The government has dismissed claims that the military will seek to control national energy resources via a national oil corporation (NOC) proposed under the new petroleum bill, and is blaming an energy activist group for pushing the controversial energy body.
Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha said Tuesday that efforts had been made to push for the bill before the military took power in 2014 but that these had stalled due to various groups trying to push their demands on energy issues.
Gen Prayut made a direct reference to the People's Alliance for Energy Reform (PAER), with key members including former senator Rosana Tositrakul, ML Kornkasiwat Kasemsri, former finance minister Thirachai Phuvanatnaranubala, and Parnthep Pourpongpan, a former co-leader of the People's Alliance for Democracy.
The prime minister said that when his government came to power, it tabled a petroleum bill covering both the system of awarding concessions to companies and a production-sharing contract to the National Legislative Assembly (NLA) for deliberation.
"But when their demands were relayed to an NLA committee on energy, I learned that the committee was also pressured by this group, which wanted a national oil corporation to be set up," Gen Prayut said.
He said there was no need for such a corporation because PTT Plc, the national oil and gas conglomerate with the Finance Ministry as its major shareholder, remains operational.
"Still, the group has continued to press for the demands. This time, they have threatened to surround Government House if the demand for the oil corporation is not met. Is this right?" Gen Prayut said.
The prime minister was responding to remarks by MR Pridiyathorn Devakula, former deputy prime minister of his government, who on Monday publicly criticised an "irregularity" in putting the NOC provision in the bill, which the NLA will vote on in its second and third readings tomorrow.
MR Pridiyathorn said the provision was added in after the first reading of the bill. He also claims seven NLA committee members, six of whom are military officers, visited him to lobby for its inclusion.
The prime minister denied this was done so the military could take over the management of national energy resources via the Defence Energy Department.
He said the department is not meant to operate a business and it would not in any case measure up to such a job.
"I've never considered allowing the military to handle this matter. The government merely wants the petroleum bill to become law. We need this to handle investment in oil exploration [as we expect to] face energy shortages in the future," Gen Prayut said.
"The dispute should be settled in the NLA and don't question the government or the military," he added.
Meanwhile, NLA energy committee chairman Gen Sakon Sajjanit said the NOC provision was added to the bill in a fully transparent way and with the full agreement of the cabinet.
The committee believes such a corporation will benefit the country, he said, adding that most of the opposition to is comes from energy operators who fear losing out.
The PAER held a media briefing Tuesday, confirming their opposition to the petroleum bill but not the NOC in principle. Rather, certain details are proving sticking points, they said.
The bill stipulates that the NOC will be established when "it is ready".
PAER is also pushing for more liberal contracts for producing petroleum products.
But Ms Rosana said the details of the product-sharing contract stipulated in the bill do not meet international standards, and the bill does not stipulate a bidding process for related concessions.
As such, the bill still creates room for the same private company to benefit, she said.
Mr Parnthep said the group will submit a letter to the NLA chairman to protest the two bills tomorrow. If the NLA goes ahead and passes them, the group will petition the prime minister to invoke Section 44 of the interim charter in a further bid to kill them, he said.
But if the group does not receive clarification from the prime minister it will stage a demonstration near Government House until the bills are withdrawn, Mr Parnthep added.
NLA whip spokesman Jate Siratharanont denied reports that efforts had been made to lobby the NLA committee on energy to set up the NOC.
He said many committee members had supported the proposal to set up the NOC, not only the six retired military officers revealed by MR Pridiyathorn.
Manoon Siriwan, a former member of the defunct National Reform Council, also described the move to include the provision in the petroleum bill as irregular, without providing details.
It is not realistic for the NLA to consider such an important matter without more information, Mr Manoon said, adding that the assembly should remove the proposed provision and consider other parts of the bill.
For the NOC to be set up, its proponents should propose another bill with sufficient information backing it up, Mr Manoon said.
"If you're honest, why add the provision to the bill in an irregular way?" he asked.