Energy-environment turf war flares

Japan, the only industrialized nation without an environmental assessment law, is finally moving toward creating one, but an ongoing tug of war between the Environment Agency and the Ministry of International Trade and Industry is casting a shadow over such prospects.The dispute centers on whether power plants should be subject to the same environmental assessment law that governs construction projects such as roads, airports and bridges. The Environment Agency wants a single integrated law to cover everything. But MITI, which oversees the energy industry, wants power plants treated separately. Arguing that a stable energy supply is the priority, MITI has proposed putting the industry under a reinforced Electricity Enterprise Act.While the two ministries continue their turf war, concerns are being raised that Japan may once again fail to establish a clear environmental assessment rule. Seven times the nation has attempted and failed to create such a law. Should it happen again, some critics warn, Japan will face a major embarrassment in December when it hosts the third meeting of the 155 signatory nations to the Treaty of the Framework Convention on Climate Change, which was concluded in 1992 and went into effect in 1994.Tsuneyuki Morita, a researcher at the National Institute for Environmental Studies, condemns the bickering. “Now is the time when we must think about what such an assessment system should be like,” he said. “Whether to include power plants under the wing of a single assessment law is a digression from the main subject.” For the moment, however, neither MITI nor the Environment Agency seems ready to compromise. Instead, the dispute is bound to intensify and drag on.The deadline for nonbudgetary bills to be submitted to the current Diet session is March 11. But one official at MITI said some exceptions have been made in the past, suggesting that if an environmental assessment bill is submitted, it would be after the deadline.The Central Environmental Council, an advisory body to the prime minister, has reached a basic consensus on the need to legislate environmental assessment of all major projects and on some factors to be contained in the assessment process. According to what has been proposed by the council, public opinion would be better reflected in environmental assessments and at an earlier stage of the process.