The Verde Island Passage or as scientists worldwide call it, the “Amazon of the Ocean” in the Philippines is under siege because of the development of many natural gas projects there.
Located in the south of Luzon and at the heart of the thriving marine region known as the Coral Triangle, the Verde Island Passage (VIP) encompasses five provinces and serves as home to 60 percent of the world’s known shore fish species – 333 coral species, and 1,736 fish species. It is recognized by marine scientists as the most biodiverse marine habitat in the world and “the center of the center” of all of Earth’s marine shore fish biodiversity.
Apart from its massive importance in keeping the world’s ecological balance, the VIP is also crucial to the Philippines’ food security. The country is one of the top seafood producers and exporters in the world, and also relies on the VIP to provide livelihood and income to millions of Filipinos through local tourism and fishing.
More than two million people from the five provinces of Batangas, Occidental Mindoro, Oriental Mindoro, Marinduque, and Romblon rely on the VIP for their livelihood. Because of Batangas’ proximity to the Philippine capital Manila, it is a popular destination for local and international tourists. Visitors go there for the beaches and the dive spots.
However, many infrastructure and economic development activities pose threats against the VIP. Careless tourism, chemical and water pollution, unsustainable fishing practices, and improper waste disposal, among others, endanger the VIP’s diverse marine life. Nonetheless, environmentalists say these are not as destructive as the expanding liquefied natural gas (LNG) industry.
Boom in LNG projects
The sudden boom in LNG projects came in the wake of President Ferdinand Marcos Jr’s declaration that he wants LNG to be the country’s “transition fuel” as the Philippines moves away from utilizing coal-fired power plants as its main source of power. Private corporations are now embarking on 27 different LNG projects representing 29 gigawatts of energy.
Fossil gas is usually referred to as natural gas and when in liquid form, is called LNG. In the Philippines, the VIP is the epicenter of fossil gas and LNG developments, with eight of 27 proposed new plants and seven of nine planned LNG terminals located in Batangas.
The Philippine pipeline has the second highest share of countries engaged in LNG projects in Southeast Asia, which totaled 138 gigawatts (GW). Already, 118 LNG terminals are being built or proposed for building in the region.
In the last two decades, many communities in the Philippines, backed by a strong environmental movement, have won victories against coal-fired power plants. The experience of these communities in fighting the coal plants, with devastating effects on the quality of air and the safety of water bodies, have convinced many Filipinos against fossil fuel.
Instead of going full force on developing the Philippines’ renewable energy sources such as solar and wind power, however, succeeding governments insisted on building coal-fired power plants. Now, the Marcos Jr. government is promoting LNG as its next preferred energy source.
Today, projects in the most advanced development stages in Batangas are being constructed in Brgys. Ilijan and Dela Paz, the site of an LNG terminal proposed by Linseed Field Power Corporation and Atlantic Gulf and Pacific Co. (Linseed-AG&P), which lies adjacent to a new 1,700-megawatt (MW) plant of energy giant San Miguel Corporation (SMC).
Based on reports, since March 12, Linseed-AG&P has flattened the coastal project site, despite concerns about legality of land clearing operations and conversion of the project site’s zoning from agroforestry to industrial. Soil carved out of the hill area was dumped into the sea and on top of underwater marine life to make way for a jetty.
Residents pointed out the 1,200 MW Ilijan gas plant spewed dirty air and unnaturally warm water back into the sea in the last two decades. The power plant was planned to receive fossil gas supply from Linseed’s terminal by June 2022, alongside a new 1,700 MW plant of SMC, which seeks to begin the commissioning stage of its first unit before the end of 2022.
However, in a report by Manila Bulletin, Linseed AG&P was said to have informed the Department of Energy (DOE) the project completion would be delayed until the end of the year. This, the company said, was due to developments in the international gas markets amid the Russia-Ukraine war, as well as complications brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic.
Among known investors of AG&P included Japan’s Osaka Gas, Japan Bank for International Cooperation (JBIC), and I Squared Capital. Active investors of EERI-SMC’s gas plant included UBS AG, Allianz SE, BlackRock, CA Indosuez, Schroders PLC, and JPMorgan Chase & Co., among others.
Other entities including Standard Chartered Bank, Mizuho, Credit Suisse, Deutsche Bank, DBS, and local banks China Banking Corporation and Development Bank of the Philippines (DBP) were found to have facilitated the issuance of securities for the projects. There are also three Japanese fossil fuel financiers supporting the projects: Sumitomo Mitsui Banking Corporation (SMBC), Mitsubishi UFJ Financial Group (MUFG), and Japan’s Energy for A New Era (JERA).
Companies are fast-tracking LNG projects. The VIRES Energy Corp., a subsidiary of A Brown Co., announced that its 450-megawatt floating LNG power plant, also in Batangas, will begin operations in mid-2026.
Allan Ace R. Magdaluyo, senior finance manager and compliance officer of A Brown, has been quoted in reports they were currently seeking baseload power off-take agreements to meet their schedule targets. Some onshore facilities and floating power barge for LNG terminals had been completed: the power barge mooring area, a jetty, switchyard, and other balance of plant infrastructure.
First Gen Corp. (FGEN), has announced its terminal will be completed by end of first quarter 2023. In partnership with BW LNG, a unit of Bermuda-based maritime company BW Group, FGEN is also building a floating storage regasification unit (FSRU), for FGEN’s existing and planned gas-fired power plants and other third-party terminal users.
Shell Energy Philippines (SEPH) is also set on developing an LNG import terminal near its oil refinery in Tabangao, also in Batangas. Construction is slated to start in 2024 and will be completed by 2025.
Becky Jarvis of Bank on Our Future said no gas plant or terminal will be able to run if not for money piped into them by financiers. “In the case of VIP, it seems a whole set of global banks and institutions are intent on funding its destruction,” she said.
A fuel source damaging to the environment
Locals and environmental advocates worry the development of these projects will be at the cost of the VIP’s aquatic life and all livelihood relying on it. Two projects are now in the most advanced stages of development, an LNG terminal of Linseed-AG&P and an adjacent 1,700 MW gas plant of SMC’s subsidiary Excellent Energy Resources Inc (EERI), both in Brgys. Ilijan and Dela Paz in Batangas City.
Fisherman Tomas Buitizon said construction caused the destruction of the beach. “They covered up the water areas where the fish live and spawn. We’re very worried this will happen again and again in many areas if all the LNG terminal projects push through in Batangas,” he said. Buitizo is also the chairperson of the local fisherfolk group Bukluran ng Mangingisda ng Batangas (BMB).
The group’s vice-president, Yul Gilea, said they have been catching less than a kilo of fish on average daily since the gas facilities have been built. “We used to catch 40 to 50 kilograms,” he said. “There are only five LNG plants in Batangas City, but we already have been suffering from their effects on our livelihood. The sea is yielding less fish.”
Batangas produced 65,857.14 metric tons of total fisheries catch in 2020, the highest in the region. For the previous year, however, fish catch was at 93,090.69 metric tons.
Environmental groups have sounded the alarm that Linseed-AG&P’s new terminal and the rest of the Batangas pipeline will lead to increased shipping activities in the VIP. Similar destructive impacts were seen at the 300 MW LNG plant in San Carlos City in Negros Occidental facing the Tanon Strait; a 600 MW LNG plant in the municipality of Tabango, Leyte, which relies on fisheries and agriculture; a 300 MW LNG plant in Zamboanga City, Zamboanga del Sur; and a 12-unit, 6,492 MW LNG facility in Navotas, the Philippines’ fishing capital.
Arances, Center for Energy, Ecology and Development (CEED), said the massive expansion of fossil gas projects in the Philippines and the rest of Asia served as “a death sentence to vulnerable communities and ecosystems already very vulnerable because of climate change.”
“The fossil gas industry is no savior from a coal-based energy sector. It’s true that it is less carbon intensive than coal, but it still releases large amounts of methane,” he said.
Methane is a greenhouse gas that can trap heat 80 times more than carbon dioxide within a 20-year period. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in 2018 reported global use of methane should be decreased by 60 percent by 2030 to help keep global temperatures to no more than 1.5 degrees C. More methane in the atmosphere, more global warming. The production and transportation of natural gas emit significant volumes of methane and other greenhouse gases.
Another problem is how the massive LNG pipeline will cause many disturbances to the VIP marine corridor, creating thermal pollution from seawater intake and outtake, and damaging coasts all over Batangas.
“These are areas traditionally known as spawning grounds for fish and other sea creatures,” said Atty. Avril de Torres, CEED’s deputy executive director. “Where the LNG plants operate and will be built, we can expect more barren lands and more waters stripped of life.”
The environmental lawyer also appealed to local and national officials to not be a part of the destruction of the VIP.
“We ask that our officials exercise the highest degree of diligence by assessing the risks of investing in fossil gas projects. There are so many regulations on air and water pollution, energy transition policies, climate litigation risks, and strong opposition from the various sectors of society – these are more than sufficient reasons to stop these LNG projects,” she said.
De Torres said the loss of flora and marine life along the coast of the project sites is certain.
“We have embarked on independent research on this, and we have seen for instance the clearing operations and dumping of soil into the sea for the terminal’s jetty. These are highly questionable—there are so many concerns on the legality of the LNG facilities’ land clearing operations, zoning conversion, and compliance with environmental and social acceptability requirements,” she pointed out.
Protect the oceans from fossil gas projects
Recently, advocates and proponents of clean energy held a conference with the theme “Keeping Fossil Gas Off Our Coasts and Oceans: Uniting for a Sustainably Powered Future”. 200 advocates from various grassroots organizations such as CEED, Oceana Philippines, National Secretariat for Social Action (NASSA)/Caritas Philippines, Protect the Verde Island Passage, Philippine Movement for Climate Justice, Freedom from Debt Coalition and Sanlakas shared their ongoing actions to unite the various communities affected by LNG projects in the country.
They called on the Marcos Jr. government to stop the massive natural gas expansion in the Philippines and instead focus efforts on the deployment of 100 percent renewable energy. At the end of the conference, the attendees signed a manifesto, the Batangas Declaration, urging the government to halt fossil gas projects.
“The government should help deploy more renewable energy projects and protect the country’s megadiverse waters from pollution and disturbance from gas activities,” said Fr. Edwin Garinguez, one of the conveners of the conference and social action director of the Apostolic Vicariate of Calapan, Mindoro.
“We believe the government should rethink its move to prioritize policies that ramp up gas projects. It’s true that the prices of LNG are skyrocketing in Asia, but it will not solve our power woes because we know it will also be expensive when sold to consumers. Worse, expanding fossil fuel plants will create bigger environmental problems.”
The government is saying it is necessary to access imported fuel because supplies of the Philippines’ primary domestic gas field, Malampaya, are running out. Going after LNG projects, however, the environmental costs cannot be immediately calculated, especially in the case of the projects in Batangas and the VIP.
Since 2019, around 35 supposedly carbon-neutral LNG cargoes have been delivered to buyers in Europe and Asia, and the industry envisions the product becoming “mainstream.” The term “carbon neutral” actually means either the LNG buyer or seller will purchase carbon credits to invest in climate-friendly projects such as forestation, renewable energy, or carbon sequestration. These, they argued, will offset the harmful climate impacts of LNG.
Environmental groups supported by the Church and grassroots people’s organizations are committed to showing the same strong opposition against LNG projects as they did against coal plants. Already, mass campaigns are being held in Navotas City, Pililla in Rizal,
Limay in Bataan,Pagbilao in Quezon, Luna in La Union, Lapulapu City in Cebu, Tabango in Leyte, San Carlos City in Negros Occidental and Zamboanga City, where new fossil gas projects are planned.
As other countries are making headway in their efforts to fight climate change by making the transition to cleaner energy sources, the Philippines is taking backward steps. Instead of developing the renewable energy industry, it is resorting to so-called “development” projects that are seriously threatening the environment and the lives of its citizens.
While there is still debate on whether LNG or natural gas is a bad fossil fuel, the effects of the construction of its facilities are already being felt. Filipinos must not allow these destructive fuel projects to continue at the expense of people, the environment, and the long-term survival of thousands of species that are dependent on what should be protected areas like the Amazon of the Ocean.
All photos credit: CEED, Asian People’s Movement on Debt and Development (APMDD), and Protect the Verde Island Passage