THE Supreme Court on Monday stopped the Energy Regulatory Commission (ERC) and Manila Electric Co. (Meralco) from implementing the P4.15 per kilowatt-hour rate increase.
The Court, through Chief Justice Lourdes Sereno, issued a 60-day temporary restraining order (TRO). It was Sereno who came out with the order because the Court is on Christmas break.
Under the rules, the Chief Justice can issue such an order when the tribunal is in recess. The order will be confirmed by the Court en banc when session resumes in January.
Sereno set the oral arguments on January 21.
The ERC and Meralco were directed to submit their reply on or before January 8.
Malacañang and lawmakers welcomed the issuance of the TRO.
Last week, separate petitions were filed at the Supreme Court questioning the P4.15 rate adjustment proposed by Meralco and approved by the ERC. The petitioners included Reps. Neri Javier Colmenares and Carlos Isagani Zarate of Bayan Muna; Luz Ilagan and Emmi de Jesus of Gabriela; Antonio Tinio of ACT and Terry Ridon of Kabataan, the National Association of Electricity Consumers for Reforms (Nasecore) and the Federation of Village Associations (Fova), and Federation of Las Piñas Homeowners Association (Folpha).
The petitioners said the rate hike, which will be collected in three installments, was approved without going through public consultations.
Meralco has said that the unprecedented increase was triggered by the simultaneous shutdowns of the Malampaya and nine other power plants.
The National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) and ERC are investigating the closure of the plants to determine is power producers conspired to manipulate the rate of electricity.
Nasecore called the Court ruling a victory for power consumers.
Malacañang also welcomed the TRO but noted that a final decision is still far.
“The Supreme Court has always been the final arbiter of any case brought before it especially when the issue is of national importance. We wait for the SC to rule with finality [on the issue of]the power rate hike,” Palace spokesman Edwin Lacierda said.
Lacierda said the TRO will give the tribunal more time to scrutinize the reasons for the rate adjustments.
“It will be an opportunity for the courts to look into the legal basis, and I think that’s a recourse that we have always—that people have taken when there’s an issue of national importance,” he said.
Supreme Court Information chief Theodore Te, in a separate briefing, said the 60-day TRO will take effect immediately.
Lacierda said the decision does not prevent the government from proceeding with an investigation to find out if there was collusion among industry players.
“We have mentioned that the ERC and also [Energy] Secretary [Jericho] Petilla and Secretary Leila de Lima of DOJ [Department of Justice] have committed to conduct an investigation whether there is collusion among the power industry players. So, let’s wait for that investigation proper.
But also ERC, I understand, is also looking into it,” he said.
Lacierda said Malacañang was still studying if the Malampaya funds or the Presidential Social Fund could be tapped to subsidize the rate adjustments if the Court would allow it.
“The studies have been done. So I spoke to Chief Presidential Legal Counsel Secretary Ben Caguioa last week and he mentioned to me that they are studying the matter. Once there is a result, we will let you know,” he told reporters.
The Court ruling also elated lawmakers.
“This is one good Christmas gift from the SC to the affected Meralco consumers,” Zarate, one of the petitioners, said.
However, he said it is just a partial victory for the people who should remain vigilant and continue to fight for consumers’ rights.
“We still have to continue the fight for the consumers’ rights so that this unprecedented and unjust TRO must be totally nullified as well as the culprit provisions of the Epira [Electric Power Industry Reform Act],” he said in a statement to The Manila Times.
Tinio expressed hopes that the Court will “rule with finality on the substantive issues raised in our petition in order to curb the cartel-like practices in the power-generation industry, Meralco’s connivance leading to predatory rates, and the ERC’s failure to exercise its powers and functions in behalf of the public.”
With report from Jhoanna Ballaran