Ceasing West PH Sea explorations sends 'bad signal': expert

Benise Balaoing, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Apr 20 2022 10:52 AM

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MANILA – Disallowing PXP Energy from conducting petroleum exploration in the West Philippine Sea shows that the Philippines is not ready to exercise power over its own waters, a maritime law expert said Wednesday.

The Department of Energy earlier directed PXP to put on hold two petroleum exploration service contracts until the the Security, Justice and Peace Coordinating Cluster, composed of several government departments, has issued the necessary clearance to proceed.

President Duterte has said commitments must be honored in the joint exploration in Recto Bank with China to avoid any possible conflicts.

“It’s very clear that if we do not proceed in accordance with the commitments of the service contract, if we do not allow PXP to abide by its contract, then it is the Philippines itself which is demonstrating that it is not committed to conducting this exploration, it is not committed to exercising its jurisdiction and ownership of its own resources,” University of the Philippines (UP) Institute for Maritime Affairs and the Law of the Sea Director Jay Batongbacal said.

“So it is like we are allowing ourselves to be told na what to do with our own resources in our own areas,” he 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. 

Batongbacal said the Philippines flip-flopping on the West Philippine Sea exploration is a sign that it is "kowtowing to China’s demands", which sends a bad signal to businessmen in the petroleum industry.

“It’s also a bad signal not just to the region but also to the business community that the Philippines is not a reliable as an investment area especially when it comes to petroleum.”

“Because all of these companies will see that you know, these contracts are not worth anything if the Philippines, after all of the trouble of planning and investing and chartering these vessels, at the last minute the Philippines will back out,” he explained.

Batongbacal said the Philippines should draft a West Philippine Sea policy that will not change despite changes in the country’s leadership.

“What is happening now is that we are allowing our long term national interests such as energy security to be affected by the whims of the president. Something as important as that should not be subject to that kind of erratic decision-making or instability.”

“If we’re going to be serious about our jurisdiction, in the West Philippine Sea, this has to be based on principles and positions that really put the national interest at the front,” he stressed.

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