GMA may bypass Congress on crisis

GMA may bypass Congress on crisis
By Paolo Romero
The Philippine Star

MANILA, Philippines – President Arroyo is considering bypassing Congress in dealing with the energy crisis in Mindanao.

Palace legal experts believe an “aggressive” interpretation of the Electric Power Industry Reform Act or EPIRA may allow state utilities to generate additional capacity even without congressional approval.

Section 71 of the EPIRA prohibits the government from generating additional power unless allowed by Congress in a joint resolution. But even Palace officials concede that lawmakers, most of them busy with the campaign, might not return to work for a special session that will give the President the needed powers.

“It is possible that if we’re going to be aggressive, if our interpretation is that we are leasing additional capacity as opposed to buying or constructing new capacity, that (joint resolution) might be construed as something that we might no longer need – that particular section (Section 71) in the EPIRA,” deputy presidential spokesman Gary Olivar told government-run radio dzRB.

He noted some experts said that generating new capacity might be interpreted as acquiring or constructing generating assets.

“But if we are to lease generator sets – we won’t buy or own them – some lawyers might say that you can do that even without the special session,” Olivar said.

“Let us call that an aggressive legal opinion. We don’t know yet whether our legal counsels would allow this (kind of interpretation of the law),” he said.

The President has not yet given up on convincing congressional leaders to muster a quorum and give her the emergency powers to address the power crisis in Mindanao, officials said.

Olivar said a congressional quorum is understandably hard to muster nowadays as many senators and congressmen are now busy campaigning for the elections.

But Mrs. Arroyo, he said, would likely try to make another pitch for a special session.

“Whether because of their (lawmakers) schedules or because they don’t want to heed the call of the President, if we’re going to have a problem calling for special session, then there’s really only so much we can do,” Olivar said.

“We’ll do our best and let’s see the schedule of our allies in Congress,” he said.

Energy Secretary Angelo Reyes earlier advised Mrs. Arroyo to declare a power crisis in Mindanao to justify her invoking Section 71.

Part of Reyes’ recommendation is the lease or rental of 160-megawatt modular generating sets for Mindanao. The long dry spell brought about by the El Niño phenomenon has downgraded the capacities of Mindanao’s hydroelectric plants.

Worsening situation

The National Grid Corp. of the Philippines (NGCP) placed Mindanao’s available capacity yesterday at 741 megawatts as against peak load of 1,393 MW or a deficiency in reserves of 652 MW.

In contrast, the Luzon and the Visayas grids posted gross reserves of 787 MW and 94 MW, respectively.

Luzon posted power reserves despite the 95 percent reduction in the generating capacity of the Magat hydroelectric plant in Nueva Vizcaya due to the sharp drop in Magat dam’s water level to 154.66 meters from the normal level of 183 meters – the lowest since July 1991’s 149 meters. The NGCP said no power outage is expected in Luzon this week, but the low voltage problem in the Cebu-Negros-Panay region may cause some power interruptions in the Visayas.

NGCP corporate executive for Mindanao Ed Calabio, meanwhile, said the El Niño phenomenon is not the only culprit in the prevailing power crisis in Mindanao. He said the long dry spell brought about by the El Niño has only aggravated the situation.

“Even the rains won’t solve the power crisis in Mindanao,” Calabio said.

“Even if it rains, the power crisis in Mindanao continues because we do not have additional capacities as against the growing demand,” Calabio said.

Hydroelectric power represents 60 percent of Mindanao’s energy sources – 727.1 MW from the Maria Cristina power plant and the 255-MW Pulangi IV.

Diesel-fired power plants represent 22 percent in the energy mix; geothermal, 12 percent, and coal-fired, six percent.

“Since 2006 the power supply in Mindanao has remained the same while the demand has shot up to all-time high,” Calabio said.

“Even if Agus is in full capacity, we are still curtailing because we do not have the reserves,” Calabio said.

In Butuan City, Presidential Adviser for Mindanao Affairs Jesus Dureza said Mindanao consumers may have to pay four to five times higher electricity rates if quick solutions to the power crisis are adopted like the acquisition of generating sets.

But even before Dureza bared the likelihood of rising electricity rates, local power cooperatives in the Caraga region particularly the Agusan del Norte Electric Cooperative (ANECO) had already announced that it would collect higher rates anytime next month.

Dureza was in Butuan with New Zealand Ambassador Andrew Matheson and UNDP Country Director Renaud Meyer to visit projects in the so-called Peace and Development Communities, which had been rebel-infested areas.

“Mindanao’s growth is so fast and we have to accept the reality that we don’t have enough power, we just have to contend with rotating brownouts, there’s not enough power for everybody,” Dureza said.

But he stressed the government is doing everything to address the problem like reviving the 35-MW Iligan Diesel Power Plant.

“And we have arranged big companies that have backup generators to run their engines and generate power so that the power that they will be consuming from the grid can be parceled out to other areas,” Dureza said.

Sibulan hydropower plant is expected to be on stream this month initially with 26 MW and another 16.5 MW in April.

Conal Holdings, for its part, is building a $450-million 200-MW coal-fired power plant in Maasim, Sarangani, this year.

Is it really El Niño?

Also in Butuan City, Sen. Loren Legarda called on the Presidential El Niño Task Force to prove whether the abnormal weather phenomenon is really to blame for Mindanao’s power woes.

“I think the electric crisis in Mindanao is not induced by El Niño but the result of the inability of this administration to encourage more participation by the private sector in power generation in Mindanao and to address the environmental issues raised against proposed power plants,” Legarda, Nacionalista Party vice presidential candidate, said.

Legarda also said that giving emergency powers to the President would not alleviate Mindanao’s power shortage problem.

“Instead of recommending the granting of emergency powers to the President, the Department of Energy must explore all possible means to address the present power problem in Mindanao,” Legarda said.

Nuclear power

Nuclear plants each for Luzon, Visayas, and Mindanao may be the answer to the country’s energy problem, according to Agusan del Sur Rep. Rodolfo Plaza.

“Contrary to old beliefs, nuclear technology is far safer now than it was since it was first developed half a century ago. Today, many countries are shifting to nuclear power generation because it is safer, cheaper and considered to be more environment-friendly than coal-fired power plants,” he said.

He said if the country continues to rely on water to run its power plants, it would periodically face an energy crisis as El Niño is a recurrent phenomenon that could dry up dams and rivers.

Plaza, a senatorial candidate, pointed out that existing nuclear technology offers inexpensive power and less pollution.

“Experts have identified safer nuclear fuel source such as Thorium, which promises a new generation of clean and safer nuclear power,” he added.

He stressed that studies have shown that coal plants are even more deadly than nuclear plants when it comes to effects on the environment.

“Coal deaths don’t just come from mining but from burning it. Air pollution from coal-fired power plants causes 23,600 US deaths per year. It’s also responsible for 554,000 asthma attacks, 16,200 cases of chronic bronchitis, and 38,200 non-fatal heart attacks annually,” Plaza said, citing a report by the Earth Policy Institute in Washington, a non-profit research group.

“I will continue working for this (nuclear energy) until we become energy sufficient. I believe we should now set aside our indifference and embrace the benefits and beauty of nuclear power. It is the only solution to all our energy problems,” Plaza said.

Two years ago, Pangasinan Rep. Mark Cojuangco started pushing for the rehabilitation of the 600-megawatt Bataan nuclear power plant (BNPP) to augment the country’s power supply.

Cojuangco said existing power plants, mostly built during the Ramos administration, would not be enough to supply the nation’s electricity requirements.

He said if BNPP were operated, the cost of electricity in Luzon could go down by P2 per kilowatt-hour.

The provincial board of Pangasinan has passed a resolution allowing the building of a new nuclear power plant in the province.

Opposition senators and congressmen have blamed the energy crisis on President Arroyo’s “ineffective governance” as well as her failure to anticipate a power supply shortage in two to three years.

Cojuangco said it would take three years to five years to build a power plant.

By the time new plants are completed, the energy situation would be so bad that unreasonably high power rates would be imposed on Filipinos, he said. with Edith Regalado, Jess Diaz, Ben Serrano, Donnabelle Gatdula, Jose Rodel Clapano, and Charlie Lagasca

Karen Ang

A plebeian who is trying to make small changes in this world.