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Philippine community goes to court to stop coal plant in ecological haven

The Philippine cockatoo is critically endangered. Photo courtesy of Whitley Fund for Nature.

  • Residents and civil society groups have launched a legal challenge to stop construction of a coal power plant in the Philippine province of Palawan.
  • The project has been delayed for eight years due to widespread community opposition, but construction may begin soon after the developer, DMCI Power Corporation, secured the necessary permits.
  • Indigenous groups say they were shut out of the consultation process, while environmental activists have warned of the project’s impact on one of the Philippines’ last ecological havens.
  • Critics of the project also point out that Palawan has vast renewable energy potential that could meet its entire demand for electricity, mostly through small-scale hydro plants that don’t require the construction of reservoirs and dams.

MANILA — Community members and civil society groups have filed a petition against a planned coal-fired power plant in the Philippine province of Palawan, a biodiversity haven that’s one of the last strongholds of the country’s most critically endangered species.

The group, composed of residents and environmental and energy groups, lodged their case with the regional trial court on Sept. 22 in a bid to legally halt the construction of the 15-megawatt (MW) plant in Narra municipality, 113 kilometers (70 miles) south of the provincial capital, Puerto Princesa City.

The plant was approved in 2012 and is considered a project of national importance by the Philippine government. DMCI Power Corporation, the private company that holds the power permit, has secured the necessary environmental and government permits, but residents and civil society groups have opposed the project for its potential social and environmental impacts.

Petitioners file a complaint against DMCI’s coal-fired power plant at Palawan Regional Trial Court, Philippines. Image courtesy of CEED

In filing their 51-page petition, they aim to prevent the project’s groundbreaking and prompt a reassessment of the environmental compliance certificate (ECC) issued for the project by the regional office of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) last year.

“We noticed that they have already cleared the site and fenced the area,” Grizelda Mayo-Anda, a lawyer with the Palawan-based Environmental Legal Assistance Center (ELAC), said in an online press conference on Sept. 22. “There’s a port nearby and we are worried that DMCI might bring in the heavy equipment anytime. That’s what we’re trying to avoid because it will be harder to halt this project once construction begins.”

The legal challenge also seeks to compel the Palawan Council for Sustainable Development (PCSD), the province’s multisectoral body that oversees environmental governance, to conduct a “serious and comprehensive study to stage the power development according to alternative power sources” and to review the Strategic Environmental Plan (SEP) permit it issued to the developers in 2015.

Community members, including Indigenous groups, and civil society organizations have questioned the permits issued for the project. They allege the developers shut them out of consultations and downplayed the project’s impacts on communities.

“We weren’t included in the consultations because they said that the project site isn’t within our ancestral domain lands,” said Sylvestra Dadizon, one of the petitioners and a community representative of the Tagbanua Indigenous group. “But what about the fumes? Wouldn’t it reach us? We’re already burdened by environmental changes which affect our main livelihood … collecting mountain honey. What more if the coal power plant begins operating?”

Site development plan for the 15-MW coal plant in Narra, Palawan. Map taken from DENR-EMB/MIMAROPA executive summary of DMCI’s Palawan coal plant project

Strong opposition on the ground delayed the start of the plant’s construction for eight years. DMCI changed location three times but faced community pushback at each of the proposed sites. Last year, however, residents say they were surprised that the contested project had been granted an ECC from the local office of the environment department.

“It came as a surprise when news broke that the Coal Project they had long opposed was already granted an ECC, especially since they did not know that an ECC application was filed,” the petition says.

Located in the flatlands that run along Palawan’s southern coast, the site of the coal power plant is a former nickel stockyard in an area designated as an industrial zone by Narra municipality.

The environmental impact assessment conducted by consultancy Gaia South Inc., hired by DMCI, shows that the project area has mostly non-native and exotic flora; four plant species there are endemic to the province and two species are classified as vulnerable by the IUCN. While 96% of the birds in the area are under the least concern category, the area is home to the native hill mynah (Gracula religiosa), a threatened species under the national red list.

The vulnerable Asian small-clawed otter (Aonyx cinereus), heavily hunted throughout its range, is also found there. Off the coast, 18 to 46 fish species were documented among three sample areas, the study says.

Marine water impact map based on thermal plume modelling. Map taken from DENR-EMB/MIMAROPA executive summary of DMCI’s Palawan coal plant project

The assessment says the circulating fluidized bed technology proposed for the plant will offer “lower emissions and is efficient for power generation lower than 300 MW,” but residents remain wary as it will be fueled by coal mined from Semirara Island in the central Philippines, also operated by DMCI.

Groups have questioned the environmental study and called for a reassessment, in a bid to get the power contract revoked. They say DMCI has failed to establish clear coal impact projection and mitigation plans and snubbed petitioners from public consultations.

“Palawan is an environmental conservation area,” ELAC’s Mayo-Anda said. “Any project here should be carefully studied and assessed.”

The groups also say they have little faith in DMCI’s ability to meet its contract obligations, noting the company’s failure to provide a stable power supply for the province.

Palawan relies for its energy needs on an off-grid system heavily fueled by diesel. DMCI operates four bunker- and diesel-fired plants with a combined generating capacity of 51.35 MW. In 2012, DMCI was given an exclusive power supply agreement by the Palawan Electric Cooperative (PALECO).

A Senate inquiry into Palawan’s energy situation in 2017, prompted by a series of rotating blackouts, showed that DMCI had failed to meet its power supply commitment, prompting PALECO to open the local energy market to fill the supply gap.

Streets of Puerto Princesa City in 2016. Image by Blobber via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Three operators provide 94 MW to the island’s grid, enough to meet the province’s current demand that ranges from 47-61 MW on weekdays. While this has stabilized the province’s energy supply, it has also jacked up electricity rates, pushing them higher than the national average.

“The power supply agreement between DMCI and PALECO back in 2012 locked electricity prices at P9.38/kWh — that’s only for generation,” said Avril de Torre, a lawyer with the think tank Center for Energy, Ecology, and Development (CEED).

That translates to about 21 U.S. cents per kilowatt-hour at the exchange rate back then. In 2019, the average electricity rate in the Philippines — “including all the guarantees, transmission and fees,” de Torre said — was 8.41 pesos per kWh, or about 17 cents per kWh.

Opponents of the coal and diesel plants have repeatedly pointed to Palawan’s energy plan, released in 2018 after consultations with civil societies. The plan highlights the province’s renewable energy potential of an estimated 170 MW, most of it from run-of-the-river hydro projects — small-scale plants that, unlike conventional hydropower, require little or no water storage in the form of a reservoir and dam.

This capacity should be enough to meet the province’s growing demand and enable Palawan to slowly end its dependence on fossil fuels, whether oil or coal, groups say.

Palawan is the only known stronghold of the critically endangered Philippine pangolin (Manis culionensis). Image courtesy of the USAID Protect Wildlife project

“Last year, there was a renewable energy event here in Puerto Princesa City and there were so many interested power providers,” said Cynthia Del Rosario of the ONE Palawan movement, an advocacy campaign. “But they backed off when they found out about the power supply deal with DMCI.”

Once the 15-year power supply contract expires, Del Rosario said new players should be entertained and “hopefully, these will be renewable energy contractors.”

Last October, groups gathered more than 11,000 signatures for a campaign to oppose the coal power plant. Teofilo Tredez, head of the Narra farmers’ group and one of the petitioners behind the new legal challenge, said they submitted the signatures to the Philippine Senate.

“Farmers like us will be hit the most with this project,” he said, adding that the municipality is considered the rice bowl for both the province and other parts of the country. “I’ve been in the fight against this project for seven years and we have never been consulted. Even if we’re just farmers, we’ll continue to fight this project.”

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Banner image of the Philippine cockatoo (Cacatua haematuropygia), a critically endangered bird species that could be found in Palawan, Philippines. Photo courtesy of Whitley Fund for Nature.

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