Gina Lopez: What Determined Activism Looks Like

Former Philippines Environment Secretary Gina Lopez during one of her helicopter tours of mine sites. Photo/Keith Schneider

QUEZON CITY, Philippines — On June 20, 2016 Rodrigo Duterte, the newly elected president of the Philippines, asked Gina Lopez to join him in Davao City for an extended conversation about the condition of his country’s land and water.

It turned out to be an eventful encounter. The glib, rough talking, 71-year-old strongman former mayor of Davao City sought help from a 62-year-of woman known inside her wealthy family as the renegade daughter, and outside as an incorruptible foundation director and maverick environmentalist. As head of her family’s ABS-CBN Foundation Lopez led one national campaign to ban open-pit mining. She organized another to clean up a portion of the filthy Pasig River that flows through Manila just to prove it could be done.

When the meeting concluded Duterte extended Lopez an invitation to direct the weak and corruptible Philippine Department of Environment and Natural Resources. She accepted. On July 1, the day after Duterte’s inauguration and with his enthusiastic support, Lopez launched environmental compliance audits of the country’s 41 big hard rock mineral mines that eventually resulted in shutdown or suspension orders against 26 mines. She reviewed government approvals for 339 proposed mines and issued show cause orders to cancel 75 of them. In the last week of April the DENR banned new open-pit mines. The order came seven years after Costa Rica banned new open pit mines, and a month after El Salvador banned all mining.

And all the while during her 10 months in the post Lopez planted bamboo to clear the nation’s waters of pollution, and invested in environmental restoration projects that produced new jobs for indigenous communities. Lopez also started a joint police-military-prosecution task force that curtailed illegal logging and jailed offenders.

Rarely has an environmental officer in any nation so aggressively challenged the industrial community. Not surprisingly Philippine business interests mounted a ferocious counter attack within the Congress and the Duterte administration, which includes several cabinet members close to the mining industry. Two of the nation’s biggest newspapers, owned by mining companies, editorialized against Lopez and her enforcement measures.

The Sierra Madre mountain range in northern Luzon island is a target of 50 mine proposals. Photo/Keith Schneider

Lopez In Office 10 Months
A skilled organizer, Lopez proved to be tenacious. She countered with frequent tours of towns affected by polluting mines, and inspected dozens of mine sites by helicopter. Her exploits were covered in the media and on Lopez’s Facebook page that kept hundreds of thousands of Filipinos informed about the value of the closure orders. Continue reading “Gina Lopez: What Determined Activism Looks Like”

Out Of Disruption Rule-Breaking Leaders

Regina Lopez, Philippines environment secretary, who is requiring her country’s mining industry to follow the law. Photo/Keith Schneider

MANILA -In the era of disruption, diplomacy is an overt union of business and odd statesmanship. Here in Manila news that Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte accepted Donald Trump’s invitation to visit the White House leads all the TV news and newspaper front pages. Trump in return accepted Duterte’s appeal to visit the Philippines for a meeting of SE Asia leaders in the fall.

Both leaders could care less whether they are criticized for supporting Duterte’s bloody campaign to eradicate drug trafficking, which produces a dozen dead drug dealers and users a day, and a surprising toll of dead police officers too. The Duterte drug war is popular here. Taxi drivers, sales clerks, restaurant workers, and young professionals tell me they have misgivings but they also stopped fearing their commutes home at night.

What’s important to the two presidents is business. Trump’s licensed name (for $5 million, according to news media accounts) graces a 57-story, $150 million residential tower that is about to open in center city Manila. The tower’s developer is Jose. E. B. Antonio, principal of Century Properties, a Trump confidante since the 1990s, and now also Duterte’s special envoy to Washington.

What’s so striking is how, in this age of uncommon ecological, economic, and cultural chaos, the emerging global figures are writing new operating rules for political and government behavior. The results come in all flavors. India Prime Minister Narendra Modi is passing carbon taxes and shifting his country away from coal. Boris Johnson, the former London mayor who led Britain out of the European Union, is now the country’s secretary of state for foreign and commonwealth affairs. Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo is seizing and sinking foreign trawlers fishing illegally off his coast. Rodrigo Duterte’s quality of life initiatives include bloodying drug traffickers and waging war against his nation’s ruthless and ecologically ruinous mining and logging industries.

Taken together all of these global government figures have a common link. They are breaking the old dishes in the political cupboard. And they are doing it with such conviction and authority that the sound of crashing political porcelain is much louder than the feeble brush strokes of the old power elites trying to maintain order and sweep up after them.

Banners offering messages of support for Environment Secretary Gina Lopez are draped on the wall of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources headquarters in Quezon City. A legislative vote that decides her job security occurs on Wednesday. Photo/Keith Schneider

I mentioned this to Gina Lopez, the Philippine environment secretary, who is a rare progressive figure and one of the few prominent women emerging from the disruptive global landscape. Her goal of reining in the ecological chaos caused by Philippine mining companies is novel and clear. The $1.6 billion industry, with its 40 big copper, gold, and nickel mines, has never faced a government official as determined as Lopez. She’s pursuing them with complaince audits, a police-military task force, shutdown orders, and permit revocations.

While I was in Manila this week she even banned new open-pit metal mines. And she’s done all of this with the backing of President Duterte, and without consulting the Philippine Legislature. She has the authority to address a long-standing social and ecological grievance, she says. And since taking office in July 2016 she decided to actually act with righteous zeal on the authorities the law provides.

On Wednesday this week her legislative opponents, as well as Lopez’s supporters, have a chance to weigh in on her performance. A 25-person legislative committee will vote to confirm her appointment as environment secretary or reject her. According to Lopez’s executive assistant, eight committee members are solidly in the mining camp and will vote against her. Twelve votes are solidly with her. Lopez needs one of the remaining five.

The vote is a test of whether the old order — the political influence of the mining industry and its conventional back-slapping campaign-supporting way — prevails over an independent leader who thrives on disruption and has produced a lot of it for resource developers. Or does the new era of disruption, and the leaders that have emerged by inventing new rules of the game, assure Lopez’s confirmation?

My bet is the latter. The momentum of the era points that way.

— Keith Schneider

Gina Lopez, Persistent Philippine Environment Secretary, Is In Trouble

Gina Lopez has pursued an aggressive campaign to convince miners to follow environmental law and to protect watersheds.
Gina Lopez has pursued an aggressive campaign to convince miners to follow environmental law and to protect watersheds.

There is really no puzzle why Gina Lopez is struggling to hold onto her job as the Philippine secretary of the environment. On her first day in the post last July she dispatched inspectors to see how faithfully the country’s 40 large hardrock mines, 27 of them nickel ore producers, adhered to national environmental law and regulation.

The Philippines is one of the world’s largest nickel ore producers and exporters. Global nickel ore prices soared on the news of Lopez’s order, with the expectation that the country’s go-go industry would be shackled. Mining stocks plunged.

In August, with early findings in hand of rampant air and water quality violations, Lopez suspended operating permits for 10 mines, most of them nickel producers. Lopez said her concern for Philippine watersheds, the “madness” of rapacious open pit mining, and the consequences to rural communities justified the audit campaign. “I want to make it clear I have no beef with the mining industry,” Lopez said at a news conference. “But I am vehemently against the adverse effects that may happen, that are happening in some of the situations.“

Lopez then took on coal miners and the coal-fired utility sector, which accounts for over 40 percent of the country’s electrical generating capacity. She called on her government colleagues to put coal-fired power aside and more aggressively pursue the 7,700 megawatts of renewable generating capacity that were proposed in a 2015 government plan.

“I’m going renewable because it’s for the Filipino people,” she said to reporters. “If they benefit, well, other people can also benefit. My thing to the businessmen, go renewable so you can also benefit.”

The Philippine Energy Secretary Alfonso Cusi wasn’t so enthusiastic. “We cannot just discount coal,” Cusi fired back.

It is not at all clear, though, how much longer Lopez’s green crusade will survive. Nine months after she joined the Duterte government, Lopez’s mine audit program certainly produced globally important results. With evidence of wanton disregard for safeguards to air and water, Lopez ordered 26 mines closed. She also suspended 75 of the country’s 339 mining licenses.

One of the affected projects is the proposed $US 5.9 billion Tampakan copper and gold mine on the southern Island of Mindanao. Lopez’s orders mirrored similar recent directiives to control mining pollution. In 2014 the National Green Tribunal shut down northeast India’s coal mines in Meghalaya. Earlier this year El Salvador banned gold mining.

Called Before A Review Panel
I first became interested in Lopez last summer when I heard about her appointment and learned about President Duterte’s green streak. In her first months in office Lopez exhibited a passion and fearlessness that is all too rare among the world’s environmental secretaries. With Duterte’s consistent applause her position appeared secure.

But in March, following months of protest from mining executives and other critics, her job security began to be weighed by a high-profile legislative group that reviews presidential cabinet appointments. After two days of questioning, the 25-member Commission on Appointments, which includes legislators backed by the mining industry, declined to approve Lopez as environment secretary.

The Dibagat River exemplifies the magnificent freshwater resources that Gina Lopez is determined to safeguard.
The Dibagat River exemplifies the magnificent freshwater resources that Gina Lopez is determined to safeguard.
Continue reading “Gina Lopez, Persistent Philippine Environment Secretary, Is In Trouble”

Amid Global Pivot, Ghost Dancing in American Coal Fields

Underground coal miners in Appalachia, 1945
Underground coal miners in Appalachia, 1945

SOMERSET, KY — There are reasons to feel empathy for the ghost dancers in America’s coal fields. Like the Plains tribes of the late 19th century, the men and women that supply the nation’s steadily eroding demand for coal raise closed fists of anguish, dance in circles, and call on false prophets for help.

An industrial culture is dying. Unyielding, era-altering market and technology trends are running coal’s usefulness for supplying electricity to the ground. People in Appalachia, along the Ohio River, and in the surface and underground coal fields of the West merit our national appreciation. Their courage, their dust-clogged lungs, their 130-year-old devotion powered an industrial economy that really did make America great.

But the age of burning coal to generate electricity is sunsetting. U.S. coal production, a bit more than 700 million tons last year, has fallen from 1.2 billion tons a decade ago. Just 30 percent of U.S. electricity is supplied by coal-fired power plants, down from half eight years ago.

Other big nations are following the same course. China cancelled 300 big coal-fired power plants in the last two years. India idled dozens of big coal plants and cancelled its program to build 16 big 4,000-megawatt generating stations. Global coal production peaked in 2013 and has fallen three straight years. Emissions of climate changing gases, according to the International Energy Agency, have finally stopped going up.

Those facts, and hundreds more like them, form what I argue is the greatest “good news” story of our time. The world is pivoting to clean energy and away from coal. In 2015, clean energy developers spent $286 billion globally on solar, wind, biomass, and other alternative fuels. That was more than twice as much as utilities spent to develop new coal and natural gas fired plants.

When the numbers for 2016 are published, they will show the trend was even stronger last year. India announced in December that it has no need to build another new coal-fired plant for at least a decade and maybe ever. India has committed to increase its generating capacity from renewable energy sources to 275 megawatts by 2027. That’s equal to more than a quarter of all current U.S. generating capacity. China’s renewable energy goals are even higher.

And that’s where the bad news comes in. And it’s distinctively American bad news. The Trump administration’s new policies to assist coal miners and coal producers will do little to help either. Coal-fired electrical generation is more expensive than natural gas or the sun and wind. The administration’s policy to weaken clean water rules that protected streams from strip mining, or to dismantle the Obama administration’s program of tightening carbon emissions for coal-fired power plants will slow America’s pivot to cleaner fuels. It will likely keep a few older coal stations open that utilities were planning to close.

But the president may also go after wind and solar development, and the government-financed research programs that keep U.S.clean energy technology and equipment competitive. If he does, it’s a certain formula for wrecking the U.S. economy.

The transition to clean energy is the biggest market opportunity of the century. Trillions of dollars in international investment will be made to update the electrical and transportation sectors, and to more efficiently power industrial processes. Electric vehicles are coming. More energy efficient homes, buildings, and materials are on the way. Cleaner manufacturing practices are coming. America is competitive in all of these arenas now.

Is the president really going to get in the way of the most important new industries of this century? He really could. That is frightening.

Trump’s policies, and his cabinet appointments, are intended to bring discipline to black fuel markets that can’t be disciplined. They are intended to keep his political allies in the black fuels sector solvent. But the age of black fuels is ending, starting with coal. Oil is next. Oil prices are stagnant and likely to fall due to over supply and uncertain demand. Trump will have scant influence in altering oil prices. Deals for increasing oil production in Russia will only push prices down, which makes it harder to produce expensive North American oil from the Gulf, Alberta tar sands region, and the fracked fields of Texas, North Dakota and Ohio.

If, however, Trump impedes U.S. technological development in cleaner electrical production, and smarter, cleaner vehicles it would be a mess. It would mean that the United States is unable to compete with China, India, and Europe for market share in the century’s largest economic opportunity. It would be tantamount to President Teddy Roosevelt, at the start of the 20th century, telling France, Germany, and England, “Okay, you guys take the vehicle development and assembly industry. We’ll stick with making buggies.”

— Keith Schneider

Wire Tapping Trump Tower – Really?

Attorney General Jeff Sessions lied to Congress about his meetings with a Russian diplomat. President Trump spent Saturday morning trying to divert attention to that lapse.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions lied to Congress about his meetings with a Russian diplomat. President Trump spent Saturday morning trying to divert attention to that lapse.
SOMERSET, KY. — Another weekend. Another Trump tweet storm. The great global transition is pivoting around events in Washington.

The president now accuses the former president of ordering wire taps on Trump Tower during the election campaign. The president provided no factual support for the charge. President Obama, the FBIO director James Comey, and Obama’s former chief of intelligence deny that wiretaps were ordered. There’s also no record of requests to tap Trump’s phone that have yet appeared in the records of two courts that review such applications and grant permission. Trump wants his accusation to join the calvacade of election year intrigue that Congress is already investigating.

There’s a feeling, certainly in the television media, that the capital is on fire. It’s all to be anticipated given what Trump and his chief aide, Steve Bannon, disclosed two weeks ago.

At the Conservative Political Acion Committee annual conference in February the president and Bannon blew pure oxygen into the blast furnace of right wing fanaticism with their promised “deconstruction of the administrative state.” When I first heard it, I had a single thought. Trump and Bannon, mixing a ghastly idea with exquisitely concise use of the language, were publicly disclosing their diabolical plan to wreck the country. The intent is to apply maximum pressure on norms and values, interfere in standard practices of government, and disrupt how democracy functions in the United States.

Ever since that goal, formidable and dangerous, has been pursued with maniacal fervor. And though most of the 63 million American adults who voted for Trump in 2016 continue to be adamant supporters, the president will not succeed.

The reason is that Trump is in serious trouble of his own making. Each week that passes expresses how emotionally unprepared he is to serve as president of the United States. In every direction he looks — himself, his sons, his disorganized staff, Capitol Hill, the media, the electorate, the intelligence agencies, foreign capitals — Trump faces investigation and implacable critiques of his competence.

In no particular order — Trump is the subject of an increasingly focused federal probe about his ties to Vladimir Putin, and whether there was collusion between Russian intelligence agencies and the Trump campaign to influence the 2016 election. His top aides have been caught in lies about their contact with Russian officials. Millions of Americans are in the streets and in Congressional district offices demonstrating their opposition to Trump ideas. The president’s erratic, volatile, schoolboy narcissism has twisted his allies in the right wing media into rhetorical defensive knots. Republicans in Congress, one by one, express doubts about the president’s temperament.

Today right wing writers reporting for online news services you never heard of are busy defending the president’s charge that President Obama illegally wiretapped Trump Tower in New York. Trump’s tweets on the alleged wiretaps, like so many of his other provocative messages, serves the big objective — “deconstruction of the administrative state.”

This is a nutty, disorienting, dark public time in our lives. Have courage. We’ll get through it.

— Keith Schneider