Growing energy demand trips Philippines biosphere town

“Another bird trips the power line?”

Every time the electricity gets cut off, residents of a small but booming tourism city of Puerto Princesa in the Philippines flood their Facebook shout outs blaming the power supplier for inefficiency. The local electric cooperative then passes the blame on miniscule reasons like tree branches falling on electric lines or birds treading on them. It cannot be discounted, however, that ageing power lines and generators running on crude oil cannot cope with the increasing demand of the city, which has seen the number of hotels and restaurants grow exponentially. Three years ago, a three-storey mall also opened. This so-called development has driven local politicians to find ways of delivering the much-needed electricity within a short period. Gil Acosta, the governor’s spokesperson, said “the governor believes that Palawan has been left behind by other provinces, even though it’s the biggest in the region. Power plays a big role in development. Those who want to invest in Palawan first ask whether there is a stable power supply.”

Faced with criticisms and pressure from local leaders, the Palawan Electric Cooperative (PALECO), which is mandated to deliver uninterrupted power supply to the residents, signed a 25-megawatt supply contract with DMCI Power Corporation, a privately-owned company that specializes in power utilities, in July 2012. Aside from a coal-fired power plant, this also included a 5-megawatt diesel-fired power plant that began commercial operations at the end of 2012. The company, meanwhile, positions itself as a saviour. In a press release, it stated: “DMCI Power Corporation is building a power plant in Palawan to avert a looming power crisis in the fast-growing province, which thrives on tourism as a main industry.”

Much has to be said about the company that was contracted. Its mother company, DMCI Holdings has interests in construction, water and ore mining services. DMCI’s subsidiary Semirara Mining Corporation is the largest coal producer in the country and is one of the biggest in Asia. DCMI both exports and supplies its power plants with the coal it mines. While boasting of its corporate social responsibility and promising to follow environmental laws and regulations in building the coal-fired power plant in Palawan, DCMI doesn’t have the perfect grade in environmental protection. Its open pit-mine in Antique province’s Semirara Island has been blamed for a host of environmental destruction, causing low yields for farmers and low fish catch for fishermen.

In 2013, a part of a wall in its open pit mine collapsed that killed five workers and five others went missing.  Moreover, according to US-based Carbon Monitoring for Action (CARMA), which holds information about the carbon emissions of over 60,000 power plants and 20,000 power companies worldwide, DCMI’s  power plant in its mine site in Panian, Semirara emits 1,370 kilos of carbon dioxide per megawatt-hour, while its plant in Calaca, Batangas province emits 1,190 kilos of carbon dioxide per megawatt-hour, third and ninth respectively in the top 10 highest CO2 emitters in the country.

CARMA claimed that the usual intensity of CO2 emission among power plants in the Philippines is 506 kilos of carbon dioxide per megawatt-hour while the intensity of pollution caused by two of DCMI’s power plants is more than twice the usual. In a press release, the company said it will use the newest and cleanest coal technology in a proposed power plant in Palawan. “DMCI will employ the Circulating Fluidized Bed Combustion (CFBC), also known as the ‘clean coal’ technology, which is the latest and cleanest in coal combustion.”

Man and Biosphere Reserve

Opposition to the proposed coal-fired power plant is mounting because of the province’s fragile state. Since 1990 the entire Palawan holds the status of UNESCO Man and Biosphere Reserve. It is cited as a “site of excellence where new and optimal practices to manage nature and human activities are tested and demonstrated”.

It’s also home to two UNESCO natural heritage sites – the Saint Paul Subterranean River National Park and the Tubbataha Reefs Natural Marine Park. According to Worldwide Life Fund (WWF), the province may lose its status if the proposed coal-fired power plant goes ahead. RJ Dela Calzada, the Palawan project manager for the WWF-Philippines, said “the Man and Biosphere status is like a Nobel Prize for good sustainable development management in one area. Palawan is one of the two recipients in the Philippines. When we say man and biosphere, we’re talking about how human beings consciously use its biosphere for its own benefit… If we fail to meet those criteria then we might be delisted. Having a coal power plant may be a reason to be delisted.”

When DCMI got the approval from a government environmental body to first build said power plant in the municipality of Narra, environmental groups immediately organized petitions citing the fragile flora and fauna surrounding it. Haribon Foundation, a forefront in biodiversity conservation in  Palawan, opposed the plan arguing that the coastal town of Narra is so close to Rasa Island, which it called “the last stronghold of the unique Philippine Cockatoo”. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature lists the bird as Critically Endangered as only 1,000 individuals exist in the world. Haribon also claimed that the coal-fired power plant will threaten the proposed site’s surrounding air, land, water, vegetation and wildlife.

“These impacts can be felt during plant construction; when the plant’s physical structures are already in place; and when the plant is already operational,” the NGO said in a statement. “During construction, the dredging of barge unloading areas could affect fish, mussels and other aquatic life… Power plants build water intake and discharge facilities, so vegetation in surface waters can also be affected… But the coal power plant’s operation, when it is already spewing its emissions into the open air, can impact vegetation or result in air pollution.” After fierce opposition from environmentalists and the rejection of the municipality of Narra, the proponents moved the location of the power plant to the adjoining Aborlan municipality.

At the village of San Juan, the new proposed site, Tagbanua tribal chieftain Dominador Badilla could not hide his anger. “The ones who are pushing the project are better off. They have regular salaries. We only depend on our coconut trees and our plants. If our farm yield will be affected, where will my grandchildren get their livelihood? We, the members of the Tagbanua tribal community, do not want this coal-fired power plant. We would rather live with what little we have now. We can sacrifice without electricity,” he said in Filipino.

Outside his bamboo hut hangs a poster showing a picture of a coal plant emitting black smoke and dirty air. The poster reads: “Is this what you want to happen in Aborlan?” And in red bold letters it says: “NO TO COAL”. Badilla’s family and others in the community live through fishing and copra farming. On a good month, they earn about US$100 but they are content. The land they live on has been through many generations as their ancestral land.  “We inherited this land from our ancestors. This belonged to my grandfather since the 1930s. He was buried here. Then they will just put something that will destroy our land? What will happen to us?” he said.

The tribal chieftain is even angrier that the project has divided a once harmonious community. He insisted that there has never been a proper consultation for the project. “The proponents are saying they have consulted us. When things have stirred up because we voiced out our opposition, that’s when they said there will be public hearings. At first, they were hiding the meetings from those who opposed. They bring their own people using their own trucks to show there is a support from the public. If they only record what’s been happening in the public hearings they would know our reasons for opposing and how many people are against it,” he said.

As another resident Melvin Badilla enthused, “we didn’t like the process that our local leaders did. Before they let us know that the coal-fired power plant will be built in our village, they already prepared the documents for building it here. We were caught by surprise.”

The once opposed barangay (village) officials of San Juan, Aborlan stamped their endorsement on the project after they were reportedly showed around in another plant in Iloilo province. They argued that they saw first-hand that the company was responsible enough and the environment in the showcase piece in Iloilo was intact and unaffected. It was suspected, however, that aside from being dined and wined, they were only shown the sanitized version of the power plant.

The endorsement even came much easier from the provincial council of legislators who are allies of the governor who wants the project started as soon as possible. Allegedly without proper consultation and ignoring environmental impact assessment results, the provincial council unanimously endorsed the project to be built in Aborlan town.

As the proposed site is also near a fish sanctuary, the waste water discharge from the facility is deemed hazardous to the marine ecosystem. Dr. Lita Sopsop, Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences of the Western Philippines University that is in the heart of Aborlan, said “we oppose the coal plant because of the negative impacts to health and the environment, particularly to locally declared fish sanctuaries in the area. The residents get their livelihood from fishing. The discharge of waste water from the coal plant will cause thermal pollution that is hazardous to the marine ecosystem, especially coral reefs.”

Marlene Jagmis, a staunch environmentalist before joining the university’s faculty, said “the coal plant poses many hazards like the threat of lung disease or damage to the brain, especially in children. Burned coal can produce chemicals like mercury, which can’t easily be dissolved by so called new technology. This particle can be hazardous to humans, and even babies inside the womb are not spared.”

Last Frontier

Often cited as the Philippines’ last ecological frontier, Palawan has been battering environmental degradation. It has the largest forest cover and fish biomass in the country, rich mineral resources and the surrounding West Philippine Sea has vast potential for oil and natural gas. Tourism is also thriving because of its beautiful islands, beaches and dive sites. These attractions are irresistible to miners, oil and gas drillers, illegal loggers and fishermen and other investors.

Ironically, given the fragile state of the province, past and current political leaderships have never been serious in using renewable energies (REs). This is despite repeated demands from environmentalists and NGO such as World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF). Even President Benigno Aquino III seems reluctant to support REs believing these are unstable. In a recent visit to the province, Aquino insisted that it is important for Palawan to have sufficient power supply to complement the government’s target of attracting 10 million foreign tourists by 2016. He said the province needed more power supply to fuel construction projects, upgrading of airport facilities, as well as the upstream and downstream industries and the only reliable available source of energy is coal or diesel.

The governor’s spokesperson Gil Acosta said officials at the provincial government have been discussing new and renewable resources for 10 years but this never took off until this coal plant proposal came along. “The most viable proposal for the governor is to use coal and biomass fuels. We’re looking at hydro and wind power, but these won’t be enough,” he added.

RJ dela Calzada of WWF-Philippines disagreed. “If you go into renewable energies and strategize how to put those REs  in Palawan, then again we can supply the requirements of Palawan…There are places already that say REs are very efficient in providing energy… A one-megawatt requirement only requires you 2.5 hectares of solar farm. How much megawatt do you need in Palawan? There are new technologies in terms of solar that it can provide electricity even without sun for seven days.”

Environmentalists also argued that REs are cheaper than coal. “Why should Palawan buy more expensive, dirty power when we have cleaner, cheaper alternatives available?” said Atty. Gerthie Mayo-Anda, Executive Director of the Environmental Legal Assistance Center.

REs experts said while the fixed cost of renewable technologies is higher than conventional fossil-fuelled alternatives, this cost is borne by the developer and not the consumers. “Renewable technologies also generally have much longer life cycles than fossil options and have no or very low fuel costs,” according to Diana Limjoco, a resident of Palawan blogging on the power of REs. “In addition to lower generation rates, renewable energy requires little or no subsidy and consumers are exempt from payment of the 12% value-added tax (VAT). The net result of integrating renewables into the power mix is lower rates and reduced subsidy requirements.”

Environmentalists also assailed the government’s reasoning that there are no serious investors on REs in Palawan. WWW-Philippines said that since 2010, there had been proposals for mini-hydropower plants for the capital Puerto Princesa and Narra municipality but these mini-hydro projects failed to obtain contracts with PALECO. “Despite obtaining all the other requirements, they have been unable to start generating power for the people of Palawan,” WWF-Philippines said.

Limjoco said the Palawan Chamber of Commerce and Industry receives many inquiries from foreign and domestic firms and funding agencies to develop REs on Palawan. She said, “there are currently three private firms, two of which hold renewable energy service contracts with government, which are active in the development and pre-development stages of installing solar, biomass and run-of-river hydro power plants on mainland,” adding that “the problem is not a lack of investor interest, but the existence of policy, political, and bureaucratic constraints and a lack of clear guidelines for development and implementation of REs on Palawan and throughout the Philippines.”

At the end of the day, the government seems to show that solving a perceived power crisis is only solvable through a quick solution that is coal, notwithstanding the fragile state of the environment that is Palawan. As Haribon Foundation puts it: “people do need electricity, but we think this should not be at the expense of biodiversity loss. It would be misleading to approach the issue by choosing between two seemingly disparate choices of ‘power’ and ‘environment’. The need for electricity only makes sense for a community that has an adequate resource base for thriving and where ecological benefits can be enjoyed by the majority over a long period of time.  Agenda No. 1 should be the protection and conservation of remaining natural habitats and its biodiversity. Without this prerequisite, notions of ‘progress’ are self-deceiving.”