Resident Marine Mammals of the Protected Seascape Tañon Strait v. Secretary Angelo Reyes

Access to Justice
Marine and Coastal
Oil & Gas
Procedural Issues

Resident Marine Mammals of the Protected Seascape Tañon Strait v. Secretary Angelo Reyes, G.R. No. 180771 (April 21, 2015)
Supreme Court of the Philippines

Two sets of petitioners filed separate cases challenging the legality of Service Contract No. 46 (SC-46) awarded to Japan Petroleum Exploration Co. (JAPEX).   The service contract allowed JAPEX to conduct oil exploration in the Tañon Strait during which it performed seismic surveys and drilled one exploration well.  The first petition was brought on behalf of resident marine mammals in the Tañon Strait by two individuals acting as legal guardians and stewards of the marine mammals.  The second petition was filed by a non-governmental organization representing the interests of fisherfolk, along with individual representatives from fishing communities impacted by the oil exploration activities. The petitioners filed their cases in 2007, shortly after JAPEX began drilling in the strait.  In 2008, JAPEX and the government of the Philippines mutually terminated the service contract and oil exploration activities ceased.  The Supreme Court consolidated the cases for the purpose of review.

In its decision, the Supreme Court first addressed the important procedural point of whether the case was moot because the service contract had been terminated.  The Court declared that mootness is “not a magical formula that can automatically dissuade the courts in resolving a case.”  Id., p. 12.  Due to the alleged grave constitutional violations and paramount public interest in the case, not to mention the fact that the actions complained of could be repeated, the Court found it necessary to reach the merits of the case even though the particular service contract had been terminated.  Id.

Reviewing the numerous claims filed by the petitioners, the Supreme Court narrowed them down to two: 1) whether marine mammals, through their stewards, have legal standing to pursue the case; and 2) whether the service contract violated the Philippine Constitution or other domestic laws.  Id., p. 11.

As to standing, the Court declined to extend the principle of standing beyond natural and juridical persons, even though it recognized that the current trend in Philippine jurisprudence “moves towards simplification of procedures and facilitating court access in environmental cases.”  Id., p. 15.  Instead, the Court explained, “the need to give the Resident Marine Mammals legal standing has been eliminated by our Rules, which allow any Filipino citizen, as a steward of nature, to bring a suit to enforce our environmental laws.”  Id., p. 16-17.

The Court then held that while SC-46 was authorized Presidential Decree No. 87 on oil extraction, the contract did not fulfill two additional constitutional requirements.  Section 2 Article XII of the 1987 Constitution requires a service contract for oil exploration and extraction to be signed by the president and reported to congress.  Because the JAPEX contract was executed solely by the Energy Secretary, and not reported to the Philippine congress, the Court held that it was unconstitutional. Id., pp. 24-25.

In addition, the Court also ruled that the contract violated the National Integrated Protected Areas System Act of 1992 (NIPAS Act), which generally prohibits exploitation of natural resources in protected areas.  In order to explore for resources in a protected area, the exploration must be performed in accordance with an environmental impact assessment (EIA). The Court noted that JAPEX started the seismic surveys before any EIA was performed; therefore its activity was unlawful. Id., pp. 33-34.  Furthermore, the Tanon Strait is a NIPAS area, and exploration and utilization of energy resources can only be authorized through a law passed by the Philippine Congress. Because Congress had not specifically authorized the activity in Tañon Strait, the Court declared that no energy exploration should be permitted in that area.  Id., p. 34.