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Supreme Court stops oil exploration in Tañon Strait

MANILA, Philippines (UPDATED) – It's a win for environmentalists who hope to keep intact an important habitat and passageway for whales, dolphins, and porpoises.

The Supreme Court (SC) on Tuesday, April 21, struck down as unconstitutional the oil exploration, development, and exploitation of petroleum resources within Tañon Strait, a protected seascape in the Visayas known for its abundance in whales and dolphins. (READ: 10 things you didn't know about Tañon Strait)

“This is a landmark ruling which should prevent any project which destroys the ecological integrity especially of a protected seascape,” said lawyer Gloria Estenzo Ramos, Vice President for Oceana, one of the petitioners who filed the case.

In a unanimous decision penned by Associate Justice Teresita Leonardo de Castro, the SC nullified the service contract that the Department of Energy (DOE) awarded to Japan Petroleum Exploration Co. Ltd. (Japex) for oil exploration and drilling.

Exploration and drilling was set to take place in a 2,850-kilometer area off Tañon Strait. (READ: Hundreds vow to protect PH's biggest marine protected area

The decision cited the DOE's failure to comply with the safeguards under Section 2, Article XII, of the Constitution.

While the government is allowed to enter into a service contract under the 1987 Constitution, the service contract (SC-46) signed by the DOE and Japex in December 2004 was only signed by then-Energy Secretary Vincent Perez Jr, and not by the President.

"The Court also noted that SC-46 was never submitted to Congress. For these reasons, SC-46 violated the Constitution and is unconstitutional," it added.

The contract also violated Republic Act Number 7586 or the National Integrated Protected Areas System (NIPAS) Act of 1992. Tañon Strait, by virtue of a presidential proclamation, falls under the act as an environmentally-critical area where exploitation of natural resources is restricted.

To push through with any such activity, the company should have applied for an environmental compliance certificate (ECC) and subjected its project to an environmental impact assessment (EIA). This would determine the possible effects of the project on the protected area.

Threats

The case against DOE and Japex was filed by environmentalists Gloria Estenzo Ramos and Rose Liza Eisma Osorio, marine mammal scientist Lem Aragones, and groups Central Visayan Fisherfolk Development Center and Resident Marine Mammals of Protected Seascape Tañon Strait.

They say that, in May and June 2005, the DOE conducted a seismic survey over the exploration area without an EIA.

The oil project poses an imminent threat to whales, dolphins, porpoises, and other marine species that are found in the seascape.

It puts at risk the already dwindling fish catch in the strait. The petitioners said a study found that the destruction of artificial reefs in the exploration area led to reduced fish catch.
 
​Despite these, the petitioners said, the DENR last March 6, granted Japex an ECC without conducting public consultations.

Tañon Strait is the largest marine protected area in the country where 14 species of dolphins and whales can be found. It is home to spinner dolphins, dwarf sperm whales, pygmy killer whales and spotted dolphins.

It is also an important fishing ground, giving livelihood to around 43,000 fisherfolk. – with a report from Pia Ranada/Rappler.com