DOE seeks security body’s nod to resume WPS oil search
MANILA, Philippines — The Department of Energy (DOE) has appealed to the government’s Security, Justice and Peace Coordinating Cluster (SJPCC) to allow the resumption of oil and gas exploration in the West Philippine Sea (WPS), Malacañang said on Tuesday.
Acting presidential spokesperson Martin Andanar said the exploration activities in the West Philippines Sea, particularly in Service Contracts (SC) 72 and 75 off Palawan province, were “held in abeyance” because of the decision of the SPJCC.
“The DOE already asked the SJPCC to reconsider the decision and to immediately allow the survey,” Andanar said at a Palace briefing on Tuesday.
“The DOE sought reconsideration on the ground that under international law, geophysical survey is perfectly legitimate activity in any disputed area,” he added.
Andanar’s statement was in reaction to recent Inquirer stories on oil and gas explorations being stymied by China’s expansive claims to the South China Sea, including the West Philippine Sea, and veiled threats against unilateral Philippine exploration activities in waters within the country’s exclusive economic zone.
It was the DOE itself that ordered the suspension of oil and gas exploration in Philippine waters off Palawan about two weeks earlier, on April 6.
The DOE’s order came a month after President Rodrigo Duterte said in a public address that the country must abide by a supposed joint exploration deal with China to avoid conflict.
He disclosed that someone “from China” had reminded him of this after learning that other companies planned exploration activities in the two areas.
Duterte said the same person also warned him that Beijing would send troops to the West Philippine Sea if he deployed Filipino soldiers there.
The SJPCC had cited “the political, diplomatic and national security implications of any activity in the West Philippine Sea.”
The Cabinet cluster is headed by Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana and was created through Executive Order No. 24 in 2017. Its mandate is to ensure the preservation of national sovereignty, protection of national territory and territorial boundaries, strengthen the rule of law and promote peace and human rights.
Its members include the secretaries of the Department of the Interior and Local Government, Department of Foreign Affairs, Department of Justice, as well as the national security adviser, executive secretary and the Cabinet secretary.
In an exchange of text messages with the Inquirer, Cusi explained that the oil and gas survey was suspended because of the SJPCC’s decision.
He said he wrote the SJPCC a week ago “to support the resumption of exploration,” contending that such a survey was “perfectly legitimate” even in a disputed area under international law.
“As part of the whole of government approach, the DOE asked the SJPCC to reconsider the decision and to allow the survey at the soonest possible time,” he said.
The Philippines and China currently have no official joint exploration agreements, except for a memorandum of understanding (MOU) on joint oil and gas development in 2018 although both parties have yet to reach a consensus up to now.
‘Only for show’
As a result of the DOE’s April 6 order, PXP Energy Corp. and its subsidiary Forum Energy Ltd.—which was hired by the government to conduct the exploration—declared a force majeure, saying the order prevented them from “performing their obligations.”
Maritime law expert and University of the Philippines College of Law professor Jay Batongbacal said that the DOE’s decision “again demonstrates Duterte’s submission to China’s demands, and that previous statements against China’s actions were only for show.”
Retired Supreme Court Justice Antonio Carpio, who helped the country win in the international arbitration case against Beijing’s “nine dash line” claims in the South China Sea, said the President was allowing himself “to be bullied by China.”
“The DOE is still waiting for the decision on its requests for reconsideration,” Cusi told the Inquirer.
Meeting with Austin
There was no immediate word from Lorenzana on the DOE’s appeal.
On Monday (Tuesday in Manila), he met US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin at the Pentagon where they discussed the South China Sea and advancing defense ties.
The two officials affirmed “the enduring nature of the alliance, as well as the vital importance of ensuring peace and stability in the South China Sea,” according to a statement on the meeting from the US Department of Defense.
The meeting of the two defense officials came almost two weeks after Chinese President Xi Jinping told President Duterte in a telephone conversation that regional security and stability cannot be achieved through military alliances—an apparent swipe at Manila’s partnership with Washington, its only treaty ally.
Austin reiterated Washington’s “ironclad” commitment to Philippine security and that the Mutual Defense Treaty covered not only the Philippine military but also public vessels and aircraft in the South China Sea.
Under the treaty, the Philippines and the United States are bound to come to each other’s aid in case of an armed attack.