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From geothermal energy to solar power?

A few weeks ago, this paper reported that the Energy Development Corporation has secured the endorsement of the Sangguniang Panlalawigan of Negros Occidental for its solar power plant project in Bago City.

It sounds so interesting, since we all know that the solar is a renewable and clean source of energy. What is disturbing, however, is that the proposed solar plant project shall be established within the buffer zone of the Mount Kanla-on Natural Park.

According to the report, the proposed project will cover about five to six hectares, and is estimated to generate 3.5 megawatts of energy. It is projected that the construction will start this month, and hopefully, it will be commissioned in February 2016. The endorsement of the SP was reportedly unanimous

It is quite unfortunate that the SP made such a blanket endorsement without looking at some concerns associated with this project.

It can be recalled that with the insistent and aggressive lobbying of the then Philippine National Oil Corporation–Energy Development Corporation, a portion of the former Mount Canlaon National Park was sliced as a buffer zone when the MKNP was declared by the Congress in 2001. The total area of the buffer zone is 129 hectares, which was established solely for exploration, development, and utilization of geothermal energy resources, as provided for in Republic Act 9154, or the Mt. Kanla-on Natural Park Act of 2001.

The PNOC–EDC was expecting to generate about 40 megawatts of geothermal energy from the area, the main reason why Congress has allowed it, in spite of strong opposition from civil society organizations, especially so that the proposed area contained the remaining lowland forests of the MKNP, and where certain threatened species were recorded.

It was later found out that only about six to eight megawatts of power could be generated from the buffer zone, and the operation of what is called the Northern Negros Geothermal Project in Brgy. Mailum, Bago City, was stopped. At that time, the EDC, which is owned by the Lopezes, took over the ownership of the project.

With the recent development, I am wondering if it is legally feasible to change the purpose by which the buffer zone of the MKNP was enacted. The declaration of the buffer zone explicitly provided for geothermal energy, and not for solar or any other kind of development. In fact, the MKNP Act further states that areas within the buffer zone, which shall not be used directly for the development and utilization of geothermal energy, shall remain under the control and jurisdiction of the Protected Area Management Board.

This leads to my next question on what is the stand and position of the PAMB on the proposal to establish a solar energy power plant at the buffer zone? While it is true that the solar energy power plant is very promising, is it exempted from the provision of the MKNP Act, which provides that any geothermal exploration or development of energy or mineral resources within the MKNP shall not be allowed except by an act of Congress? How about the Environmental Impact Assessment and the associated Environmental Compliance Certificate, given that the proposed solar project shall be constructed in an environmentally-critical area?

The solar power plant can be constructed in the lowlands and it is a big question why the EDC is insisting its hold over the MKNP buffer zone with this new proposal. The buffer zone of the MKNP is not just an ordinary place, because it still has remaining natural forests that were spared from the destruction of the EDC while constructing its drilling pads and road network.

Given for the sake of argument that the proposed solar plant project would not create negative impacts, why is it that the EDC has to change the purpose by which the buffer zone was established? To what extent does the EDC, a private company, be allowed to make use of the buffer zone for other motives it may have? How effective is the EDC in protecting the buffer zone from illegal activities when the recent biological survey conducted in the vicinity of that area found out the existence of rampant wildlife hunting and illegal cutting of trees ?*

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