By Malini Hariharan
The Chinese government's position on environmental safety has always been difficult to read. The official position for the last few years has been to reduce pollution by closing down old factories and forcing companies to invest in new technologies. But implementation has been sketchy as other priorities such as preserving jobs or boosting provincial economies have on taken precedence.
But is China now getting serious?
Industry sources told ICIS news last week that development of new refineries in the Bohai Bay Economic Region is likely to slow down because of government measures to boost environmental safety.
The move comes after a major oil spill at the ConocoPhilips China operated Peng Lai field at Bohai Bay.
Environmental regulations for petrochemical projects are also likely to be tightened and evaluation of projects would take more time.
Among the projects that could be scrapped are two refineries which are currently in the preliminary feasibility stage. The first is a 10m tonnes/year project by PetroChina and the second a 20m tonnes/year refinery by Shaanxi Yanchang Petroleum Group.
Existing plants could also face a stringent operating environment. The deputy minister of environmental protection recently announced a nationwide safety campaign targeting companies involved in production and use of hazardous chemicals and warned that companies causing pollution "will be severely punished".
"Environmental accidents involving toxic chemicals are on the rise, posing a grave threat to public safety and social stability," he acknowledged. Since January last year, the ministry has dealt with 239 environmental emergencies caused by chemical spills, some of which threatened water safety, he added.
A string of accidents this year and the resulting public outcry suggests that the government may have no choice but to take a hard stance on environment, health and safety issues