Ecological Conservation, Sustainable Energy Transition, and the Need to Transcend Party-Line Politics
by Chia-Shen Tsai and Yu Chen Chuang
Photo Credit: 柯金源/Flickr/CC
AS THE MARCH 2021 deadline for proposing topics for the August referendum approached, turmoil and contention arose amongst Taiwan’s progressive groups. The issue at hand: a liquified natural gas (LNG) receiving station that the government plans to construct on Taoyuan’s Datan algal reef. Cherish the Taoyuan Algal Reef Union (珍愛桃園藻礁聯盟; CTARU), a grass-roots environmental group that has advocated for the conservation of the algal reef since 2014, launched a campaign with Wild at Heart Legal Defense Association (台灣蠻野心足生態協會; WHLDA) and the Society of Wilderness (荒野保護協會; SoW) against the Datan LNG receiving station in December of 2020. The algal reef spans 27 kilometers of coastline.
About two months into their campaign, CTARU had not reached the 100,000 signature threshold for their petition against the Datan station to be added onto the August referendum questions. On February 23rd the KMT endorsed the petition, which led to a sharp increase in petition signatures and also provoked a wave of disapproval towards the petition amongst the pan-Green camp, with some DPP supporters demanding that the petition be withdrawn.
Figure 1: Datan Reef Petition Signatures. Source: CTARU Facebook page
Shortly after the KMT endorsement, pro-DPP social media personalities expressed their discontent towards the petition. Instead of debating the core issues around energy transition and environmental conservation that the CTARU petition exposes, these critics dismissed the work of environmental groups such as CTARU as engaging in “perpetual activism” (永續社運), a derogatory term condemning environmentalist groups as having careerist intentions that manifest as opposition towards any government initiative, rather than adhering to and promoting core environmentalist values. Environmentalist groups such as CTARU responded by condemning pro-DPP social media personalities as dividing past comrades (昔日的戰友), effectively neglecting the history of collaboration between the DPP and environmentalists.
Figure 2: “Perpetual Activism” Graphic. Source: “I Am Not Green, Just Outraged by the Blue”, a DPP-supporting anonymous Facebook fanpage
Why do DPP supporters have so much animosity towards environmentalist groups such as CTARU at present? How did the Taoyuan algal reef petition and the proposed LNG receiving station become a focal point of contention between the DPP and KMT?
The referendum controversy reflects a conflict between ecological conservation and energy transition. On one side, studies have shown that algal reefs nurture an active ecosystem and promote biodiversity by providing a natural habitat for marine creatures and migratory birds. Algal reefs form through calcification and the accumulation of deposits on shoals, with Taoyuan’s algal reefs having been built up over 7,500 years. Due to the ecological importance and slow nature of agal reef formation, local organizations have been campaigning for algal reef protections against coastal construction projects since 2007.
On the other side, the Taiwanese government has been furiously promoting the Datan LNG receiving station project as a crucial step in meeting energy transition goals. The DPP’s energy transition schedule stipulates that the proportion of LNG energy use rises to 50% by 2025 so that coal energy use can decrease and nuclear power can be abolished. If the Datan receiving station project is not accomplished by 2024, the government will not meet its energy transition schedule. Meanwhile, the public has been fiercely demanding that the government reduce coal energy due to the air pollution that this energy source produces. These factors all intensify the conflicts between algal reef conservation and the construction of the Datan receiving station. CTARU’s petition and its surrounding controversy constitutes a microcosm of a larger tension between ecological conservation and energy transition in Taiwan today.
Figure 3: Table of DPP and KMT’s Five-Year Energy Transition Goals. Table based on data from the Ministry of Economic Affairs and the “Nuclear for Green” campaign, which have been corroborated by other news sources (here and here).
WHY DID CTARU put forward a referendum petition? Why did other mechanisms, such as an environmental assessment and administrative appeal, fail?
To understand why CTARU used a referendum petition to advocate for algal reef conservation in 2020, we need to look back at the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) committee that permitted the Datan receiving station construction project in 2018. Recognizing the ecological value of the algal reef, most of the experts on the EIA committee were initially opposed to the construction project in 2018. However, a new thermal power station in Shen’ao (深澳電廠), which aroused fierce opposition due to the air pollution it was expected to produce, was under evaluation at the same time.
The premier, William Lai (賴清德), announced that the Shen’ao power station could be suspended if the EIA committee permitted the Datan LNG receiving station construction project. The statement was so controversial that most environmental assessment representatives lamented the receiving station project as an example of “politics overriding environmental expertise” and refused to attend subsequent environmental impact assessment meetings. Consequently, the assessment passed with only 10 out of 21 representatives present, 7 of whom were government officials.
Having been engaged in algal reef protection efforts for over 10 years with little success, campaigners shifted strategies and put forth the referendum petition in an act of desperation as their last opportunity to fight the destruction of the Datan algal reef. Hence CTARU’s proposal in 2020.
CTARU’s petition to add a question about the LNG terminal onto the August referendum led to strong condemnation from DPP supporters. To better understand why this response took place, we must first understand pan-Green suspicion towards referendums as an institutional tool that simplifies public discussion, as well as how the KMT has manipulated the algal reef issue to push forward their own energy agenda.
Firstly, most DPP supporters distrust the referendum system because they believe that the referendum question format destroys the space for negotiation and compromise between conflicting issues by presenting these issues in the form of a yes-no dichotomy. The opposing options presented on the referendum voting sheet, where voters must choose either algal reef conservation or LNG receiving station construction for energy transition, contributes to a simplification of public discussion by polarizing differing views into a supposedly zero-sum situation.
For instance, on November 24, 2018, a multi-question referendum that included five questions about LGBTQ rights and three questions about energy policy was held alongside local elections. Before the voting date, KMT supporters, most of whom opposed LGBTQ rights and advocated for nuclear power, manipulated public opinion and mobilized conservative voters with scare tactic slogans, such as “dad and mom will disappear” (“爸爸媽媽不見了”), and distributing referendum cheat sheets so pan-Blue voters could know how to vote without thoroughly discussing the issues at hand. This tactic was ultimately successful, as all of the referendum questions were answered along conservative lines, which intensified DPP supporters’ disapproval and anxiety toward the referendum system. This shift, which took place after the November 2018 referendum, changed the pan-Green camp’s traditional advocacy of national referendums. The DPP previously successfully pushed for the lowering of benchmarks needed to hold a referendum, resulting in changes to the Referendum Act in December 2017.
Secondly, after the KMT endorsed the CTARU petition on February 23, 2021, DPP supporters started associating support for the petition with support for the KMT’s energy agenda: To advocate for algal reef conservation was to legitimize the KMT’s ultimate goal of reviving nuclear power. According to DPP supporters, the KMT indeed utilized the controversy between algal reef conservation and LNG receiving station construction to ridicule the DPP’s energy transition policy, effectively seizing this opportunity to promote nuclear power as the ideal energy substitute to achieve the longer term transition to renewable energy (“以核養綠”). The August referendum already included a question about whether Reactor No. 4—the most recent nuclear power plant proposed in 1980 and partially constructed between 1992 and 2010 due to resistance by local community members and nationwide environmentalist groups such as the Taiwan Environmental Protection Union, which has resulted in the current concerns that Reactor No. 4 might not even be safely operable—should be restarted. By endorsing CTARU’s petition, the KMT effectively reframed the existing conflict between the algal reef and LNG receiving station as inextricably linked to the fate of Reactor No. 4 and the larger conflict over nuclear energy in Taiwan.
The Dilemma Faced by Anti-Nuclear Groups
AS PUBLIC DEBATES around the necessity of the LNG station intensified, environmentalist groups that advocate for energy transition have been pushed into a double bind. Two factors lead these groups into this dilemma between supporting the ecological conservation campaign and the government’s energy transition policy of reducing carbon emissions: First is the KMT’s co-optation of the referendum proposal, the other is environmentalist groups’ desire to achieve an ideal civil discourse that transcends party-line politics (“不分藍綠”).
Since the current energy transition policy complied with anti-nuclear groups expectations, it is hard for anti-nuclear groups to deny the importance and urgency of building the LNG receiving station. Although there exists the possibility to postpone the construction and smoothly abolish nuclear power by 2025, the KMT’s endorsement of the referendum petition and use of scare tactics around “insufficient electricity” have decimated the space of discussion on these issues. Since nuclear energy has traditionally been a party-line issue with anti-nuclear supporters typically being anti-KMT, anti-nuclear supporters excepted anti-nuclear environmentalist groups to also oppose the referendum petition since not doing so would imply standing on the same side as the KMT. Because of their decision to not cut ties with CTARU’s algal reef campaign, environmentalist groups such as Green Citizens’ Action Alliance (GCAA) and Citizen of the Earth, Taiwan (CET) received numerous calls from anti-nuclear supporters to refund their donations after the KMT endorsement on February 23rd.
On the other hand, even if these environmentalist groups really did support the government’s proposal to build the receiving station, it would be equally difficult to leave the algal reef petition campaign. Since the government has a tendency to selectively release reports that confirm their policy decisions, publicly supporting the incumbent party as opposed to ecological conservation advocacy would also engender an unpredictable response among environmentalist groups’ supporters as well. Moreover, advocating for environmental values no matter which party is in power is what environmentalist civil engagement should entail. If the anti-nuclear groups were to withdraw from the campaign after the KMT’s endorsement, they would be caught in the trap of party-line politics.
In an effort to counteract the KMT’s co-optation of the algal reef petition, anti-nuclear groups attempted to take a third party perspective in mid-April by convening a civil public discussion forum on the ecological impact of the receiving station and possible alternatives. The forum organizers, which included groups such as SoW and the Environmental Jurists Association who were a part of the original algal reef petition campaign, invited ecologists, advocates, and officials on both sides of the issue. Nevertheless, CTARU was absent from the forum.
On May 3rd, the DPP government proposed an “offshore plan” alternative to push the receiving station site 500 meters offshore, which aroused another wave of controversy between DPPers and environmentalist groups. During a press release on May 4th, the former EPA deputy minister who resigned over the environmental impact assessment in 2018, Thomas Chan (詹順貴), publicly declared his support for the offshore proposal. Other anti-nuclear groups such as CET and GCAA issued statements applauding the Executive Yuan’s efforts to explore alternatives that can accommodate the concerns of both sides. On the other hand, the original referendum petition proposers such as CTARU, WHLDA, and SoW maintained their stance against the offshore LNG station proposal.
THE TENSION between ecological conservation and energy transition evident in the algal reef petition controversy suggests that Taiwan’s deliberative democracy will need to figure out how to transcend party-line politics and navigate wedge issue tactics, especially after the 2018 referendum. As a progressive society, we need to be able to discuss tensions between progressive values, such as ecological conservation and sustainable energy transition, based on concrete facts and scientific evidence.
Just because conservative mobilization worked during the 2018 referendum does not mean that the public will be easily persuaded again by scare tactic slogans and social media messaging campaigns that simplify complex issues into sensational posts and graphics. Although traditional media outlets and public intellectuals are both aware of the limitations of long-form argumentative writing in support of a particular position, short-form social media campaigns run the risk of polarizing the space of public discussion in a way that runs counter to civic dialogue. In the case of the Datan reef petition, intramural conflicts amongst anti-nuclear, conservationist, and DPP progressives have led to divisive labelling. The sad irony of this situation is that certain DPP supporters may feel justified in condemning environmentalist groups as accepting the KMT’s endorsement, but are unaware that their divisive rhetoric widens the gap in which the KMT has co-opted the Datan reef petition as a wedge issue, which further consolidates support for the KMT’s energy agenda.
The question of how pan-Green progressives will navigate the controversy surrounding the Datan algal reef LNG receiving station dilemma points us to a larger question of how Taiwan’s civil society might further develop a more robust deliberative democracy in the decidedly undemocratic wake of the KMT authoritarian period. Environmentalist groups have always advocated for transparent scientific assessments that could facilitate public deliberation around different issues. We contend that this kind of transparency and dialogue could rebuild trust and solidarity among Taiwanese progressives in the aftermath of the KMT’s co-optation of the algal reef petition. As citizens of a democratic society, it is our duty to engage in constructive dialogue with multiple groups rather than labeling and condemning others along party-lines prior to any discussion—only then will we be able to avoid the coalition-eroding effects of the KMT co-opting progressive causes as wedge issues in order to make political gains.
Chia-Shen Tsai, born and raised in Taichung, is an apprentice of anthropology and sociology. From rural care to environmental issues, he is fascinated by the gaps between various progressive agendas. He currently works for the environmentalist group Citizen of the Earth, Taiwan.
Yu Chen Chuang previously worked in the Subcommittee on Land Claims of the Indigenous Historical and Transitional Justice Committee and is currently a master’s student in planning at the University of Toronto.