New DOE Usec named with ‘yet-undefined’ function

Published July 29, 2021, 2:50 PM

by Myrna M. Velasco

With less than a year remaining for the Duterte administration, the Department of Energy (DOE) has named new Undersecretary Astravel “Astra” P. Naik, but whose function has not been clearly defined yet or laid down by the agency.

In an in initial statement of the DOE on Wednesday (July 28), it noted that Naik will serve as its “liaison officer “ with Congress and for the rural electrification program of the government. But the day after, it hinted of another task as “CFO” that will be bestowed on her – but the energy department has not given particulars yet what will that stand for.

Naik has no known background in energy prior to her DOE post; and her previous works had been with the Commission on Overseas Filipinos as Executive Director; and as one of the officials of political party PDP-Laban who had been previously expelled by the camp of Senator Manny Pacquiao, along with now PDP-Laban President and Energy Secretary Alfonso Cusi and National Transmission Corporation (TransCo) President Melvin Matibag.

In a social media post, Naik herself announced that she took her oath of office as Undersecretary of the DOE before Cusi last week, but that was discreetly greeted with disenchanting “the who” by the energy stakeholders. That act of the newly designated energy official was also a diversion from the usual track — wherein such announcement of appointment is usually done formally by the agency or the Office of the President, being the appointing authority.

When asked on her function at the DoE given her lack of background on such technically-laden sector, Energy Undersecretary Felix William Fuentebella told reporters that the Secretary’s order regarding Naik’s assignment has yet to be issued.

He first qualified though that “she will be assisting the DoE in its coordination with Congress and coordinate the efforts on electrification in the rural areas,” as that supposedly relates to her previous background as Presidential Legislative Liaison Officer.

Relevant stakeholders in the energy sector are questioning why a new Undersecretary, which can only vouch of political background but bereft of technical knowledge on the affairs of the energy sector, has to be appointed last-minute at the DOE when the current administration is already at its winding down phase.

Typically, new energy officials use their first year in office learning the intricacies of the sector, hence, it is seen that Naik’s appointment may just be a waste of taxpayers’ money and that could have been better allocated as additional funding for the country’s Covid-19 vaccination program or financial help (ayuda) to Filipinos who have been suffering from the affliction of the pandemic.

Naik’s affiliation with PDP-Laban is also coming off as ‘unsavory’ proposition given the ‘power play’ that is now happening in Philippine politics wherein several energy officials are also known as key participants.

When asked on the concerns raised by industry stakeholders on Naik’s appointment, the DOE kept mum and it just apprised the media that her ‘assignment order’ will be released soon.

The DOE under Cusi’s leadership has the largest legion of undersecretaries – with eight officials occupying that post, compared to just three Undersecretaries in the past administrations.

With less than a year in office, the energy department has yet to prove itself with a tangible landmark accomplishment – since what is emerging is probability on its ‘power crisis’ legacy.

Cusi’s saving grace could be commercialization of the liquefied natural gas (LNG) investments that he pushed for the private sector to undertake; as well as the advancement of renewable energy investments, but even the auction for capacities under the Renewable Portfolio Standards (RPS) is getting delayed.