As strike-battered Venezuela has pushed oil output back toward normal in recent weeks, the economic imperative has been clear. Petroleum, after all, accounts for half of the government’s income and no less than 70% of the country’s export earnings.
But there’s been a downside to the country’s production gains—a spate of oil spills, gas leaks, refinery fires and other environmentally damaging incidents.
The problem, many here contend, is that after employees of the state oil company Petróleos de Venezuela (PDVSA) joined a national strike against President Hugo Chávez in early December, the government turned to inadequately trained, accident-prone replacement crews. Government officials, for their part, blame sabotage by striking workers.
Causes aside, the oil-industry troubles have taken a toll. And while the general strike against Chávez dissipated this month, concern remains that continuing instability in PDVSA is putting the country’s environment at serious risk.
“Up to now there have been no major disasters, but a lot of cumulative damage is being done that will show up in future years,” says Eduardo Ortega, a Caracas-based environmental attorney with clients in the oil industry here. “For example, gas emissions are putting an extraordinary amount of sulfur into the air, and rain will bring it down into the water supply.”
Said the Venezuelan environmental group Vitalis in a recent statement: “We are witnessing with great concern a series of events…such as oil spills, fires and other incidents. These events require immediate attention to control and mitigate the environmental impact.”
Following is a sampling of some of the incidents reported by environmental observers during the two-month strike:
- Wells and pumping stations spill oil in and around Lake Maracaibo, site of much of Venezuela’s oil production. One well was found to be spewing oil into the lake at a rate of 1,100 barrels a day.
- Lake Maracaibo oil slicks come ashore at Río Sibaragua estuary and the northern portion of La Taguasa National Park, where mangroves are contaminated.
- An explosion at the El Palito refinery in Carabobo state sets off a week-long fire at the facility. The blast occurred as the refinery was being started up after having been idled by the strike.
- Two barges sink in Lake Maracaibo—one carrying perforation pipe, the other loaded with drilling muds.
- A tanker spills 260 gallons (1,000 liters) of leaded gasoline as it unloads at the Paraguaná refinery, in Falcón state. The tanker burned out two pumping systems.
- An overflow at the Anaco tank farm sends crude oil into a nearby urban stormwater system.
- Flaring of gas far in excess of government limits at a crude-processing facility in Santa Barbara, Zulia state, sends toxic clouds into surrounding areas.
In the face of such problems, government officials initially did little to calm the public. Environment and Natural Resources Minister Ana Elisa Osorio made a flying trip to Lake Maracaibo in January and declared ongoing spillage there “normal” for the oil industry.
But by the end of the month, the government appeared to take the spills more seriously. Dacir Conde, the environment ministry director of observation and control, gave green groups a rundown on 95 incidents, including oil spills and natural-gas leaks, observed nationwide. Conde said the government had investigated nearly every event and found that some 8,350 barrels of crude and 524 barrels of gasoline had been spilled in December and January. She declined to identify possible causes, but Osorio and other officials have claimed sabotage by dissident oil workers.
Environmental groups, striking PDVSA workers and many others here contend sabotage was not to blame. Instead, they say, the problem was inexpert crews contracted hurriedly by the government to boost production. They cite instances of workers opening high-pressure wells incorrectly; leaking wells being allowed to keep operating; tanker personnel sending gasoline and other refined products ashore through unsecured connections; and accidents involving tanker trucks requisitioned by the National Guard and driven by personnel unaccustomed to operating big-rigs.
“It’s not a question of negligence,” says Ortega, who spent several weeks in the Maracaibo region in January. “It’s a question of the present work teams not knowing the job.”
Capt. Gustavo González Cañizales, president of Venezuela’s Merchant Marine Officers College, says substitute ships’ crews and personnel in the ports are “violating the most elementary standards of security.” In addition to the barge sinkings, there have been cases of tanker and tug collisions, and poorly secured vessels drifting away from docks.
When problems have occurred, the government has been unable to mount much in the way of emergency response aside from firefighting. At PDVSA, that’s due partly to the fact that much of the company’s health, safety and environment unit was fired for taking part in the strike; a new unit reportedly was being formed early this month. Some 8,000 PDVSA employees have been fired, and the purge was continuing this month.
“In all the spills,” reports James Ross-Jones, a chemical engineer who also is vice-president of the Audubon Society of Venezuela, “none of the necessary control and cleanup to mitigate environmental impact and ensure human safety is in evidence.”
He adds: “If safe and secure operation of industry facilities cannot be immediately reestablished, industry operations must be halted until these conditions can be met.”
That’s an unlikely scenario, given the pressure to boost oil output. Usually 3.4 million barrels daily, production hit a low of 300,000 barrels a day in December. But it reached 1.3 million barrels a day in January, and PDVSA president Alí Rodríguez Araque promises to double that volume by the end of this month.
- Conrad Dahlson