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Lake Sebu’s coal

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Lake Sebu’s coal

Oslo, Norway — Southern Philippines, where I’m from, is so endowed with natural resources that, for a long time, there has been some kind of a race to wantonly extract these treasures. Southern Cotabato — comprising the provinces of South Cotabato, Sultan Kudarat and Sarangani — used to have thick forests. Extensively logged in the 1960s and 1970s, it’s almost deforested, but resource extractors are not yet done with the land. Now they want to mine coal from the Daguma Agro area — a tract of land in Barangay Ned in the municipality of Lake Sebu in South Cotabato.

The Daguma coalfield covers around 2,000 hectares and is believed to hold the country’s largest coal deposits. Ned’s coal potential is about 27 million metric tons. The proposals I’ve read raise the use of this coal to fuel a planned coal-fired power plant in General Santos City. If this idea is approved, Ned and the entire Southern Philippines could quickly turn into a coal heartland. Signs are already pointing to that dim future: The recently inaugurated Kamanga coal power plant in Maasim, Sarangani — located close to a marine sanctuary — is one.

Here’s the rub. Under Region 12’s land use plan, Ned is a watershed area. If mining goes irresponsibly, as what we have witnessed of late, people living in the barangay and close to it would hardly feel its implications. Coal extraction could easily pollute rivers and other water sources.

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Bigger than that, however, is the implication of coal extraction and its combustion. Lake Sebu’s coal is of the lignite variety, or brown coal, the dirtiest of its kind in terms of carbon dioxide emission potential. Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas that, when emitted to the atmosphere, contributes to global climate change. Thus, coal mining will not only destroy watersheds but also exacerbate climate disasters to which Filipinos are vulnerable.

In every country where coal is mined and burned to generate power, we find communities suffering impacts from environmental damage and health problems. Coal mining and combustion in the South are perilous for communities living near the mines and those in the vicinity of power plants. Studies show that they could be susceptible to respiratory diseases, cancer, liver failure and birth defects.

The expansion of the domestic coal industry is made against the agenda of boosting the economy and creating thousands of new jobs. While this may be the case in the dying age of coal, this would no longer be the truth in the age of sustainable energy. Already, the global economy is moving toward more renewable sources of energy. Fossil fuels such as coal will only become more expensive as the world transitions its energy source.

If the government approves the extraction (and combustion) of Lake Sebu’s coal — and I refer here not only to the national government but also (and most importantly) the provincial government of South Cotabato — this southernmost region will be locked in a carbon-intensive economy. In the long term, such a lock-in undermines the capacity of people and communities to be resilient in the age of climate consequences.

But I still maintain my optimism. Historically, South Cotabato’s provincial government tended to be pro-environment and pro-people. In June 2010, it approved an environment code that effectively banned open-pit mining — a decision that left the proposed Tampakan copper mine in limbo. I bank on that strongest demonstrated political will and will continue to believe that the interests of the people and the environment remain in its priorities. That would mean only one thing: Lake Sebu’s coal should remain in the ground.

Dr. Laurence Delina (ldelina@bu.edu), a sustainability scientist at Boston University where he leads a research project on the future of energy, is currently a Rachel Carson Fellow at Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich. His latest book is “Strategies for Rapid Climate Mitigation: war mobilisation as model for action?” from Routledge-Earthscan.

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