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Is it possible to reduce the impact of oil drilling in the Amazon rainforest?

Oil extraction in the Amazon rainforest has been linked to severe environmental degradation — including deforestation and pollution — which in some areas has spurred violent social conflict. Yet a vast extent of the Colombian, Peruvian, Ecuadorian, Bolivian, and Brazilian Amazon is currently under concession for oil and gas exploration and production — hundreds of billions of dollars are potentially at stake. It seems clear that much of this hydrocarbon development is going to proceed whether environmentalists and human rights groups like it or not.

A new paper, published in the journal PLoS ONE, argues that some of the most harmful effects of oil and gas drilling can be mitigated through a set of comprehensive guidelines. This framework includes both “engineering-based criteria and key ecological and social factors”, according to the authors, who have worked extensively on documenting the extent and impact of energy development in the region.

Less damaging oil and gas development starts at the planning phase, argues the paper, which uses the department of Loreto in northeastern Peru as a case study.

Hydrocarbon concessions in Loreto Department, Peru. Click image to enlarge.

Oil Blocks in the Western Amazon

Oil and gas blocks in the western Amazon. Solid yellow indicates blocks already leased out to companies. Hashed yellow indicates proposed blocks or blocks still in the negotiation phase. Protected areas shown are those considered strictly protected by the IUCN (categories I to III). Image modified from Finer at al (2008).

“The vast majority of planned drilling wells, production platforms and pipeline routes overlap sensitive areas such as protected areas, indigenous territories, critical ecosystems and vital watersheds,” said Clinton Jenkins, a North Carolina State University biologist and co-author of the study. “Identifying these types of potentially conflictive overlaps early in the planning process is essential to avoiding future conflicts.”

“Loreto makes an ideal case study because it is one of the largest and most dynamic hydrocarbon zones in the Amazon. Following the state of emergency, there is an added urgency to develop methods to minimize the impacts of any future development,” added study lead author Dr. Matt Finer of the Center for International Environmental Law. “We developed such a method that identifies specific areas where the use of best practice would drastically reduce impacts.”

The paper goes on to list several techniques for reducing the impacts of operations. For example, extended reach drilling (ERD) would allow developers to greatly reduce the number of drill holes, access roads, and infrastructure without sacrificing production. A broader ban on new access roads and reduced pipeline right-of-way could cut project-related deforestation by 75 percent.

Surprisingly these measures would not add substantially to the overall cost relative to conventional drilling. In some cases, it could even reduce costs, by cutting the need for infrastructure and reparing environmental damage.

“The engineering section of the guidelines addresses the full range of key project components,” said co-author Bill Powers of E-Tech International. “In addition to greatly reducing negative impacts such as deforestation, we found that best practice does not impose substantially greater costs than a conventional project, and may in fact reduce overall costs.”

Of course reducing the impact of energy extraction in the Amazon does not eliminate the emissions associated with its use once it is brought to the surface. But that issue is beyond the scope of the paper, which looks specifically at the direct on-the-ground impact.

The paper is timely: a report published late last year reveleaed that over 100 million hectares of the Amazon is currently under concession for oil and gas exploration and extraction. Peru has the largest number of potential oil zones covering 659,937 sq km or 84 percent of the Peruvian Amazon. Colombia (193,414 sq km – 40 percent of the Colombian Amazon), Brazil (127,862 sq km – 21 percent), and Bolivia (73,215 sq km – 15 percent) follow.

Potential Bid Exploration Extraction Total % country’s Amazon land
Country Blocks sq km sq km sq km sq km sq km
Perú 92 253,447 133,336 262,385 10,770 659,937 84%
Colombia 102 170,003 21,367 2,044 193,414 40%
Brasil 55 126,843 1,019 127,862 3%
Bolivia 55 53,837 17,879 1,500 73,215 15%
Ecuador 14 24,957 24,957 21%
Venezuela 9 2,892 427 3,319 1%
total 327 477287 136228 428474 40717 1082704

Rapid scaling-up of the industry has contributed to conflict in the region. In Peru there have been several violent clashes between indigenous groups and interests associated with energy development, including a 2009 incident in Bagua that left 31 dead. Meanwhile in Ecuador, the location of a decades-long law suit against Chevron-subsidiary Texaco over damage from oil drilling, indigenous leaders have threatened war over planned extraction.

CITATION: Finer M, Jenkins CN, Powers B (2013) Potential of Best Practice to Reduce Impacts from Oil and Gas Projects in the Amazon. PLoS ONE 8(5): e63022. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0063022

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