Exorcising the demons of the Carbon Club

Feature story - November 12, 2002
One could see this coming. Once the government set in motion hearings on House Resolution 700, filed by Rep. Manuel Zubiri and calls for the immediate phase-out of all operating coal power plants in the Philippines, operators of these dirty, polluting power plants predictably banded together to lobby against the resolution.

Led by US energy giant Mirant, operator of the biggest coal plants in the country such as the 1200-MW coal plant of Sual-Pangasinan; QPL/Mauban, operator of the notorious 470-MW coal plant of Mauban-Quezon, and Napocor which runs the coal plants at Calaca-Batangas and Masinloc-Zambales, the alliance, according to its statements, aims to promote the image of coal plants as "good stewards of the environment and ... host communities".

So say hello to the Carbon Club. In the upcoming months and years expect that this alliance will try, in every way possible, to conceal the polluting ways of its members.

The past few weeks haven't been good to the Carbon Club though. During the first two hearings, one on October 9 and another on October 23, legislators took turns grilling the corporate machinery which, for the first time, was represented by their CEOs and general managers. Members of the Senate Committee on Environment and the Congressional Committee on Energy, which called for the hearing with the Committee on Ecology, demanded that the coal plants fully disclose their carbon and heavy metal emissions. Officials noted, to the chagrin of the corporate power executives, the wide gap between the violations so far recognized by the DENR and the more numerous problems besetting community residents.

It is actually encouraging to know that more of our government leaders are aware of the health, social and environmental risks posed by coal power plants.

There is more to the risks associated with coal-based power generation than heavy metal emissions. The massive amounts of carbon dioxide being emitted by coal plants is hugely responsible for the accelerated onset of climate change. Carbon dioxide is the chief greenhouse gas responsible for climate change, which was singled out at the recent Earth Summit in South Africa as the biggest ecological threat facing the planet today. Among the impacts of climate change is increased flooding, rising sea levels, more frequent extreme weather events such as storms and droughts, and an increase in diseases such as dengue borne by insects that thrive in warming temperatures. According to the UN-formed Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, developing countries will be hit hardest by climate change in terms of loss of life and effects on investments.

But if you think that the Carbon Club would simply put their heads down or show a little sense of guilt, think again. At the hearings, the coal plant operators threw jive after jive in attempts to mislead members of the congress investigation panel as well as the general public.

Mirant has been trying to cover up the massive carbon emission of its coal plants. According to a recently released Greenpeace Southeast Asia study, for instance, Mirant's 1200-MW Sual coal plant will, for the duration of its 25-year contract, produce 238.4 million metric tons of carbon, equivalent to more than 576 billion jeepneys (a common Philippine public vehicle) simultaneously starting and traveling for a kilometer.*1

QPL/Mauban wants the public to forget that its has been issued cease-and-desist orders by the DENR due to flagrant violations of environmental regulations. The legislators during the hearing were appalled to find out that QPL/Mauban's violations continued unabated.

Napocor meanwhile continues to deny the testing results of the Environmental Management Bureau of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, which exposed the widespread of presence of mercury within the vicinity of the Calaca coal plant. Mercury is a neurotoxin so deadly that all it takes is 1/70th of a teaspoon to contaminate a 10 hectare lake to the point where fish caught are no longer fit for human consumption.

The Carbon Club can try to run, but they won't be able to hide. The amount of legislative, media and public attention has made sure that the issue of these hazardous and polluting coal plants will no longer be relegated to the backburner. A highlight of the people-s resistance to earth-frying coal plants is the recent rejection of the Pulupandan coal plant project proposed to be built in the province of Negros Occidental. The people of Negros and the local government has shown the world that with determination and political will it is possible to decisively repudiate the dirty intentions of proponents of dirty energy, which always come in the guise of economic prosperity.

The battle is far from over, and the Carbon Club will more than likely come up with new tricks and deceiving numbers to mislead the public. Fortunately, the battle for clean sustainable energy is now being waged openly, which allow for greater and deeper public participation - the key to exorcising the dirty demons that is the Carbon Club. The victory against the despised coal plant of Pulupandan is a step towards the right direction, but it is only one step. Clearly, it's high time to escalate the campaign and pound the carbon culprits even harder.

The future is at stake. Clean energy and the climate cannot wait.

*Red Constantino is climate campaigner of Greenpeace Southeast Asia.

*1) Burning Our Future: The true costs of building coal-fired power plants and the case for renewable energy alternatives, Greenpeace Southeast Asia Report, 2002