The Energy Regulatory Commission (ERC) and power-industry stakeholders have expressed alarm and indignation following the issuance of a three-month suspension order by the Office of the Ombudsman against four of its commissioners.
On Thursday suspended ERC commissioners—Alfredo S. Non, Gloria Victoria C. Yap-Taruc, Josefina Patricia M. Asirit and Geronimo D. Sta. Ana—maintained that there is “no” basis for the suspension, maintaining that there has never been any instance of neglect of duty on their part. They were found guilty by the Ombudsman for simple misconduct for tolerating Manila Electric Co.’s (Meralco) alleged misuse of bill deposits. This is the second time in the past seven months that the Ombudsman has found the same ERC commissioners administratively liable for failing to fulfill their basic duty to protect the interests of the consumers.
“There are existing regulations put in place by the commission regarding the bill deposit being enforced to protect the public. One of the regulations issued by the commission is the Magna Marta on the Rights of Electricity Consumers [MREC], where consumers are granted the right to demand the return of the deposit and the distribution utilities cannot ignore the said demand,” the ERC said.
Notwithstanding the existence of these policies, the commission has been evaluating them beforehand, and had actually been working on the review of the policies in question. It cited the efforts being undertaken to address such concerns even before the second suspension order was issued on May 18.
For instance, the ERC said, it posted in its official website the initial draft “Rules to Govern the Monitoring and Reporting Process of Bill Deposits,” docketed as ERC Case 2017-006 on May 30, 2017. It asked all interested parties to submit their comments on the said draft rules on or before June 15, 2017. After considering all the comments submitted, the commission, likewise, issued the second draft rules on bill deposits in October last year. Again, the commission solicited comments from all interested parties giving them until end-October last year.
In the intervening period, several letters were exchanged between Energy Secretary Alfonso G. Cusi and Undersecretary Pete Ilagan to update them on the progress of the public consultations.
Ilagan used to be the president of the National Association of Electricity Consumers for Reforms Inc., which filed the syndicated estafa and grave misconduct complaint against officials of Meralco and the ERC
Subsequently, the ERC scheduled public consultations nationwide.
”The commission continues to work on the concern as well as other equally important and pressing issues under the Commission’s mandate. The industry has grown and developed in scope so much so that the agency has had to keep up with the needed actions and engagements to address regulatory gaps in different aspects of stakeholders/regulated entities’ operations,” the ERC said.
It added: “In this light, we continue to work toward resolving issues and concerns as well as anticipate needed reforms within our sphere of responsibility. Rest assured, we remain steadfast in our commitment to diligently execute our mandate with utmost professionalism and integrity.”
Industry players, meanwhile, expressed apprehension over the suspension order, which is now the subject of a petition filed with the Court of Appeals. The suspension of four commissioners, they said, will leave a vacuum of leadership within the agency, which is responsible for approving vital power contracts, certificates and other pertinent permits needed before a power project is cleared for commercial operation.
“An ERC, without four commissioners, will stop functioning. That’s not positive for the industry,” Aboitiz Power Corp. President and Chief Operating Officer Antonio Moraza said in a text message.
The ERC is the electric-power industry regulator composed of four commissioners and one chairman. The collegial body requires the presence of three members in order to issue orders, decisions and resolutions. In this situation, the absence of four of its members leaves the body powerless in making decisions critical to the energy sector.
“I hope it will be resolved soon. Otherwise, ERC cannot function with a lot of pending major issue for decision,” said Meralco PowerGen (MGen) President Rogelio Singson in a separate text message.
MGen is the power-generation arm of Meralco, which has seven power-supply agreement applications pending with the ERC. The first suspension order issued in December last year implied that the commissioners gave Meralco an undue advantage when the agency extended the submission of its PSA applications.