Groups, communities question DOE’s absence in Digong’s Environment Task Force

Multisectoral organizations, environmental advocates and communities from coal-affected areas questioned the absence of the Department of Energy (DOE) and its Secretary, Sec. Alfonso Cusi when it was launched yesterday. 

Seven government agencies comprised the Task Force, assigned to go after large-scale environmental offenders, and ensure the full implementation of important laws and regulations on environmental protection, which included the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG), Department of National Defense (DND), Department of Transportation (DOTr), Philippine National Police (PNP), Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) and the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP). 

“It is quite conspicuous that the DOE is absent in the government task force, considering that it is the primary regulating body when it comes to the generation of power, which has great implications on the environment, our climate commitment and the livelihood of communities living near power-generating facilities,” said Sanlakas Secretary General Atty. Aaron Pedrosa. 

Atty. Pedrosa stressed his concern that “environmental crimes” committed by large power plants, particularly those ran through coal, may be omitted from the scope looked into by the Environmental Task Force.

“A recent Harvard study conducted on coal-affected cities in Visayas showed that in the span of 5 years since a coal-fried power plant started operating in Naga, Cebu, cases of cancer and upper respiratory ailment have increased in the community because of the heavy metals and chemicals owed to the continued use of coal,” Atty. Pedrosa cited.

Atty. Pedrosa emphasized that the plant concerned in the study was touted as a “clean coal” plant, like those being encouraged by the DOE to supply the country’s baseload power requirement.

“If the task force is sincere in regulating and reprimanding so-called ‘environmental criminals,’ it must not leave out the damage and threats imposed by coal-fired power plants, both existing and in the pipeline,” Atty. Pedrosa stated.

Community representatives also expressed concern as one of the proposed coal-fired power plants threaten the Verde Island Passage, one of the largest centers of biodiversity in the country.

“At present, the health, livelihood and welfare of the people of Batangas City and neighbor communities are being threatened by a 300 MW coal-fired power plant to be constructed by the JG Sunmit Corporation, which was already been approved by the City Council,” said community representative Kristine Balmes of the Archdiocesan Movement for the Environment (AMEn).

Balmes and other community leaders, including the Archdiocese of Lipa, actively campaigned against the project’s approval even during the elections season.

“If continued, this project will only endanger our coastal areas, which is the primary source of income for our fisherfolk and many of our citizens and irreversibly damage our water and air resources, as well as marine life in the area,” Balmes said further.

Gerry Arances of the Center for Energy, Ecology and Development (CEED) also decried the seeming disregard for coal-related “environmental crimes” in the creation of the Task Force, with the absence of DOE in the group.

“What we see is a blatant disregard of the suffering experienced by coal-affected communities which are sacrificed to supposedly respond to our energy needs,” Arances said.

“This large environmental and social cost is the primary reason why globally, coal plants are being considered stranded assets, and are being abandoned by various governments of the world,” he added.

Arances expressed concern over the insistence of the DOE to protect the proliferation of coal projects at the expense of pursuing more renewable energy sources.

“Whatever the Task Force may find in existing and proposed coal operations, the DOE may intervene, arguing from the point of view of our energy needs,” Arances warned. “This denial of the environmental and economic risks of coal will only hinder our country’s transition to increasing the share of renewable energy in the power mix, which has been declining since 2008, even with the resurgence of RE in other countries and the Renewable Energy Act in place,” he added.

“Considering the present effects of coal to surrounding air and water resources, as well as its overall effect to the climate and the economy, tapping into renewables like solar and wind is the only way we can avert ‘environmental crimes’ from happening,” Arances stated. “The DOE must recognize this and take leadership in this transition, not stand by obsolete, costly and deadly fossil fuel sources like coal,” he concluded.