EXPLORATION companies in the Philippines should proceed in surveying and drilling in parts of the West Philippine Sea, the Energy chief said on Wednesday, as he reminded them that China’s approval is not needed.

“Based on the lifting of the moratorium, they should resume the survey…They should start working. We gave them already the notice to proceed, and they should work based on the work plan that they have submitted,” Department of Energy (DoE) Secretary Alfonso G. Cusi said in a virtual press briefing.

His directive comes weeks after he announced on Oct. 15 that President Rodrigo R. Duterte approved the recommendation of the DoE to lift the suspension of activities and the resumption of petroleum exploration in the contested seas.

Mr. Cusi had said the impending depletion of the country’s only source of natural gas — the offshore Malampaya reserve — makes exploration in the country’s exclusive economic zone an “urgent imperative” to ensure continuity of supply of indigenous resources.

“We’re going to make them accountable to it,” Mr. Cusi said during the briefing, referring to the exploration companies’ work plan. “If they fail to do it, we will take the necessary action.”

According to the official, local exploration firms can go ahead and start drilling in the West Philippine Sea, without securing permission from China.

“That is a decision that they have to make, whether they want to proceed with the work or not. … We are not prohibiting that, they can do that,” Mr. Cusi said.

Mr. Cusi earlier said that this is unlikely to affect its joint oil development discussions with China.

In November 2018 after the visit of China’s President Xi Jinping to the Philippines, Mr. Cusi said the two countries were to hold immediate discussions to arrive at a common position on joint exploration within the disputed offshore areas.

In June this year, the DoE said it was working with the Foreign Affairs department in seeking ways to resume exploration activities in the disputed sea, citing the need to assert the country’s sovereignty.

Last month, Mr. Cusi said the resume-to-work notices were sent to the contractors of Service Contract (SC) 59, 72 and 75 in the West Philippine Sea. SC 59 is operated by state-led Philippine National Oil Co.-Exploration Corp. SC 72 and SC 75 are operated by Forum Ltd. and PXP Energy Corp., respectively. — Angelica Y. Yang