By: John Leo C. Algo

A year ago, with the Philippine economy soaring upward along with its expanding population, energy officials issued environmental compliance certificates for 21 new coal-fired plants to meet the country’s burgeoning energy needs. Some 40 percent of the country’s energy needs are now provided by coal, in a country whose citizens are fearful of superstorms that are devastating the country possibly as a result of climate change. It is reckoned that at least 45 new coal-fired plants are to become operational by 2020, increasing carbon dioxide emissions by 64.4 million to 79.8 million metric tons a year.  

That massive increase has led to a growing coalition of NGOs concerned over the burgeoning coal plant construction and emissions and leaves the country with a deepening dilemma as economic growth outstrips power needs. A terrifying onslaught of super typhoons has battered the country, including Haiyan/Yolanda in November of 2013, listed as one of the strongest ever to come ashore anywhere and taking the lives of nearly 6,500 persons, driving up aversion to more fossil fuel plants.

On May 4, an estimated 10,000 environment advocates marched through Batangas City 105 km. south of Manila to push for the cancellation of all proposed coal-fired power plants in the Philippines. This protest was part of a campaign launched as part of the Break Free movement against fossil fuels staged in several countries worldwide. The march, led by Catholic Archbishop Ramon Argueles, was in protest of approval of a proposed 600-MW JG Summit coal plant in a Batangas City district.  

The protestors are calling for the phase out of existing coal plants and mines and a more rapid transition to renewable energy during the next administration. They criticized the approval by outgoing President Benigno Aquino of the proposed coal-fired power plants throughout the country, citing its contradiction to the country’s commitments under the Paris agreement at COP21. As declared in RA 9513 or the Renewable Energy Act of 2008, the State is mandated to accelerate the exploration and development of renewable energy resources to attain energy self-reliance and “to reduce the country’s dependence on fossil fuels”, which will reduce its exposure to oil price fluctuations in the international market.

The coalition is likely to run into trouble at the start of the new administration of Rodrigo Duterte, the maverick Davao mayor who has been elected to the presidency by a large margin. In April, Duterte said the plant is necessary to combat the country’s energy crisis and called climate change advocates in industrialized nations “hypocrites” for failing to impose sanctions on those historically responsible for climate change. “We need energy,” he said. “At all costs.” In 2010, he went against environmentalists to defend Aboitiz Power, the owner of Davao light and Power, in the construction of a coal-fired power plant being proposed by company to be built there, saying it wouldn’t affect people or the environment.

To a large extent, the country is stuck when it comes to renewables or clean energy production from gas. It doesn’t have the technology or the sophistication to operate nuclear plants. Wind is fickle and not a particularly attractive investment for private enterprise without subsidies, which are provided in many developed countries. Gas is far more expensive than coal, the bulk of which both must be imported, a strain on the fiscal budget. Geothermal has considerable potential but like wind is an investment risk by private enterprise. With hydropower, the two comprise 5,275 megawatts, or about 30 percent of total usable power. While national energy capacity is more than 16,000 megawatts, only about 13,000 are available at any given time, given plant maintenance, breakdowns, etc. Solar remains in its infancy despite abundant sunlight nearly all year long.

Batangas already hosts the oldest coal-fired plant in the country, a 30-year-old 600-MW facility currently owned by DM Consunji Inc. (DMCI) in Calaca. Residents from Batangas and Cavite reportedly engaged in conversations with the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) on March 17 to call for the closure of coal plants in their areas due to health and environmental concerns. The participants shared their coal-related struggles within their respective communities and how much these experiences motivated them to support Batangueños against the proposed Pinamucan coal plant.

One of the local speakers, barangay councillor Lina Abalos, focused on concerns about how the health of nearby communities and the environment have been compromised by JG Summit’s existing coal plants. She also commended the presence of the youth in the event. In particular, young members of NGOs such as the Youth for Climate Justice and the Climate Reality Project Philippines were active in speaking out about how the coal plants would adversely affect the local fishing industry, which has both economic and health implications on the residents.   Fontanilla also spoke against the naïve assumption of coal being cheaper than solar or wind energy that policymakers use as justification in favoring fossil fuels over renewable energy.

“The people of Calaca and other coal-affected communities are already paying the terrible price, with their poor health and poisoned air, land, and water. In fact, the entire country, which is among the most vulnerable in the world to climate impacts, is already paying the price for the world’s long-time dependence on dirty and harmful energy”, she said. “Another dirty and deadly lie is that there is such a thing as clean coal. Even the proposed clean coal technology to be used in the Pinamucan coal plant is not enough to contain multiple risks, such as coal ash pollution, wastewater pollution, and spills,” she added.

She described the country as “more than needful and ready for renewable energy. We must shift to renewables if we are to ensure our own survival, but thankfully the country is abundant with solar, wind, and other renewable sources.”  

Another mobilization event is currently planned by Piglas Pilipinas to be held in Quezon City as part of the Break Free campaign until May 14. However, the environment advocates pledge to conduct more activities after the end of the global movement to push for the end of fossil fuels in the Philippines and monitor the progress of the incoming administration on climate change and sustainable development.

“Piglas is a continuing challenge to the incoming administration to take a public stand against coal dependency and for a clean energy transition. We are working with other groups to hold our next leaders accountable particularly in their first 100 days in office”, she said.