Good riddance

Ben D. Kritz

Ben D. Kritz

The manner of Energy Secretary Carlos Jericho Petilla’s resignation from his post was so funny, it almost made the guy likeable. Almost.

On Wednesday at what turned out to be his last press briefing as the head of the DOE, Petilla announced that he was quitting for “personal and family reasons.” That’s an acceptably vague explanation, especially since the end-of-term exodus of officials from the government has clearly already begun. But Petilla had to leave us one last reminder that he is quite incapable of doing anything in a normal way by stressing that his resignation was “for real this time, and not just a drama,” and that he had actually submitted it to the President over a month ago, on March 26.

The “unreal” incident Petilla was alluding to was his aborted vow to quit if power was not restored in areas affected by Typhoon Yolanda in November 2013 by Christmas of that year. When Christmas came and went with electricity not yet available to most areas, Petilla realized keeping his promise would result in actual unemployment, but President B.S. Aquino 3rd, as he is wont to do with his closest associates, bailed him out by “refusing to accept” Petilla’s resignation.

Even now, despite the assurance that there’s no “drama” involved, Petilla can’t quite let it go, telling reporters on Wednesday that he was unsure whether or not President Aquino had actually accepted his resignation, and expressing a willingness to “come back if they ask me.”

And why would anyone do that?

Petilla at best was a caretaker at the Department of Energy, someone to make sure the door was unlocked in the morning to let the rest of the staff in and reorder toner cartridges when somebody used the last one. With no discernible energy policy apart from “issue a permit to build a coal-fired generator to anyone who asks for one,” Petilla’s tenure at the DOE was certainly not marked by anything innovative, and was—just as in many other departments during the Aquino v2.0 era—noted more for its embarrassing failures than its achievements.

Petilla will probably be best remembered for carrying on a hysterical, months-long lobbying campaign for “emergency powers” (and a loosely-controlled supplemental budget of P4 billion or more) to deal with a near-catastrophic shortage of electricity for the Luzon grid during April and May. After technical experts from his own department—one would assume, are consulted by the Secretary on a regular basis—publicly contradicted Petilla’s claims of a several hundred-megawatt supply shortage, a skeptical legislature declined to grant the extra authority to the President.

That turned out to be the right call. Petilla’s shrill warnings of dire consequences if the emergency powers were not approved, if they were not actually part of a stupidly conceived and executed ploy to capture 2016 campaign funds for Aquino’s shrinking faction, were at the very least completely detached from reality. At least until now, Luzon’s electric supply has hardly been strained; halfway through the critical period and having already accommodated the annual (and traditionally inconveniently-scheduled) major maintenance shutdowns of the Malampaya gas platform and a couple of Luzon’s larger generating plants, it seems that any problems that might yet arise will be relatively short-lived.

In a final sign of how Petilla brought an office manager’s mentality to the role of a Cabinet-level executive, in his explanation of the timing of his departure (if he noticed that the question itself was a suggestion that he should have left much, much earlier, he didn’t say) Petilla said that he did not want to leave the department with lingering problems—such as the looming energy crisis that he, and he alone, still believes will strike any day now. Never mind the energy sector, the energy-consuming market, or any sort of policy direction—as long as someone’s collecting the time cards and remembering to update the office Facebook page, everything’s under control.

Ex-Secretary Petilla is an example of every flaw in the organizational construction of government agencies, particularly in democracies, and particular in this one. A secretary of a major department need not be the smartest person in the room, but he needs sufficient experience—which in the case of a highly-technical field like energy policy, is quite a lot—in his area of responsibility to be able to select appropriate experts and comprehend their advice.

It is not a new idea, but it is one worth repeating: There should be minimum practical requirements that must be met by appointees to administrative positions in the government. The Secretary of Energy, for example, should have some idea of what “energy” actually is. We regularly bemoan the existence and unsatisfactory performance of “political appointees,” but the real problem is lack of qualifications and quality; a “political” appointee is as good as any other, provided there is some objective basis for giving him the job and he is able to perform competently. Since it seems presidents in this country find making that judgment difficult, perhaps Congress should consider giving them some guidelines.


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  1. Claro Apolinar on

    Bravo, Mr. Ben Kritz. Your incisive columns make my day every other day.

    Thank you and more writing power.

  2. I don’t know petilla personally neither have I dealth with him professionally at anytime but I have always considered him a nincompoop based on his obvious non qualification for the job even his underlings in the department have no qualms publicly contradicting his pronouncements, e.g. the massive energy deficiency in the country. This dumbbell together with his moronic boss were trying to secure “emergency powers” with the ploy that unless this is given the country will suffer all kinds of economic and other dire consequences they even threatened the senator from Cebu that all these consequences will be heaped on him for objecting to the grant of emergency powers. The good senator merely shrugged his shoulders saying that these dumb and dumber tandem did not understand energy. Failing in this they concocted another plan called the “Interuptible Load Plan” (how they came up with such unheard of appellation for a plan I don’t really know) and tried to wangle 500m to support the same. I am just glad this was not granted as well. Now this idiot suddenly shows up on tv with an inane campaign to conserve energy and at the next moment announces his resignation. I can only surmise that this latest attempt of his to ingratiate himself was shot down by pnoy’s close in advisers who must have advised to let go of this fool as he is hastening the downfall of pnoy( like there was any hope of salvaging it anyhow.) But the only good I see is petilla by some undeserved luck could have done the only right thing in his life by resigning thereby saving himself from the inevitable and soon to happen total collapse of this administration.

  3. Amnata Pundit on

    He is just a reflection of his boss, the biggest poseur of them all.

  4. Petilla had the nerve to run a save-energy TV campaign in which he appears. Clearly it’s a way to imprint his name in the minds of votes. He wants them to mention him in the surveys so that he can run for the senate.

  5. Unfortunately this govt is not known to appoint on the basis of meritocracy but as long as one is member of KKK and the yellow brigade.Petilla,abaya,alcala,soliman and many other heads of govt depts are all your typical nincompoops.

  6. I am strongly against the proliferation of coal fired power generating plants in our country. The US, technically advance compared to us has problems handling the accumulated coal ash. Mr. Petilla apparently did not do any information research. I agree with you Mr. Kritz. Good riddance, Mr. Petilla!!! I hope I don’t see your name as a candidate (of any position) in 2016.

  7. Jojo G. Castro on

    The DOE even from the time of Arroyo has never had a competent secretary. Instead of engineers doing the work and planning for the country’s energy future, we have lawyers populating the department who probably do not know what a turbine is nor seen one. They occupy the director and up positions, of course so that their salary grades will be higher. And when invited in technical conferences, they do not show the usual powerpoints because they are afraid the audience will ask questions which they cannot competently answer. So they leave in a huff, giving excuses like another appointment or meeting. This Petilla character is the template of those now in the department so don’t expect anything tangible will happen about the country’s energy situation. Electricity prices will never go down unless we weed out the incompetents.