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Monday, June 24, 2024

Congress boots out Gina Lopez

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THE Commission on Appointments on Wednesday rejected the appointment of Department of Environment and Natural Resources Secretary Regina Lopez, ending a bitter tug-of-war over President Rodrigo Duterte’s controversial choice for the position.

“She [Lopez] is no longer secretary, unfortunately, from the moment we banged the gavel,” said Senate President Aquilino Pimentel III.

Pimentel said he could not cast a vote in Lopez’s favor because as chairman of the CA, he can only vote if there is a tie.

He said Lopez could be appointed to another position, then added: “What’s the point?”

Lopez became the second Cabinet secretary under the Duterte administration to be rejected by the commission. The first was Foreign Affairs Secretary Perfecto Yasay Jr., who was turned down over questions of his citizenship.

Lopez’s rejection came despite strong support for her from Duterte, who had threatened to shut down the mining industry completely if the CA turned down her appointment.

“If you want to be confirmed, don’t go against big business!” an angry Lopez shouted during a long press conference after the ruling.

“It’s wrong when lawmakers don’t stand up for the rights of every Filipino, but rather big business. It’s really very wrong.”

With the Philippines being the world’s biggest supplier of nickel ore and a major source of copper, Lopez’s campaign had affected global commodity prices.

Lopez had sought to shut down 28 of the nation’s 40 mines and cancel the contracts of dozens of others.

Last week she also announced the ban on open-pit mining, which would have sounded the death knell for one of the world’s biggest planned copper projects in the south of the country.

Senators belonging to the Liberal Party led by Senator Franklin Drilon voted in favor of Lopez’s confirmation.

“The Liberal Party as a bloc voted to confirm the appointment of Secretary Lopez. Unfortunately, we lost in the vote,” said Drilon, who noted that she can no longer be reappointed as Environment secretary.

Drilon said the LP would have wanted to see Lopez carry out her programs. “But it’s a democracy and that’s our system,” he said.

Senator Manny Pacquiao, who chairs the CA’s committee on environment and natural resources, read the recommendation to reject Lopez’s appointment, which was later adopted on the floor.

Senators Vicente Sotto III, Francis Pangilinan, Joel Villanueva, Loren Legarda and Joseph Victor Ejercito said they voted in favor of Lopez’s confirmation.

“It’s a collegial decision to reject her,” Isabela Rep. Rodolfo Albano III, majority leader for the House contingent’s CA, said.

SWAN SONG. Rejected Environment Secretary Regina Lopez raises her arms as she sings ‘I Believe I Can Fly’ during a news conference Wednesday at the Senate after the powerful Commission on Appointments nixed her appointment to the DENR post. AFP

Lopez came under fire after she ordered the closure of mining companies, which displaced thousands of workers, who suffered financial hardship and had trouble finding new jobs.

In Sta. Cruz, Zambales alone, close to 6,000 mine workers have been displaced since July 2016 when Lopez suspended four of the biggest nickel mining operations in the area.

Lopez has ordered the closure of several mining firms across the country based on audit findings that the mining industry has questioned.

Chamber of Mines chairman Artemio Disini said mining companies are losing billions of pesos in revenues because of the suspension of mining operations.

He had warned that if Lopez were confirmed, the mining industry would be shut down, costing the country at least $4 billion in annual revenues and causing hardships for millions of mine workers and their dependents.

The Chamber of Mines opposed Lopez’s confirmation, saying she had shown herself unfit and unqualified to be the government’s lead regulator in natural resource development.

They cited her ignorance of the law, her inability to balance her work as a secretary and her biases against the mining industry, her readiness to expose the government to massive financial liabilities after she canceled production sharing agreements, and her misuse of public funds.

“The issue here is not the mining industry. The issue is whether or not Lopez is the right person to head the DENR,” the chamber said in a statement. “Is she competent to lead the DENR? Does she have the experience, education, impartiality and temperament to accomplish the department’s objectives? To all these questions, we say no, no and no.”

Other mining firms denounced Lopez’s pronouncement that the mining companies who were ordered closed were irresponsible and destroying the environment.

“Our member companies contribute much of the nation’s exports into the global market, as such, we strictly adhered to the standards of responsible and sustainable mining,” said Clarence Pimentel Jr., president of Philippine Nickel Industry Association.

“We take at face value secretary-designate Lopez’s supposed passion for the environment. However, passion needs to be balanced by fairness; her obsessive crusade of allegedly protecting the environment has resulted in an infringement, if not a downright disregard, of our constitutionality protected rights of due process and equal protection of the laws,” he said.

The Palace said Duterte was already finding a new Environment secretary.

Presidential Spokesman Ernesto Abella expressed “deep concern that the CA has seen fit to reject her appointment. On the other hand, it’s a democratic process and we respect their decision.” 

The Chamber of Mines welcomed news of Lopez’s rejection.

“The Chamber is thankful to the Commission for the speedy resolution of Ms. Lopez’s nomination. This is not the end, but rather the beginning of a new chapter for the mining industy,” said the chamber’s vice president for legal affairs, Ronald Recidoro.

Recidoro assured the public that the mining industry will continue to work with the government to protect the environment.

“We will have to work doubly hard to uplift the industry. We reiterate our commitment to work with the DENR and the next secretary to protect the environment and promote the responsible use of our natural resources,” said Recidoro.

Finance Undersecretary Bayani Agabin, meanwhile, said a review by the Mining Industry Coordinating Council (MICC) of Lopez’s decision to shut down 23 mining companies and suspend five others would continue regardless of the CA’s decision.

“Definitely, it will continue because it’s the mandate of the MICC to do just that regardless who’s in the DENR,” Agabin said, referring to the mining review. “We will still continue the review.” 

Lopez had earlier sought to have the MICC review suspended, even as Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez III said she had not followed due process in ordering the closure of the mining companies.

In Cagayan de Oro, local officials and mining industry players also welcomed news of Lopez’s rejection, while her allies slammed the outcome of the CA vote, including environmental groups.

The mood was festive, however, among local officials and industry players.

Surigao del Sur Gov. Vicente Pimentel said he was elated with the disapproval of Lopez’s appointment.

“We can now finally return to a stable regulatory environment with her gone. In her stint in office, Ms. Lopez did a horrible job because she refused to follow existing laws and instead, let her biases define her leadership,” Pimentel said.

“She will surely not be missed,” the governor added.

Dulmar M. Raagas, president of the Chamber of Mines-Caraga, Inc. (CMCRI), said their group welcomed Lopez’s rejection.

“While we sought to work with Ms Lopez in her one year in office, she has constantly avoided forging a constructive relationship with the mining sector,” Raagas said. “Instead, she showed her deeply ingrained biases against mining, even responsible ones.”

He added: “With her departure from the department, we anticipate that the investment climate will finally clear up, and investors will resume pouring in money for the Caraga mining industry.”

Surigao del Norte Provincial Board Member Fernando Larong said he and his colleagues can now “heave a monster sigh of relief and applaud the members of the CA who voted our way.” With John Paolo Bencito, Anna Leah E. Gonzales, Julito G. Rada and Lance Baconguis

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