The Philippines is practically “sitting on a mountain of gold,” with untapped hydrocarbon deposits estimated at US$26.3 trillion, mostly found in the disputed Spratly chain of islands—more than enough to free the country from the shackles of poverty, a retired Air Force general said in a thesis for an advanced course he took while still in active service.
The oil deposits have been there for centuries, yet have remained untouched despite the potential to produce a thousand barrels of oil a day, said Retired Brig. Gen. Eldon G. Nemenzo, a pilot and former deputy commander of the 3rd Air Division of the Philippine Air Force based in Zamboanga City.
“This is sad because these oil deposits could have been tapped for the economic development of the country,” said Nemenzo, who made thorough research on the subject as his thesis when he took the advanced course at the Command and Staff College of the PAF in Villamor Air Base, Pasay City.
“If finally tapped, the Philippines would not have to import expensive oil. In fact, the country would be an exporter of oil products and at the same time answer the unabated rising of gasoline prices almost every week,” he added.
The retired airman said the vast oil reserves of the Philippines are found in various parts of the archipelago, specifically the Reed Bank —the largest of them all—and the Mischief Reef in the Spratly Islands called by the Philippines as the Kalayaan Island Group.
“The Philippines is like a blind beggar sitting on a mountain of gold. Within the country’s 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zone are potential recoverable hydrocarbon deposits worth an estimated US$26.3 trillion. This is more than enough to lift the country from the centuries-long morass of poverty and underdevelopment,” Nemenzo said.
The huge untapped oil deposits of the country may have attracted other nations like China and the United States to this God-given mineral, he noted.
China has been aggressively constructing infrastructures in the Spratlys, apparently to lay claim to these contested chain of islands also claimed by the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia and Vietnam.
In his research, Nemenzo found out that the amount of hydrocarbon deposits in the country could be more than the trillions he estimated, following the recent discovery of oil reserves in the Sulu-Celebes Sea, which is within Philippine territory.
The data Nemenzo gathered are supported by findings from other sources, including a report by China’s Ministry of Geology and Mineral Resources, that the oil deposits in the Spratlys could reach 17.1 billion barrels.
This is more than the 13 billion barrels of oil deposits of Kuwait, one of the world’s top oil producers.
The Spratly issue has become a flashpoint following the discovery of oil under the sea in the ‘70s.
The Philippines is claiming ownership of the Spratly islands along with China, Taiwan, Brunei, Malaysia, and Vietnam.
In 1978, President Ferdinand E. Marcos issued Presidential Decree 1596, incorporating some islands of the Kalayaan to strengthen the Philippine claim over these mineral-rich islands.
Aside from oil and natural gas, minerals and polymetals such as gold, silver, iron and nickel are found under the sea. The Spratly is also a rich fishing ground, as witnessed by this writer during a visit to the Kalayaan Island way back in 1979, when then-Defense Minister Juan Ponce Enrile visited the area and saw fish teeming near the shoreline.
Nemenzo stressed the need to modernize the Armed Forces of the Philippines, particularly by acquiring multi-role fighter planes equipped with modern weapons to patrol and defend the country’s airspace and sea lanes, with the latter more than twice as long as that of the United States.
He also cited the need for Filipino technocrats to be at the forefront as managers in running business conglomerate entered into between the Philippines and foreign companies drilling for oil in the Philippines.
“We should not be left in the dark in managing our resources,” Nemenzo said.
The Department of Foreign Affairs insists that Bajo de Masinloc is an integral part of the Philippine territory. It is part of the municipality of Masinloc, province of Zambales.
Bajo de Masinloc’s chain of reefs and rocks is about 124 nautical miles from the nearest coast of Luzon and 472 NM from the nearest coast of China. It is within the 200 nautical-mile Exclusive Economic Zone and 200 NM Continental Shelf of the Philippines.
One of the earliest known and most accurate maps of the area, named Carta Hydrographical y Chorographica De Las Yslas Filipinas by Fr. Pedro Murillo Velarde, S.J., and published in 1734, included Bajo de Masinloc as part of Zambales.
In 1792, another map drawn by the Alejandro Malaspina expedition and published in 1808 in Madrid, Spain, also showed Bajo de Masinloc as part of Philippine territory. This map showed the route of the Malaspina expedition to and around the shoal. It was reproduced in the Atlas of the 1939 Philippine Census.
The Mapa General, Islas Filipinas, Observatorio de Manila published in 1990 by the US Coast and Geodetic Survey, also included Bajo de Masinloc as part of the Philippines.
While the AFP recently acquired new F50 jets from South Korea and a number of new helicopters and other armaments for its modernization program, Nemenzo said it is still a far cry from when the military had in its arsenal squadrons of F-5s, F-86, F-8 supersonic fighter planes, some 140 helicopters and a number of naval warships.
It is hoped that the 1995 AFP Modernization Program passed by Congress and signed by then President Fidel V. Ramos will be fully implemented during the term of President Rodrigo R. Duterte.
For 2018, the Duterte administration has set aside P25 billion for the acquisition of attack helicopters, tanks and other military hardware for the AFP modernization.
“The Air Force badly needs multi-role jet fighters armed with missiles, the Navy needs new warships and the Army needs tanks and other weapons,” Nemenzo said. “It is time to modernize our defense capability now, not tomorrow.”