Safe oil depots? Watchdog needed

The damage caused by an estimated 1,000 liters of bunker fuel from the warehouse to the Pasig River certainly brought back memories of another incident involving a leak from a pipeline owned and operated by the First Philippine Industrial Corporation (FPIC), which affected the West Tower Condominium basement in Makati. 

When this occurred in 2010, we learned that no single government agency was primarily tasked by law to strictly monitor and enforce standards for operating pipelines and other similar infrastructure. No duly approved technical standards on operating pipelines in the Philippines were even issued by any government agency in the past. Each department worked within its mandate without any entity primarily in charge. 

The Department of Energy (DOE) was involved because oil passed through the pipeline; it only tested the leaked volume. The Department of Environment and Natural Resources checked FPIC’s adherence to its environmental compliance certificate and the impact on the surrounding area, while the Department of Health monitored the effect on the health of the residents of Bangkal, Makati. 

While each government unit collaborated well and duly discharged its respective public functions, this fragmented approach to managing an important facility such as a pipeline cannot continue.   

As the Philippine economy continues to expand with its strong performance under a banner of good governance, we should expect a surge in local manufacturing and industrial activities.

Overlooked: safety

As a natural consequence, there will be an increase in the demand for energy and power and thus the need to build more energy infrastructure. Many investors are in fact proposing to construct natural gas receiving terminals and pipelines that will traverse Batangas through Manila. 

Over the past decades, however, our policymakers have been too focused on introducing reforms in the electric power industry that they have overlooked an equally important component in attaining security in energy supply: safety.

This issue cannot be addressed by a manpower complement of only 8 people in a division within the DOE. Contrary to public expectations and perception, the DOE in reality has been reduced to a department that only formulates policy with hardly any enforcement powers. 

The convenience of having a depot in the metropolis cannot be undermined. Even more vital is the existence of a pipeline that efficiently and safely transports adequate volumes of petroleum products from refineries to receiving facilities in Metro Manila.

While we can endlessly debate the propriety of locating these infrastructures within the metropolis, the discussion can be easily mooted if a national government agency is established by law to police compliance with health, environment and safety standards. 

A single administrative body given broad powers to monitor, inspect and punish violators of approved government standards should put to rest any arguments on relocation. That government unit must be solely focused on this legally mandated task which should include an overall plan for locating new facilities within the metropolis.   

Because of recent incidents that have compromised the well-being of our citizens where these critical facilities are located, it becomes necessary to balance the need for ensuring oil and gas security vis-à-vis the fundamental duty of government to look out for the welfare of its citizens. 

The Philippines can certainly look at models in ensuring efficiency of oil and gas supply without compromising people's health and welfare and without abusing the environment.

As the Philippines hopes to attain its aspiration for energy self-sufficiency by building more energy infrastructure, a thrust towards ensuring safety must be a policy imperative. 

Reliance on a collaborative performance of public functions among various government agencies, national and local, should no longer be the default rule. A centralized government agency watchdog with full administrative powers must be put in place. -

The author is a former undersecretary of the Department of Energy