Sanctioning government policy

If MEPA is to retain credibility as an environment and planning authority, it must convince the public that its decisions are indeed guided by the best interests of society, and taken on the best available advice.

The Malta Environment and Planning Authority’s decision to green-light the controversial Marsaxlokk LNG gas tanker terminal, without conducting a maritime impact assessment, was nothing if not predictable. Yet at the same time it is also a worrying indication that decisions are still taken on purely political grounds in this country; and that even concerns of national security invariably fall to second place when compared with the exigencies of the government.

Needless to add, this does not reflect very well on MEPA’s claims to act as an autonomous arbitrator on planning or environmental matters.
The LNG terminal project is crucial to the government’s plans to switch to gas from heavy fuel oil as Malta’s main energy source, and also to reduce utility bills (as it is bound to do by an electoral pledge). At face value one can understand the urgency.

If government’s energy reform plans are thwarted, it will not only be government to pay a price. One is inclined to agree with Enemalta project director David Galea, who told the MEPA hearing that “Enemalta needs an urgent reform to avoid major national adverse social and economic consequences,” and that the decision could not be postponed any further.

Whether this justifies the failure to conduct the necessary impact assessment studies is, however, another question. Given the importance of what is at stake, one would have expected these studies to be carried out at the earliest possible stage of the undertaking. The fact that they were not even commissioned attests to a decision which was already taken long before the official announcement was made last Monday.

As such, this decision forms part of a long tradition in which MEPA, along with other corresponding authorities and regulators, places the administrative interests of the prevailing government before a host of other concerns: not least, public safety.

From this perspective, it comes across as ironic that the Opposition would now criticise MEPA for rubberstamping a government decision. One is reminded of how the authority did much the same under all previous administrations. In 2005, MEPA approved government’s rationalisation scheme – which sacrificed large parts of previously protected landscape to development – without conducting a strategic impact assessment.

At times this apparent bias towards approval of controversial projects has extended to private enterprise, too. At the Fort Cambridge hearing in 2007, a document revealed how this residential construction project had already been approved before the vote was even taken.

Then as now, government had vested interests in the project being approved. The Fort Cambridge project was tied to a considerable cash-injection to Air Malta (previous owners of the site), and this in turn was crucial to government’s plans for a reform of the national airline.

But this only reinforces questions surrounding the role of MEPA and the procedures it follows when taking such decisions.

In the case of the LNG terminal, the need for public reassurance is arguably even greater. Marsaxlokk is a busy maritime hub; apart from fishing vessels, the Malta Freeport experiences some 2,500 shipping movements a year. To argue (as Transport Malta did) that a maritime impact assessment was not necessary because of the width of the harbour, is only to betray a superficial understanding of maritime issues.

Elsewhere, concerns with safety may have been exaggerated – Georgios Papadakis, a chemical engineer and author of two European Commission Guidelines concerning the power plant safety, calculated the risk at only one fatality in 100,000 years. Nonetheless, it would have been far preferable to reinforce this opinion – for such it remains – with the appropriate scientific studies.

As is widely known in academic circles, for every scientific opinion there is an equal and opposite opinion. This case is no different: at the same MEPA meeting, a Dutch professor on chemical risk management explained that moving the floating storage unit offshore was the best solution to mitigate the risks posed by the storage and regasification process.

Without entering the merits of these arguments, it is clear that all such considerations were simply swept under the carpet to accommodate a decision that had already been taken. And to underscore this fact, MEPA chairman Vince Cassar read out a letter from the Prime Minister which stated that “even if an appeal is lodged with the authority’s tribunal after its approval, works on the project would go ahead”.

At this point one must question the haste with which this project has been approved. If, as Enemalta’s David Galea pointed out, the switch to gas is so vital to Malta’s energy requirements, surely the answer is not to speed up the approval process at the expense of all other considerations. On the contrary, the groundwork for the decision should have been prioritised, to ensure that all legitimate concerns were properly addressed before the decision was taken.

If MEPA is to retain credibility as an environment and planning authority, it must convince the public that its decisions are indeed guided by the best interests of society, and taken on the best available advice. If, on the other hand, its role is merely to sanction government policy and acquiesce to all government’s demands, it may as well not even exist as a planning regulator at all.

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