Energy exploration and development in protected areas
BY: ERROL A. GATUMBATO
Several protected areas in the Philippines are now confronted with proposals for the exploration and development of energy resources. The Northern Negros Natural Park in Negros Occidental is one of these PAs being eyed for geothermal survey. Other PAs known to me that have similar energy issues with the NNNP are the Naujan Lake National Park in Oriental Mindoro and the Bulusan Volcano Natural Park in Sorsogon. Although not officially listed as a PA but recognized as a key biodiversity area, Mt. Talinis, or Cuernos De Negros, is another site proposed for the expansion of a geothermal project in Negros Oriental.
These energy proposals in PAs are actually not new, since geothermal projects already exist in the Mt. Kanla-on and Mt. Apo Natural Parks in Negros and Mindanao, respectively. However, circumstances on how these projects entered in the two PAs were different from the current status of the NNNP and all other declared natural parks and strict nature reserves, which are already placed under the National Integrated Protected Areas System Act, or Republic Act 7586.
I’ve learned from Provincial Environment and Management Office personnel of Negros Occidental that the Lopez-controlled Energy Development Corp. has presented its proposed geo-scientific study to the NNNP Technical Working Group. The EDC has similarly sought endorsement for this proposed study from different local government units in the province. The EDC has an existing geothermal service contract with the Department of Energy covering Mount Mandalagan, a thickly forested mountain range that accounts for a large part of the NNNP. Reportedly, about 20 megawatts of geothermal energy can be sourced out from the site, but it is only an initial estimate based on available information. This is probably the reason why it is necessary for the EDC to conduct further study in NNNP.
This proposed study, once implemented, would not in anyway entail damages to the environment and biodiversity of the NNNP. A geo-scientific study does not involve use of heavy equipment, landscape alteration, cutting of trees, wildlife displacement, and other disturbances. Moreover, geothermal is a renewable resource and clean energy source that may be able to substitute non-renewable and dirty sources of power.
It should be understood, however, that the NNNP is a declared PA. Several provisions of
the NIPAS Act require serious considerations before any decision is made on the EDC proposal. Aside from legal concerns that maybe subjected to numerous interpretations, we need to discern and evaluate, too, the very purpose of establishing a PA, and how valuable it is in terms of biological diversity, ecosystem services, and other crucial and long-term benefits it offers to the environment and people.
It is not a question of choosing between “the devil and the deep blue sea”, or “the good and the bad”, just like these sayings usually imply once we are pressed with difficult choices and decisions. This is a matter of exploring more viable options and alternatives so we can both address the maintenance of ecological balance for our survival and common good, and the pressing requirements of renewable energy sources that will not destroy our natural environment.
It is very vital to take into account ecological concerns, especially in areas where natural ecosystems are already badly impaired and require immediate rehabilitation. Negros, for instance, had lost most of its natural forests, and where a good number of endemic species of flora and fauna is highly threatened, some of which are restricted only to this newly declared region of the Philippines.
In my opinion and understanding, having been provided with the opportunity to work in several PAs for the past two decades, and to participate in some deliberations and consultations on the proposed NIPAS Act, before it was enacted into law in June 1992, it is the intention of RA 7586 to spare PAs categorized as a strict nature reserve or natural park from energy study or survey, exploration, and utilization. The energy development in PAs was one of the contentious issues taken up during the drafting and consultations of the proposed NIPAS Act almost three decades ago.
NIPAS Act energy provisions
Framers and authors of the NIPAS Act provided adequate measures to safeguard declared natural parks and strict nature reserves from energy exploration and utilization, as they included a specific prohibition on energy surveys in these sites. Section 14 of the NIPAS Act articulates, “Consistent with the policies declared in Section 2, hereof, protected areas, except strict nature reserves and natural parks, may be subjected to exploration only for the purpose of gathering information on energy resources and only if such activity is carried out with the least damage to surrounding areas”.
The same section of the NIPAS Act further states, “Surveys shall be conducted only in accordance with a program approved by the DENR, and the result of such surveys shall me made available to the public and submitted to the President for recommendation to Congress. Any exploitation and utilization of energy resources found within the NIPAS areas shall be allowed only through a law passed by Congress”. These two last sentences of section 15 of RA 7586 seemingly refer to protected areas that are not categorized as a strict nature reserve or natural park. The NIPAS Act offers other PA categories where energy exploration may be allowed.
Section 15 underscored the policy declaration set forth in Section 2, which claims, “It is the policy of the state to secure for the Filipino people of present and future generations the perpetual existence of all native plants and animals through the establishment of a comprehensive system of integrated protected areas within the classification of national park as provided in the Constitution”.
The policy declaration acknowledges the profound impacts of human activities to all components of the natural environment, citing the effects of increasing population, resource exploitation, and industrial advancement, while clearly recognizing “the critical importance of protecting and maintaining the natural biological and physical diversities of the environment, notably on areas with biologically unique features to sustain human life and development, as well as plant and animal life”.
NIPAS Act intention
With these enunciations of RA 7586, it is clear that surveys for energy should not be allowed in natural parks. Some may claim that a geo-scientific study is different from exploration. If I will make a reference to what I’ve learned from various presentations of the EDC, it is true, because exploration, in the parlance of energy companies, involves locating energy reserves and drilling. However, “exploration”, as being referred to in the NIPAS Act, means the gathering of information on energy resources. I am wondering if the proposed geo-scientific study of the EDC will not entail generating data on energy resources in the NNNP. Given the existing geothermal service contract of the EDC with the DOE covering Mt. Mandalagan, the proposed study presumably would include survey on geothermal resources in the area.
Regardless of the associated provision of RA 7586 granting authority to Congress to pass a
law for any exploitation and utilization of energy resources found within the NIPAS sites, it is doubtful how the lawmaking processes will proceed if prior gathering of detailed information on the potential energy resources at the targeted natural park or strict nature reserve has never been allowed. It is precisely the motivation why the NIPAS Act prohibits gathering of information on energy resources in natural parks and strict nature reserves, because it aims to protect these areas for the ultimate goal of “securing for the Filipino people the perpetual existence of all native plants and animals,” and not for any form of energy exploration and development, either it is renewable or not, or with least damage to the environment.
Mounts Apo and Kanla-on
One may further ask why geothermal utilization was allowed then in Mt. Apo and later on in Mt. Kanla-on (then spelled Canlaon)? When the geothermal reservation was sliced from the Mt. Apo National Park in 1992, it was only a few months before the NIPAS Act was enacted. On the other hand, Mt. Kanla-on was not yet declared as a natural park when the former government-controlled Philippine National Oil Corporation-EDC proposed its geothermal project in the area. In fact, it was the main reason why the PNOC-EDC insisted and worked hard for the exclusion of its proposed geothermal site from the proclamation of the MKNP in 1998.
Presidential Proclamation 895 declared the former Northern Negros Forest Reserve as a protected area under the category of a natural park, and it is now called the NNNP. The NNNP has an estimated land area of about 80,454.50 hectares, covering Mounts Marapara, Canlandog, Silay, and Mandalagan in the northern part of Negros Occidental. It is being managed in accordance with the NIPAS Act, as mandated by its proclamation.
Extractive resource uses are not allowed in natural parks, and supposedly, they are being maintained to protect outstanding natural and scenic areas of national or international significance for scientific, educational, and recreational purposes. The biological and ecological values are important factors for the NNNP’s designation as a natural park.
The PA has the largest remaining intact forests in Negros Island, and where limited and yet biologically diverse lowland forests still exist. It is habitat to numerous endemic species, and accounts for several ecosystems that provide various ecological services, such as watershed and carbon sink. It helps mitigate the impacts of natural hazards and risks, like heavy flooding, landslides, and soil erosion, among others. Its potential for nature-based tourism could not be understated, because it has several scenic and beautiful attractions.
Geothermal development impacts
The valuation and accounting of the NNNP’s ecological services may likely outweigh the benefits from 20 megawatts of geothermal energy that may be generated from this area. Geothermal is a clean source of energy, but its development entails adverse impacts to the environment. In Mounts Kanla-on and Apo, geothermal development involved forest clearing, since specific sites where geothermal can be sourced out were forested. Access roads, which connected the different drilling pads, were constructed to tap the geothermal energy. Clearing was further done in every one-hectare drilling pad and plant site.
The consequence of forest clearing is the loss of vegetation comprising not only of trees, but other native floral species and organisms, too. Once forest is cleared, it will dislocate faunal species that used to inhabit there, and further add threats to the endangered wildlife in surrounding areas. It will affect the source of our water, since the forest and its immediate environs are natural water reservoirs. Geothermal development will ultimately alter and modify nature designed and created landscapes.
Other major issues
The NNNP is already facing numerous issues. More than half of its area is now heavy with permanent settlement and agriculture, community centers, and infrastructures, to name a few. There are pending proposals to exclude certain parts of the PA for declaration as alienable and disposable lands, and relocation site for rebel returnees. Several private vacation houses and resorts were constructed in the area without permits. These challenges have yet to be resolved, and here comes the proposal on geothermal energy. Do we want to maintain the NNNP as a PA, or do we want to disestablish it for other purposes? The disestablishment of the NNNP as a PA is still an option, if we don’t care enough for the remaining gifts and wonders of nature found in NNNP, and the associated benefits they offer to present and future generations.
How about the pressing needs of energy today and in the future? Shall we continue relying on fossilized and other non-renewable energy sources? Are there no other viable renewable energy resources, except geothermal? Arlene Infante, an entrepreneur who is privy on energy issues, has only this to say, “ Our solar farms are sprouting like mushrooms, and we don’t need to compromise our last remaining forests and water source.”
Lawyer Eli Gatanila, a realtor who also follows energy development in Negros Occidental, provided me with a list of solar energy projects in the province, and they are quite promising. Based on the list, there are already four operational solar power plants with a combined capacity of 261.6 megawatts in Negros Occ., while two others, with a total capacity estimate of 80 megawatts, are under construction. Can we not rely on these power sources? I am sure there are pros and cons between geothermal and solar energies, but one good thing in solar power plant was no forest clearing has been done on its development in Negros Occidental.EAG*
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