MANILA, Philippines – Environment Secretary Ramon Paje disclosed yesterday that the United Nations is expected to come out with a decision by the middle of next year on the Philippines’ undisputed claim over the 13- million hectare Benham Rise, an underwater plateau off the eastern coast of Luzon, that would pave the way for the exploration of natural gas deposits in the area.
Paje told the Senate yesterday during a hearing on the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) proposed P16.990- billion budget for 2012 that the country’s claim over Benham Rise, an extinct volcanic ridge off the eastern seaboard of Luzon, would be recognized by the UN as part of the territory and extension of the continental shelf of the Philippines.
The Philippines filed the claim in 2008 in compliance with the requirements of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).
Paje said the Benham Rise covers around 13 million hectares or roughly the size of the entire Luzon, Samar and Leyte.
He said that there is evidence of mineral and gas deposits in Benham Rise like those found in Reed Bank in the West Philippine Sea near the Shell-operated Malampaya natural gas field in Palawan.
Paje said that there are confirmed gas deposits at Benham Rise with the discovery of solid methane in the area.
Once the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf approves the country’s claim on Benham Rise, Paje said that the Department of Energy (DOE) could start issuing contracts for exploration projects for natural gas.
Senate committee on finance chairman Franklin Drilon clarified that the decision by the UN would give the government legal basis to enter into exploration agreements with private companies for gas and mineral deposits.
Paje bared that aside from Malampaya, there are current explorations in the Sulu-Celebes Sea and the Reed Bank.
He said that the potential for the country to become self sufficient as far as its power requirements are concerned is very high because of the DENR’s belief that there are significant gas deposits all over the country’s territories.
“We have always said that this country could provide for its own energy source with the 200 miles exclusive economic zone that we have. We have 240 million hectares now of water and continental shelf and 30 million hectares of land. We believe that there are substantial deposits anywhere,” Paje said.
Presidential spokesman Edwin Lacierda said the country is not keen on discussing any joint exploration of the areas being claimed by the Philippines in the West Philippine Sea during the coming state visit of President Aquino to China.
Lacierda said Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario had been “very emphatic” that “what is ours, is ours” and which “we have the right to explore.”
“Insofar as the areas where there is conflict, we are free to discuss it,” Lacierda said.
The joint maritime seismic undertaking that the Philippines entered into with China and Vietnam had lapsed but was severely criticized because the areas covered were part of existing Philippine territory.
Lacierda said the West Philippine Sea that covers the disputed Spratly Islands could possibly be discussed in general terms.
The Spratlys are being claimed in whole or in part by the Philippines, China, Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia, and Taiwan.
Lacierda said Transportation Secretary Manuel Roxas II would be part of Aquino’s delegation during the state visit but whether the North Rail project would be discussed was also not yet final.
Roxas’ predecessor, Jose de Jesus, said the cost and the design of the North Rail project had been suspended due to cost overruns and other issues.
The controversial 80-kilometer railroad, flagship program of the Arroyo administration, was supposed to link the northern flank of Metro Manila with the Diosdado Macapagal International Airport at Clark in Pampanga. China lent $400 million for the first 64.4-kilometer segment of the railway — from Caloocan City to Bulacan.
The Chinese government had said it remained committed to the project that was called “the most expensive railway project in the world” as it was allegedly overpriced to accommodate commissions for its proponents.
Del Rosario briefed the President on the visit, which would also cover Shanghai and Xiamen for business conferences and meetings with the Filipino communities.
Lacierda said the Palace would wait for the Commission on Appointments’ confirmation of businessman Domingo Lee as the country’s ambassador to China before he would be assigned to Beijing.