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Vietnam pulls request for US help to build a coal-fired power plant

[HONG KONG] A Vietnamese company is no longer seeking US financial support to build a coal-fired power plant in Vietnam, bringing to an abrupt end a closely watched test of whether Washington would back international projects that could potentially contribute to climate change.

On Thursday, the Export-Import Bank of the United States, a lender run by the US government, said the Vietnamese state-controlled company, PetroVietnam, had withdrawn its application for financial support.

The lender, also known as the Ex-Im Bank, takes on the financial risk for US companies exporting high-value equipment and merchandise as a way to help companies in the United States win valuable international business.

In this case, a green light would have allowed PetroVietnam to purchase millions of dollars' worth of turbines and other equipment from General Electric, the US manufacturer.

It isn't clear why PetroVietnam withdrew the application for US financial support for the Vietnamese coal plant, Long Phu 1. But the project, which is already under construction, faced intense criticism inside and outside the United States.

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Environmental and other groups said the project would have had a greater environmental impact than reports submitted by PetroVietnam had suggested. More broadly, the application raised the question of whether the Trump administration's commitment to using more coal at home would extend abroad.

The World Bank and other major institutions have increasingly avoided backing projects supported by developing countries that burn coal and other fossil fuels, which emit greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change. The United Kingdom's version of the Ex-Im Bank had declined to offer financial support for the Long Phu 1 project for similar reasons.

In addition, the project is partly financed by Vnesheconombank, a Kremlin-connected Russian lender that has been subject to US sanctions since 2014 because of Moscow's military intervention in Ukraine. On Jan. 26, the US Treasury Department expanded its Russia sanctions to include Power Machines, a Russian firm that is one of several construction companies with contracts at Long Phu 1.

The Ex-Im Bank said in a statement that it had not yet completed its due diligence review of Long Phu 1 when the application was withdrawn. It also did not specify a date for the withdrawal and referred further questions to PetroVietnam.

Emails sent to two PetroVietnam officials Sunday were not immediately returned.

General Electric said in a statement Saturday that it complies with US sanctions, including those announced by the Treasury Department in January. It added that it was committed to working with its "partners and customers in Vietnam to deliver world-class products and solutions for the power industry." The New York Times described the Long Phu 1 project and the views of its critics in a Jan. 26 article.

The project's Vietnamese backers face broader challenges. A Vietnamese court last month sentenced PetroVietnam's former chairman to prison as part of a broad anticorruption investigation.

Vietnam's ruling Communist Party sees coal as central to national energy needs. Long Phu 1 would be the first element of a three-plant complex in a rural area about 150 miles southwest of the country's economic hub, Ho Chi Minh City.

Vietnam may plough ahead with the project without the United States or GE. The project could still be completed without support from the US government, said Basav Sen, climate policy director at the Institute for Policy Studies, a left-learning think tank in Washington that opposed the plant.

He added that it did not represent a retreat by the Trump administration, which has been generally more supportive of coal projects at home.

"It was easy for the Ex-Im Bank to back out of this project in Vietnam because the power plant was going to get its coal from Indonesia and Australia," said Mr Sen. "It may have been a different story if the project were a market for US coal exports."


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