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.