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Esperon banking on China oil deal for peaceful PH-led exploration in West PH Sea

National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon Jr is counting on the memorandum of understanding (MOU) on oil exploration signed by the Duterte government with China to ensure that companies can explore for oil and gas in the West Philippine Sea without interference.

This comes as the Philippine government and firms that hold service contracts in the West Philippine Sea prepare to commence exploration activities in the area, believed to hold 6,000 barrels of undiscovered oil and 7,100 billion cubic feet of undiscovered gas.

"We have the memorandum of understanding with China in 2018 which we would like to hold on to, among others, when we deploy our platforms to Malampaya as well as to Reed Bank," he said on Wednesday, November 4, during a virtual press briefing. (READ: Lifting of West Philippine Sea moratorium tests Duterte's China strategy)

Malampaya refers to the natural gas field that is currently the Philippines' biggest source of domestic energy. Reed Bank or Recto Bank, said to have most of the petroleum resources in the West Philippine Sea, holds the Sampaguita gas field which can now be explored and developed because Duterte lifted the ban on such activities last October 15.

"China will always come into the area and we have taken measures to see to it that it will be on the basis of the MOU that we signed in 2018," Esperon added.

In the agreement, China will allow its state oil firm China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC) to partner with a firm that holds a service contract issued by the Philippine government. This means that China is bound to undertake exploration activities only under Philippine laws, an admission that the area being explored is under Manila's jurisdiction.

Ready to help

Esperon said the National Task Force on the West Philippine Sea (NTF-WPS), which he chairs, is prepared to protect ships of service contract holders should the need arise.

The task groups in charge of Malampaya and Recto Bank, led by the military, are ready to respond to requests from the Department of Energy, the agency that leads "Task Group Energy," which covers oil exploration and development activities.

"Our ships are already deployed with the WesCom (Western Command) and they are in the area so if there are exigencies and contingencies that have to be addressed, then we can tap them as part of the task group controlled by the military in the area," said Esperon.

Apart from the 2018 MOU, signed in the presence of Chinese President Xi Jinping and President Rodrigo Duterte, Esperon said there are other efforts to ensure warm ties with Beijing.

He mentioned specifically the October visit of Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr to China to meet with Chinese counterpart Minister Wang Yi, around a month after Duterte's speech at the United Nations General Assembly where he made history by defending the 2016 Hague ruling.

This ruling, which invalidated China's claim to the West Philippine Sea, has been steadfastly ignored by Beijing. (READ: What's behind Duterte's strong Hague ruling assertion before UN?)

Esperon is  "confident" that the Philippine-sanctioned petroleum explorations will push through and yield energy production by 2024 or 2025, near when the Malampaya field is expected to dry up.

Petroleum exploration and development in the West Philippine Sea was suspended after Chinese ships harassed a Philippine survey ship in 2011. – Rappler.com

Pia Ranada

Pia Ranada covers the Office of the President and Bangsamoro regional issues for Rappler. While helping out with desk duties, she also watches the environment sector and the local government of Quezon City. For tips or story suggestions, you can reach her at pia.ranada@rappler.com.

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