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Extended debate on runway ruled out

South China Morning Post – 30 August 2011

Pan-democrats want more time to study details, and economist questions benefits

The Airport Authority will not extend the consultation period for its proposal to build a HK$136.2 billion third runway at Hong Kong International Airport, which is set to end on Friday, despite appeals by lawmakers and an allegation that the economic benefits of the project have been grossly overestimated.

The pan-democrat camp has called for more time to digest the 2,000 pages of technical studies, saying that these reports were released only on August 8.

“All I ask for is two more months to study it before the authority reaches the conclusion that everyone is behind the proposal,” Tanya Chan of the Civil Party said.

But authority executive director Howard Eng said the consultation was only the first step and more detailed studies would be needed once a consensus was reached on whether the runway was actually needed.

Officials say the runway will bring an economic benefit of HK$912 billion over 50 years – seven times the cost. But an economist with a London-based institute that helped overturn the case for a third runway at Heathrow airport in 2009 said the actual benefit could be much lower.

“In the economic case for the third runway expansion there is a serious lack of sensitivity testing to account for future shocks in core factors like oil prices and economic growth forecasts,” David Thesis, a researcher at the New Economic Foundation, said. “Such assumptions in the consultation reports appear to be overly optimistic.”

Speaking at a forum organised by the green group World Wide Fund for Nature yesterday, Thesis said that, for example, the authority had used oil prices for 2009 – when crude was just US$53.5 per barrel – for its calculations. This was not only almost 40 per cent lower than current price at US$85.75 per barrel, but was also 50 per cent lower than the one-year peak at US$114.18 per barrel.

The benefits would shrink further if a price tag was put on the social and environmental costs, including an increase in fine-particle pollution, mainly in Tung Chung, that could increase mortality rates by nearly 13 per cent, Thesis said.

The UK government predicted a third runway at Heathrow could bring in a net £5.5 billion (HK$63.8 billion) in economic benefits after deductions for a £13.6 billion cost in worsening air, noise level and aggravated carbon emissions. The foundation predicts a loss of £4 billion.

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