By Manolo Serapio Jr and Enrico Dela Cruz
MANILA (Reuters) – A Philippine legislative hearing set for Wednesday to confirm the appointment of a controversial environment minister who ordered more than half of the country’s mines shut has been postponed following a shakeup in the Senate leadership.
While the hearings are typically a formality carried out long after a minister has started work, the confirmation process for Regina Lopez is much anticipated because of the uproar she has caused in the mining sector, with calls from miners for her to be removed.
Lopez is among just a few of President Rodrigo Duterte’s appointees yet to get the green light from lawmakers.
The crackdown by Lopez, a committed environmentalist long before she joined Duterte’s team, has raised fears that supply of nickel ore from the world’s top exporter may be disrupted, fuelling a rally in global nickel prices.
Lopez on Tuesday suggested her confirmation hearing may be unduly influenced by lawmakers with mining interests.
“So I strongly feel that we should not have any individuals there with strong business leanings which will influence and affect the decisions,” she told reporters.
“I’m not accusing anyone. I’m just saying as a matter of policy. That’s the way it should be.”
Lopez has ordered the closure of 23 of 41 operating mines to protect watersheds and suspended another five, actions she said followed due process and came after a months-long review.
She also canceled 75 contracts for undeveloped mines for being in watershed areas that she said would threaten water supply and quality.
Duterte, who has supported Lopez’s actions, said on Monday that he would not interfere in the confirmation proceedings.
“This is a democracy … There are processes to be observed,” he told reporters.
The commission has canceled all hearings for Wednesday and no new date was set for Lopez. It came after four legislators who supported a critic of Duterte’s war on drugs lost key Senate positions on Monday.
Many affected miners have appealed to Duterte’s office to prevent closure or suspension and questioned whether due process was followed by the environment agency. A mining industry group has said the closures and suspensions would affect 1.2 million people.
A government inter-agency panel will begin a three-month review of the affected mines from March and will meet on Friday.
“We certainly want to make sure that the defenses of Secretary-designate Lopez are very strong,” Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez told a separate briefing on Tuesday.
“Being Secretary is not like being a crusader,” Dominguez said, adding it is about “balancing the needs of the different sectors in society.”
(Reporting by Manolo Serapio Jr. and Enrico dela Cruz; Editing by Martin Petty and Richard Pullin)