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The 800-km gas and oil pipeline corridor running from Burma’s western Arakan coast to China’s southern Yunnan province poses no threat to the environment or to nearby communities, according to Burmese Deputy Minister of Energy Aung Htoo.
The minister addressed concerns among the Upper House of Parliament on Monday that the project, consigned in 2008 and operational since June 2013 despite significant public outcry, may not adhere to adequate safety regulations and disaster preparedness methods.
“[A] supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) system was installed to tackle the possible leak problems” said Aung Htoo.
The assurance met with scepticism from some Members of Parliament, who say that in light of the physical realities of the project’s location, a quick and satisfactory response to possible leaks, fires and explosions does not currently seem feasible.
“I don’t think it will be as easy as the minister said if a huge explosion takes place,” said Htun Aung Kyaw, Lower House representative from Arakan State.
“The road to Ann Township is unpaved and it will be impossible for [rescue teams] to get there in less than one hour,” he said.
Ann, the township that the MP was referring to, is located in western Burma’s Arakan State, just inland from the pipelines’ origin and home to a fuel relay station in Singondai village that reportedly caught fire on Sunday.
Details of the cause of the fire are still unclear, with some claiming retaliatory arson related to abuses committed against ethnic workers.
“There are Chinese and Indian crews working on the gas pipeline in Singondai village,” said Win Myaing, Arakan government spokesperson. “The Chinese live on the upper floor of the building and down below are Chin ethnic workers. The Chinese urinated down from their floor at night, and it landed on the Chin workers who then demanded an apology. But the Chinese refused to apologise. The Chin workers went back to their village, gathered more men and set fire to the 8,000-gallon diesel storage warehouse.”
Several additional unrelated sources offered the same account. A regional official told DVB that the incident will not disrupt delivery to China.
Regardless of the cause of Sunday’s fire, the sheer enormity of the Shwe gas and oil project – which carries highly flammable materials through several high-risk territories – is plausible cause for concern. The project spans two states and two divisions, some of which are among Burma’s poorest and least developed, and pipes are routed through areas where armed conflict between the Burmese armed forces and several ethnic militias has broken out over the past two and a half years.
In light of the conflict, Michael Oxlade of the safety firm Westminster International warned last year that “running an over-ground gas pipeline in a location where armed conflict is taking place is absolutely unadvisable; an explosion could easily be caused by a stray bullet.”
The Shwe gas and oil project is a US$30 billion collaboration between Burma’s state-owned Myanma Oil and Gas Enterprise (MOGE) and China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC), consisting primarily of two pipelines carrying Burmese natural gas and imported crude oil to China.
The project – commenced while Burma was still under military rule – has been often criticised by human rights and environmental rights advocates over issues ranging from labour abuse, gross uncompensated land loss, and unfair resource and revenue distribution. It has likewise been taken up as a potential trendsetter for future extractive operations in Burma’s burgeoning energy sector.
Just before operations began in 2013, ten Arakanese activists were arrested and later jailed for leading a 400-plus person demonstration demanding a halt to the project. The activists were released from prison in a December amnesty, just weeks before their terms were set to end.
It has been suggested that pipeline procedures were expedited to elude growing opposition to the project in both Burma and China.
Even barring natural disasters or technical mishaps, danger appears to some as imminent due to the proliferation of armed conflict and other unrest in several areas along the route. Following the Deputy Minister of Energy’s statements on Monday, Htun Aung Kyaw remarked, “The government insists there are internationally standardised safety measures – but I really hope nothing goes wrong.”