BY VICTOR REYES and JOCELYN MONTEMAYOR
NAVY chief Vice Adm. Giovanni Carlo Bacordo yesterday assured the security of personnel of the Department of Energy which was authorized last week by President Duterte to resume oil exploration in the West Philippine Sea in the South China Sea.
This as Energy Secretary Alfonso Cusi assured the public that the Philippines is not giving up on or compromising its sovereign rights in the West Philippine Sea.
Last week, President Duterte gave the green light to resume oil exploration in the West Philippine Sea. Oil exploration was suspended by the administration of President Aquino in 2015 due to the territorial dispute over the South China Sea.
In March 2011, two Chinese ships harassed a ship of the Department of Energy (DOE), which was engaged in oil exploration at the Reed Bank or Recto Bank. The DOE workers were told by two Chinese ships to stop their activities and leave the area because the bank is part of China’s territory.
China claims almost the entire South China Sea. The Philippines claims parts of it, like Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan, and Vietnam.
In July 2016, China’s massive claim was rejected by the Netherlands-based Permanent Court of Arbitration which ruled in favor of a case filed by the Philippine government challenging China’s nine-dash line which infringes on the Philippines 200-mile exclusive economic zone.
China has consistently said it does not recognize the arbitral court’s ruling.
Bacordo said area commanders will ensure the security of the DOE personnel who will be involved in the oil exploration, through the conduct of maritime and air patrols.
“The Philippine Navy is ready to protect our vessels conducting oil exploration or conducting surveys in our areas within the 200-mile exclusive economic zone, within the 350-mile extended continental shelf, the Benham Rise,” he said.
Bacordo said the Navy will improve its facilities in the West Philippine Sea “so that we will have better monitoring and a better response to our conducting these explorations.”
He could not immediately how the President’s order to resume oil exploration will affect the situation in the West Philippine Sea in relation to the territorial dispute.
Cusi said five service contracts were reactivated with the lifting of the moratorium, including one signed with a Malaysian firm.
Among the five are Service Contract 59 is in West Balabac in Palawan, Service Contract 72 covering Recto Bank, and Service Contract 75 in northwest Palawan.
Details about the companies and the service contracts they are applying for are not available.
Cusi said he expects more companies to express interest in the joint exploration following the lifting of the moratorium.
He said three companies have applied for exploration contracts under the “nominated areas” under Philippine Conventional Energy Contracting Program (PCECP), which he said are now being evaluated. PCECP allows the exploration and development of indigenous energy resources in the country.
It was not clear if the three companies included those that offered proposals in April to develop the nominated Area 6, Area 7 and Area 8 in the West Philippine Sea.
Cusi said negotiations for a joint exploration and development with China, under a memorandum of understanding (MOU), is also ongoing.
Asked during a briefing if a joint exploration with China will compromise the Philippines’ position in terms of the country’s victory at the arbitral tribunal, Cusi said, “This lifting of the moratorium is an exercise of our sovereign rights… So, in no way it weakens the arbitral decision , and our MOU to explore a joint development program or cooperation with China, in no way that it weakens…,” he said.
He also said the President’s goal has always been to ensure that the resources at the West Philippine Sea are harnessed and will benefit the Philippines.
Asked what the government would do in case China opposes the resumption of joint exploration activities in an area that is also being claimed by the Chinese, Cusi said China may protest diplomatically and concerned agencies will respond accordingly.