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Environmental ruling near on Thailand-Malaysia pipeline

Thai environmental authorities are expected this month to decide whether a controversial gas pipeline...

Thai environmental authorities are expected this month to decide whether a controversial gas pipeline from the Gulf of Thailand to Malaysia will be allowed to proceed, sources close to the project said yesterday.

Construction of the 366-kilometre pipeline and a gas separation plant was due to begin in March, but has been delayed by the wait for environmental approval and local protests in Songkhla Province in southern Thailand, where the line is due to come ashore.

A report on the environmental impact of the project, on the drawing board since 1979, has been sent back three times to Trans-Thai Malaysia Co, the joint venture set up to operate the line.

An expert panel is currently reviewing the environmental assessment and will make a recommendation to the Ministry of Science, Technology and Environment. Trans-Thai officials said they were optimistic the plan would be rubber stamped this time round.

"This is the only hurdle left in terms of legal matters," said Alida Nutkanjanakul, vice president of Trans-Thai Malaysia. "Construction could start very soon. We hope we can start this year. The sooner the better," Nutkanjanakul told Reuters by telephone from Bangkok.

Trans-Thai Malaysia Co is a joint venture between Malaysia's state oil company Petronas and the Petroliam Authority of Thailand (PTT). Nutkanjanakul said gas flow to Malaysia, originally projected to begin in mid-2002, was now targeted for late next year or early 2003.

Both Thailand and Malaysia will buy gas from the project, although Malaysia will take all production for the first five years. The main section of the pipeline carrying gas from the Joint Development Area in the Gulf of Thailand to the separation plant has a capacity of just over one billion cubic feet a day. Under the first phase of the project, gas will be piped from the plant into the Malaysia's national grid.

Police were brought in to curb violent protests by villagers late last year during public hearings to assess the environmental and economic impact of the project on the local Thai communities.