Senator Sonny Angara emphasized the need for the government to take an active role in safeguarding the national interest over Benham Rise so as to ensure that its benefits will be enjoyed by the country and the Filipinos.
“We must protect our nation’s marine wealth and definitely, Benham Rise comprises the nation’s marine wealth. We must ensure that the enjoyment of the benefits of Benham Rise accrue to our citizens in the swiftest manner,” said Angara during the Wednesday’s hearing on Senate Bill 312 that seeks to create the Benham Rise Development Authority (BRDA).
In 2012, the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf ruled that under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), Benham Rise is part of the Philippines’ extended continental shelf.
With the ruling, the Philippines has the sovereign rights in exploring and exploiting the natural resources of Benham Rise. These rights are exclusive in the sense that no other country may undertake such activities without Philippines’ express consent.
Benham Rise, a 24-million-hectare undersea plateau off the coast of Aurora province, is touted to have vast natural gas deposits and mineral resources.
Estimated to be a much larger landmass than Luzon, it is a natural breeding ground and habitat for marine species-making it a prime fishing spot.
“We were awarded sovereign rights over the area, and it is imperative that we have an inventory of the untapped resources that we’re actually safeguarding or protecting. This would entail a level of research and development, and we must push it forward in a concerted and efficient approach,” Angara said.
Senator Sherwin Gatchalian, chairman of the Senate committee on economic affairs who presided over the hearing, noted that the Benham Rise could be the key to the country’s energy security.
Dir. Gen. Hermogenes Esperon Jr. of the National Security Council said that apart from displaying the Philippine flag and increasing patrols, the best show of exercise of sovereign rights over the Benham Rise is to initiate exploration and development of the region by strengthening the country’s surveillance and research capabilities.
The Department of Foreign Affairs stressed the need for the country to build its capacity to conduct sustainable research and development to maximize the potentials of the region.
Angara pointed out the UN ruling does not preclude the country to conduct joint ventures if they are perceived to be advantageous for the country.
Lawyer Jay Batongbacal of the UP Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea said that since the country lacks equipment and funding, it is better to open research opportunities within the private sector.
Esperon is also open to the idea of conducting a joint exploration with other countries.
Meanwhile, the National Economic and Development Authority said that instead of creating an authority that is focused on Benham Rise, an agency that looks into the whole maritime affairs of the nation would be a better long-term solution.
Esperon suggested that a Department of Maritime and Ocean Affairs may be created instead.