Environmental groups wary of mismatch between Duterte words, gov't actions on clean energy

Inday Espina-Varona, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Jul 27 2019 03:12 AM

Environmental groups have welcomed President Rodrigo Duterte’s order to fast-track development of clean, sustainable energy but questioned the disconnect between his promises and actions.

The Power 4 People Coalition, which had marched to the presidential palace a few days before the 18th Congress opened in July 22, said Duterte’s order shows the growing strength of the campaigning to phase out coal-fueled development in favor of renewable energy.

Duterte’s order for Energy Secretary Alfonso Cusi to push clean energy over traditional sources, like coal, was silent on the growing number of “dirty fuel” projects approved by the department.

The SONA energy directive rolled out shortly after the grant of an environmental compliance certificate (ECC) for a 15 GW coal plant on the frontier island of Palawan.

“It’s saddening to hear about Palawan,” said Fr. Edu Gariguez, head of the social action arm of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines (CBCP).

“You announce a shift to renewable energy but the government continues ramming coal down the throats of communities.”

Despite opposition from environmental groups, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) overturned the regional office’s decision to reject the ECC, the last document needed by the DMCI Power Corporation (DMCI Power) to built its power plant.

The regional office released the document on June 17, soon after the energy department certified the DMCI enterprise as an Energy Project of National Significance (EPNS) on April 24.

EFFICIENCY OR UNDUE PRIVILEGE?

Lawyer Avril de Torres of the Center for Energy, Ecology and Development warned that the government’s track record has been spotty, often overturning policies aimed at pushing the development of renewable energy.

A major problem, according to De Torres, is Executive Order (EO) No. 30, which Duterte signed in 2017.

The EO is either a blueprint for efficiency and ease of business or a herald of future disasters, depending on who is talking.

Once the energy department bestows the EPNS seal, other government agencies should presume other bodies’ prior approvals and issue permits within 30 days.

Duterte calls this cutting through red tape. But the EO’s table of requirements is so porous and its threshold so low, noted De Torres.

“They need to meet only one requirement,” the lawyer stressed.

These would mean any of these: a capital investment of at least P3.5 billion; contribution to the country’s economic development, consequential economic impact—empty, catchall phrases; potential contribution to the country’s balance of payments: impact on the environment and complex technical processes and engineering designs.

INFRASTRUCTURE REQUIREMENTS

While the government explained the EO as a way to boost employment and mitigate impact on the environment, more non-renewable energy projects have benefitted.

Kevin Yu of Greenpeace said solar energy projects comprise only 3.86 percent of all energy enterprises, while coal has a 36 percent stake.

Of 148 new energy projects, 48 percent involve fossil fuels and only 7 percent represent renewable energy, De Torres said.

The government’s energy blueprint also eyes the increase of coal-fired power plants to 41 from the current 28 in the pipeline, she warned.

That is contradictory to what the President’s state of the nation remarks, she noted.

STOP COAL

“To fulfil his promise, Duterte needs to revoke EO 30,” the lawyer said.

Power 4 People coalition members also challenged the government to review approvals given for several “EPNS” energy permits given to coal plants in the provinces of Quezon, La Union and Negros Occidental.

The process mandated by EO 30 also tends to run over the social acceptability process, causing unrest among affected communities. It also raises the danger of a dearth in oversight and review of potential environmental problems.

Gariguez urged local governments and the private sector to display a sense of urgency amid growing problems related to climate change.

“We need to wake up. We need to be shaken by reality, and it cannot be business as usual,” said Gariguez.

He urged Catholic institutions and the laity to join the bishops in pushing campaigns to phase out coal-fired power plants and halt operations of coal mining concerns.

In response to the CBCP’s recent pledge to move resources of Catholic institutions from investments related to coal, Rodne Galicha of the Laudato Si group said clergy and laity should demand that banks and other financial institutions disclose how they are meeting commitments to focus investments on sustainable energy.

He said a recent lobby found out that 3 major banks in the country, known to handle Church funds, have admitted that around 50 percent of energy holdings still involve “dirty” projects, including those using fossil fuel aside from coal.

“While banks continue to still fund dirty energy, they contribute to the deterioration of the environment,” warned Galicha.

“We consumers should ask banks not to use our money in coal projects,” he stressed.

He called business hypocritical for touting “small” ecological programs, like cleanup drives and tree planting, while engaged in the coal industry.

CALL FOR VIGILANCE

Erwin Puhawan of the Philippine Movement for Climate Justice said environmental groups should monitor and constantly update the database of coal-related development programs.

“We hope Duterte wasn’t just mouthing empty words,” Punawan said.

This would not be the last display of glaring contradictions between the President’s pronouncements and actual government actions, the environmentalists acknowledged.

Presidential spokesperson Salvador Panelo announced on Thursday that Duterte is eyeing the more liberal entry of casinos, despite earlier vows to limit their operations.

On Friday, the President vetoed a bill on workers’ security of tenure—a major campaign pledge of his 2016 presidential campaign.

Asked if they trusted in the President’s latest directive on coal, Gariguez said, “We’ll give him the benefit of the doubt.”

“But if he goes back on his word, then he is no longer believable as President.”

Gerry Arnaces of the group Murang Kuryente (Cheaper Energy) said environmentalists have always known that “our struggle does not depend on the word of the President.”