What became clearer in Monday’s hearing of the Joint Congressional Power Commission (JCPC) is not the immediate reduction in power rates but the electrifying power play between the Lopezes and the government for control of Meralco.

Designed purposely to address the high cost of power in the country, the JCPC hearing was supposed to look for ways to reduce the cost of power in the country, which is among the highest in the world.

Though many issues contributing to the high electricity rates such as the imposition of VAT, system loss charge and other pass-on rates were discussed, it was obviously the raging power play between the Lopezes and the Arroyo government for control of Meralco that occupied center stage.

Hearing GSIS President Winston Garcia himself accused of mismanaging the government employees’ pension fund, talk about inefficiency in the management of Meralco is already mind boggling. And for a Meralco director like him, who represents 33 percent of the country’s biggest utility to be denied access to corporate records, is even more baffling. These are corporate matters easily resolved, not in public debate, but within the company’s walls or in the courts. There must be a bigger purpose behind Garcia’s moves. And there must be something the Lopezes don’t want the public—Garcia’s bosses most especially—to know.

It is our position that Meralco must be made to answer for all the burdens it has been unjustly imposing onto its customers, including the deals it has made with Mrs. Arroyo at the expense of the unknowing public. This it must do, in the interest of justice—and justice has long been overdue.

But the company should not be made a convenient excuse by the Arroyo government to save its own skin and evade its culpability over this complex problem of high electricity rates. From the signing of the EPIRA into law, to the non-renegotiation of the contracts with IPPs, to the deals with the Lopezes at the expense of the public, to the higher rates and higher returns to Napocor and Transco, to the privatization deals and bids—these involve billions of pesos and it is quite impossible to imagine the Arroyo administration not dipping its fingers into these magnificent pies.

The Freedom from Debt Coalition would like to issue a stern warning to Mrs. Arroyo, her family and allies in Malacañang: Stop the power grab. Do not use a legitimate and burning popular issue of high electricity rates to serve your own selfish interests. With feeling, we say in one emphatic voice: Back off!

Rather than allow itself to be used as a pawn in this power play, the PowerCom can seriously consider another option: consumer ownership. We at the Freedom from Debt Coalition have been pushing for this since 2002, when the issue of the P30-B Meralco refund first surfaced.

It is high time we departed from the old school that treated consumers simply as captive markets rather than as rightful owners of a public utility. These public utilities were built by peoples’ money. It is time to give the power back to where it rightfully belongs. Privatization, however, has made this option next to impossible. But we’ll keep pursuing this option, not only because it is more democratic. In the final analysis making a utility accountable to its owners who are also its consumers will render electricity prices more reasonable and fair. And render power grabs and power deals by power-hungry elites a thing of the past.

Likewise, members of the JCPC should consider the immediate overhauling of EPIRA if they want to convert their words into action. This policy framework failed, and will not usher in a brighter energy future for the country. Lawmakers should stop pointing their fingers at others as if they themselves had no hand in creating the monster of failed privatization policy and flawed electricity reforms under EPIRA.

Why is Meralco involved in ‘sweetheart deals’ with other Lopez-owned IPPs? Because EPIRA allows cross-ownership. Why is Meralco buying more than 50 percent of its total supply from its own IPPs? Because EPIRA allows it to do so. Why are Meralco rates higher that other distribution utilities? Because EPIRA and the ERC allowed the use of different rate methodologies. Why is it that whoever controls Meralco controls the power sector? Because EPIRA renders it so.

How about the IPP contracts that made us pay P7.71/kWh from Casecnan rather than at NPC’s P3.89 generation charge? Again, EPIRA requires us to pay for them until the end of the contract. Imagine half of the price cut if this contract were rescinded.

When asked yesterday if NPC can supply the needed requirement of Meralco to avail of its cheaper price, the answer is predictably no. Why? Because with almost 50 percent of its generating capacity already privatized and the remaining to be finished this year, how can a dying NPC enter into a long-term supply contract with Meralco.

Now if lawmakers only see the devil in the Lopezes and ignore the bigger power play being hatched and the failed policies behind these high electricity rates, they had better switch off the lights in both houses of Congress. Or pay our electric bills. Or failing that, shoot their own feet. -30-

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