The Philippines is virtually “sitting on a mountain of gold,” with untapped hydrocarbon deposits estimated at USD26.3 trillion, mostly found in the disputed Spratly chain of islands, more than enough to free the country from the shackles of poverty.

The oil deposits have been there for centuries, yet they have remained untouched. This is sad because these oil deposits could have been tapped for the economic development of the country.

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, provide an answer to the unabated rise of gasoline prices almost every week.

Retired Brig. Gen. Eldon G. Nemenzo, a pilot and former deputy commander of the 3rd Air Division of the Philippine Air Force (PAF) based in Zamboanga City, made a thorough research in his thesis when he took the advanced course at the Command and Staff College of the PAF in Villamor Air Base, Pasay City when he was still in the active service.

He said the vast oil reserves of the Philippines found in various parts of the archipelago, specifically the Reed Bank, the largest of them all, and the Mischief Reef in the Spratly Islands or the Kalayaan Island Group (KIG).

“The Philippines is like a blind beggar sitting on a mountain of gold. Within the country’s 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) are potential recoverable hydrocarbon deposits worth an estimated USD26.3 trillion. This is more than enough to lift the country from the centuries-long morass of poverty and under development,” Nemenzo said.

The huge untapped oil deposits in the country may have attracted other nations like China and the United States.

In fact, China has been aggressively constructing infrastructures in the Spratlys apparently to lay claim on these contested chain of islands 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 USD26.3 trillion 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 underneath the sea in the 1970s.

The Philippines is claiming ownership of the Spratly islands, along with China, Taiwan, Brunei, Malaysia, and Vietnam.

Time to modernize

In 1978, former President Ferdinand E. Marcos issued Presidential Decree 1596 incorporating some islands of the Kalayaan to strengthen Philippine claim over these mineral-rich islands.

Aside from oil, natural gas, minerals and polymetals such as gold, silver, iron and nickel are found under the sea.

The Spratlys is also a rich fishing ground as witnessed by this writer during a visit to the Kalayaan Island way back in 1979 with then Defense Minister Juan Ponce Enrile.

During the interview, Nemenzo stressed the need to modernize the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), particularly by acquiring multi-role fighters (MRF) 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 in running joint cooperation between the Philippines and foreign companies in oil exploration in these areas.

“We should not be left in the dark in managing our resources,” Nemenzo said.

The Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) 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 (NM) from the nearest coast of Luzon and 472 NM from the nearest coast of China. It is within the 200 NM 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 Masin¬loc as part of Philippine territory,” it said.

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 Filipi¬nas, Observatorio de Manila published in 1990 by the US Coast and Geodetic Survey, also included Bajo de Masinloc as part of the Philippines.

At this point in time, while the AFP has acquired recently new F50 jets from South Korea and a number of new helicopters and other armaments for its modernization program, it is still a far cry from the year back 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 PHP25 billion for the acquisition of attack helicopters, tanks and other military hardware for the AFP modernization.

The Air Force badly needs multi-role jetfighters armed with missiles, the Navy needs new warships and the Army needs tanks and other weapons.

It is time to modernize our defense capability now not tomorrow. (PNA)

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