Oriental Mindoro oil spill

[OPINION] Stopping the oil spill from a climate change perspective

John Leo C. Algo

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[OPINION] Stopping the oil spill from a climate change perspective

Nico Villarete/Rappler

'Actions that result in harm for communities and ecosystems, whether through attributable climate-related catastrophes or oil spills, must not go unpunished'

It has been a month since the sinking of the MT Princess Empress, arguably the worst oil spill on Philippine waters since the one near Guimaras in 2006. The spread of pollution has already reached the coastlines of multiple provinces, from Palawan to Batangas, and is threatening the well-being of thousands of Filipinos.

There are many angles through which to examine the implications of this disaster, including the climate lens. What is clear is that this incident is yet another reminder of the need to end the era of fossil fuels in the Philippines, directly or otherwise.

Who is safe?

As of this writing, more than 137,000 people have already been affected by the oil spill. Most of the impacted municipalities are located in the Mimaropa region, which has the highest poverty incidence rate in Luzon. It is no secret that the poorest are the ones who experience the worst of the impacts of any environmental crisis, and this is no exception.

Several major economic sectors, including fishing and ecotourism, have already been affected in recent weeks, while cases of health problems have also been reported in communities in Oriental Mindoro hit hard by the oil spill. These are grounds for affected communities to not only claim compensation for property damages and/or loss of livelihoods triggered by the incident, but also potential legal cases against responsible entities due to the inability to exercise their rights, including the right to a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment.

Compounding this is the damage that may have been done to local ecosystems. The oil spill has already reached the Verde Island Passage, known as one of the centers of marine biodiversity that is vital not just for the livelihoods of nearby communities, but also for maintaining the area’s resilience to climate change impacts. 

Cleaning up the pollution would take at least months, but the long-term impacts on both natural and anthropogenic areas in the region could be felt for years. Ultimately, it might result in an even higher vulnerability to climate change impacts as a result of both the reduced capacity of communities due to lower incomes and more fragile ecosystems that provide defense against hazards like storm surges.

For instance, Oriental Mindoro was recently named as one of the 17 Philippine provinces that are among the 100 most vulnerable areas in the world to climate-related disasters. In the context of the oil spill, without proper clean-up, coastal inundation could contaminate nearby freshwater sources and further trigger health issues in an area already considered as high-risk.

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Why it’s important to contain the Oriental Mindoro oil spill ASAP

Why it’s important to contain the Oriental Mindoro oil spill ASAP
‘Stop the spill’

There is no question that parties involved in allowing the oil tanker to travel must be held accountable for the disaster, including the owner of the ship, RDC Reield Marine Services. It is notable that the charterer, SL Harbor Bulk Terminal Corporation, is a subsidiary of San Miguel Corporation, which has by far the largest planned expansion of natural gas use in the entire Southeast Asia.

This incident may be viewed as another indicator of the negligence that many fossil fuel companies have exhibited in their operations. While the oil spill itself is unlikely to have huge long-term impacts on the local climate, the fact remains that further excessive burning of fossil fuels like oil and natural gas would cause more extreme climate changes in the future, which would impact countries like the Philippines the most.

It is even more ironic that the current administration advocates for a higher dependency on natural gas. Without holding companies supporting, financing, or conducting even more fossil fuel operations accountable for their actions, disasters like this are bound to occur again. Actions that result in harm for communities and ecosystems, whether through attributable climate-related catastrophes or oil spills, must not go unpunished.

Steps must be undertaken to improve coordination among numerous government agencies when responding to disasters of this kind. Conflicting statements from different officials on details like the ship’s construction and permits certainly would not help in making the government’s response more urgent or effective. 

While initiatives such as cash-for-work programs for affected families and calling for the assistance of neighboring nations in stopping further spillage have already been planned and/or conducted, these need to be complemented with long-term policy reforms and other strategies to avoid incidents like this from happening.

An example of a potential overarching policy reform is a stronger integration of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights into national laws and policies. Doing so should enhance accountability mechanisms on corporations and protect communities from human rights violations associated with environmentally-destructive practices, including with fossil fuels.

Existing laws should also be amended or changed to enable holding polluters liable, especially in cases like this. An example of this is the Oil Pollution Compensation Act of 2007, which keeps cargo owners of capsized ships from being held liable. The “polluters pay” principle, a foundational block of Philippine environmental laws, must be upheld and emphasized in the decisions the government would make when addressing those responsible for this incident.

Lastly, the MT Princess Empress disaster is yet another reminder that ending our dependence on fossil fuels should have started years ago. Nonetheless, a just transition must be implemented towards not just any fuel cleaner than coal, but to renewable energy (RE). It has already been well-established that for reducing the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions, making the energy system more flexible and resilient, making electricity more affordable for consumers, or attaining true sustainable development, the Philippines’s future lies on properly executing said transformation.

Much like the need to stop more oil from leaking out of MT Princess Empress or the spill from spreading into more of the nation’s waters, the Philippines needs to avoid further dependence on fossil fuels before its consequences become too much to be contained. – Rappler.com

John Leo Algo is the Deputy Executive Director for Programs and Campaigns of Living Laudato Si’ Philippines and a member of Aksyon Klima Pilipinas and the Youth Advisory Group for Environmental and Climate Justice under the UNDP in Asia and the Pacific. He is a climate and environment journalist since 2016.

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