MANILA - The Department of Energy (DOE) has sought the reconsideration of a Cabinet cluster for the resumption of oil exploration in the West Philippine Sea, after a firm engaged in the activity was told to take a pause, Malacañang said on Tuesday.
The DOE last April 6 directed PXP to “put on hold all exploration activities for SC 75 and SC 72 until such time that the [Security, Justice and Peace Coordinating Cluster ('SJPCC')] has issued the necessary clearance to proceed", the private firm said in its disclosure to the Philippine Stock Exchange.
"The survey was held in abeyance because of the decision of the [Cabinet] cluster," acting Palace spokesman Communications Sec. Martin Andanar said in a press briefing.
As a result, the DOE asked the Cabinet's SJPCC "to reconsider the decision and to immediately allow the survey," he added.
"The DOE sought reconsideration on the ground that under international law, a geophysical survey is perfectly legitimate activity in any disputed area," Andanar said.
The decision on this is still pending, noted the official.
In a statement earlier in the day, Sen. Risa Hontiveros said suspending the exploration activities looked like it "weaken our rights over our country’s own exclusive economic zone."
"The DOE’s suspension order makes it seem as though we are waiving our exclusive rights to our own waters," she said.
In October 2020, the DOE issued a “Resume-to-Work” notice to the Service Contractors doing oil exploration in the areas of service contracts (SC) 59, 72, and 75 in the West Philippine Sea, after being approved by President Rodrigo Duterte.
PXP is an operator under SC no. 75 while Forum Energy, where the firm has controlling interest, is an operator under SC no. 72.
This development came over a month after Duterte said commitments must be honored in the joint exploration in Recto Bank with China to avoid any possible conflicts.
He claimed that somebody from China told him that they would bring soldiers in the disputed waters if the country would bring its own uniformed personnel there despite a "written agreement" and an "original contract."
"‘Yan ang iniiwasan ko noon pa eh... So many flashpoints, maraming lugar na may putok. We do not need it. Hindi natin kailangan makipag-away diyan," the President said in his taped address to the nation on March 8.
"Sundin lang nila --- sundin lang ninyo kung ano ‘yung pinag-usapan noon. Sabi ko honor ‘yan eh, it’s a matter of honor," he added.
‘Pag iba --- iniba ‘yan, delikado. So hindi na mangyari sa akin ‘yan kasi ayaw ko. Ayaw kong ibahin kasi ‘yun ang pinag-usapan namin sa panahon ko."
In November 2018, the Philippines and China signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) for oil and gas exploration. Duterte had said it was a 60-40 split, with the country getting the former.
Recto Bank, situated 85 nautical miles from Palawan, is said to be rich in oil and natural gas.
Since taking power in 2016, Duterte has moved closer to China, but has faced pushback from the Philippine public and concern in the military wary of Beijing's territorial ambitions in the South China Sea, within which is the smaller West Philippine Sea.
Trillions of dollars in trade pass through the strategic sea and it is thought to contain rich petroleum deposits, making it a frequent source of regional friction.
China has ignored a 2016 ruling by the Hague-based Permanent Court of Arbitration that its historical claim to the area is without basis. It has reinforced its stance by building artificial islands over some contested reefs and installing weapons on them.
— With a report from Agence France-Presse