Environmentalists and locals win fight against coal plant in Borneo

Jeremy Hance
February 16, 2011

Environmentalists, scientists, and locals have won the battle against a controversial coal plant in the Malaysian state of Sabah in northern Borneo. The State and Federal government announced today that they would "pursue other alternative sources of energy, namely gas, to meet Sabah's power supply needs." Proposed for an undeveloped beach on the north-eastern coast of Borneo, the coal plant, according to critics, would have threatened the Coral Triangle, one of the world's most biodiverse marine ecosystems, and Tabin Wildlife Reserve, home to Critically Endangered Sumatran rhinos and Bornean orangutans. Local fishermen feared that discharges from the plant would have imperiled their livelihood.

Green SURF (Sabah Unite to Re-Power the Future), a coalition of environmental and indigenous rights groups, developed a robust campaign against the plant, including hiring an energy expert to prove that Sabah's power needs could be met without coal.

"On behalf of the individuals, peoples' movements, organizations and friends of Green SURF, we thank the Chief Minister and his State Cabinet for safeguarding our priceless natural heritage and strengthening Sabah’s role as an environmental trailblazer in the region," Cynthia Ong, a representative of Green SURF and head of the NGO Land Empowerment Animals People (LEAP), said in a press release.

The cancellation of the coal plant ends a three year struggle, including the plant's site being moved twice due to intense local opposition.

"The Prime Minister understands that while we need to build up our power supply in Sabah, it can't be done at the expense of the people's welfare and the environment," a statement from the Sabah State government reads. "The [Prime Minister] understands that one of Sabah's greatest assets is its natural attractions and still somewhat pristine environment. While Sabah needs to increase power supply to meet increasing development, the state cannot afford to put its natural environment at risk."

The statement also acknowledges 'objections' to the coal plant, stating that "today is proof that such objections have not fallen on deaf ears."

At the Climate Summit in Copenhagen 2009, the Prime Minister of Malaysia, Datuk Seri Najib Razak, pledged to cut carbon dioxide intensity in the country by 40 percent by 2020. A pledge that will be easier to meet now that the coal plant, the most carbon intensive fossil fuel, has been thrown out.

"Green SURF, and the thousands who had opposed dirty energy in Sabah, take it that our voices were heard and we thank the State and Federal governments for taking this bold step," Ong said.

Last March an energy audit by Professor Daniel Kammen, director of Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory (RAEL) at the University of California Berkeley, found that Sabah had a number of untapped energy sources that could compete with coal. According to the analysis biomass 'waste' from palm oil plantations and hydropower were both cost competitive with coal, though in the long-term pursuing solar power and geothermal would likely be Sabah's best bet. The analysis also found that the cheapest way forward would be to encourage reduction in energy demands across the state.

The coal plant would have sat 20 kilometers from Tabin Wildlife Reserve, home to the largest population of the world's last Bornean rhinos, a subspecies of Sumatran rhinos. Researchers estimate that 250 Sumatran rhino survive in the world, and 40 or so Bornean rhinos, such as this captive male, named Tam. Photo by: Jeremy Hance.
"In canceling the coal plant project in favor of a diverse suite of sustainable energy options Sabah has opted to invest in a healthy economy and environment for Sabahans today and for the 21st Century," Kammen said. "I am thrilled to have been able to work with the people of Sabah on this victory, and look forward to watching the international community learn from Sabah's triumph of planning and partnership."

Ong says that even though the fight against the coal plant is over, Green SURF will continue its activities.

"We are here to stay and we are ready and willing to work with both the State and Federal governments in identifying and implementing solutions," she said.

Green SURF consisted of WWF-Malaysia, Land Empowerment Animals People (LEAP), Sabah Environment Protection Association (SEPA), Partners of Community Organisations (Pacos) and the Malaysian Nature Society (Sabah branch).

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Jeremy Hance
mongabay.com (February 16, 2011).

Environmentalists and locals win fight against coal plant in Borneo.