The Chevron incident: serious measures must be taken

24 novembro 2011

It is essential that Brazil should reconsider its intense investment in fossil energy sources
In addition to the thousand s of barrels of petroleum that are now polluting the ocean, degrading the environment and threatening the fishing economy, the Chevron incident has raised highly important questions that Brazil is still not prepared to face up to. There has been very little discussion of the environmental risks and climate consequences associated to the country’s exploration and exploitation of petroleum deposits.

Many government and private sectors have been jubilantly acclaiming each new discovery of petroleum deposits in Brazil, especially those associated to the immense deposits in the pre-salt formations. They make it seem as if the country now has a source of energy coming up from the depths of the ocean that is a gigantic spring of wealth and means of economic redemption and that will be a major contributor to solving the country’s social problems.

Currently there are 9 thousand oil wells being exploited in Brazil; on the continent, and offshore on the continental shelf. In the coming years wells will be drilled in sensitive areas like the Amazon and in the heart of our rich marine environment. The intention is to invest over 650 billion Brazilian reals in the petroleum and natural gas sector over the next ten years, 67% of the total budget allotments for the entire energy sector. All that effort will be to enable the exploitation of a fuel, which, however important it may be, is a non renewable fossil fuel that brings with it serious environmental risks and will inevitably contribute towards intensifying climate change.

Exploiting petroleum in Brazil should not be viewed as if it were merely a decision to make use of an available resource to improve the country’s capacity to meet its energy demands or supply the country with fuel of national origin. Extracting petroleum from Brazil’s immense existing reserves and those yet to be discovered on the continent, and more probably in the subsoil of the ocean floor, also means aggravating serious problems that affect everyone in the world, like global warming and its consequences. Furthermore, it implies taking the risk of living with the increasing possibility of incalculable environmental damage occurring.

Last year all of us were highly shocked by the leaking of millions of barrels of petroleum into the Gulf of Mexico. Today, one year later, it is estimated that less than 10% of the local ecosystems affected by that disastrous spill have been partially recuperated. The costs and damage done to the environment and the economy in the affected regions were gigantic and they will have long term repercussions.

In the case of the Chevron incident off the coast of Rio de Janeiro state, up until now the Brazilian people have not been informed of the true dimension of the problem. We have no reliable information as to how many thousands of barrels of petroleum are being spewed out into our seas each day, nor do we know how much has really been leaked out so far (the figures released by government conflict with those of the company), or how much has been removed from the surface of the sea. There has been no clear definition of the measures being taken or to be adopted, or even any reliable estimate of when the leakage will be controlled and cut off altogether. There is talk of environmental fines running into the millions but, in Brazil, it is notorious that this kind of legal sentence is open to all kinds of appeals in the courts so that such processes often put off payment for years on end and, in any case, the amounts involved are usually far inferior to the real extent of damage done.

Extracting petroleum from under the ocean, in areas of vital importance to the fishing industry, of extreme ecological importance for marine life including the whale species that migrate to Brazilian waters each year from the Antarctic, is accompanied by the risk of incalculable damage. Company and government authorities alike seem to be relying on the action of the ocean currents to disperse the huge oil slick and take the problem far away from Brazilian shores. Petroleum on the high seas, however, does not become diluted and it has short medium and long term effects.

The fact is that there is an environmental crime of huge but still unmeasured proportions taking place in Brazil right now, and it calls for much more than mere public declarations or interviews. The company and the Brazilian authorities need to account to society in a much clearer and more open manner. Those effectively responsible need to be severely and effectively punished and that punishment should not be limited to fines. All necessary steps to stop the leakage must be taken and contingency plans and monitoring and safety procedural protocols must be verified and revised in all petroleum exploration and exploitation operations currently underway in Brazil.

Brazilian Petroleum and Global Warming

It is estimated that each barrel of petroleum when it is burned releases from 420 to 440 kilograms of CO2 (not including the estimates of carbon release associated to the production chain-processes of extraction, transport, refining and distribution). According to the Brazilian Energy Research Corporation (Empresa de Pesquisa Energética -EPE), Brazil plans to up daily production from current levels of 2.1 million barrels a day to around 6.1 million barrels a day by 2020, and much of that increase is expected to come from the exploration of the pre-salt deposits. That means that Brazilian emissions stemming from petroleum consumption will be up to around 714 million tons of CO2 a year. Over the coming decades will add to up to something between 30 and 60 billion ton and that is withou including the emissions associated to burning natural gas, expected to total around 52 billion cubic metres a year by 2020.

Brazil needs to analyse, with the greatest possible sense of responsibility, how it intends to carry on with its petroleum exploration. The Earth’s atmosphere will be incapable of supporting such immense volumes of greenhouse gases produced by burning fossil fuels whether they originate from the Middle East, Russia, the United States, the Gulf of Mexico, the North Sea, Africa, Venezuela or Brazil.

For all those reasons, WWF-Brazil considers that it is essential that in addition to adopting serious measures to contain the leaking oil and remove as much as possible from the seas off the coast of Rio de Janeiro and punishing those responsible in an exemplary manner, Brazil needs to pause and reconsider its multi-billion investments in the petroleum and gas sectors and invest instead in the immense potential of modern renewable forms of energy to generate electricity that stems from sources that are clean and safe and have low impacts on the environment.
Vazamento de óleo da empresa Chevron na bacia do Campo do Frade, no Rio de Janeiro
© Rogerio Santana/ Reuters