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Timor-Leste: Young nation+old technology = poor decision
NewsNotes, July-August 2009

Independent since 2002, Timor-Leste (East Timor) ideally should be exploring new technologies to tap into renewable energy. Instead, government leaders seem intent on resurrecting the discredited technology of heavy oil to generate electricity. Oil fields beneath the Timor Sea are a boon to the nation’s economy. However, Timor-Leste would have to import heavy oil to power the Chinese generators it proposes to buy. The nongovernmental organization (NGO) La’o Hamutuk – the East Timor Institute for Reconstruction Monitoring and Analysis – urges the development of alternative energy sources such as wind, solar power and natural gas instead.

The government has pledged to provide electricity to each of the country’s 13 districts this year and to every subdistrict by the end of 2010. However, La’o Hamutuk (“walking together”) says the proposed heavy oil project employs a dirty, outmoded technology that would be damaging to both the economy and the environment.

La’o Hamutuk says the project involves buying used engines and generators that have operated in China for more than 20 years. But it warns that burning heavy oil creates water pollution, toxic solid and liquid wastes, particulate air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. It also causes acid rain that damages agriculture, forests, fisheries, ecosystems and water supplies, and threatens the health of both humans and animals.
In its report “Heavy oil power plants: Project without process,” La’o Hamutuk says heavy oil “can be considered as a waste product from oil refining, after the gasoline, kerosene, diesel and other useful materials have been removed.”

The NGO says many nations have moved away from heavy oil because of its negative impact on human health and the environment in favor of other fuels that are cleaner and safer. “Indonesia, Western Europe and North America used a lot of heavy oil to generate electricity 50 years ago. However, they have not built any heavy oil plants for decades, and they have shut down nearly all the existing ones,” it says.

La’o Hamutuk says the electricity project, at a cost of about $375 million from 2008 to 2011, will leave less than $62 million for all other infrastructure investments combined – roads, water, bridges, flood control, other energy projects, communications and airports. The NGO says the heavy oil generators could last another 15 years, after which Timor-Leste would be left with large quantities of toxic waste as well as polluted soil, air and water.

“We will have wasted scarce human capital and time to learn obsolete technology,” the NGO says. “The revenues from our non-renewable petroleum resources, which should be used to benefit future generations, will have been squandered for short-term benefits, rather than investing in long-term infrastructure. By 2025, when Timor-Leste will have to buy a new power generation system, all the oil and gas from Bayu-Undan will have been sold, and we will have 1.7 million citizens who need health care, education and other services. Where will the money come from?”

Timor-Leste officials reportedly discussed the electricity project with a Chinese company as early as February 2008. La’o Hamutuk says in June 2008 the Finance Ministry invited bids for the work to be submitted within three weeks. A contract was to be signed by July 25. Prospective contractors were told they must “complete the whole project, from design to commissioning, of power plants and transmission lines within one year after the signing of the Contract Agreement.” In October a contract was signed with the original firm, the Chinese Nuclear Industry 22nd Construction Co.

Government officials have given their assurance the project would comply with 2008 World Bank emissions guidelines, but La’o Hamutuk says the project has already violated several of those guidelines. They include use of the cleanest fuel economically available, use of fuel with a lower content of sulfur where economically feasible, and preparation of an environmental assessment.

“We do know that other technologies – hydroelectric, biogas, wind, solar, ocean, renewable fuels, locally extracted natural gas – are cleaner, less risky, respectful of the global climate, more sustainable, dependable and more appropriate to Timor-Leste,” the NGO concludes.

For the good of the nation’s 1.1 million people, environment and resources, the government should reconsider its heavy oil proposal. If not, Timor-Leste – or “Timor of the rising sun” – could soon be left in the dark.

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