not a direct link to the article) have reported large-scale protests caused by popular dissatisfaction with poor government compensation to those forced to relocate elsewhere because of these projects. A 2004 China Daily article mentions that the law calls for public hearings on development plans that could negatively affect the environment. Thus, the central government may be cancelling some of these projects to appease popular anger.

SEPA’s initiatives are also a part of a greater central government focus on the protection of resources to achieve sustainable development. The National People’s Congress recently passed an Amendment to the Law on Solid Waste Environmental Pollution Prevention and Xinhua reports NPC staff have proposed a draft law that would make renewable energy a priority.