Friday, Jul 28, 2017, 8:49 PM CST – China

Society

PX Chemical Industry

A NASTY NECESSITY

In spite of a favorable market, mass opposition to the PX chemical industry, exacerbated by a string of accidents, has embarrassed manufacturers and stunted growth

Officials attend the launch of the PX chemical project in Xiamen’s Haicang District, November 17, 2006 Photo by Xinhua

Some 100 Xiamen residents invited to take part in a two-day symposium on the environmental impact of the potential PX project to be built in Xiamen, December 2007 Photo by Xinhua

People wearing masks gather to oppose the construction of a PX plant by China National Petroleum Corp (CNPC) in Kunming, Yunnan Province, May 4, 2013 Photo by ic

Paraxylene (PX), a flammable liquid used in the production of polyester and other plastics, has become almost a household name in China since 2007. That year, citizens of the coastal resort town of Xiamen were credited with taking NIMBYism mainstream in China after demonstrations halted construction on a PX plant in the city’s downtown area, forcing the local government to relocate the project to neighboring Zhangzhou.

Since then, the further construction of PX plants has proven resolutely contentious in China. Some proposed plants have encountered similarly strong public opposition and protests, including in the city of Dalian in August 2011, Ningbo in October 2012, and Maoming in April 2014. The other harsh reality, however, is that even as opposition has increased, China’s demand for PX has been growing steadily, with domestic production only able to meet less than 50 percent of the country’s needs.

Controversy

PX as a chemical compound is popularly perceived as being carcinogenic, with airborne exposure linked with harmful side effects. Once the Xiamen PX project was publicly announced in 2003, the view that PX is toxic aroused heated debate in cyberspace, leading to calls for the project to be located well away from human settlements.

Zhao Yufen, professor from the Chemistry Department at Xiamen University, who united over 100 members of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) behind a petition to halt the Xiamen PX project, stated that “PX is a dangerous chemical product with high carcinogenicity.”

Most professionals in the field of chemical engineering have called for calm, claiming that PX is not as “terribly toxic” as publicly perceived. According to the US Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, short-term exposure to high levels of paraxylene (PX) can cause irritation to the skin, eyes, nose, and throat, as well as breathing difficulties. Long-term exposure is believed to possibly cause harmful effects to the liver, kidneys and the central nervous system. Yet both the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) and EPA have found that there is insufficient information to determine whether or not paraxylene is carcinogenic and have thus yet to classify the chemical as such.

Cao Xianghong, academician with the China Academy of Engineering and chief engineer at the State-owned oil giant Sinopec said during an interview with China Central Television (CCTV) in 2013 that PX was a chemical substance of “low toxicity,” claiming that its most dangerous property was its high inflammability, with PX vapor’s propensity to explode on contact with a naked flame already well-documented.

Others have simply stated that more chemical plants in China are an unavoidable necessity, and that the country needs to learn to live with heavy industry. During a recent interview, Professor Lin Boqiang with Xiamen University told NewsChina that it is impossible for any chemical plant not to cause environmental pollution. However, he added that “it is not reasonable for the general public to be so afraid [of PX],” claiming that “due to first-rate domestic technology and industrial conditions, pollution is currently kept at a level acceptable to human health.”

However, the trend to construct such controversial plants close to human habitation remains a major source of controversy. According to Yuan Dongxing, professor in environmental toxicology at Xiamen University, the linear distance between the average PX plant and its nearest city is kept at more than 70 kilometers in other Asian markets, including South Korea and Taiwan, but on the Chinese mainland this distance is cut to within 20 kilometers. 

While further research has proved that no legislation, either in China or elsewhere, specifies the distance that should be maintained between chemical plants and human settlements, activists do not see this as an excuse to construct such projects close to residential areas. According to an article in Caixin Weekly, some large international PX projects are constructed close to communities, with the author citing Exxon Mobil’s PX plant and its affiliated manufactory in Southampton, UK, which is only 100 meters away from the closest private residence. In Ohio, a PX plant owned by Sunoco is located two kilometers from its closest town, while the PX plant on Jurong Island in Singapore is located four kilometers from nearby residences.

Insufficiency

Since 2009, when China injected a stimulus package of 4 trillion yuan (US$570bn) into its economy to offset the effects of the financial crisis, the country’s  production capacities in textiles, polyester, PTA and PX have all expanded considerably. In 2000, China’s PX self-sufficiency rate stood at 88 percent. However, as China became the world’s largest consumer of the chemical in 2012, the situation has changed, with annual demand for PX surging that year to about 13.85 million tons despite total production capacity of less than 8.8 million tons. Around 30 million tons of PX is produced globally each year, more than half of which is consumed by the Chinese industrial sector. In 2014, the country imported a total of 9.91 million tons of PX, an increase of 10.16 percent on the previous year, with the bulk of its supply coming from South Korea (37.8 percent), Japan (19.2 percent) and Taiwan (14.3 percent).

“From both an industrial and a market perspective, China’s PX industry is facing an embarrassing situation,” an anonymous industry insider told the Changjiang Times. The same source claimed that China’s status as the world’s top producer and exporter of textiles and growing demand for synthetic materials had caused demand for PX to surge.

Li Runsheng, deputy chairman of the China Petrol and Chemistry Industry Federation, believes that the country’s PX supply problem is a direct result of opposition to new plants. The government and enterprises are both tiptoeing around decisions related to the chemical, approving or postponing projects according to the public response. While, having afforded it status as a strategic resource, the Chinese government wishes to maintain a robust domestic supply of PX, the visceral public response to new plants has stymied development of the industry.

“It is certain that the two PX plant explosions in Gulei [Fujian] will impede construction of new PX projects in China, and the future of the industry is not optimistic,” the anonymous source told the Changjiang Times. Industry figures are warning that a further fall in supply will drive up prices for the chemical, threatening the long-term development of the low-profit Chinese PTA and textile industries. 

The price of PX is already edging upwards. On the Asian markets, the average price increased by 5 percent in a single day on April 7, 2015 while the cost, insurance and freight (CIF) price for PX in China has increased by US$54 per ton to US$880, a 5.4 percent jump.

Li Li, research director with ICIS Energy, a Shanghai-based energy consultancy responded to questions from China Daily reporters, claiming that the explosions at the plant in Gulei might cause the suspension of production, resulting in a further squeeze on the domestic market.

Some foreign enterprises have eyed China’s large potential domestic market for PX as an opportunity to undercut their beleaguered Chinese rivals.

So far, a total of 16 PX projects and 21 sets of refinery hardware exist in China, most under the control of the two State oil giants, China National Petroleum Corp and Sinopec Group. These two State-owned enterprises account for around 80 percent of China’s total PX capacity, and 10 new PX projects are currently scheduled for production, which will add 8 million tons of annual output. By contrast, according to industry data, some 10 million tons of PX production capacity will have been constructed, mostly in countries bordering China by 2015. South Korea alone is set to increase its total annual output to 5.2 million tons, almost double China’s current production.

Breaking the Ice

PX plants, like nuclear power plants, require huge volumes of water to function and transport their product, and are thus typically built in coastal regions or along big rivers close to economically developed cities with large populations.

But as environmental pollution caused by heavy industry continues to threaten public health in China, popular protest, usually a rarity in the country, has become a hallmark of any new industrial development situated close to residential areas. Moreover, PX refineries have shown to be notorious for explosions and fires; even before the recent PX plant explosion in Zhangzhou, fires were reported at PX refineries in Huizhou, Dalian, Liaoyang and Shanghai.

Despite the question mark over its toxicity, the impact of PX plants on general environmental pollution is largely dependent on government supervision and the willingness of enterprises to maintain safety standards. While some may operate responsibly, the proximity to human habitation and major waterways means just one disaster could have massive ramifications for entire swaths of the country (see “Toxic Time Bomb,” NewsChina, October 2010, Vol. 026).

The technology adopted in China’s PX industry in China is reported by insiders as being state-of-the-art, but implementing additional environmental protection measures inevitably raises costs. “The real problem lies with supervision,” commented Professor Lin Boqiang. “Setting standards, reinforcing environmental protection law and regulations and enforcing them can be effective in preventing further accidents.”

In many Western countries, the poor management or construction of chemical plants, if discovered, typically incurs stiff penalties, with compensation for pollution or other damage to residential areas often astronomically high. In China, however, even major industrial accidents often result in tiny fines for the companies involved. For example, a massive oil spill from offshore wells operated by ConocoPhillips in China’s Bohai Bay area in 2011 only resulted in fines of 200,000 yuan (less than $31,000).

“In Western countries, individuals can initiate litigation against polluters, and their victims can receive considerable compensation through legal means,” Professor Lin told NewsChina. “In China, no such channels exist.”

China’s “embarrassing” failure to balance its industrial need for PX with the needs of urban communities is not caused by PX itself, but a lack of government transparency and a failure to assuage public distrust on behalf of businesses and local authorities. As things stand, local communities are completely excluded from the decision making process, with governments keen to secure better GDP figures backing industrial projects while making every effort to silence dissenting public voices. Even when officials give in to public pressure, the eleventh-hour cancellation of such projects is a wasteful and avoidable outcome.

To break this deadlock, experts are calling for improvements to the government management system, environmental supervision and legal protection.

“The government should not lightly abandon a promising project, but instead openly and actively communicate with the general public on issues relating to PX production, including punitive action and compensation in the event of an accident,” Lin told NewsChina. He added that the “reasonable distribution and layout” of PX projects across the country is “necessary,” with the key being to avoid concentrating too much production capacity in a single area.

China’s industrial development requires a healthy supply of PX. In such cases, in China at least, the interests of industry typically trump those of the general public. However, unless manufacturers and the government can confront trust issues head-on, anyone seeking to build a PX plant in China, particularly given the recent explosions in Gulei, faces a long, protracted battle with the public.

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