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Six weeks to study key issues at DENR

THE Commission on Appointments (CA), along with the Senate and the House of Representatives, went on recess last Wednesday for the traditional observance of Holy Week. It will next meet on May 3. The six-week period should give everyone concerned sufficient time to consider the various ramifications that have come up in connection with the CA hearings on Secretary Gina Lopez of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources.

Secretary Lopez did not attend the last meeting of the CA last Tuesday as she had left earlier for a vacation in the United States. She was, therefore, not able to counter the testimony of Secretary of Finance Carlos Dominguez that if the government shuts down, without due process, the big mining operations with foreign partners, the country would face costly suits in international arbitration courts.

The CA decided to put off any decision on Lopez’s confirmation. Sen. Emmanuel Pacquiao, chairman of the CA Environment Committee, said the CA will send Lopez a copy of the committee proceedings so she can appreciate the charges against her. She will face the CA again on May 3, when it will vote on her appointment. In the meantime, the status quo is maintained; all affected mines will continue their operations.

The next six weeks should give everyone concerned sufficient time to consider all that has surfaced in the case of Secretary Lopez. Among these are the following:

– The Mining Industry Coordinating Council (MICC) is reviewing the decisions of Secretary Lopez, focusing on charges that due process was not followed in her decision to close down 23 mines, suspend five others, and cancel 75 mining permits.

– The House Committee on Good Government and Public Accountability conducted its own probe, in response to a privileged speech by Surigao del Norte Rep. Robert Barbers who charged that the DENR audit team which looked into the operation of mining firms was made up of rabid anti-mining advocates.

– Secretary Lopez has her own supporters in Congress – among them Sen. JV Ejercito who said he thinks the mines may continue operating if they follow the high standards of responsibility in mining, as in Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.

– President Duterte himself said he is supporting Lopez on the need for an environmentally clean country. He would not mind losing the R70 billion in annual revenues from closure of the mines if they cause environmental degradation.

At the same time, however, he is a stickler for rules, Secretary Dominguez said at the CA hearing.

On May 3, the Commission on Appointments will decide whether to confirm or not the appointment of Secretary Lopez. It will be considering her competence in her position, the thinking of President Duterte and other officials, and the CA members’ own assessment of the situation. Their decision will affect more than the fate of Secretary Lopez; it will determine to a great extent the direction our country will be taking on the matter of natural resources and the environment.