BUDYONG: Eunuchs and Energy

MARIKINA CITY (MindaNews/09 September) —  Oil as a source of energy is vital to the life of the nation.

But the way oil hikes often spiral to the open skies, it will be most difficult for the nation to keep pace in matters of development with fast developing countries in our region, and, much less in other parts of the world.

What is funny – careful when you laugh because it would hurt – is that the oil companies habitually announce price increases by several pesos per litter and when consumers complain, they would then do token cuts by a few centavos.

Incredible but true.

Who’s to blame?

The underlying causes are far too complicated and too numerous to enumerate in a column where our editor would tolerate only so much verbosity.

In any case, the main culprit, I think, is that the government has ignominiously capitulated on the demands of free trade. It has, thus, taken a hands-off-policy on the matter of oil trading practices. In the depressing words of the Philippine Star banner headline of September 9, “Malacanang helpless on oil price increases”.

That may, however, not be ‘the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth’ as even ambulance-chasing lawyers are wont to say.

The thing is that government policies are adopted for the welfare of the people. A free trade policy, for instance, that is speciously adopted should not remain in the government rule books.

If that policy’s continuing implementation makes people suffer, its rationale for being is gone. Thus, the policy should go to where it belongs – into the garbage heaps of Payatas.

Under existing conditions, however, that may be more easily written in our newspaper than done by government free trade bureaucrats who define government policies.

What, then, can be done realistically to alleviate the plight of oil users – the factories, the homes, government offices, hospitals, and, what have you?

Well, indeed, there are government offices created for that purpose.

For one, there is a government agency snootily called the Department of Energy. In actual fact, however, it is more like a eunuch – all desires but no-can-do.

Then, for another, there is its administrative arm that is equally pompously named, the Energy Regulatory Commission. Which its name, however, implies what it does not do – regulate the oil industry for the good of the people. In simple terms, it is inutile.

There are, of course, a thousand-and-one reasons for the Department of Energy’s and/or the Energy Regulation Commission’s combined or individual incapacity to make oil trade practices in the country more attuned to the people’s general welfare than the existing ones.

Still, there are ways of making the oil companies feel that while their rights under a free trade policy may be respected in the country – until revised, they have a responsibility not to exploit our people.

If they refuse to recognize that they also have the corresponding duty to help advance our people’s welfare, the DOE and/or the ERC – even under the existing constraints of free trade – may gently remind them to do so.

The DOE/ERC may inspect and re-inspect their books of account, and, summon and re-summon their executives to explain the whys and wherefores of their enormous profits all at the expense of the suffering masses of our people.

It may also help if local governments like cities, municipalities and barangays would regulate the location of outlets of oil products and, even possibly, provide tax incentives for the selling of oil wares at reasonable costs in their areas of jurisdiction.

In any case, it is difficult for Juan de la Cruz to understand why oil companies are being allowed to sell oil in the country at stratospheric prices even when, for instance, it was brought here at much more reasonable costs.

To put it simply, even as oil prices in Dubai or at some other bulk oil sellers abroad do go up, there are times when the prices go down. In reason, therefore, crude oil that is imported at times when oil prices at its source are low should not be allowed in the guise of free trade to be sold here far beyond what the oil dealers need to make profits.

The ability of the government to regulate the oil trade is really just a part of the problem we face as the country modernizes.

Domestically, there are matters of human rights especially as they affect tribal communities. There are issues of rapid deforestation that is going on unabated in the still forested areas of the country.

Internationally, there are multinational agreements that deal with climate change of which the country is a party, that need immediate implementation.

That said, on the issue of energy that powers the development of the nation, we have no choice but to take the bull by the horns.

We must develop our own sources of energy, as the newly-installed Ateneo de Manila University president, Jett Villarin, S.J., underscored in his inaugural speech on September 8.

There’s wind, solar, wave, hydro, and bio-fuels, too.

They are expensive to start. But unless we begin, we may never be able to do so because their development costs will not be any less in the future.

A newspaper item recently attributed to President Noynoy the opinion that it is better to underspend government money than to overspend it or words to that effect.

The problem is that that is not necessarily the only “either-or” option for the use of government money. Indeed, public funds may be invested in projects that may benefit the people in the future although the societal advantage may not be immediately visible today.

One such project is in the development of our indigenous sources of energy as already outlined above.

In the meantime, if the DOE and/or the ERC continue to act like castrated animals, they might as well wind up in the butchershops where their remains may be sold por kilo. (MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. Aquilino “Nene” Pimentel is dubbed the “Father of the Local Government Code.”  He defied the Marcos dictatorship while serving as mayor of  Cagayan de Oro City, was named the first Local Governments Secretary in the post-Marcos era, later elected senator and for several years was  Senate President.)