Indonesian coal ban threatens PH energy security, groups say

A ban on coal exports from Indonesia following the abduction of Indonesian sailors may lead to an energy crisis, according to experts from the energy and environment sector.

“About 15 million tonnes of coal were exported by Indonesia last year, supplying 70% of the Philippines’ coal needs,” said Gerry Arances of the Center for Energy, Ecology and Development. “If the ban on Indonesian coal continues, it may lead to power generated by coal-fired power plants to fail in meeting our energy demands,” he added.

The recent abduction of seven sailors by two different armed groups allegedly part of Abu Sayyaf followed the abduction of 14 other Indonesian nationals last March and April, which led to the Indonesian government advising commercial vehicles to avoid piracy-prone waters near Sulu.

As a response, Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi related that until “there is a guarantee for security from the Philippine government,” Indonesia will push through with its moratorium on coal exports.

“This unfortunate development highlights the instability of coal as the Philippines’ primary energy resource. Not only is our environment and climate harmed by the continued use of coal, it also heightens our vulnerability to energy crises once coal-importers cease to provide for us,” said Arances.

Arances noted that beyond the moratorium, the coming years may also see Indonesia limiting its exportation of coal resources, as part of its commitment to curb carbon emissions enshrined in the Paris climate agreement.

“As more and more countries have committed to reduce its contributions to carbon emissions, coal is increasingly being phased out in a global scale. Indonesia’s moratorium must be treated as a preview of what is to come in terms of the Philippines’ energy and development track, particularly its dependence on imports provided by other countries, as well as its reliance on coal-based energy resources,” Arances explained.

Arances warned against the possibility that the situation may propel policy makers and large mining corporations to push for expanding permits to mine coal inside the country. “While depending on coal imports to run coal-fired power plants in the country poses problems on energy sufficiency, it is also dangerous to instead turn to reinforcing coal mining in the Philippines,” he said.

Arances emphasized that given coal’s state in the international economy, counteracting Indonesia’s ban with indigenous coal resources is not a sustainable option.

“According to recent Oxford study, given the risks posed by coal and unfolding developments in alternative energy sources, coal-fired power plants are set to become stranded assets, binding our country to a phased-out energy resource for the next 50 years while the rest of the world is shifting to renewables,” he stated. In addition to this, Arances also cited a recent study by Solar Philippines showing the trend that the cost of shifting to renewable energy is gradually decreasing.

Activists urge review of energy, development policy amid coal ban
Sanlakas Secretary General Aaron Pedrosa highlighted that import-dependence is one of the consequences of the current development track pursued by the Philippines. “Our need for energy is only one of the country’s basic necessities subjected to the unstable global market,” said Pedrosa.

“Needless to say, our dependence on imports provided by other countries jeopardizes the welfare of the Filipino people. In this particular case, it harms the country’s energy sufficiency and security,” he noted.

Import-dependence on such fundamental needs such as energy, according to Pedrosa, leaves the country vulnerable to changing policies beyond its control. “Instead of relying on foreign multinational corporations for our energy needs, we must instead focus on building our own capacity to provide self-sustaining energy security for the Filipino people,” Pedrosa concluded.

Pedrosa emphasized that the untapped 200, 000 MW potential of renewable energy sources in the Philippines should be more than enough to supply the country’s energy needs, even without relying on Indonesia’s coal supply. “The unfolding crisis of security and energy highlights our need for a sustainable people-centered clean energy policy, which can only be achieved through an alternative people-centered development track.”

Proponents of coal use in the country have often rejected increased utilization of renewable energy sources as coal allegedly provides “cheaper and more reliable” electricity to supply the country’s baseload requirement. Such arguments are denied by advocates of clean energy, the environment and climate justice.

Philippine Movement for Climate Justice (PMCJ) National Coordinator Ian Rivera emphasized the importance of the Indonesian ban on coal in relation to the upcoming energy review endorsed by the Climate Change Coalition (CCC).

“The unstable nature of our import-dependence on coal, as well as the fact that expanding coal mining inside our country is no longer a viable option should be incorporated in the energy review to be undertaken by the incoming Duterte administration,” said Rivera.

“We hope that this incident would serve as wake-up call for those who propagate the lie that coal is a dependable source of cheap energy,” said Rivera.  “As one of the most vulnerable countries when it comes to climate change, we must be following in the footsteps of many countries such as US, the EU and China, which have begun moving away from the use of coal,” Rivera continued.