Chile's Bachelet eyes land-use reform to fight power crunch
* Former president Bachelet poised to stage comeback
* Inadequate land-use plans worsen regulatory limbo-experts
SANTIAGO Oct 25 (Reuters) - Chile's presidential front runner Michelle Bachelet said Friday she wants to reform crucial land-use planning rules to clarify where energy projects can be built, amid a power crunch in the world's top copper producer.
A nebulous regulatory framework has allowed environmental and social groups to take energy projects that are already approved to court, putting in limbo billions of dollars of investment.
Center-left Bachelet, poised to be re-elected as president in next month's general election or a likely December run-off, stressed she would seek to bolster Chile's questioned environmental framework.
"We have to guarantee that environmental institutionality carries out what it's meant to do," Bachelet said during a radio debate with eight other candidates vying for the presidency.
"I've put forward a land-use plan, so that we define exactly where energy projects can be built, in collaboration with citizens," said Bachelet, who was the nation's first female president from 2006 to 2010.
Increasingly empowered citizens and environmental groups, upset about plans for massive coal-fired plants or mega-hydropower complexes in pristine Patagonia, have taken their demands to court.
INVESTMENTS AT RISK
The resulting delays in building of the plants have left major copper mines short of power and placed at risk up to $112 billion of mining investment over the next eight years.
An estimated 8,000 megawatts needs to be added to Chile's 17,000 MW of power production capacity by the end of the decade, the government says.
Several coal-fired plants were approved under the moderate Bachelet's government, inviting the ire of environmentalists and hurting her popularity with youth and green groups.
"Coal-fired thermoelectrics were clearly an obligation during the emergency when gas was ending," Bachelet said, referring to a 2004 gas crisis with Argentina.
Power-intensive miners are craving the fine print of her energy and mining plans, but details have so far been scant. Bachelet is poised to unveil more extensive policy proposals on Sunday.
Bachelet said she was betting on gas, small-scale hydropower, and renewable energies to combat steep power prices.
"We have to move towards gas-fired thermoelectrics, there are smaller-scale hydropower projects, we also have non-conventional renewable energies," she said.
Bachelet is expected to make liquefied natural gas the backbone of her energy policy over the next four years, hoping to tap into a global shale boom by expanding terminals and ports.
Experts say Chile has failed to take a firm hand in regulating the energy sector, amid inadequate land-use planning and a government decision-making process that's often at odds with local sentiment. (Reporting by Alexandra Ulmer; Editing by Bernadette Baum)
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