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Philippine Daily Inquirer: Judicial will

Published: Mar 10, 2007

IT TOOK THE SUPREME COURT TO TELL THE CITY of Manila and the oil companies to stop malingering and obey the law. The law in this case being a city ordinance reclassifying the Pandacan oil depot property from an industrial to a commercial zone. The main reason for the 2002 reclassification was security. The depot is in the heart of Manila, in close proximity to Malacanang Palace and a major light railway station, an important bridge, and so on.

When Manilas city council passed the ordinance, the Big Three oil companies Petron, Shell and Caltex cried foul and started muttering about the gigantic costs that would have to be passed on to consumers. The result was a kind of negotiated settlement brokered by Manila Mayor Lito Atienza. The oil companies promised to tighten security and start trimming down the size of their facilities.

The Supreme Court decided that the Manila mayors memorandum of understanding was valid only until 2003, and that focusing on it shouldnt muddle things. The city councils ordinance not only stands, but is enforceable within six months after the Court issued its ruling.

The oil companies are naturally unhappy with the decision, and are mulling over their options. Since the Pandacan oil depot is the source for 82 percent of Metro Manilas oil fuel needs and half of Luzons, transferring the depot elsewhere will be a major logistical challenge. But then again, the city ordinance was passed in 2001, the oil companies were given an additional grace period until 2003, and they have had four years to act since then and have precious little to show for it.

Shell, Petron and Caltex can choose to go to court and appeal for a reconsideration of the Supreme Court decision. That will buy them time. It isnt farfetched to think that if that option proves, legally or public relations-wise, unproductive, the oil companies will bellyache about expense. And start trying to frighten officials and the public by suggesting a dent in economic growth as the metropolis oil needs might not be met.

The city council might then use the existence of the Human Security Act to revoke its reclassification of Pandacan, though such a bold attempt to circumvent the Supreme Court is unlikely. Whats more likely is that the City of Manila and the national government are now faced with industrial and economic dislocations leading up to the September deadline set by the Court for the oil companies to transfer their depots.

The move can be done. And it should be done. The need to transfer the Pandacan oil depot dates back to December 1941 when the retreat of Filipino and American troops to Bataan led to whatever oil reserves were left being poured out of the Pandacan tanks into the Pasig River, where the gasoline ignited and lit the sky with a dull glow for days. There are still Filipinos who remember that nightmarish sceneand to think that the depot hadnt even been bombed, or its tanks filled to capacity.

Its a sad demonstration of the merry-go-round state of affairs in our country that a city council decision based on the lessons of Sept. 11 was watered down by a mayor faced with the combined opposition of the Department of Energy and the oil companies. Malacanang keeps reminding everyone that terrorism represents a clear and present danger, yet it was an executive department that tried to thwart the execution of a measure aimed at depriving terrorists of a juicy target.

It took the Supreme Court to decide that a security issue is, indeed, ample reason to rezone a district and that, furthermore, the rezoning should be implemented within a strict deadline.

So what will it be? More talk or finally action? To think that the Pandacan depot is only the most spectacularly obvious of the many terrorist targets the metropolis has. It has taken six years to resolve what to do with oneso how long will it take to eliminate the others?

We have yet to see a sober analysis made of the vulnerable infrastructure of Metro Manila, or the other metropolitan centers in our country. And an integrated, realistic plan of action to thwart potential threats and enhance public confidence and security.

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