POSTSCRIPT / January 7, 2003 / Tuesday

By FEDERICO D. PASCUAL JR.

Philippine STAR Columnist

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Sim advised to stop sale of legal opinions

SHUFFLE, NOT REFORM: It has been a long week since President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo announced that she was no longer running for president in the 2004 election and would just focus on governing well.

She promised more dramatic moves, but so far what has been going on is just the usual shuffling of the same Cabinet officials, not the infusion of new faces and new ideas from outside the official family.

The fitness of one key appointee, Secretary Simeon Datumanong who was moved from the public works to the justice department, is even being questioned in legal and contracting circles.

Some contractors recall that back at the public works department, cronies and relatives of Datumamong were allegedly facilitating approval of contracts. They expressed fear that similar influence peddling would be carried over to the sensitive justice department.

But if President Arroyo thinks Datumanong is the right person for Justice, that is her own lookout. She is presumed to know more than we kibitzers do.

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LEGAL OPINIONS FOR SALE?: If Datumanong wants to prove his critics wrong, one thing he can do at Justice is clear up the rule under Executive Order No. 109 that all contracts or projects costing P300 million or more be covered by a favorable legal opinion.

Some foreign investors have complained that EO-109 was invented to insert the justice secretary into the gravy train.

It used to be, they said, that only the approval of the National Economic and Development Authority and the finance department were needed to flag on a major project or contract. With EO-109, however, they said they now have to wangle also a favorable legal opinion from the justice secretary.

The requirement for a legal opinion, they added, has added to their cost of doing business in the Philippines by some one-half to one percent of the project cost, the final figure depending on how well they haggle.

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FUEL DILEMMA: Now we are being made to choose between clean air and cheap fuel.

The oil giants are raising their prices to recoup additional expenses in putting additives to their oil-based fuels to make them less pollutive as ordered in the Clean Air Act taking effect this month.

As expected, transport groups are demanding a corresponding increase in fare to recover, in turn, the added cost of less-pollutive gasoline, diesel and other oil-based fuels.

In reaction, the increase in fare and transport costs will be carried over to the prices of many commodities in the market.

There must be a less painful way out of this dilemma. There must be a less expensive and less disruptive program for reducing pollution from motor vehicles and engines powered by oil-based fuel.

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CATALYTIC CONVERTER: My barber, who commutes on public transpo, suggests that instead of dropping the load on commuters who number millions, the government should shift the burden of reducing pollution to car owners who number much less.

It seems he heard of the catalytic converter installed on motor vehicles in the United States and most of the First World. The catalytic converter ensures more complete burning of the fuel, resulting in less pollution being emitted into the air.

But a catalytic converter must be expensive, we said, and its cost will surely be added by car manufacturers/assemblers to their retail prices.

“So what?” my barber blurted with a wave of his razor. “Anybody who insists on buying a car and can afford it must be ready to pay the price.”

As he snipped away, it dawned on me that he may have a point there. We spare the millions of commuters who depend on public transpo and shift the burden on those who can afford to buy their own vehicles.

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ILL-MAINTAINED VEHICLES: In the first place, whatever exotic additives are mixed into gasoline and diesel will be useless if the engines using these “cleaner” fuels are not properly maintained.

We dare say that 95 percent of motor vehicles chugging along on EDSA, for instance, are not properly tuned up. Even if loaded with supposedly cleaner fuel, they will continue to emit poisonous smoke.

Poorly maintained motor vehicles have been blamed for as much as 80 percent of the poisonous “Brown Cloud” hanging like a death shroud over Metro Manila and other urban centers.

In Metro Manila, there are actually more private cars and vans than passenger vehicles. Against an estimated 884,000 private vehicles, there are only 55,600 jeepneys, utility vehicles and FX megataxis, 53,000 motorcycles and tricycles, 11,000 buses, 5,000 taxis, 6,600 for-hire trucks.

But public utility vehicles move a greater number of people. Many private cars are often seen carrying only one or two passengers while buses are crammed with commuters.

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GAS CHEAP, BUT IS NOT: There is the supposed promise of cheaper and cleaner fuel with the advent of commercial natural gas delivered through a submarine pipeline to Batangas from the Palawan area under the Camago-Malampaya Deep Water Gas to Power Project.

Natural gas, compressed or liquefied, is a viable fuel for motor vehicles. It is in commercial use in other countries and has been introduced in the Philippines as an alternative fuel.

But the PNOC Exploration Corp., which is Filipino-controlled, holds only 10 percent of the Malampaya project. The major owners are Shell Philippines Exploration, 45 percent, and Chevron-Texaco, another 45 percent.

We doubt if Shell and Chevron-Texaco, which control the project, would allow Malampaya gas (which is 97 percent methane) to be priced at a level that could undercut the sale of gasoline, diesel, cooking gas and other oil-based products of their local affiliates.

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ALERTED, ALIEN ESCAPES: A businessman is complaining that a judge in Quezon City in effect gave a Korean who was accused with several others in an estafa case a chance to leave the country and escape prosecution.

The complainant, Ernesto Rioveros, said that Judge Vicente Q. Roxas of the Quezon City RTC Branch 227 set an unnecessary hearing last Dec. 18 on probable cause “despite the thorough preliminary investigation conducted by the city prosecutor and actively participated in by all the parties.”

Rioveros said that because of the prolonged process before the issuance of the arrest warrants, one of the accused identified as Kyuu-II chung, was able to evade the process. The Korean, who is now reportedly out of the country, has been missing.

The complaint was filed in 2001 against Kyuu-II chung, Ki-Chul Sung and other officers of Daewoo Construction Philippines Inc. (DCPI) over a construction project that went awry.

After preliminary investigation, the city prosecutor filed the case in court on Dec. 5, 2002. Instead of promptly issuing arrest warrants, the judge set a hearing on probable cause.

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(First published in the Philippine STAR of January 7, 2003)

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