Taiwan’s tough talk

By Malini Hariharan

Formosa Petrochemical Corp’s problems are mounting after two accidents in less than a month at its refinery and petrochemical site in Mailiao, Taiwan.

Wu Den-yih, the country’s premier was at the site last week and ordered an investigation report to be submitted on 6 August.

And in a bid to reassure residents he declared that the company’s No 6 naphtha cracker “will not be allowed to re-open unless the cause of the fire is discovered and operating safety is fully guaranteed”.

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Pic source: Focus Taiwan

It was not clear if he was referring to all the plants at the No 6 naphtha cracker site or only parts of the refinery that were damaged by the fire and the No 1 cracker that was hit by a blast in early July.

The No 6 site includes the refinery, two crackers, an aromatics unit and a number of derivative plants operated by affiliates of Formosa Petrochemical.

Formosa Petrochemical restarted one of its three 180,000 bbl/day crude units in Mailiao last week, with plans to put another unit back on stream this week.

Meanwhile, local residents have started asking for extensive compensation. They want Formosa to pay their health insurance premium, subsidise their electricity bills and even offer jobs to the local young people at the company. Practical considerations appear to have outweighed concerns about health and safety.

Residents have also been seeking a suspension of all operations at the site so that all plants can be inspected. They are also asking for a termination of Formosa Petrochemical’s expansion projects.

ICIS news reports that the company has plans to beef up its ethylene capacity by 300,000 tonnes/year and increase the capacity of its refinery to 580,000 bbl/day under the fifth phase of Mailiao complex expansion.

The planned Taiwan Dollar (NT$) 280bn ($8.75bn) expansion – which would involve 43 new projects, including petrochemical intermediates such as methyl methacrylate (MMA) and phenol – is currently being assessed by Taiwan’s Environmental Protection Administration (EPA), said Jack Shieh of the Petrochemical Industry Association of Taiwan (PIAT).

“The expansion permit was supposed to be given to them [Formosa] by the end of the third quarter (of 2010) but because of the fires last month this could be pushed back by half a year, said Danny Ho, a Taipei-based petrochemical analyst at brokerage Yuanta Securities.

But the company remains optimistic of obtaining an approval by the end of the year.

Formosa is not the only Taiwanese company facing project-related problems. Kuokuang Petrochemical is still struggling to get approval for its cracker and derivatives project which was first mooted in 2006.

The latest news is the withdrawal of one of its investors.

“I’m not investing. No investment project in the world can defer for so long,” said Preston Chen, chairman of the Chinese National Federation of Industries.

He complained that major investment projects in Taiwan did not receive enough support and pointed out that a similar project proposed in Singapore half a year later than the Kuokuang project had started commercial production.

Given a bleak environment for petrochemical projects in Taiwan and also Thailand it is perhaps not surprising that Singapore is gearing up to attract more investments.

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