Article by Mike Gaworecki.
The federal prosecutor for the Brazilian state of Amapá has requested that the environmental licensing process for oil giants BP and Total to begin drilling in deep water near the newly discovered Amazon Reef be suspended until more is known about the unique ecosystem.
The Prosecutor made the request in a formal recommendation (in Portuguese) sent to Brazil’s Institute of the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources (better known by its acronym, IBAMA), the environmental regulator responsible for environmental licensing in the country, on May 3.
The recommendation specifically calls for IBAMA to reopen the licensing process for Total E & P do Brasil Ltda.’s venture that seeks to drill for oil at the mouth of the Amazon River in light of “biotic conditions not foreseen at the opening of the environmental licensing process.” The Prosecutor also calls on IBAMA to order the suspension of maritime activities, including drilling, until the potential impacts on the newly discovered reef system and Brazil’s South American and Caribbean neighbors can be further studied.
The Prosecutor’s Office set a period of 10 business days for IBAMA to determine whether or not it would comply with the recommendation. Factoring in the time it would take IBAMA to formally accept receipt of the recommendation, that 10-workday deadline appears to have run up as of Friday, May 19. There has been no official announcement from IBAMA on the matter.
Some observers have suggested that it’s possible IBAMA is reluctant to make a decision one way or the other given the most recent scandal rocking a Brazilian government that has been in turmoil for months now. President Dilma Rousseff was impeached last year after a bitter power struggle, and now her successor, Michel Temer, is refusing calls to step down after tapes surfaced in which he appears to give his blessing to bribery involving an imprisoned political ally who allegedly helped orchestrate the removal of Rousseff from office.
In its letter to IBAMA, the Federal Public Prosecutor’s Office in Amapá warned that it was prepared to take legal action should the agency fail to comply with the recommendation.
According to a statement released by the prosecutor’s office, the prospect of oil spills and other accidents that could damage the unique marine environment were not the only motives for the request. The statement also notes that a possible international conflict could be sparked should any environmental pollutants like oil be released into the ecosystem by the drilling activities. “Information from the exploration company itself confirms that a possible leak during oil activities can cause damage to the marine, physical and ecosystem environment, not only in Brazil, but also in neighboring countries, especially the Caribbean region,” the statement reads (translated from Portuguese).
The prosecutor’s statement adds: “Due to the recent discovery, there is still not enough scientific research on this new ecosystem, nor was it possible to identify all the new beings found in this brackish water coral reef — a mixture of fresh and salt water. Thus, preventive action, with the appropriate environmental study for the exploration of oil in the vicinity of the reef, becomes even more important.”
A spokesperson for IBAMA confirmed to Mongabay last month that no drilling licenses have been issued to the companies: “The enterprises in the sedimentary basin at the mouth of the Amazon River, whose licensing is conducted by IBAMA, already filed environmental studies that are currently under review by the Environmental Licensing Board of the Institute,” the spokesperson said. “There is no conclusive technical opinion recommending whether or not to grant a license for exploitation.”
The Amapá Federal Prosecutor has, in effect, asked for a suspension of the licensing process, which would mean that IBAMA would have to start the process over, requiring new environmental impact assessments (EIAs) be performed by the companies.
The EIAs first submitted to IBAMA by BP and Total in 2015 have undergone several assessments by the agency, which has asked for the companies to provide further information and to reformulate some aspects. In particular, IBAMA requested that information on the Amazon Reef be added to the baseline and impact studies in the EIAs.
“In terms of the reef areas,” the IBAMA spokesperson told Mongabay, “IBAMA has asked companies to submit information regarding the location of reefs and their associated biodiversity, in order to complement the environmental diagnosis, and its inclusion in the analysis of environmental impacts and risks.”
Environmental NGO Greenpeace reports that IBAMA also recently rejected the oil spill modelling submitted by BP and Total, saying that it was “statistically incoherent” at times, that “it does not adequately represent the environmental variability of the region,” and that the companies had failed to comply with requests for more information from the agency.
Thiago Almeida, an Amazon Reef campaigner for Greenpeace, said that “BP and Total are proposing a technically challenging, risky deep water operation close to a unique and largely unexplored biome in an area with an unknown number of endangered species.”
Almedia added: “The Prosecutor’s concerns, on top of the flaws previously identified by IBAMA, highlight the fundamental failure of BP and Total to identify, let alone mitigate, the many serious risks posed by drilling in such a remote and sensitive location.”
Images of the Amazon Reef taken from a submarine launched from the Greenpeace ship MY Esperanza. Photo © Greenpeace.
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