In a bid to create the impression that the coal-fired power plant in Krabi has won backing from locals, Krabi governor Pinit Boonlert submitted a list of supporters' signatures last week, totalling 15,000, to the government. That is worrisome.
The move came immediately after Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha said the government attached importance to public participation and would pay heed to locals' needs when making a final decision over the contentious project in the province with a population of 456,800. He made the comments in response to the fresh round of protests by anti-coal supporters at Government House last month.
Needless to say, the Krabi governor's move indicates an escalating conflict and confrontation between supporters and opponents of the controversial power plant, proposed by the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (Egat). It is a shame that provincial officials are resorting to tactics which will simply deepen the divide in the province.
Lessons from the UK Brexit vote should make us realise that a referendum-style tactic is not, and should not be, the answer to issues with such a widespread and serious impact like the coal-fired power plant. All the more so when the state and Egat have invested heavily in local development projects, including infrastructure improvements and scholarships for children, and others, to win the hearts and minds of locals.
Of course, the Prayut administration deserves some credit for recognising the need to listen to locals. But we must not mistake the referendum-style tactic or the numbers game as public participation process as it will limit the answers to merely a "yes" or "no", and will not differentiate between what is right and wrong.
This is not to mention that opponents of coal allege that a series of public hearings held by local officials in the past year were merely ceremonious, aimed at winning "yes" support for the project, without real discussions on its impact, or listening to those who will be adversely affected. The tripartite committee set up early this year by the government to find solutions to the coal conflict is a weak effort at best.
The referendum-style tactic will blur the facts regarding the power plant project and its negative effects on the environment which are crucial for a province which depends so heavily on tourism. It will disregard some issues like the excessive energy reserve margin that resulted from the erroneous demand forecast in the national power development plan (PDP). If the energy demand forecast is corrected, we will find that some power plants in the plan can be scrapped and that means huge budget savings.
The numbers game will make some people forget that Krabi, as a research study on the Green Power Development Plan (Green PDP) has suggested, has an enormous supply of renewable energy sources, ie biomass from palm oil plantations, biogas, wind and solar, that make it a potential 100% alternative energy province.
The referendum tactic will also hide the fact that renewable energy is better for the local economy (from wider employment in biomass plants, for example) when compared to expensive coal which must be imported from abroad.
All in all, it's a pity that while the government received the list of supporters for the power plant project, it has no access to the other side, especially the Green PDP, that might help it make the right decision.