The Toxic Relationship with Coal in the Philippines

The history of coal use in the Philippines is short but suffused with paradox. Despite being touted as a cheap energy source, coal has been an expensive form of energy in the Philippines in more ways than one.

Coal was discovered in 1827 in Cebu, but the scale of its exploitation and use remained minute until one and a half centuries later. And with good reason.

Until the early 1900s, coal mines were uneconomic to run. The few mining ventures during the Spanish and American periods were financial failures.

This is because much of the Philippine coal deposits were not only inferior in quality but also not extending in great areas. Moreover, the lack of road infrastructure meant that transportation was a costly added expense to bring coal from the mines to population centers. The American-era railway system connected coal mines from the north and south of Cebu City to the city center, from where coal found its way to Manila, the seat of colonial rule; however, this was short-lived.

To meet its coal demand, the country paid a high price for importing coal from far distances. When the world was experiencing a shortage of coal and paying exorbitant prices for it following the First World War, the government created the National Coal Company in 1924 to increase its indigenous coal production; its goals were never achieved.

After the Spaniards and Americans came the Japanese. They demolished mining sites, except for a few copper and chromite properties, by burning, dynamiting, or looting essential machinery to be shipped to Japan. They left a paralyzed mining industry in 1945 following their defeat in World War II. The rail line was dismantled during the war as well.

Coal was underdeveloped from the Second World War to the 1970s because the country had easy access to cheap imported petroleum. Faced with the global shortage and rising prices of oil in the 1970s, the Philippines, yet again, turned to indigenous coal to reduce its bill for imported fossil fuels.

The realization of developing countries of the effects of coal on air quality and its contribution to global warming in the 1980s did nothing to slow the Philippine government’s plan to shift to coal.

Under the Coal Development Act of 1976, the government forced industries with a voracious demand for fuel to convert to coal. The industries were promised an uninterrupted supply of reasonably priced coal.

In only a few decades, the government’s efforts somehow reduced the country’s nearly complete dependence on oil and raised its consumption of coal. But coal demand, just the same, has since been met by imported coal.

In 2020, the country’s primary energy consumption is split among coal, oil, natural gas, and renewable sources.

But coal’s ascendance has come with significant environmental and social repercussions.

Find out more about the hidden costs of coal use.