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BEYOND SIGHT: The hand that rocks Malampaya

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By Monsi A. Serrano

In an ideal scenario, we would be celebrating how a Filipino firm has nearly completed its acquisition of 90 percent of the Malampaya natural gas project in offshore Palawan – the remaining 10 percent controlled by our own Philippine National Oil Company Exploration Corp. (PNOC-EC).

Having gone through half a century, from exploration to fruition, the Malampaya is dubbed as the biggest indigenous energy success story in our history; and might, rightfully so, end up being fully Philippine-owned.

Romantic as this may sound, the bulk acquisition of Malampaya consortium shares by Dennis Uy’s Udenna holding company, could be the shallow end of the deal for what’s left of the deep water gas-to-power project and the future of our country’s energy security as well as our national security.

It’s true that at first glance – especially for those reading the developments into this deal with glassy political eyes – all the alarm bells and pessimism painted over this acquisition is merely rooted on distrust in Uy and his diecast friendship with President Duterte and administration guards like Energy Secretary Al Cusi himself.

Added cynicism enters the picture when distinguished gentlemen known for their distaste for the Duterte regime like, for example, former Supreme Court Associate Justice Antonio Carpio are the ones eloquently telling the Filipino people that this is a bad deal.

I wish that, for a moment, we as electricity consumers could go beyond the TikTok briefs and partisan takes on what this Udenna acquisition of Malampaya is all about. It’s my belief that in order to understand the implications of this deal, even our suspicions – however obvious – that this was a “midnight deal,” a “lutong macau” (as Sen. Sherwin Gatchalian calls it), a “Pharmally case in the energy sector,” and a prelude to “an eventual Chinese acquisition” should be suspended.

Perhaps, for us Filipinos to think clearly, these “conspiracy theories” could take a back seat for now and allow ourselves to seek the answers to much simpler questions – queries like: “Is Udenna really qualified to manage Malampaya?” Remember, this is not one of Uy’s Conti’s outlets selling pastries; but a technically complex venture that required a consortium of globally-experienced offshore gas exploration enterprises to develop it in three phases over two decades.

“How is Udenna financially?” Of course, for such a multi-billion venture Uy had to obtain loans from three international banks. And that’s on top of what had been published of Udenna’s interest-bearing loans of P85.8 billion as of end-2017.

It’s for this reason that energy sector experts question why government did not step in to get the deal from Shell and Chevron, instead, since PNOC-EC was already in with its 10-percent stake. Government could have secured the loan to be in the position in Udenna is now in, reap the profits, and ensure Malampaya is managed with the nation’s best interests at heart.

But my malicious mind thinks that while we Filipinos are thinking about how to survive the pandemic that started in China – a virus that has claimed many lives and forced many companies to close down – Udenna is taking advantage of this unfortunate situation. I’m thinking Duterte’s favorite crony has controlled several geese that lay golden eggs every 15 minutes since his master pal’s ascent to power. Hence, the greedy buying spree goes on unmindful of the people’s suffering.

If you ask around, especially among those who knew Uy back in high school and college, they’d tell you how shocked they are at his unlimited stock of cash. Hence, his impulse buy is uncontrollable, a male Imelda Marcos if you will. His megalomanic buying spree, so I heard, makes him thirst to buy some government-owned corporations and take control of them beyond Duterte’s term for him to maintain some power over state interests.

Going back to the issue of Malampaya, my third question: “What drives Udenna to buy into this deal?” If it is profit, then we’re certainly doomed for higher electricity prices. Let’s be wary of the hand that rocks Malampaya.

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