[MANILA (Mindanao Examiner / Mar. 28, 2013) - President Benigno Aquino said his government is working on a mechanism that will assist power distribution utilities to buy diesel-fed electric generating plants as an immediate stop-gap measure to the current energy crisis in the southern Philippines. He said the Department of Energy presented a plan that details how the government could assist distribution utilities in purchasing generating sets and using diesel power plants are seen as the quickest remedy to the Mindanao power problem. But by 2015, when the permanent plants start to produce enough energy, the President said he expects the Mindanao power problem to go away.]

MANILA, MAY 27, 2013 (MANILA TIMES) Written by Marlen V. Ronquillo - "Rotating brownouts” is a euphemism used to paper over the crippling power failure in Mindanao.

But no clever play of words can hide the horrific impact of the brownouts across Mindanao.

The people in the hamlets of impossible poverty are deprived of one of the few consolations of their tragic lives—electricity.

The vibrant and historic cities such as Zamboanga City are being dragged down into the Dark Ages.

In Mindanao right now, power failure is a curse worse than Abu Sayyaf and intractable poverty.

Luzon is not in that crippled state—not yet. But outside of Metro Manila, just outside of the metropolis, “maintenance –related” power disruptions mean 12-hour brownouts and these are imposed by the electric coops regularly.

In such a grim and desperate environment, you expect the best and the most creative responses—and most urgent even—from our institutions. Crises are not wasted. They are supposed to be used as opportunities to showcase the grandness—and swiftness—of our responses to crises. Ideally, such environment should roll out the welcome mat for the roll out of power projects, on the condition that the basic environmental metrics are fulfilled.

Do you know what has been taking place? Our institutions, instead of doing the right thing, are doing the opposite.

Essentially what has unfolded in the wake of this power crisis, which is now developing into a national emergency, is a story of our weak and uncaring institutions.

The power projects that have been put in place precisely as urgent responses to the power crisis are right now in a state of crisis themselves. These are well-studied, environmentally-sound, technically-adequate power projects that cost billions of pesos. In an ideal world, they ought to get ready approval, full support so they can generate the additional megawatt for households and industry at the soonest time possible. This is not taking place. Instead gauntlets of two stages have trumped the supposed sanity of the decision-making process.

First, self-proclaimed environmental activists, drawing sagacity and informed opinions from Internet rants, have filed cases against the power projects. Second, the courts have responded ambiguously, typical of the half-hearted judicial overreach when confronted with economic and investment issues that rest of technical merits. Half-hearted judicial overreach? Yes, there is such a thing.

There is an Exhibit A on this and the sordid details would make any sane person with a sense of country weep. This is a power project at the Subic Special Economic Zone, a coal-fired thermal power plant being done by the RP Energy Consortium, a group made up of the biggest and most established names in power generation.

Everything is in order about the project. It will supply 600 additional megawatt for po­wer-short Luzon. It will be pursued according to environmental standards—in fact globally -acceptable standards. It has obtained an environmental compliance certificate (ECC). The biggest names in power generation and a foreign partner are behind it. The most compelling argument for it is this: it will help prevent the power failures in Mindanao leap into Luzon, which generates more than one half of the country’s GDP.

Yet, instead of support, the project was taken to the Court of Appeals by self-proclaimed environmentalists. You know what they filed—A Writ of Kalikasan. This is the equivalent of filing a case of mass murder, or a crime against humanity.

The CA threw the Writ of Kalikasan suit out. A power plant done the modern way cannot be the source of ecological doom.

The CA, however, voided the ECC of the power project and the lease development agreement of the proponents with the Subic Bay Metropolitan Authority.

The voiding, for all intents and purposes, stopped the project, even with the Writ case thrown out. With the ECC and LDA voided, the project cannot move on and the proponents are in a great quandary. Left hanging are these : billions of pesos in investments and over 1,000 jobs. We are not yet in the most important part—what else would supply 600 megawatt of power if not this project?

The CA order also undermines so many aspects of governance in the country—and its institutions. The DENR granted the ECC based on exacting technical and environmental standards. Can the court just void clearances granted by the DENR, just like that without due respect for the technical, field and environmental work of the agency? After the verdict on the Subic project, ECCs and LDAs can now be seen as worthless certificates from the state, and of very little value.

Before the verdict, they were regarded with respect, as sacrosanct documents which the executive department grants to private applicants after a process of rigorous evaluation. No longer now, after the Subic verdict.

Last but not least is our investment-generation effort. With verdicts like that, prospective investors in the power and energy sector and many investment areas as well, will be terrified of putting money here, the kind of investments we are starved of.

The moral of this sad case is this: the courts and activists cannot operate out of a vacu­um, oblivious of the country’s need to attract investments of the kind grounded in Subic, and unaware that there is a power crisis looming. A power crisis that can lead into a full-blown social and economic catastrophe.

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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