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Offshore drilling faces backlash in Argentina after skirting environmental regulations

  • Argentina granted permits to a dozen major oil companies to develop new offshore drilling projects near the Atlantic coast. But some of them may have disregarded policies meant to protect surrounding marine ecosystems.
  • A court filing by the Environment and Natural Resources Foundation (FARN) argues that offshore drilling exploration could disorient, injure and even kill marine life and disrupt feeding and migratory areas.
  • The companies that received permits include Equinor, Exxon Mobil, Qatar Petroleum Pluspetrol, Shell, Tullow, Total Austral and Shell, among others.

Argentina has spent the last several years expanding its investments into offshore drilling. But critics say weak regulations and a lack of oversight in the industry are raising concerns that many of the projects will do untoward damage to the environment.

The South American country granted permits to a dozen major oil companies in 2018 and 2019 to develop new offshore drilling projects near the Atlantic coast. But conservationists say it’s possible that some of them are disregarding protocols meant to protect surrounding marine ecosystems and mitigate greenhouse gas emissions.

“The impact that offshore drilling has isn’t just about if there’s a spill or an accident,” said Valeria Falabella, marine coast program director for Wildlife Conservation Society in Argentina. “Today we have an atmosphere that can’t take much more when it comes to CO2.”

The permits were granted by the Ministry of Environment in waters near Buenos Aires, Río Negro, Tierra del Fuego and the Falkland Islands. They allowed companies to search the ocean floor for viable drilling spots for oil extraction. One of the most controversial is the Fénix Project, a natural gas project near the southern tip of the continent.

A court filing by the Environment and Natural Resources Foundation (FARN) this month asked for a pause on all activity until the projects can meet the country’s basic environmental regulations, among them a thorough study of the long-term effects on climate change and local ecosystems.

“These projects must be suspended and stopped immediately,” the filing said. The court is still considering whether to move forward with the case.

Oil workers in the Austral Basin in Argentina. Photo courtesy of the Ministry of Economy.

Other lawsuits against the offshore drilling projects were dismissed last year, with a federal appeals court allowing them to move forward as long as operations are carried out under the strictest possible controls and involve outside observers.

This new court filing argues that the projects failed to look at “species of conservation importance” at the project sites, such as corals, birds and turtles. They also allegedly relied on previously published documents about the area in general rather than conducting a new, thorough investigation into the specific spots where drilling would take place.

“This obviously runs contrary to all best practices of carrying out an environmental impact assessment. It’s contrary to what should be done,” said Cristian Fernández, a coordinator for legal affairs at FARN.

Argentina is one of the largest oil and natural gas producers in the world, but most extraction happens inland at the Vaca Muerta shale reservoir. Only in recent years has the country looked to strengthen its offshore activities.

The companies that received permits include Equinor, Exxon Mobil, Qatar Petroleum, Pluspetrol, Shell, Tullow and Total Austral, in some cases working in partnership with state-owned energy company YPF. None of them responded to a request for comment for this article.

Fernández said he and other members of FARN attended multiple public audiences about the environmental and social impacts of oil exploration between 2021 and 2023 but felt that their warnings weren’t taken seriously.

“These public hearings were all virtual so what happens is that while you’re talking you don’t see anyone, you only see yourself,” Fernández said. “You don’t know if the authorities are listening to you, if they’re reading a book, if they’re having a coffee. You have no idea.”

Offshore oil exploration involves conducting “seismic surveys” with air cannons that fire soundwaves — similar to sonar or ultrasound — to get readings on possible oil deposits under the seafloor. But the high-volume sounds have the potential to disorient, injure and even kill animals in the area, the claim said.

One of the projects overlaps with an area used by the rockhopper penguin (Eudyptes chrysocome) and other bird species that feed in Patagonia in the winter and spring, according to FARN.

Other projects could interrupt squid migration areas and the feeding areas of elephant seals (Mirounga leonine), the organization said. It made a special point of highlighting dangers posed to the southern right whale (Eubalaena australis), which has been designated as a “national monument” with strict conservation protections.

The construction of oil platforms also involves perforating the Argentine continental shelf with intrusive infrastructure. And once operations begin, there’s a risk of gas flaring, venting and leaks that contribute to greenhouse gas emissions and the pollution of the surrounding waters, the filing said.

“[A spill] would truly be an environmental tragedy that’s hard to measure,” Falabella said, “just as most of the environmental tragedies associated with these accidents have been.”

Banner image: The Fénix Project in southern Argentina. Photo courtesy of the Ministry of Economy

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