I am thinking of Section 17, Article XII of the constitution (on national economy and patrimony) providing that the state may temporarily take over or direct the operation of any privately owned public utility or business affected with public interest, under two conditions:
First, in times of national emergency such as what we have now.
Second, when the public interest so requires.
I am no longer shocked that a storm of public outcry arising from excessive bills amid the pandemic.
I am no longer surprised when on the hybrid online public hearing of the Committee on Energy, Senator Francis Tolentino warned Manila Electric Co. (Meralco) on the possibility of facing a class suit if it will not be able to fully explain to the public the reasons behind the obtrusive electric bill shock that angered many.
Many consumers were particularly flabbergasted to find out their electric bills jumped three-fold or more from their original monthly rates even when most of Metro Manila and the entire island of Luzon was under enhanced community quarantine (ECQ) before or through the months of March, April, and May.
During the Senate Committee on Energy hearing on the power industry’s issues amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Senator Risa Hontiveros said that the Energy Regulatory Commission should thoroughly investigate Meralco’s controversially high electricity bills charged to consumers, among other actions, for possible violations of government regulations in the past few months.
I gave this fearless forecast of exorbitant electric bills when I called public attention to the Meter Reading and Billing Advisory last March 20, 2020 but was there any listening?
Was Agnes Devanadera, chairman of the Energy Regulatory Commission even interested?
Ask ERC to investigate Meralco? The President must investigate ERC first.
Sources say that since 2005, when Atty. Floresinda B. Digal was still legal head of ERC and Atty. Maria Corazon C. Gines was still in charge of consumer affairs, these Mafiosis have been basically sympathetic to power companies than to the consuming public and have caused the pattern of providing provisional price increases at will.
Digal is now ERC executive director and Gines, head of the legal department.
Worse, Digal is now even spokesperson of ERC that has to wash its hands, left with no choice but to side with Meralco otherwise the shit will hit the fan.
How in heavens name can Meralco in the first place increase rates without ERC sanction? The regulatory body was sleeping on the job and in the midst of a national emergency at that.
That is how criminally minded Meralco is, relying basically on legal technicality that it has been done before in cahoots with ERC officials.
That advisory was a self-fulfilling prophecy of an even bigger disaster.: “Due to the Enhanced Community Quarantine, Meralco is holding off on any physical meter reading and bill deliveries.
“For customer with meters scheduled to be read from March 17 to April 14, billing will be estimated based on your average consumption for the past three months, as prescribed by the Distribution Services and Open Access Rules (DSOAR) issued by the Energy Regulatory Commission (ERC).
“The difference between the estimated 3 months average and the actual meter read (after the ECQ is lifted) will be reflected on your next bill and corresponding charges will be adjusted. You are assured that when all adjustments are made, you pay only for what you consumed.”
I took the cue from Butch Junia, one of the top watchdogs against oligarchic abuse in the power sector, who said that Meralco has again abused its consumers by misapplying the DSOAR. What does the public know about the letter of the ERC ruling anyway?
Junia quoted the applicable provision, zeroing on the last sentences, to wit:
“Estimated billing should only be allowed in case the meter fails to register the consumption of the customer for an entire billing period or a portion thereof.
“Otherwise, the meter reading must be done immediately after said fortuitous event ceases to exist. “
Junia accurately said, “THIS IS NOT A FAILURE OF THE METER TO REGISTER, THIS IS A FAILURE OF THE READER TO READ!”
According to Junia, “averaging” has been the distribution utilities and ERC’s weapon of choice for gouging captive customers. “Once the average is collected, arriving at the true cost becomes a major challenge, especially for the consumer because when over-collections occur, the consumers are never refunded,” he added.
This is not the first time Meralco has resorted to averaging.
As was the previous experience, the “average bill” has turned much higher than the actual average of the monthly bills taken into consideration.
This is yet another scandal that some say where President Duterte will bury his head on the sand like the proverbial ostrich, just as he has stonewalled the incompetence of Secretaries Francisco Duque and Silvestre Bello during the Covid-19 quarantine periods.
Agnes Devanadera’s padrino is past president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, or more appropriately former first gentleman Jose Miguel “Mike” Arroyo.
ERC has not enforced SC ruling
It could be a deviation however because no less than the Supreme Court (SC) has provided for the legal grounds for President Duterte taking over Meralco and other voracious power companies.
The Supreme Court has remanded to ERC the case for a determination of a reasonable and fair valuation of the regulatory asset base that will provide electricity to consumers.
This compelled the ERC to reconcile (technical term is a review, reset and true-up) not just the valuation of the asset base that is the multiplicand for allowable profits but whether provisionally approved historical rates erstwhile provisional price increases for the past four onto the fifth and further regulatory periods since 2007.
The SC during its En Banc session on October 8, 2019 ((G.R. No. 226443) voided the adoption by the Energy Regulatory Commission (ERC) of the current or replacement cost in the valuation of Manila Electric Company (MERALCO)’s regulatory asset base.
The Court held that ERC’s order was in violation of its statutory mandate to approve rates because electricity is to be passed on to consumers “in the least cost manner.”
In the past, assets are appraised and rates are approved using the highest cost to the consumer and for the highest profit for the power producer.
But ERC Devanadera has not lifted a finger to enforce this Supreme Court ruling.
She has just become a spectator watching Meralco petition for Motions for Reconsideration, the favorite legal maneuver of power companies to keep the revolving door of increases flowing.
This gouging business enables the power companies to use the peoples’ refundable monies to fill the gap they don’t provide for additional capitalization and operational costs.
ERC has not implemented even one of the four regulatory review periods required by the Epira law for 2007, 2011, 2015 and 2019, and here we are piling yet another substantial price increases, in the form of overcollections because of Meralco’s self-imposed license to simply “average” our imagination that it supports public interest.
In the continuation of this topic, we will show how Meralco alone already owes consumer P200 billion in refunds, even before the company unilaterally and onerously imposed its averaging abracadabra. (ia/SPH)