- State-owned Petrobras has requested a license to investigate an oil site in a region in the north of Brazil where the Amazon River meets the Atlantic Ocean.
- The region is home to swathes of mangroves and coral reefs that environmentalists say are highly biodiverse and fundamental to local communities.
- Experts demand that Brazil’s environmental agency reject the license, saying the government hasn’t conducted the required detailed studies to assess the potential impact.
- Critics warn that pursuing fossil fuels contradicts President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s vows to adopt a renewable energy strategy and clashes with global climate change guidelines.
Drawing cheers from the crowd at the COP27 climate summit in Egypt last November, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva promised the world that the global warming crisis would shape Brazil’s future public policies, weeks before he officially became president. Now, advances in the government’s fossil fuel pursuit look set to contradict his pledge and could put Brazil on track to become the world’s fourth-largest oil producer.
State-owned petroleum giant Petrobras hopes to explore an offshore oil site known as Block 59 in the mouth of the Amazon, part of the Equatorial Margin in Brazil’s extreme northeast stretching from Rio Grande do Norte up to the state of Amapá. It aligns with plans from the Ministry of Mines and Energy to move Brazil from eighth place to the top four in the world rankings of oil production.
Alexandre Silveira, the minister of mines and energy, described the Equatorial Margin as “the passport of the future for the north and northeast regions of Brazil,” according to a statement from the Ministry of Mines and Energy. These regions have the highest poverty rates in Brazil and host important biomes such as the Amazon Rainforest, the semiarid Caatinga, and the Cerrado savanna.
With estimates of up to 30 billion barrels of oil in the Equatorial Margin, Petrobras plans to invest $2.9 billion into local exploration efforts. The oil company’s president, Jean Paul Prates, appointed by Lula, defended drilling in the region because the site “is not in the Amazon River, but on the high seas, 500 kilometers [311 miles] from the river’s mouth.”
However, the site is just 160 kilometers (99 miles) from the coast of Amapá and still within the mouth of the Amazon Basin. Environmentalists claim the entire Equatorial Margin has immense ecological importance with vast swathes of mangroves and unexplored coral reefs with ecosystems unlike anywhere else in the world. “The reef system and the mangroves in the region support a rich biodiversity and are also fundamental to the local economy and culture,” Daniela Jerez, public policy analyst for WWF Brazil, told Mongabay by email.
Experts say the exploration plans contradict Lula’s vow to adopt a renewable energy strategy by instead investing billions of dollars into fossil fuel production that defies the urgent warnings to reduce emissions in the latest United Nations’ IPCC report. “It goes against the grain of campaign promises and the political position that the current government defends,” Enrico Marone, an oceanographer at Greenpeace Brazil, told Mongabay by phone.
Petrobras did not reply to Mongabay’s request for comment.
The current minister of the environment and climate change, Marina Silva, has already publicly positioned herself against oil exploration in the Equatorial Margin region, referring to it as a “high impact” activity in an interview with environmental news outlet Sumaúma.
IBAMA, Brazil’s environmental agency, is currently analyzing the request for the license to drill in potential oil well Block 59 and a decision should be made by the end of May, allowing Petrobras to explore the site for economic viability if approved. At the moment, it is uncertain if IBAMA will give the license the green light.
Environmentalists fear granting a license for Block 59 could open up further exploration. “If approved, it could set a precedent for other wells,” Marone said. “There are more than 200 other blocks that will be put up for auction by ANP [National Oil Agency] in that region in the future.”
‘A nursery of life’
The mouth of the Amazon is considered a highly sensitive region with unique wildlife and sediment plumes rich in nutrients that travel as far north as the Caribbean. The coral reefs, whose biological importance remains unknown, cover an area of 56,000 square kilometers (21,622 square miles), extending 1,350 kilometers (839 miles) from the state of Amapá down to the middle of the state of Maranhão, and stretching up to 200 kilometers (124 miles) outwards from the coast.
Brazil has the second-largest mangrove cover in the world, 80% of which is found in the country’s north and northeast. Just from Amapá down to Maranhão alone, there are 7,500 km2 (2,896 mi2) of mangroves, Marone said. “This green belt of mangroves is the largest continuous expanse in the world,” he said. “It is a super rich environment in terms of biodiversity. It is a nursery of life.” If any oil spill happens there, it would cause “irreversible damage” he warned.
Mangroves are important not just for local biodiversity but also for millions of people directly and indirectly dependent on the region, such as riverside and Indigenous communities and beach dwellers in the region. “It is very important for the economy, for fishing, for several species that depend on fish as well,” Marone said.
Experts demand license rejection
On April 12, a group of 80 organizations sent an official letter and technical report to several ministries within the federal government demanding that IBAMA reject the license until more detailed environmental studies are conducted.
“It is not just about oil exploration in a single block at the mouth of the Amazon. There are many other blocks awaiting licensing and bidding in the region, which, if authorized, could bring significant impacts,” Jerez said.
The letter calls for the government to conduct a Sedimentary Area Environmental Assessment (AAAS), which analyzes all factors that could impact the entire Equatorial Margin, rather than just focusing on specific locations of individual oil wells. Only the Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change and the Ministry of Mines and Energy can conduct this analysis.
“In my opinion, it would be correct to suspend these oil well licenses in the mouth of the Amazon region to carry out the AAAS,” Suely Araújo, senior specialist in public policies at the Climate Observatory, a network of civil society organizations, told Mongabay by phone. “But the government has not done that.”
The technical note also points to a shaky adherence to the guidelines in the International Labor Organization Convention No. 169, which states Indigenous and traditional communities must be consulted about any development projects that could impact their territories and livelihoods.
Nine years after the licensing process for Block 59 began, Indigenous peoples of the Oiapoque region in Amapá had their first meeting with Petrobras in February, where they reported Petrobras aircraft disturbing birds and game and disrupting the peace in the community. “[The community] showed concern about possible oil spill accidents, which, according to traditional knowledge about tidal dynamics, would reach their lands,” according to the technical report.
Petrobras also needs to demonstrate the action it would take in the event of oil leakages, especially given its proximity with other countries, experts say. “In case of accidents in the region, the oil moves mostly towards the northwest and, depending on the scenario, it may reach jurisdictional waters of French Guiana in less than 10 hours,” claimed the report.
Experts warn that exploration activities realized today in the mouth of the Amazon would only become productive after 2030, the year in which greenhouse gas emissions should be reduced by 43% according to the latest IPCC report.
“The Brazilian government needs to commit itself coherently to the agenda of climate change and biodiversity,” the technical report states. “That’s what you expect from a country that has placed itself in the global and national sphere as committed to a socio-environmental agenda.”
Banner images: The Amazon River flows into the Atlantic Ocean, creating a nutrient-rich basin that flows as far north as the Caribbean. Image © Victor Moriyama/Greenpeace.
AR6 Synthesis Report: Climate Change 2023. (2023). Retrieved from Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change website: https://www.ipcc.ch/report/ar6/syr/
Rovai, A. S., Twilley, R. R., Worthington, T. A., & Riul, P. (2022). Brazilian mangroves: Blue carbon hotspots of national and global relevance to natural climate solutions. Frontiers in Forests and Global Change, 4. doi:10.3389/ffgc.2021.787533
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