What’s Duterte’s policy on energy?

What’s Duterte’s policy on energy?

- in Opinion
@Jon Joaquin

I did a lot of moving around the country last year as part of the media team of then-Presidential candidate Mayor Rodrigo Duterte. Aside from the rigors of covering a man who seemingly could not get tired, what I remember the most was how HOT it was. El Niño was still at its peak and there had been no rain for the better part of one year, and this meant that it was warm both outside (under the heat of the sun) and inside (no electricity). The blackouts were especially true in Mindanao which at the time was getting hit by six- to eight-hour power outages. There were a number of reasons for this:

  1. The low water levels of Pulangui River in Bukidnon and Lake Lanao in Marawi City, which are the main sources of hydroelectric power in Mindanao. Almost half of Mindanao’s power comes from hydroelectric sources, so water — or the lack of it — is always key to the stability of our electricity.
  2. The rash of bombings on electric towers allegedly perpetrated by the New People’s Army (NPA). In April last year, the main problems were the towers in North Cotabato and Lanao del Sur. To make matters worse, it took the National Grid Corporate of the Philippines (NGCP) a long time to repair them because of right-of-way issues with the owners of the properties on which the towers stood.
  3. The shutdown of one of the generating units of the Therma South coal-fired power plant in Davao City, which effectively removed 130 megawatts from the grid.

Since it was election season, the worry was that a blackout on election day (May 9) could disrupt the entire exercise and cause chaos in the entire country. It was, after all, a very hotly contested campaign, and conspiracy theorists reveled in the possibility that someone was out to sabotage the election for the benefit of those who were already in power.

Of course none of that happened, but power supply is still a cause for concern especially in Mindanao. Those of us here have have an idea of what President Duterte’s policy on energy is or is going to be; after all, it was under his administration as Davao City mayor that the Therma South coal-fired power plant was inaugurated. The project was proposed during the term of his daughter, Mayor Sara Duterte-Carpio, who promptly vetoed it, but Duterte, realizing that it was the long-term answer to the Mindanao power crisis, led the City Council in overriding the veto.

It’s no secret then, and it’s no wonder that he would say this now that he’s President:

We would like to have a clean planet but that would be nigh impossible really to insist on it because civilization needs to have light, so you strike a happy balance. But for as long as the most viable fuel is coal and cheapest so that the power can also be delivered energy to the people at much lower price, then we don’t have any other alternative except to upgrade the technology to its fullest, to limit anything that starts, whatever machine, will always have a pollution.” (Click here for the full text).

Coal power has a reputation for being dirty and damaging to health (Google “coal power plant” and you’ll see pictures of smoke stacks spewing black smoke into the air), but back in 2012 I and a few other journalists visited the coal-fired power plant of AboitizPower in Toledo City, Cebu and saw no trace of black smoke anywhere. Technology has come to the point where coal can be burned efficiently, leaving a minimal amount of pollution.

President Duterte obviously knows this. “Coal, it’s the cheapest and probably if we use the modern technology, it’s the safest. Just be careful with the operation,” he said. (Click here for the story). His energy policy is thus very simple: cheap power for all to fuel industrialization. He also wants the private sector to compete with each other for lower prices and better services — benefitting everyone and not just a few.

As for those who call him out for supporting coal instead of renewable energy, he has this to say:

The rich nations consumed the bulk of crude oil over the years, and they want to us to scale down on such emissions? I do not agree with that because it is not fair. That’s why we are at odds here… We haven’t reached the age of industrialization. We are going into it, but you’re trying to stymie it with an agreement (the Paris Agreement) na ‘hanggang dito lang kayo. We maintain the present emission… That’s stupid. I will not honor that.”

Duterte eventually did sign the Paris Agreement last February 28, but I don’t think that will negate what he has already said about energy. There has to be cheap energy for the country so we can move forward and become an industrialized nation. There is no other way.

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