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Shocking

opinion / Columnists
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There’s the Rub

Shocking

/ 09:37 PM January 26, 2014

Resign or be suspended. That’s what Malacañang has told ERC (Energy Regulatory Commission) chair Zenaida Ducut.

That was after Akbayan charged her with not doing her job, which is to protect the public. Indeed, of protecting instead Meralco and the power companies.

Ducut, Akbayan said, “is guilty of gross neglect of duty by tacitly approving, without the barest hint of due process, the unprecedented generation charges Meralco sought to pass on to consumers.” It’s “stupefying” because Meralco’s November increase was the largest ever since the Electric Power Industry Reform Act (Epira) was passed in 2001. Why Ducut found nothing wrong with it, or even curious about it, only she can say.

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Additionally, Akbayan said, she did not inquire into the “abnormally expensive” prices of energy on the wholesale electricity spot market (WESM), whence Meralco obtained the power to make up for the shortfall after a breakdown in Malampaya and several power plants. Nor did she give notice about it but merely sprung it on an unsuspecting public.

There are problems however with what to do with her. She can’t be fired because the ERC is an independent body. And a suspension requires a procedure that takes time. Of course she can always resign, or be made to, out of delicadeza  or peer pressure or public opinion. But it’s not the easiest thing to convince or compel someone to show delicadeza, who is lacking the barest hint, to borrow Akbayan’s phrase, of it. She vows to stay on.

Just as well, Alan Peter Cayetano says, getting rid of Ducut won’t solve the problem of high power rates. “Even if you appoint a new ERC chair tomorrow, the same system, the same players, the same conditions will be there.”

Well, it’s like Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s time when her favorite bishops were saying that removing her from office wouldn’t solve everything. True, but it would damn well solve a great many things.

It does matter the world that the one person tasked with looking over the shoulders of Meralco and the power firms and looking after the welfare of electricity consumers is reasonably trustworthy and not patently not so. The ease with which Ducut took at face value the word of Meralco and the power firms—one, that they were totally unprepared for the simultaneous shutdown of the Malampaya gas facility and several power plants; two, that the prices set by WESM were perfectly reasonable even if they were high; and, three, that there were no other alternatives—smacks of criminal negligence. And criminal not just in the moral sense but in the legal one.

Ducut’s defense is that the ERC in fact did not approve Meralco’s request for a rate increase, what it approved on Dec. 9 last year was Meralco’s request to stagger its collection of the increased amounts. But that is like the Philippine National Police saying it did not really approve the traffic cops’ request to raise the  tong  on jeepney drivers, it merely approved their request to raise it on a staggered basis. When the real question is whether extorting from jeepney drivers is acceptable in the first place. You are the regulator of energy, and the question you ask when Meralco begs to stagger increased prices is whether the staggering is justified or not and not whether the higher prices are justified or not?

True, getting rid of Ducut won’t solve the bigger problem of how we do business in this country. Chiefly, why we protect the companies from their lack of foresight and punish the consumers instead. Why should the companies be free to make all the bad calls they want and just pass on the cost of those bad calls to the public? P-Noy himself took notice of this when he said, “Government never promised that (utility companies) will be shielded from their wrong decisions…. The shutdown of Malampaya is not an unusual event; it happens every two to three years.” You can’t make contingency plans as well for the other plants shutting down at about the same time, that’s your fault. Pay the Piper, pay the price.

It’s still another matter, of course, to not just make the consumers pay for your imbecility but to go on to fleece them some more. Or it’s another matter to not just try to keep your profits after a bad call but to increase them even more. Again, P-Noy himself takes note of this: “Our impression is, there are people who really made a very significant profit from this situation. There is need to look into possible collusion and abuse of market power.” The Senate has its work cut out for it unearthing a conspiracybetween Meralco and the power suppliers.

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But let’s take things one by one and start with Ducut. Her action, or lack of it, is criminal morally in that she could not have approved the increased prices willy-nilly at a worse time, when the country was reeling from the effects of “Yolanda.” Arguably, Tacloban and not Metro Manila took the brunt of it, but its psychological and physical effects on the rest of the nation were dire. The whole country had just gone on aid-giving and voluntarism mode when suddenly came Meralco and the power generators—with Ducut’s blessings—making a rival, and opportunistic, claim on resources. Talk about vultures.

More than this, Ducut’s action, or lack of it, is criminal legally in that it comes from an official who ought never to have been an official at all, let alone the head of a sensitive office, let alone tasked with protecting the public. She herself is deeply embroiled in the pork scam, Benhur Luy identifying her as a major player in Janet Napoles’ operations. Expecting someone like that to protect the public is like expecting Imelda to not be Imeldific. The only thing worse than keeping her in power would be being powerless to get rid of her.

That would really be, as Sean Connery’s James Bond said after electrocuting an assailant:

Shocking.

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TAGS: Akbayan, Energy, Energy Regulatory Commission, Meralco, nation, news, Wholesale Electricity Spot Market, Zenaida Ducut
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