Spurned for imposing own rules
MEMBERS of the Commission on Appointments on Thursday rebuffed Environment Secretary Lopez for acting as if she were above the law by imposing new standards and changing the rules midstream when she closed 23 mine sites and canceled 75 mineral production sharing agreements.
Those who opposed Lopez’s confirmation also complained that Lopez not only changed the rules, but also her mind when she opposed a review of her closure orders shortly after signing the order to push through with it.
Those who opposed her confirmation also said Lopez showed her bias against mining and failed to transcend her advocacy.
At her confirmation hearing Thursday, Lopez and CA members debated on the definition of a watershed.
She also said 13 large-scale mining companies passed her audit even though they sat on a watershed. The companies practice “responsible mining,” Lopez said.
The lawmakers also rebuked Lopez for claiming that provinces that were hosts to mining companies were among the poorest of the poor.
Presiding over Day 2 of the confirmation hearing, Senator Manny Pacquiao, chairman of the CA committee on environment, chided Lopez for imposing her “personal standards” to get her way than following the law.
“You imposed your own personal standards. You cannot do that,” Pacquiao told Lopez.
To justify her actions, lawmakers said, Lopez threw out existing standards and imposed her own, based on “social and economic justice.”
This prompted Occidental Mindoro Rep. Josephine Ramirez-Sato to tell her: “You cannot go outside the parameters of the law. You cannot be above the law.”
Senator Panfilo Lacson agreed with Sato.
“That’s where the conflict starts. The mining companies complied with the highest standards but you changed the rules midstream that became subjective and arbitrary. You changed the policy midstream. They were really surprised because they were ISO 14001 compliant but you changed the standards.”
“If you want to add new standards to the existing requirements, do it the legal and proper way,” Sato cautioned Lopez.
“You cannot just declare, ‘This is what I want.’ You cannot do that,” said Sato, who asked Lopez if she meant to revoke the administrative order issued by former Environment Secretary Ramon Paje, requiring that mining companies be ISO-certified.
But Lopez refused to be swayed.
“This is my stand. You cannot build an economy on suffering. We have to consider social and economic justice where we build an economy that benefits everyone, for the common good, not to make farmers and fishermen suffer. I have moved the DENR from a regulatory agency to a developmental one,” Lopez said.
She said the ISO 14001 was a technical requirement brought about by a private initiative.
When Sato asked Lopez to define ISO 14001, however, she could not and even referred to it as “ISO 41” until a consultant corrected her.
Jo Cristine Li, a young mining engineer, brought out a recorded pronouncement previously made by Lopez when she denied making ISO 14001 a requirement to make the mining firms compliant.
Li let the CA listen to the recorded statement of Lopez, who insisted the ISO certificate did not cover her policy of social and economic justice.
“I am not violating the law. It is in the law. Social and economic justice is mandated by the Constitution, the Mining Act, the Clean Air Act, among other laws. I am just enforcing the law. ISO 14001 is just a technical thing that is a private initiative,” Lopez said.
Paquiao said those who vehemently opposed her confirmation said she did not observe due process.
“I did observe due process and my actions were all based on the laws every step of the way,” Lopez shot back.
A Teachers Rep. Julieta Cortuna said Lopez may have been “blinded” by her advisers and the CA members now doubt her competence considering the huge number of sectors strongly opposing her confirmation.
Cortuna also corrected Lopez, who insisted that her trusted adviser and consultant Leo Jasareno, former Mines and Geosciences Bureau chief, had not approved or recommended a single MPSA during his stint.
Lopez, who promoted Jasareno as senior undersecretary, described him as “honest, loyal, not corrupt and who cares a lot about the environment.”
“There is not a shred of evidence of corruption against Leo [Jasareno]. He is an honest guy and I trust him,” Lopez insisted.
Lopez defended Jasareno after a group of mining engineers questioned Lopez’s decision to make Jasareno head the audit team when it was during his stint that the MPSA had been granted the mining companies.
But Lopez denied this as well, saying not one MPSA was signed by Jasareno, a claim that Cortuna disputed, citing official records.
Lopez later apologized to the confirmation body for her lack of knowledge about the signatories to the MPSA.
Ronaldo Recidoro, official of the Chamber of Mines of the Philippines, questioned Lopez’s backing out of the Mining Industry Coordinating Council, which she co-chairs with Finance Secretary Ceasar Dominguez.
At first she signed the order calling for a review of her closure orders, then said the MICC could only review policies, not DENR orders.
She said she had written a memorandum to President Rodrigo Duterte protesting the allocation of P50 million to review her closure orders.
“I told the President in a memo that I personally handed to him that we could use the P50 million somewhere else, for the better, not for the review. We have a game plan. We could use the money, instead in making plans on how to find jobs for our mine workers, who would be displaced,” Lopez said.
Lopez appealed to the CA to give her two more years to prove that she can make the closed mining sites “beautiful, beautiful,” and alleviate the mine workers and communities from poverty.
Senator Juan Miguel Zubiri contested Lopez’s assertion that the provinces that were hosts to the mining sites were among the poorest of the poor.
“Official records from the Philippine Statistics Office, a government agency, show that not one of the provinces, where mining was present, is in the top 10, not even in the top 20 of the poorest provinces,” Zubiri said.
“My province, Bukidnon, which did not have mining, was among the top 20,” Zubiri said. “So where did you get your data, Madame Secretary?”
Lopez said her statistics were provided to her by the Department of Social Welfare and Development, based on the list of recipients of the 4Ps.
Several members of the tribal groups and indigenous people, who flew from as far as Surigao del Sur, Caraga, Agusan and Zambales, testified that their lives were uplifted as a result of mining.
They said they were now worried about their children, who were sent to school by the mining companies as their scholars.
“May we ask Secretary Lopez as to how she would sustain our needs because the mining companies are providing us with the annual royalty fees by the millions that we use for our developmental projects as a community. The mining companies also provided us with hospitals, schools and livelihood programs, when government for the longest time had not done for us. We now have katutubo who are educated,” said the tribal chief in Filipino and English.
Pacquiao said Lopez would be bypassed as she is leaving for abroad Friday for a vacation.
Senator Panfilo Lacson, on the other hand, said she could suffer the fate of Foreign Affairs Secretary Perfecto Yasay Jr., who was rejected by the CA earlier this week.
During the hearing, Lacson told Lopez her responses to issues raised by CA members were “not enough” to convince the body just yet to vote in favor of her nomination.
“I want to be candid as I think the responses made were not enough to convince at least 13 [members]. I want to help you get past this confirmation hearing,” said Lacson.
Pacquiao’s committee had heard the 23 oppositors against the appointment of Lopez during the two hearings which started Wednesday. It will hold on Tuesday, March 14, a caucus, to discuss Lopez’s nomination as DENR chief. Her appointment will be considered bypassed if the CA fails to come up with a decision before Congress adjourns session on March 18 for the Lenten recess.
At Thursday’s hearing, Lopez again faced her oppositors who called for her rejection as she was “unfit and unqualified” for the job.
The oppositors also cited her lack of technical and scientific knowledge, and her understanding of the mining production sharing agreements (MPSA) or exploration contracts.
They also denounced her blatant disregard for due process for ordering the shutdown of mining companies and cancellation of 75 MPSA, causing a shakeup in the multi-billion-peso industry.
Asked what her motivation was in closing the mining operations and cancellation of MPSs,, Lopez repeatedly said that it was based on social justice and her understanding.
Senator Miguel Zubiri contradicted Lopez’s claims that mining operations had not helped the economic lives of people in their areas, which she described as the poorest among the poor.
Occidental Mindoro Rep. Josefina Ramirez-Sato insisted that Lopez’s oassion for social justice should not prevail over the laws in enforcing her actions wgainst the mining companies.
Although she is so passionate about her environmental advocacy, Sato reminded the DENR secretary about adherence to the law. “If you want to improve, give them their rights, that is the essence of democracy.”
On several occasions, she demanded from Lopez the laws which she used as basis for the closure and cancellation of MPSA.
She also asked Lopez about her appointment of her own undersecretaries despite the lack of open positions.
Citing feedback from DENR personnel themselves, Sato said this practice has left organic department officials “demoralized.”
Sato said she respected Lopez’s prerogative to choose her own team, “but not at the expense of the organic personnel.”
But Lopez responded that she could not build a team based on whether or not it would cause hurt feelings.
“I need people whom I trust. The organic personnel do not have the capability to do what I want. What about the work I want to do for our country?” she said.
San Juan City Rep. Ronaldo Zamora, also CA member, said the arguments raised by the oppositors have enough basis.
“Can the green economy, a system that will depend on ecotourism, replace the lost jobs, their income after being rendered jobless? “ he asked.
Zamora’s elder brother, Manuel Zamora Jr., is the chairman of Nickel Asia Corp., the country’s largest nickel miner, which insisted on being compliant with all the laws.
Miners from the country’s mining industry on Thursday urged the CA to reject the ad interim appointment of Environment Secretary Gina Lopez, saying she was “unfit and unqualified” in her job.
Chamber of Mines of the Philippines vice president for legal and policy Ronald Recidoro said they oppose the confirmation of Lopez as she has shown herself unfit and unqualified to be the government’s lead regulator.
“We want to be clear–the issue here today is not the mining Industry. The issue is whether or not Secretary-designate Lopez is the right person to head the DENR,” Recidoro told the CA’s committee on environment chaired by Senator Manny Pacquiao during Lopez’s confirmation hearing.
“We ask–is she competent to lead the DENR? Does she have the experience, education, impartiality and temperament to accomplish the Department’s objectives? To all these questions, we say no, no and no,” said Recidoro.
Recidoro noted recent events have shown that they are dealing with someone who does not believe in the Constitution’s mandate for the state to undertake the exploration, development, and utilization of natural resources, and as such, has put them, the government’s partners in mineral development, at a quandary.
He dismissed Lopez’s characterization of miners are “environmental rapists.”
Recidoro said Lopez insisted on an industry-wide audit even as some of the miners have secured ISO or international certifications.
“Lopez bypassed legal and administrative processes and disregarded the sanctity of contracts by ordering the closure or suspension of 28 mines and threatening to cancel 75 agreements,” Recidoro said.
He cautioned that the cancellation of contracts could spawn “hundreds” of contract disputes similar to government’s dispute with the German builder of Naia Terminal 3.
“Cancelling contracts without due process and changing rules in the middle of the game frightens away quality investors,” he said.
He also slammed Recidoro’s disregard for due process in ordering the closure of mining operations.
Recidoro also rejected Lopez’s stand against mining in watersheds and open-pit mining contending that such are allowed by law under certain conditions.
COMP has been the most vocal among those against Lopez’s confirmation as environment secretary, ever since she announced the closure and suspension of 28 ‘mining areas in the country–all run by COMP members
In February, the group submitted its formal opposition to Lopez’s confirmation before the CA.
Calling mining the “most misunderstood industry in the country today,” Recidoro cited the Philippine Mining Act of 1995 in saying that mining companies can’t just go into any area and mine any which way they want.”
Recidoro said Lopez has the duty to enforce the law strictly and consistently.
The chamber highlighted four reasons to pass the confirmation.
1. She does not know the law.
2. She cannot balance her functions as secretary of environment and of natural resources. According to the group, Lopez’s bias agianst mining leaves her unable to appreciate the mechanics of the Mining Act, where rehabilitation is an indispensable requirement.”
3. Her actions expose the Philippine government to massive financial liability from international arbitration, similar to that awarded to Piatco for the construction of the the NAIA Terminal 3, the group said.
4. She is fast and loose with government funds.