Philippines goes all in for natural gas, a climate pollutant

MANILA. A resident fishes as the sun sets at the coastal village of Santa Clara near a liquefied natural gas power plant in Batangas province, Philippines on Tuesday, August 8, 2023. The Philippines is seeing one of the world's biggest buildouts of natural gas infrastructure.
MANILA. A resident fishes as the sun sets at the coastal village of Santa Clara near a liquefied natural gas power plant in Batangas province, Philippines on Tuesday, August 8, 2023. The Philippines is seeing one of the world's biggest buildouts of natural gas infrastructure. AP

SEA turtles still scramble from the waters of Batangas Bay, paddling up the sand to bury their eggs. Coral reefs that some marine biologists call the Amazon of the ocean lie just offshore, home to giant clams, nurturing small fish, which in turn are prey for manta rays.

But above the surface the land is changed. The fishing village of Santa Clara is now surrounded by four power generating stations, all burning natural gas.

The construction isn’t over. Four more power plants that burn natural gas are planned for the coastline. What was a string of fishing villages is now an industrial zone.

The Philippines is going all in for electricity made via climate-damaging combustion, with almost two dozen power stations planned and the ambition to become a gas hub for the entire Asia Pacific region.

When natural gas is super-chilled into a liquid, special tanker ships can transport millions of cubic feet of it at a time, and the global trade in liquified natural gas or LNG is growing fast.

It's one of the world’s largest natural gas power buildouts and will contribute to climate change at a time when alternative, renewable electricity has never been cheaper.

“It’s mindboggling that the Philippines, a climate-vulnerable country, would still pursue dirty fuels which exacerbate climate disasters,” said Gerry Arances, executive director of the Philippine nonprofit Center for Energy, Ecology and Development.

Natural gas causes warming of the atmosphere both when it leaks out, unburned, and when it is burned for heat or electricity. Experts who have studied the country found its future growth could be met entirely with renewables; reliance on natural gas will make power more expensive for Filipinos and there will be other environmental costs.

Wilma Abanil, a grandmother of four, witnessed changes after the first plant opened in 2002. Within two years, the fish catch was falling, she said. It grew worse as more plants opened.

“Before when you worked really hard, you could send your children to school,” Abanil said. “We were happy. We could support our family. These days we have nothing.”

While Philippine fish exports are going up nationally, officials records show the catch from Batangas Province in a slide. Many residents blame the power plants. There is overfishing, too.

“We heard they will build more,” Abanil said. “What will happen to us?"

But Philippine Department of Energy fossil fuels director Rino Abad defended the plans. “We just have to make our best choice which is natural gas,” he said in a Zoom interview, describing it as the least expensive energy source, flexible and very clean. “We cannot increase our energy capacity by RE (renewable energy) alone.”

He noted the country is not building any new power plants that burn coal, which is dirtier.

Abad disputed the size of the expansion, saying 14 plants are planned. But that appears to include only those in the department's formal pipeline and not others that are at an earlier stage or more recently announced.

Today, the Philippines accounts for less than four percent of overall natural gas use in Southeast Asia, Abad said. Indonesia and Thailand use several times more.

Philippine environmental guidelines protect the coral reefs, he said, for example limiting the temperature of hot water discharged from power plants.

All the plants surrounding Santa Clara are owned by First Gen, the Philippines’ leading natural gas energy company. First Gen did not reply to requests for comment.

Many energy watchers disagree that in 2024, it's essential to build new fossil fuel plants for electricity, or that it's the least expensive. Natural gas plants require a constant supply of fuel that rises and falls in price on international markets, unlike solar, wind and geothermal electricity, which cost very little to run once they are built.

Relying on “very expensive, unreliable, imported fuel,” is a mistake, said Sam Reynolds of the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, which analyzed the Philippines’ energy plan in several white papers. Electricity made from burning liquefied natural gas is between two and three times as expensive for Filipinos than electricity made from renewables, he found.

And coastal power plants can cause environmental damage in a number of ways. Their hot water discharge can kill corals; changing the coastline alters flows of seawater and sand, which can disrupt delicate ecosystems, and tanker ships risk importing invasive species.

The risk assessment for a San Miguel plant currently under construction next door described corals in the area surrounding the power station as already in a poor state.

President of the Philippine Association of Marine Science, Jayvee Saco and others are concerned that corals further offshore could suffer the same fate. In the worst case, “future generations will only see the beauty of the reef in books or museums,” he said in an interview at his laboratory at Batangas State University. Seagrass will die first, then sea cucumbers, then fish, he said, as a machine flipped vials containing samples behind him.

A study by marine biologists at Ateneo de Manila University found coastal areas under stress from the five power plants that already operate in the area.

A spokeswoman for San Miguel said via email its monitoring shows marine life has not been affected and a “thriving marine ecosystem” remains. The company has created employment and liquified natural gas is “internationally recognized as a transition fuel to cleaner energy,” she said.

But there is no such international recognition. For years, evidence has accumulated that natural gas power is not much better for the climate than coal, if at all. That’s because it’s made up mostly of methane. It burns cleaner than coal, as the industry claims, but when it leaks out, unburned, which it does, it is more than 80 times more harmful to the climate than CO2.

The Philippines may have made its decision to invest heavily in natural gas in part on the advice of the US Agency for International Development, which encouraged the expansion, arguing in a 2021 paper that the country could realize “strong economic and environmental benefits” by using LNG to meet its energy needs. The paper came out as US natural gas companies rapidly turned the United States into the world’s largest LNG exporter. US President Joe Biden has recently delayed consideration of new export terminals.

Twenty years ago, in this same part of the Philippines, communist insurgents took up arms against an earlier generation of power plants that had displaced them. The New People’s Army launched a pre-dawn assault on soldiers guarding a nationally-owned power plant in Batangas. Several were killed on both sides in the gunfight.

There are echoes of that conflict today: Some protestors against the LNG buildout say they've been threatened. Aaron Pedrosa, a lawyer for the Philippine Movement for Climate Justice, said in an interview in Manila that soldiers often round them up, then offer money to keep quiet.

If they refuse? “Some have been abducted,” he said. “You can be charged with anti-terrorism laws. Some leaders have been killed because they were, ‘resisting arrest.’”

The Philippine Army didn’t respond to requests for a comment.

Back in Santa Clara, Joseph Vargas, president of a fishing association and husband of Abanil, says most communities have seen no benefit from the power plants built so far, even though Philippine law requires financial support for livelihoods in affected areas. Residents in four villages visited by The Associated Press agreed. He too has experienced pressure against protesters. He said soldiers wouldn’t allow them to fish, as a punishment.

“We were harassed until we stopped,” he recalled, “and they said if we continue, something bad will happen to us.” (AP)

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