Ecuador’s state-owned oil company is beginning what officials here call the “oil project of the decade,” an effort likely to draw intense local and international opposition because the vast majority of the drilling would take place in an Amazon-region national park.
In its Ishpingo-Tambococha-Tiputini Project (ITT), Petroecuador plans to extract crude in cooperation with a partner. Drilling at one test-well site was scheduled to get under way late this month, while work at another was expected to begin in November.
The ITT project area encompasses 490,000 acres (200,000 hectares) in the northeast portion of the Ecuadorian Amazon. Roughly 90% of it falls within the 2.43 million-acre (980,000-hectare) Yasuni National Park, a natural protected area in Pastaza and Orellana provinces. Ecuador, whose Constitution gives the state rights to oil, gas and mineral resources throughout the country, already has granted the energy companies Repsol-YPF and Perez Companc concessions elsewhere in the park.
Proponents argue that the cash-strapped country stands to benefit handsomely from the estimated $2.5 billion ITT project, which officials believe will produce 100,000 barrels of crude daily. Collectively, the Ishpingo, Tambococha and Tiputini oilfields are believed to contain 717 million barrels of oil.
“ITT is the oil project of the decade and will give Ecuador around $7 billion from production and industrialization of the crude over 20 years,” Petroecuador President Rodolfo Barniol said in an interview with EcoAméricas.
Barniol says the project’s first phase, to be completed by the end of the year, will involve test drilling to confirm the extent and nature of the reserves. Technical and legal information also will be prepared in advance of bidding next year by companies interested in becoming Petroecuador’s partner in the project.
Petroecuador plans to have a facility built in an as-yet unknown location to process the crude. Waste created in the processing will be used to fuel a new, 450-megawatt electricity generating station, which according to Barniol would be Ecuador’s largest power plant.
As test drilling gets underway, however, the project will likely meet with heavy opposition. Critics view ITT as part of a damaging oil-development push into some of Ecuador’s most environmentally sensitive regions.
Yasuni National Park, created in 1979, is home to highly diverse animal and plant species as well as indigenous groups that have had little contact with the outside world.
The tropical park includes a “flooded forest” ecosystem as well as lakes that serve as habitat for rare animals including the manatee (Trichecus inunguis), the pink dolphin (Inia geoffrensis) and one of the world’s largest freshwater turtles (Podocnemis expansa).
Studies conducted in the park have identified 500 bird species, several of them endangered; some 200 mammalian species; 100 species of amphibian; and 100 varieties of reptile, including 62 snake species.
Erika Alzamora of Petroecuador’s environmental-protection division says the upcoming test drilling will be certified under ISO 14001—the first time Petroecuador has obtained such environmental certification. ISO certification also will be required in the production phase, Alzamora says.
Petroecuador’s environmental-impact study and environmental-management plan for the project won approval from the Environment Ministry and Energy and Mines Ministry in June. Then in July, the Environment Ministry granted a license clearing the way for the test drilling in Yasuni Park.
Alzamora says the environmental-management plan spells out strict procedures to be followed in all aspects of the project. For instance, it calls for the use of helicopter and river transport to avoid a need for access roads, which might draw settlers into pristine areas. It also requires the use of drilling platforms, zero-waste strategies and other measures to minimize ecological damage.
An eight-person team including chemical engineers, biologists and industrial-safety experts will monitor work on the platforms, each of which will occupy three acres (1.2 hectares). A four-person team will oversee relations between the project and local communities.
Says Alzamora: “All this demonstrates that in drilling the two wells, we are using the highest environmental precautions.”
Further development of the project will require new environmental planning and approvals as well as a new environmental license, officials say.
Assurances of tight control, however, do not assuage green advocates. Ivone Ramos of the Ecuadorian group Ecological Action argues that the ITT project and the country’s ongoing effort to build a second crude oil pipeline (OCP) are “the first stage of aggressive oil activity in protected areas.”
She forecasts the Perez Companc and Repsol-YPF projects will be developed soon and points to government plans to allow bidding for oil concessions on two million hectares of Amazon land occupied by indigenous groups including the Quichua, Shuar, Achuar, Shiwia and Zapara.
Ramos also points out that no matter how carefully test drilling is done, development of ITT and future projects eventually will involve the construction of extensive infrastructure such as roads, wells and processing plants in highly sensitive Amazon areas.
Making these projects possible, she adds, is Ecuador’s newly launched project to build a second crude-oil pipeline. (See “OCP pipeline project wins two legal tests”—Page two, this issue.)
“Construction of the OCP opens the way for aggressive exploitation in protected areas and areas where there are indigenous communities,” she says. “Perez Companc and [Repsol-YPF] will be the first to develop their respective blocs and subsequently the government will hold rounds of bidding to allow exploration and exploitation in sensitive areas.”
- Mercedes Alvaro