FOLLOWING the termination of negotiations for the planned joint exploration between Manila and Beijing in the West Philippine Sea, a senior lawmaker on Sunday urged the government to lift the suspension of gas and oil drilling activities in Recto Bank.
Surigao del Sur Rep. Johnny Pimentel, chairperson of the House strategic intelligence committee, said, “Now that the talks have been terminated, the department should withdraw its suspension order.”
This way, he added in a statement, “the private parties contracted by the Philippine government to develop the offshore Sampaguita gas discovery in Recto Bank can proceed with their drilling activities.”
According to Pimentel, the DOE on April 6 ordered the private operators of Service Contract (SC) 72 and SC 75 to put on hold their exploration activities in the West Philippine Sea in deference to the country’s talks with China on possible cooperation arrangements and the maritime areas to which they would apply.
Prior to the suspension order, he said the DOE gave the operator of SC 72, Forum Energy Ltd., until October 16 this year to drill its two commitment wells in Sampaguita at a cost of $100 million (P5.4 billion).
Last week, Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro L. Locsin Jr. said talks for the planned joint exploration between Manila and Beijing in the West Philippine Sea have been “completely terminated” upon instructions of President Duterte.
“The President had spoken. I carried out his instructions to the letter: oil and gas discussions are terminated completely. Nothing is pending; everything is over,” Locsin said in his speech during the 124th founding anniversary celebration of the Department of Foreign Affairs.
Sampaguita is estimated to contain anywhere from 3.5 to 4.6 trillion cubic feet (tcf) of gas, which is comparable to if not larger than Malampaya’s 3.4 tcf of gas reserves when the latter was first discovered by Shell Philippines Exploration B.V. in 1992.
Sampaguita has been dubbed the country’s next Malampaya. The undeveloped hydrocarbon field below the seabed is located 250 kilometers southwest of Malampaya, which has been supplying 20 percent of Luzon’s electricity demand for more than two decades.
Pimentel earlier warned that Malampaya might be depleted by 2027, and without fresh gas from Sampaguita, Luzon could face power shortages in the years ahead.
For his part, House Ways and Means Chairman Joey Sarte Salceda is suggesting to President-elect Ferdinand Marcos Jr. that the country recalibrate the terms of its joint development efforts with China over West Philippine Sea assets to instead require independent, “internationally observed” exploration of possible oil and gas reserves first before a joint development agreement is carried out.
Salceda made the comments in response to the Duterte government’s recent withdrawal from talks with China over a joint energy project.
“I still think that it is in our best interest to find a live-and-let-live solution with China on utilizing West Philippine Sea resources. As we have seen in Ukraine, military confrontation is a no-winners scenario. And, this is a question of Philippine independent interest, so we should not depend on our Western partners either.”
“Instead, I strongly suggest to PBBM that we renegotiate a way to approximate an inventory of WPS energy assets independently, with international observation and audit. That way, we know the kind of resources we are negotiating about without undermining our sovereignty.”
Salceda said independent exploration before joint development will allow the Philippines to make a rational, nationally self-interested decision about what kind of joint development agreement the Philippines will undertake.
Salceda said the Philippine government “must make China understand that if they want us on friendlier terms, especially on resource development, they have to pay up.”
“China is not a major Philippine investor. The island state of Singapore trumps China on that front by several multiples. It is not a major Philippine lender, on the scale of, say, Japan. It is our second largest export market, but the United States still beats them there. So, if they want our favor, they have to pay up. Invest more in the country. Send us more tourists. Give us cheaper loans,” Salceda said.
“Otherwise, what it will look like is a militarily superior country just trying to coerce another neighbor,” Salceda added.
Right now, the lawmaker said the country’s geopolitical “best friend” is still Japan, which has shown time and again that its interests align with the Philippines.
“I would explore the possibility of the Philippines going on its own using Japanese capital, technology, and research as leverage in our talks with China over oil in WPS. Besides, it is in Japan’s interest to have a close friend be oil-producing,” he said.
Image credits: ©2021 Maxar Technologies via AP