Parliament passes Transboundary Haze Pollution Bill

Monica Kotwani Channel NewsAsia 5 Aug 14;

SINGAPORE: Parliament on Tuesday (Aug 5) passed a Bill that would impose fines of up to S$2 million on companies that cause or contribute to transboundary haze pollution in Singapore, but not before a lengthy debate in Parliament that saw Members of Parliament raise a multitude of questions and concerns over two days.

They ranged from the extraterritorial nature of the bill to what role the Government can play in ensuring palm oil in products is sourced sustainably and whether the fines are high enough to act as a deterrent.

Addressing these questions, Environment and Water Resources Minister Vivian Balakrishnan said the Bill is "not a silver bullet", but a step that introduces novel elements into the law. On the question of extraterritorial application, Dr Balakrishnan clarified that under international law, while states have the sovereign right to exploit their natural resources in accordance with their policies, they also have a responsibility to ensure this does not cause damage to neighbouring states.

Dr Balakrishnan said Singapore also has the legal right under the Objective Territorial Principle to take action against those whose irresponsible actions elsewhere cause harm within Singapore. So the Bill gives Singapore the legal power to serve notices on entities, including those that do not have assets or a presence in Singapore.

Dr Balakrishnan said the notice would be served personally to an officer of the entity, when the individual or partner is in Singapore. He said the National Environment Agency would work closely with the Immigration and Checkpoints Authority to know when the person is in the country.

MPs also asked if the penalties are sufficient, considering the cap of S$2 million is but a "slap on the wrist" for some companies that see profits in the billions of dollars. To this, Dr Balakrishnan said there is a need to tread carefully with the new legislation, as there is no precedence on how it will work in practice. He assured members that the Act will be reviewed when it comes into effect to see whether it works as a deterrent.

MP Christopher De Souza and Nominated Member of Parliament, Faizah Jamal, spoke about the role of consumers and how they can be empowered with the knowledge that products are made from oil palm that is sustainably sourced. This will allow them to put pressure on errant companies.

Dr Balakrishnan said while this should be encouraged by the Government, it should be led by consumer groups and non-government organisations.

After the session in Parliament wrapped, the minister posted on Facebook that he is glad that all MPs - opposition, nominated and PAP alike - supported the Bill. "This will create criminal and civil liabilities for errant companies that cause haze by burning forests and peatlands. We have to make companies accountable for the harm they inflict on our health and environment," Dr Balakrishnan wrote.

- CNA/ly

'Ground-breaking' law passed to fight haze
Adrian Lim and Samantha Boh My Paper AsiaOne 6 Aug 14;

A new law which targets firms responsible for haze pollution in Singapore will be ground-breaking, but must not overreach, said Minister for the Environment and Water Resources Vivian Balakrishnan, in response to calls for heavier penalties and for the Bill to have a wider scope.

Addressing concerns raised in Parliament yesterday that the maximum fine of $2 million may not be harsh enough, Dr Balakrishnan said it would be a start, and that the law would be reviewed to assess whether the amount would be "sufficient deterrence".

"This is new legislation. We don't know yet how this will work in practice. We want to be very careful that we don't overreach or have unrealistic penalties," he added.

Under the Transboundary Haze Pollution Bill, which was passed in Parliament yesterday, firms here or abroad can be fined up to $100,000 for each day of haze, up to a cap of $2 million. It may take effect in October or November, reports said.

The penalties have been upped from a previous cap of $300,000, spelt out in a draft Bill earlier this year.

Members of Parliament (MPs) said during yesterday's debate on the Bill that $2 million may be a slap on the wrist for large corporations responsible for the slash-and-burn practices.

Dr Balakrishnan noted that, besides criminal liabilities, civil suits may be brought against the errant entities. "And there is no limit to the civil liability except what the court decides to award," he said.

During the debate, MPs raised a number of concerns, including whether consumers can play a part and if the Bill should cast a wider net.

Nominated MP Faizah Jamal called on the Government to take the lead in identifying the source of palm-oil products and to deny support to companies with poor harvesting practices.

Dr Balakrishnan replied that the challenge in doing this lies in the sheer number of products which have palm oil as an ingredient, which make up more than half of supermarket products.

"So the point is we shouldn't go on this wild goose chase of saying, 'I'm going to exclude and eliminate all palm oil from our consumer consumption'," he said.

While he noted the merits of pressuring companies to ensure that their supply chains are legitimate and derived from sustainable sources, Dr Balakrishnan said it should be done by consumer groups or non-governmental groups, rather than from a top-down approach.

Nominated MP Eugene Tan asked if the Bill was too narrow in scope, as it covered only transboundary haze involving smoke from forest or land fires.

Dr Balakrishnan, in reply, said the Bill was targeted and hence it did not go so far as to look at "factories and burning oil platforms".

Noting that the Bill would be breaking new ground, he said: "I think I'm a surgeon, I don't like making large incisions, so let's be targeted first.

"Let's get this surgical operation done, let's see how this works before you start taking adventures and liberties."

Singapore gets tougher laws to fight the haze
Neo Chai Chin Today Online 6 Aug 14;

SINGAPORE — Slightly more than a year after the authorities here began — in the midst of the region’s worst bout of haze — exploring legal options against parties causing the smog, the landmark Transboundary Haze Pollution Bill was passed yesterday with unanimous support from the House.

The new laws allow entities causing or contributing to unhealthy levels of haze here to be fined up to S$2 million. Victims who suffer illness or economic losses may also sue the culprits.

With procedures to be followed, such as assent from the President, the new laws are likely to take effect from next month or October, said a spokesperson from the Ministry of the Environment and Water Resources.

Seven Members of Parliament (MPs) spoke during the debate yesterday, joining two others who had participated the previous day. They cited issues such as complex land rights and laws in Indonesia that could impede legal action against wrongdoers, stressing the importance of cooperation with Singapore’s neighbours.

Marine Parade GRC MP Fatimah Lateef asked if the National Environment Agency would have a team of trained negotiators to investigate and verify data, while Nominated MP Eugene Tan wanted the scope of the Bill to extend beyond smoke from land and forest fires to include air pollution from factories or fires on offshore rigs or gas pipelines that affect Singapore.

Minister for the Environment and Water Resources Vivian Balakrishnan said the scope of the Bill was deliberately kept narrow as it was breaking new ground. “I’m a surgeon, I don’t like making large incisions. So let’s be targeted first, let’s get this surgical operation done, let’s see how this works before you start taking ... liberties,” said Dr Balakrishnan, a former eye surgeon.

Last June, amid record haze levels, Law and Foreign Affairs Minister K Shanmugam said he had directed the Attorney-General to look into actions Singapore could take. This set in motion the process that led to the drafting of the new legislation to bring to task firms whose activities overseas negatively affect Singapore’s environment and economy.

In response to MPs who felt the fines proposed were too low, Dr Balakrishnan said the Government wanted to be careful not to have unrealistic penalties for the new laws, but would review them after they take effect. He added that there is no cap to civil liabilities errant firms could face, “so that could potentially be a much higher sum” awarded by the courts.

On how extraterritorial provisions of the law could apply, Dr Balakrishnan said it would allow notice to be served on entities with no assets in Singapore when their officers enter the country.

“The National Environment Agency will work closely with the Immigration and Checkpoints Authority, so we will know when the person is in Singapore.” Prosecutors can seek court orders for individuals to remain in Singapore to assist with investigation.

On media reports in the past week that Indonesian President-elect Joko Widodo had backed Singapore’s plans to impose heftier fines on polluters as long as Indonesia’s sovereignty is respected, Dr Balakrishnan said he welcomed the views of the incoming Indonesian administration.

The role of consumers and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) was also flagged by MPs such as NMP Faizah Jamal, who said consumers should reflect on their lifestyles and purchases that might be contributing to the problem. She and Associate Professor Tan urged the Government to procure goods and services from responsible sources.

Dr Balakrishnan said increasing product information available to consumers is something on which regulators and NGOs can collaborate. Non-governmental organisations have published concession maps and other data, he noted. “So, I think we need a full menu of options on the table. Not everything is best done through legislation or government action alone.”

Haze law passed; fines may go up if necessary
Grace Chua The Straits Times AsiaOne 6 Aug 14;

A NEW law to punish polluters who cause the haze was passed by Parliament yesterday, with Environment and Water Resources Minister Vivian Balakrishnan promising to stiffen the penalties further if necessary.

Dr Balakrishnan gave the assurance after listening to MPs insisting that the fines were too low compared with the size of the errant companies' profits and the harm caused by the haze. The fines are up to $100,000 a day, capped at a total of $2 million, for causing unhealthy haze, defined as a Pollutant Standards Index value of 101 or greater for 24 hours or more.

The culprits who often cause, contribute to and condone activities that raise the haze level are mainly large palm-oil companies based in Indonesia.

As a result, several MPs said the Transboundary Haze Pollution Act could be hard to implement as it would be difficult to nab firms based outside Singapore, without infringing on the sovereignty of another country.

Singapore is regularly plagued by haze, the result of deforestation by burning in Indonesia. The worst haze occurred last year when the three-hour PSI hit a record 401, in the "hazardous" range. This year, the dry season threatens to bring on the haze any time until next month.

All nine MPs who spoke on the Bill, including opposition Non- Constituency MPs, gave their support to Singapore's first legal move against polluters.

But most felt the penalties were not stiff enough.

Said Nominated MP Eugene Tan, a law don: "There must be sufficient deterrence in this Bill.

How was $2 million arrived at when one considers the profits to be made and the market value of the oil-palm business?"

Replying, Dr Balakrishnan said: "This is a new legislation... We want to be very careful that we don't overreach or have unrealistic penalties. So we'll start now at this level."

The penalties had, in fact, been raised after public consultation over the draft law earlier this year. The cap on fines was initially set at $300,000.

Beyond fines, Dr Balakrishnan said the new law lets people or companies sue the haze culprits, with no limit set on the amount of damages they can ask for.

On enforcing the law, the minister said legal notice can be served on the companies' representatives when they are in Singapore. The National Environment Agency will work with the Immigration and Checkpoints Authority on it.

"Where necessary, the public prosecutor could apply for a court order to require the person to remain in Singapore to assist in investigations," he said.

He also urged consumer interest groups and non-governmental organisations to help the cause, by tracking agricultural supply chains and monitoring the fire situation on the ground.

One such group is the homegrown People's Movement to Stop Haze, a youth group founded by 29-year-old Tan Yi Han, who felt the new law is a good step. "It will put companies under the spotlight to encourage them to continue zero-burning practices."

Haze Bill penalties not large enough, say MPs
Grace Chua The Straits Times AsiaOne 7 Aug 14;

SINGAPORE - Penalties in the proposed Transboundary Haze Pollution Bill may not be large enough to deter big firms, and should be increased for repeat offenders, said the first two MPs who debated the new Bill before Parliament was adjourned on Monday.

The Bill - an earlier version of which was up for public consultation earlier this year - was introduced in Parliament in July and holds entities liable for activities inside or outside Singapore that cause unhealthy haze here.

Its aim is to help combat the haze that blankets Singapore from time to time, especially during the dry season, due to illegal land clearing by burning in Indonesia.

Holland-Bukit Timah GRC MP Chris de Souza pointed out that the financial penalties, which go up to a maximum of $2 million, may represent only a small sum to large agroforestry firms.

Nee Soon GRC MP Lee Bee Wah said the fines should be doubled or even tripled. "The fines in the Bill may not be sufficient deterrent against offenders who will weigh the cost of fine if they are caught, against the profits they will gain." Monitoring and locating hot spots takes up government resources, while haze also incurs economic and personal health losses here, she added.

In addition, the new law should contain a provision for whistleblowers, she said.

Mr de Souza urged that errant companies' use of illegal slash-and-burn land clearing methods be exposed, and for consumers to pressure them economically.

"Until and unless consumers are made aware that certain products they purchase are the product of these actions...companies will continue undeterred," he said.

At least seven more MPs are scheduled to debate the Bill, and it is expected to be passed on Tuesday.

Separately, the Government said it had offered the Indonesian government the use of a helicopter with a specialised heli-bucket to help fight fires there. This adds to its earlier offer in June, of satellite pictures, Singapore Civil Defence Force assistance, and other aircraft for cloud-seeding.

MPs concerned over how to implement haze law
Grace Chua The Straits Times AsiaOne 8 AUg 14;

WITH the threat of haze looming over Singapore until next month, MPs debating a new law yesterday to nab and punish the polluters were especially concerned with the practicality of implementing it.

Uppermost on their minds was the difficulty of pinpointing the culprits responsible for setting fires to clear agricultural land, amid Indonesia's complex, often overlapping land ownership and usage rights.

Dr Fatimah Lateef (Marine Parade GRC) asked how Singapore would obtain objective data on land ownership, as "the owners of the land may subcontract it out to others to manage and run".

The Transboundary Haze Pollution Act targets those responsible for causing or condoning such fires if burning results in unhealthy levels of haze, defined as a PSI level of 101 or more for at least a day.

Replying, Environment and Water Resources Minister Vivian Balakrishnan acknowledged that the Transboundary Haze Pollution Act, which Parliament passed yesterday, had several presumptions.

"We had to have presumptions on the validity of maps, we have to have presumptions on control, we have to have presumptions on indirect control... Because this depends on circumstantial evidence at best, we needed to get the balance right between presumptions and at the same time providing adequate defences and providing opportunities for the companies to rebut it," he said.

Circumstantial evidence that can be used includes satellite data and weather information about where winds are blowing from and how strong they are.

As well, databases of land concessions cobbled together by non-government groups like environmental research organisation World Resources Institute.

Non-Constituency MP Yee Jenn Jong wanted to know how the Government came up with the initial total fine of up to $300,000 for a polluter, an amount that was raised to $2 million after public consultation.

Dr Balakrishnan, however, did not address the question.

The law also lets companies and individuals sue and claim damages from the polluters.

But Nominated MPs Eugene Tan and Faizah Jamal, both trained in law, said an average person may find it too onerous to file a civil suit against the errant companies which have deep pockets.

They asked if there could be government support for class-action suits to allow groups to sue.

Dr Balakrishnan was non-committal, saying Singapore's court rules allow a form of group litigation called representative action, in which one person may represent all in a group.

MPs also made several suggestions, including offering incentives for companies to behave well, helping consumers choose sustainable palm oil and other products, using the fines collected to control fires, and expanding the scope of the new law to include haze from other sources such as oil rigs at sea or factories.

Dr Balakrishnan said the law was deliberately kept narrow as it already breaks new ground.

He also feels consumer groups, not the Government, should push companies to be more transparent about their supply chains. "Not everything is best done through legislation or through government action alone."

But going palm-oil-free is a wild goose chase, he added. "I asked my colleague in my ministry, please go to the supermarket and identify all the products with palm oil. He came back and said: 'I can't give you that list because more than half the products on the shelves have palm oil, including - you'd be surprised - Swiss chocolates of the highest quality."

As for the fines collected by government agencies, they all go into the Government's consolidated fund as a matter of public policy and are not earmarked for specific purposes.

Still, "if we need money to safeguard our population's interest, money to embark on cooperative action, money to work with civil society and other consumer groups in pursuit of these objectives, we will do so", said Dr Balakrishnan.

Mr Gan Thiam Poh (Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC), however, feels "the greater long-term concern is not the haze but the large amount of carbon released into the earth's atmosphere".

He said: "The fires are the single largest contributor to Indonesia's greenhouse gas emissions."

When contacted, Dr Nigel Sizer of World Resources Institute said: "The law sends a very strong signal to companies that Singapore is going to do its best to hold them accountable."

The maximum $2 million fine is "not a significant deterrent" to large firms, he added. "The deterrent to them is damage to their reputation" if they are found guilty under the Act.