Still no action at WPS despite ‘resumption of exploration’
The touted “resumption of exploration activities” in the West Philippine Sea (WPS) appears to be offsite and paperwork, data from the Department of Energy (DOE) shows.
According to information that the DOE submitted to the Senate energy committee, the progress in five petroleum services contracts (SCs) that are affected by the territorial dispute between Beijing and Manila is—at best—at the level of preparing to go back to the concession sites.
Last May, Energy Secretary Alfonso Cusi said the government had been developing the Philippine’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) when in October 2020 they announced the lifting of the moratorium on oil and gas and “ordering” contract holders to resume their activities in the disputed areas.
Cusi was reacting to a comment made on April 15 by former Supreme Court Justice Antonio Carpio, who said the Philippines should exercise its rights and build structures within its EEZ in the WPS to deter foreign incursions.
“With due respect to Justice Carpio, I think that is exactly what we did in October last year,” Cusi said.
Exploration activities in the WPS were halted in the middle of President Benigno Aquino III’s term as tensions between the Philippines and China escalated.
The DOE in December 2014 declared force majeure status for SC No. 72 covering the Recto Bank. A survey ship contracted by project operator Forum Energy —an affiliate of the Manuel Pangilinan-led group of companies—was reportedly almost rammed by Chinese patrol vessels.
By 2015, activities at Recto Bank had been suspended as Malacañang pursued international arbitration over the territorial dispute.
Now, nine months after the unilateral move to resume exploration, two of the five affected SCs have sought force majeure status, citing disruptions caused by the pandemic.
These are SC 54 and SC 58, which are both in Northwest Palawan and operated by Nido Petroleum Ltd.
The DOE has approved a yearlong force majeure for SC 58. Decision is still pending for SC 54’s application for a two-year force majeure status.
Also, SC 59 in Southwest Palawan, operated by PNOC Exploration Corp., is seeking a three-year extension of the exploration period.
Further, the SC 72 consortium is preparing for the “conduct of programmed work commitments” that the DOE approved in February 2021.
Meanwhile, at SC 75 in Northwest Palawan, PXP Energy is requesting a dialogue with the DOE.
The companies behind both SC 72 and SC 75 have “requested assurance for safety and security of offshore operations” when they actually go onsite.
Regarding such a request, the DOE said meetings between the companies and the Western Command of the Armed Forces of the Philippine were “being arranged.”
Last October, Cusi expressed trust that China will respect the Philippines’ decision to resume oil and gas activities at the WPS.
On Monday, Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Zhao Lijian said the Philippines’ 2016 victory at the Permanent Court of Arbitration was “illegal, null and void.”
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