All agog to use powers

from Manila Standard Today, January 14, 2015

2015_jan14_editorial

THERE is a four-letter Filipino insult that perfectly describes the contempt we should hold for a Cabinet secretary who suggests that workers wear shorts this summer to cope with the soaring temperatures as power outages worsen in Luzon.

Out of a sense of civility, we choose to limit ourselves to describing the remarks of Energy Secretary Jericho Petilla as needlessly flippant, callously insensitive and terribly ill-considered.

“If we can go to work in shirts and short pants,” that could help cut power use, Petilla said in an interview last week.

It didn’t have to be this way, Petilla continued, blaming Congress for refusing to grant President Benigno Aquino III special authority to negotiate the purchase of more power from new plants built by private service providers to augment the supply of electricity in the summer months, when consumption is high and when the output from hydro-electric plants is expected to decline.

“We asked Congress to give the President emergency powers but when they didn’t give it before October, the power plant option is dead because it’s too late to build one now for use in summer,” Petilla said.

What Petilla does not say is that he failed to convince lawmakers in several congressional hearings that a power shortage was indeed imminent, or that drastic emergency measures would be required to deal with it. Nor did Petilla mention that conflicting data from different government agencies, including his own department, called into question the necessity of the powers he so urgently sought for the President.

Significantly, neither the Palace nor Petilla managed to allay fears that the new power plants would raise the cost of electricity to consumers, much the same way that the patently unjust take-or-pay agreements signed during the Ramos administration saddled us with unreasonably high power rates.

Was the bid to obtain special executive powers, as some observers feared, really aimed at closing sweetheart deals with business groups with close ties to the President? Or was it, as some critics charged, to find an excuse to enable the President to turn the Malampaya fund into a huge reserve of presidential pork? These were certainly among the concerns that kept lawmakers from granting the President the powers that Petilla sought for him.

Because the President has a blind spot when it comes to his own Cabinet secretaries, he has blamed others—including his allies in Congress—for problems that might arise in the power sector. The truth, however, is that his man Petilla bears ultimate responsibility no matter how things turn out.

If there is indeed a power shortage this summer, Petilla should have anticipated it long before his desperate attempt to head it off with ill-conceived emergency powers. The myopia in energy policy falls clearly on his doorstep.

On the other hand, if the shortage turns out to be not as serious as he predicts, then Petilla would be guilty of misleading the Palace, Congress and the public by being all agog to give the President powers he doesn’t really need.

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