The Philippines is going all-in on natural gas, a climate pollutant

Manila, Philippines — Sea turtles still emerge from the waters of Batangas Bay and paddle onto the sand to bury their eggs. Coral reefs that some marine biologists call the Amazon of the ocean lie just offshore and are home to giant clams, which feed small fish, which in turn are prey for manta rays.

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

Construction is not over yet. Four more power stations that burn natural gas are planned for the coastline. What was once a series of fishing villages is now an industrial area.

The Philippines is going all out for electricity generated through climate-damaging combustion, with nearly two dozen power plants planned and an ambition to become a gas hub for the entire Asia-Pacific region.

When natural gas is supercooled into a liquid, special tankers can transport millions of cubic meters of it at a time, and global trade in liquefied natural gas, or LNG, is growing rapidly.

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

“It is mind-boggling that the Philippines, a climate-vulnerable country, is still pursuing dirty fuels that worsen 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 have found that future growth can be achieved entirely with renewable energy sources; The dependence on natural gas will make energy more expensive for Filipinos and will also incur other environmental costs.

Wilma Abanil, a grandmother of four, witnessed changes after the first factory opened in 2002. Within two years, fish catches declined, she said. It got worse as more plants opened.

“If you worked really hard in the past, you could send your children to school,” says Abanil. “We were happy. We could support our family. Today we have nothing.”

As Philippine fish exports rise nationally, official data shows the catch from Batangas province in a slide. Many residents blame the power plants. There is also overfishing.

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

But Rino Abad, director of fossil fuels at the Philippine Department of Energy, defended the plans. “We just have to make our best choice: 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 with renewable energy alone.”

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

Abad disputed the size of the expansion, saying 14 factories are planned. But it appears this only includes those in the department's formal pipeline, and not others that are in earlier stages or more recently announced.

Today, the Philippines is responsible for less than 4% of Southeast Asia's total natural gas consumption, Abad said. Indonesia and Thailand use several times more.

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

All plants around Santa Clara are owned by First Gen, the Philippines' largest natural gas energy company. First Generation did not respond to requests for comment.

Many energy observers disagree that building new fossil fuel power plants by 2024 is essential, or that it is the least expensive. Natural gas power plants require a steady supply of fuel, the price of which rises and falls on international markets, unlike solar, wind and geothermal electricity, which cost very little to run once built.

Relying on “very expensive, unreliable, imported fuel” is a mistake, says Sam Reynolds of the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, which analyzed the Philippines' energy plan in several white papers. Electricity from the combustion of liquefied natural gas is two to three times more expensive for Filipinos than electricity from renewable energy sources, he found.

And coastal power plants can cause environmental damage in a number of ways. Their hot water discharge can kill corals; Altering the coastline alters the flow of seawater and sand, which can disrupt fragile ecosystems, and tankers risk importing invasive species.

The risk assessment for a San Miguel factory currently under construction next door described the corals in the area around the power station as already in poor condition.

Philippine Association of Marine Science President 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 and then fish, he said, as a machine turned over vials of samples behind him.

a study by marine biologists from the Ateneo de Manila University found that coastal areas are under pressure from the five power plants already operating in the area.

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

But such international recognition does not exist. For yearsproof hasaccumulated That natural gas Energy is not much better for the climate than coal, if at all. That's because it consists largely of methane. It burns cleaner than coal, as the industry claims, but if it does leaks unburned, whatever it does, it is more than 80 times more damaging to the climate than CO2.

The Philippines may have made its decision to invest heavily in natural gas partly on advice from the US Agency for International Development, which encouraged the expansion, arguing for a 2021 strategy. paper that the country could realize “strong economic and environmental benefits” by using LNG to meet its energy needs. The article appeared as U.S. natural gas companies quickly made the United States the world's largest LNG exporter. US President Joe Biden recently did this delayed consideration of new export terminals.

Twenty years ago, communist insurgents in this same part of the Philippines took up arms against an earlier generation of power plants that had driven them out. The New People's Army launched one attack before dawn about soldiers guarding a national power plant in Batangas. Several people on both sides were killed in the firefight.

There are echoes of that conflict today: some protesters against LNG expansion say they have 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 and then offer them money to keep quiet.

If they refuse? “Some have been kidnapped,” he said. “You can be charged under anti-terrorism laws. Some leaders have been killed for 'resisting arrest.'”

The Philippine military did not respond to requests for 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 the affected areas. Residents of four villages visited by The Associated Press agreed. He has also experienced pressure against demonstrators. He said that soldiers would not allow them to fish as punishment.

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

——

Freelance reporter Anton Delgado contributed to this report.

___

The Associated Press' climate and environmental reporting receives support from several private foundations. See more about AP's climate initiative here. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

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