Almendras: Keep politics out of energy sector
MANILA, Philippines - Leading the energy sector in the Philippines is an uphill battle against political interests and corruption, Energy Secretary Jose Rene Almendras shared in the August 2 edition of Rappler's TalkThursday.
In an interview with Rappler CEO Maria Ressa, Almendras said, “You can very well put a politician into this portfolio. Maybe he will be even more effective than I would be because he will know how to deal with local governments and stuff like that."
"But the structures were designed to be market-driven," he stressed. Thus, he highlighted the need to "depoliticize" the energy sector so planning and implementing policies, as well as regulating the players are done well.
In a country of more than 7,000 islands, the national energy agenda quickly delves into local needs and politics, especially in the aspect of power distribution.
Almendras said he has to deal with electric cooperatives, which are typically smaller power distribution companies managed by locals to serve local need. The country is divided into several regional electrical systems, and there are more than 100 electrical cooperatives (ECs) to help meet communities' demands.
Almendras said that, although it made him unpopular, he tried to make the cooperatives more accountable by not allowing relatives of politicians take seats in the board of these cooperatives, as well as not letting anyone convicted by the Ombudsman head one.
"We've instituted certain measures, such as relatives of politicians to a certain degree cannot sit in a board. Why? Because 'if you're with me, you have electricity. If you voted against me, you don't have electricity'," the energy chief said.
"It is so sad that in some areas [during] the election for an electric cooperative, the vote buying is even higher than that of the barangay elections. Why? Because it can be a big amount. It can be a few hundred million pesos a month," he said, referring to the amount of benefits and perks board members may receive.
He admitted that those with interests to protect have tried to intimidate him. "I am persona non grata in a few provinces. I have suspended, fired [members of] electric cooperatives for doing things they should not be doing. Quite a number of my death threats have come from these issues."
Almendras earned a reputation as a straight shooter and a skilled manager after 29 years in the private sector where he started as a banker and went on to serve as a top executive in the country's leading corporations.
After years as a banker with Citibank and serving as the former treasurer for the Aboitiz Group, Almendras said, "What I learned in two years here is that government is not supposed to be financially comfortable. It needs to make the correct decisions that make economic sense. Not necessarily economically profitable, [but make] more economic sense."
Already looking forward, he spoke about where he wants the sector to go after. It's been reported that Almendras will be given a new assignment - this time in Malacañang.
"You need to depoliticize energy. Please. The little victories we have won, the little improvement we have caused -- you can lose that very easily and bring us back to even worse than where we were if you will allow politics into this industry, into this realm.” - Rappler.com