Energy Shift Southeast Asia

Verde Island Passage in danger as LNG projects flock to Batangas

The ‘solution’ to the looming energy crisis breeds irreversible damage to the ‘Amazon’ of the oceans.

By Cherry Salazar, Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism

The province of Batangas, some 100 kilometers away from the Philippine capital, is known for many things: beach resorts and diving spots, lomi and kapeng barako, Taal volcano and balisong, and international and domestic ports, among others. Soon, it may add another item to its growing list of marvels as the heart of the liquefied natural gas (LNG) hub of the Philippines, maybe even the Southeast Asian region.

Former energy secretary Alfonso Cusi has repeatedly stated his plan to make the Philippines a regional hub for LNG.

“And in pursuit of our vision to transform the country into a regional LNG hub in Southeast Asia, we have taken the first step to establishing our LNG regasification capacity to secure replacement fuel from Malampaya and augment our power supply,” Cusi said in 2020.

The Philippines wants to begin importing and processing LNG by 2023. The move is expected to address the supply shortfall from the Malampaya gas field, which provides more than a quarter of the energy needs in Luzon, as well as help the country transition to clean energy to achieve its target of a 75-percent reduction in greenhouse gas emission.

However, environmental advocates warned that what the government sees as a solution to the country’s energy security and transition concerns would spell an irreversible impact on the Philippines’ marine biodiversity conservation corridor, the Verde Island Passage (VIP). After all, five of seven ongoing LNG terminal projects and two of three committed gas-fired power plants are in Batangas City, which lines the VIP. (Committed projects are those that have secured funding and other necessary permits.)

Batangas City is a preferred area for many LNG projects due to existing infrastructure networks and pipelines for natural gas, said Gerry Arances, executive director of Quezon City-based think tank Center for Environment, Ecology, and Development (CEED).

Five existing natural gas-fired power plants — namely, Avion, Sta. Rita, San Lorenzo, San Gabriel, and Ilijan — are in Batangas City. The only other natural gas-fired power plant in the country is in Cebu.

With an established industry presence, natural gas has been accepted by local officials and residents as a clean alternative despite studies showing the contrary, Arances said.

‘Amazon of the oceans’

VIP is part of the Coral Triangle, whose biodiversity richness is comparable to that of the Amazon. It contains the highest concentration of marine life per unit area, making it the “center of the center” of marine shorefish diversity in the world, according to a monumental study by renowned marine scientists Kent Carpenter and Victor Springer in 2005.

Home to more than 1,700 fish species, 300 coral species, and thousands of other marine species, including endemic nudibranchs (sea slugs), VIP covers approximately 1.4 million hectares cutting across five provinces: Batangas, Occidental Mindoro, Oriental Mindoro, Marinduque and Romblon. No local government unit has sole jurisdiction over the area.

Key biodiversity and protected areas overlap the Verde Island Passage. [Map source: Department of Environment and Natural Resources – Biodiversity Management Bureau, and Maria Katrina Aplaya’s 2018 study “Developing Ecosystem Account for Verde Island Passage Marine Corridor”]

While the VIP was not declared a nationally protected area under Republic Act No. 7586, or the National Integrated Protected Areas System (NIPAS) Law, there are 36 locally managed marine protected areas (MPAs) in the network: 24 in Batangas and 12 in Oriental Mindoro, according to the Quezon City-based Partnerships in Environmental Management for the Seas of East Asia (PEMSEA).

Batangas has 14 municipalities and one city bordering the VIP, the most out of the five provinces. Many of its industries rely on the marine corridor, from tourism to transportation, and fisheries to food security.

In 2019, or before the pandemic, up to 13 million tourists went to Batangas, according to data from the Batangas Tourism and Cultural Affairs Office.

The Batangas International Port, located in Batangas City, is one of the largest and busiest passenger and cargo terminals in the Philippines. [Photograph: Larry Monserate Piojo]

Domestic and foreign shipping vessels, both at berth and anchored, totaled 47,427 in 2019, according to the Batangas Port Management Office (PMO). Batangas PMO data also showed that over eight million passengers embarked and disembarked in Batangas ports.

Local officials see the influx of LNG projects as “investment locators” that would entice more businesses in the area. However, once LNG terminals in Batangas City go online, more vessels are expected to pass, dock, and unload in the area, affecting the mobility and livelihood of local fisherfolk.

Environmental advocates said the expected swell in maritime traffic and activities would exacerbate the effects of industrialization already felt in the vicinity, which included disturbing marine life and harming ecosystems.

Changes in coastal ecosystems 

While LNG projects would occupy shorelines in an otherwise vast marine corridor, “the greatest vulnerability among marine ecosystems are coastal areas,” said Jayvee Saco, president of the Philippine Association of Marine Science.

“Once mabago ‘yung topograpiya ng isang area, mababago na rin ‘yung hydrodynamics. Mababago na rin ‘yung galaw ng alon, galaw ng current sa ilalim (Once you change the topography of the area, the hydrodynamics will change. The movement of waves and undercurrents will change), and once you’ve changed [the] coastal ecosystem, that will have an escalating effect,” Saco said.

Saco, also a professor at Batangas State University, cited a hypothetical scenario: If a jetty were to be built, its structure would impede and deflect the currents, possibly leaving one side blocked from what would have been the natural flow of water.

The tendency, he said, was for sand deposits to be redirected and then concentrated on only one side of the jetty, possibly killing coral reefs. “What if nandun ‘yung mataas na concentration ng coral reef? Pinatay mo na because of the sedimentation.”

In Barangay Sta. Clara, residents observed that the mouth of Ilog Kabubulag, which separates their community from First Gen Corp.’s power plants and LNG terminal, would change its shape almost daily. They attributed this to the intake and outflow of water from the nearby infrastructure.

Sta. Clara residents say they used to source fresh water and fish from the river that separates their community from First Gen’s energy complex. [Photograph: Larry Monserate Piojo]

The physical transformation of the river over the years also enclosed part of the community and created a pond where mangroves thrived. Since then, however, they could no longer catch fish in the mouth of the river.

‘Pag panahon kasi na malaki ang tubig (high tide), ang mga isda, naiiwan sa bukana ng ilog. Doon kami nakakahuli… Doon ako nakapagsalya ng 60 banyera,” Margarita Mendoza, wife of a local fisher, told the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ) in September 2022.

Her husband, Bibiano, said they also used to get shrimps from the river, but not anymore.

Minsan ‘yung hipon, akala mo luto na… Mapula na,” he said. Bibiano said shrimps were dying either because the water got significantly warmer or because chemical waste got into the river.

Margarita Mendoza leads the Sta. Clara community’s fisherfolk group. Her husband, Bibiano Mendoza, is a second-generation fisher. [Photographs: Larry Monserate Piojo]

First Gen corporate communications head Ricky Carandang said “air, water, and biophysical conditions of areas within and around the First Gen Clean Energy Complex (FGCEC) undergo regular and rigorous monitoring and tests,” which are validated by a multipartite monitoring team (MMT). The MMT is an independent group that assists the environment department in monitoring projects’ compliance to environmental rules and regulations.

In an email, Carandang said in the past 20 years, there have been “no issues” noted in the environment within the immediate vicinity of the power plants, or raised to the MMT or the company about the quality of water in the river.

He added that First Gen’s power plants were equipped with water treatment facilities that remove pollutants and that tests would show “water quality is better on its way out from FGCEC than on its way into FGCEC.”

Luisa Garcia, officer in charge of the Batangas Environmental Management Bureau, told PCIJ in September 2022, that they found First Gen to be compliant with environmental regulations.

EIS silent on sanctuaries 

Two gas projects in Barangay Ilijan are being built: Linseed Field Corp.’s floating storage and onshore regasification facilities, and Excellent Energy Resources, Inc. (EERI)’s 1,700-megawatt regasified LNG-fired power plant. Majority of EERI’s project area is in the adjacent Barangay Dela Paz.

Both projects are more than a kilometer away from the Ilijan Fishery Refuge and Sanctuary. Since 2011, under City Ordinance No. 13, activities that may damage the marine ecosystem have been prohibited in the 12.97-hectare protected area.

In Linseed’s 460-page environmental impact statement (EIS), the Ilijan Fishery Refuge was mentioned only once — not to identify any potential impact but to map marine resources within the Batangas City portion of the VIP.

The EIS stated that there were “no major coral formations in the impact area” of the project. However, it also noted “good” coral reef cover and “fish species diversity and abundance,” 1.5 kilometers west of the project site, in Sitio Silangan, well within the vicinity of the Ilijan Fishery Refuge and Sanctuary.

The same EIS said that as the “particular coral patch is outside of the primary impact area of the project,” it is “unlikely to be impacted” by the construction and operation of the LNG import terminal facility.

Meanwhile, EERI’s 437-page EIS did not mention the Ilijan sanctuary at all. Instead, it stated that the nearest protected area to the project site is the Mount Makiling Forest Reserve in Laguna province, about 100 kilometers away.

‘No delineation’ 

While in Ilijan, PCIJ observed that the local sanctuary had no boundary markers or patrolling personnel. Local fishermen said there used to be buoys surrounding the area, but they were pulled out during the construction of the LNG projects.

Residents, local officials, and advocates interviewed by PCIJ were also not aware of the local sanctuary and the city ordinance.

There is “a sense of ownership” when local MPAs are initiated by the communities rather than the government, said Saco, who also heads the Verde Island Passage Center for Oceanographic Research and Aquatic Life Sciences (VIP-CORALS). Even then, Saco said, it is the responsibility of the government to educate and empower residents to take care of their MPAs.

Founded in 2018, VIP-CORALS is a university-attached center focused on oceanographic research and aquatic life sciences in VIP.

Saco also said that proponents of gas projects, who may have good analyses of and mitigation measures for potential adverse impacts, should realize that there “are no boundaries in the marine environment.”

“It’s a continuous dynamic of different ecosystems: from mangrove, seagrass, seaweed bed, then corals. So even if only one ocean circulation or one reef pattern will be changed, everything will be changed,” he said. “Walang delineation ang ocean.”

When damaged, corals would also take lifetimes to recover. “Mahirap ma-redo ang coral, that’s why [we’re taught] ‘wag n’yong galawin. Let them live on their own… Hindi siya ‘yung ‘pag nagtanim ka ng puno, tutubo kung aalagaan mo lang, hindi e. There’s a lot of risk factors (when) doing coral restoration,” Saco said.

PCIJ met with Ilijan Barangay Chairman Gilbert Cepillo in his home in September 2022. When asked about any possible adverse impact of the gas facilities on the local sanctuary, Cepillo claimed there “may be” none.

Hindi naman siguro… e di naririyan nga lang sila (fishes) at sila’y nabubuhay diyan dahil nga wala naman — ano naman ang epekto ng planta, wala naman gasoline? Wala namang polluted para sila ay umalis sa isang lugar,” he said. (They may be no impact. The fish are just there. What could be the impact of the power plant? There’s no gasoline or pollutant that would drive the fish away.)

Several Ilijan residents, which included barangay officials, told PCIJ that Cepillo works as an operator at the Ilijan Power Plant previously operated by the Kepco Ilijan Corp.

In February 2022, the Department of the Interior and Local Government issued a memorandum circular reiterating the responsibilities of local governments in protecting the environment and ensuring compliance with law-mandated mechanisms.

Water quality poorer, warmer? 

VIP-CORALS has an ongoing study on ecosystem bioindicators in the VIP that would help determine the marine corridor’s “health.”

The group observed that coral reef cover in both MPAs and non-MPAs within the VIP were good, and that seagrass observed year-round was in a “stable ecosystem.” However, researchers were noticing mono-specific seaweed composition in some “highly disturbed” areas of the VIP.

“If seaweed composition in the area is very diverse, we could speculate that the environment is stable. But if it’s mono-specific… (it’s a) bioindicator that the water is nutritious,” Saco said.

But that nutrition comes from a different sense. Saco was referring to agricultural waste, sewage waste, and sedimentation.

Given the available data, Saco said the VIP could still be considered in good condition — for now, at least. “So why should we disrupt it?”

Prof. Jayvee Saco heads the Philippine Association of Marine Science (PAMS) and the Verde Island Passage Center for Oceanographic Research and Aquatic Life Sciences (VIP-CORALS) research group. [Photograph: Larry Monserate Piojo]

Oceana Philippines, a non-profit ocean conservation organization, raised concerns about water pollution through sedimentation and siltation due to land clearing for the construction of LNG terminals.

“The impact can be seen in the water quality because the LNG terminals and gas-fired terminals in the Verde Island Passage are placed beside our ocean,” said Liza Osorio, legal and policy director of Oceana Philippines.

Linseed’s LNG import terminal includes 3.7 hectares of the foreshore (the part of a shore between high- and low-water marks) and sea for jetty and mooring facilities, while EERI’s project site extends to the foreshore and miscellaneous lease areas totaling 1.27 and 1.88 hectares, respectively, for the jetty, seawater intake, and treated cooling water outfall structures.

CEED compiled and compared water quality data in select coastal towns bordering the VIP from 2015, or before the construction of new gas facilities.

In its June 2022 report, CEED said it found “excessive concentrations” of phosphate, chromium, total copper, and lead along the coasts of the adjacent villages of Ilijan and Dela Paz, where ongoing LNG projects are located.

Data also showed an upward trend in several parameters for water quality in Batangas Bay. Based on water quality standards of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), the sampled water could not be categorized as Class SC, or “conducive for propagation of fish and other aquatic resources, commercial and sustenance fishing, wildlife sanctuaries, and recreational activities,” according to the report.

The think tank said the upticks “project continued exposure to serious contaminants and, potentially, additional and compounding risks in the future.”

Water is discharged from an LNG project in Barangay Ilijan. [Photograph: Larry Monserate Piojo, September 2022]

The discharge from gas facilities could be a source of pollutants in the VIP. But Nanding Daquis, water treatment operator at the Ilijan Power Plant, said the outflow from these facilities is clean.

Daquis told PCIJ in September 2022 that the power plant would intake seawater, which they would then “demineralize” for steam turbine operations. The “concentrate” or “brine” left from the intake would then be released back into the sea.

“Seawater pa rin ‘yun, parang piniga lang namin… kinuha lang namin ‘yung tabang,” he said.

But even the littlest changes in the water composition could have cascading effects on ecosystems, said Saco.

To avoid water contamination, Linseed said in its EIS that there would be “no direct discharge of ballast and bilge water” and that these will be treated inside the facilities and then collected by a third party. EERI said in its EIS that it would treat wastewater discharge, and regularly monitor and maintain its equipment to avoid leaks and spills.

Aside from possible pollutants released to the sea, advocates also pointed out that the water discharge might be warmer than the ambient temperature of the sea.

“The discharge of warmer waters used for cooling these are actually causing threats din kasi hindi sanay sa warmer waters ‘yung mga fishes and aquatic resources,” Osorio said, noting that this may decrease the catch of fisherfolk.

Saco warned that many organisms, when exposed to varied temperatures, would change their physiology. He compared it to someone born and raised in a tropical climate suddenly living through winter.

Sobrang uneasy ka because that’s not what you’re used to, in that environment. Ganu’n din ang marine organism,” he said. “At least tayo, we have the ability to adjust with temperature but some marine organisms… don’t have the capacity.”

It would be worse for corals. As they are immobile, semi-stable temperatures would disrupt their living, Saco said.

First Gen’s Carandang told PCIJ that their LNG project “will not generate warmer water” as it is “designed to comply with the allowable sea water temperature being prescribed by the DENR.”

The EIS of both Linseed and EERI indicated that the temperature difference between their water intake and discharge would be kept within 3 degrees Celsius or less, in compliance with requirements.

Terrestrial impact 

Apart from the foreshore and floating structures, the two projects also have inland facilities: Linseed’s onshore regasification unit covers nine hectares, while EERI’s power plant spans 40.87 hectares.

Going to the project sites by sea from the Batangas port would take an hour or two, depending largely on the currents, but it offers a breathtaking panoramic view of lush green mountains and clear waters.

Two LNG projects — Linseed Field Corp.’s import terminal facility and Excellent Energy Resources, Inc. (EERI)’s gas-fired power plant — are being constructed in Barangay Ilijan, Batangas City. [Photograph: Larry Monserate Piojo]

The adjacent areas of the Ilijan power plant, Linseed’s import terminal, and EERI’s power plant are hard to miss. On the foreground where these structures stand are docked vessels, busy with construction work for jetties; in the background, a bald spot on the mountain, so visible and apparent kilometers away.

EERI’s EIS stated that indigenous and endemic trees and flowers were found in the project area. This includes narra and balakat trees, which are both classified as vulnerable species according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources Red List of Threatened Species.

Twelve endemic bird species were also identified in the project area.

Linseed’s onshore regasification unit covers nine hectares, while EERI’s power plant spans 40.87 hectares. [Drone still image: Dan Buenaventura]

Environmental advocates said areas with endemic species should be given a higher level of protection and conservation. In its EIS, EERI said it would implement management and monitoring strategies “to ensure the continued survival” of threatened species.

In October 2022, Protect VIP and its member organizations filed complaints against Linseed and EERI before the DENR’s Environmental Management Bureau (EMB) over alleged violations of environmental laws. They cited the firms’ continued construction despite supposed failures to secure tree-cutting and land conversion permits.

Crops, such as sineguelas (Spanish plum), atis (custard apple), and saba bananas, were also found in some parts of the project site.

Local harvest affected 

Aside from impacts on ecosystems, the gas projects are also affecting agriculture, according to residents.

Dito noong una, ang gaganda ng saging. Ngayon, nung nagka-meron niyan, nagkasakit ang saging (We used to have good bananas. Now, the plants have disease),” said Raymundo Cepillo, 68, a local fisherman in Ilijan.

Cepillo added that coconuts and custard apples were also affected.

In neighboring Barangay Dela Paz, Yolanda, 47, and Nestor Asi, 50, said they stopped harvesting and selling custard apples, blaming bad harvests on gabok, or dust from gas projects.

Noong panahon na ako’y namimili ng atis, ang dami talaga ng may atis. Ngayon, ang daing nila… ang atis ay maitim na (There used to be a lot of atis. Now the atis have darkened),” Yolanda said.

A local seller in Batangas City laments poor sales of custard apples (atis). Residents attributed the diseased fruit to neighboring gas projects. [Photograph: Larry Monserate Piojo]

Just as her husband started hauling less catch, Yolanda said their small enterprise that was supposed to help in the family’s livelihood flailed. The villages of Ilijan and Dela Paz were custard apple suppliers to city markets.

PCIJ sought to interview representatives from AG&P and its subsidiary Linseed, as well as SMCGP and its subsidiary EERI, but has yet to receive any response, as of posting.

‘There will always be impact’ 

While the government requires environmentally critical projects, such as gas facilities, to plan and implement mitigating measures on land, water, air, and socio-development impacts, CEED’s Arances said these were only “sweeteners.”

Arances added that many EIS were templated and that compliance certificates issued by the environment department were customary.

“ECC (environmental compliance certificate) is just a checklist. EIS? I bet a lot of EIS were copy-pasted. And I know a lot of practitioners who would admit to that,” he said.

But any project, especially infrastructure, will always have an impact on the environment, said University of the Philippines professor and environmental economist Agustin Arcenas.

“The only way there will be no impact on the environment is for construction to stop,” said Arcenas.

“I don’t think DENR is expecting that there will be zero negative impact on the environment. There will be. It’s just that the damage is something that the government or maybe Philippine society have decided is embraceable,” he added.

To him, the bigger question is whether the Philippines would be willing to stop the inflow of imported LNG in the country that could avert the looming energy crisis to avoid environmental costs that would be felt years down the line.

Batangas City administrator Engr. Januario “Sonny” Godoy told PCIJ in November 2022 that immediate benefits and future damage from the gas projects could not be compared. “We cannot quantify what they claim will be the harmful effect on the environment, particularly the Verde Island Passage.”

Absent a natural capital accounting (NCA) of the country’s natural resources that would allow a better assessment of economic and environmental policies and projects, it would be difficult to determine the exact impact of projects.

Oceana Philippines Vice President Gloria Estenzo Ramos said the NCA and a database of the country’s natural assets have been long overdue.

“All this time, there’s been no value given to the destruction of the ecosystem goods and services,” Ramos said.

In 2022, the National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA) released a roadmap for NCA for 2040. Environment Secretary Maria Antonia Loyzaga also said she would prioritize the creation of NCA to support “the development of strategies for a science-based, risk-informed, ethical and equitable stewardship of the environment.”

But CEED’s Arances said that given the environmental detriments of LNG, it would have been easy to make a choice.

“‘Yun ang kaibahan ng energy transition work e, may klarado kang alternative (That’s the difference of energy transition work. There’s a clear alternative),” he said, referring to renewable energy.

PCIJ has repeatedly requested an interview with DENR and EMB but has not received any response as of this story’s posting.

With research by Martha Teodoro
Drone video by Dan Buenventura