Colombia gives green light to fracking

Colombia to allow companies to start fracking for shale oil and gas, having claimed to have put strict regulations in place, but strategy is at odds with climate change commitments.

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Fracking site in North Dakota
A fracking site in North Dakota, US. The method of extracting shale gas and oil from underground rock formations, by firing pressurised water and chemicals at them, could soon be arriving in Colombia. Photo courtesy of AP via the Guardian.

Colombia is set to become the latest country to jump on the fracking bandwagon after its Mining and Energy Ministry announced that it had given the green light to this unconventional and controversial method of oil and gas extraction. The ministry’s vice minister, Orlando Cabrales, confirmed in an interview with the national RCN Radio station that the government had come to this decision after a “rigorous” two-year period in which it says it has established a “detailed” and “responsible” regulatory framework, so as to minimise the risks associated with fracking.

In the latest round of oil and gas concession auctions carried out by the Colombian government, 19 of the 98 bids went to fracking sites, where foreign and national investors will now attempt to exploit the deposits of shale oil and gas, most of which lie somewhere to the north of the centre of the country. The government hopes that commercial production of shale oil and gas can begin sometime next year, as it aims to maintain the economic boost that comes from its hydrocarbon sector, which is one of its biggest export earners.

Fracking, the common name for hydraulic fracturing, is the process whereby a cocktail of water, sand and chemicals is blasted at underground rock formations at incredibly high pressure, in order to release pockets of oil and natural gas that are trapped within the rock. The method is being employed on a greater scale around the world following apparent success in the United States, where it is credited with having helped to bring down wholesale gas prices and boost energy independence in the US.

However, it has also proven highly controversial due to criticism of its adverse environmental impact, with fracking wells often dotting the countryside and bringing with them deforestation and clearing of land for roads and infrastructure, a steady procession of trucks and lorries ferrying supplies and products to and from the sites, and towers where excess oil and gas is flared. There have also been reports of wastewater from fracking entering and contaminating local water supplies, which places an additional pressure on local water resources to go with the high water demand that the process has. Furthermore, environmentalists point to the increased carbon emissions that result from the burning of hydrocarbons extracted by fracking, contributing to global climate change, leading them to argue that if governments are serious about reducing their emissions they should not be pursuing new methods of exploiting any fossil fuel reserves, let alone unconventional ones.

Cabrales has been keen to emphasise that the Colombian government is determined to do all it can to allay fears of these risks. While he accepted that fracking is “not exempt from risk”, he claimed that these risks are “suitably dealt with” in the government’s regulatory framework, which was institutionalised in a law passed in March. He also insisted that the country’s stricter regulations will mean that “not just anyone” will be able to carry out fracking, a situation he contrasted with that of the US, where critics have argued that lax regulations have worsened the environmental and social impacts of the process.

colombia orlando cabrales la republica
Orlando Cabrales, the Colombian Vice-Minister of Mining and Energy, has assured critics that fracking will be properly regulated in the country. Photo courtesy of La República.

However, critics within Colombia have argued that the regulatory framework does not go far enough, with some pointing to the fact that the recent law only stipulates that most aspects of the development of fracking sites simply have to meet the government’s “approval” – a somewhat vague measure of compliance, according to Colombia Reports. Furthermore, since the prospect of fracking in Colombia first started to become real in recent years, many local experts have warned of the potential social and environmental fallout if fracking were to be pursued at a larger scale. These voices include several former environment ministers, with Juan Gabriel Uribe (who held the post in 2012-2013) and Manuel Rodríguez Becerra (1994) arguing that if fracking were to be permitted at all, this should only happen with considerable environmental regulations in place, given the risks in play.

Concerns have also been raised about the impact that fracking could have on water supplies. El Espectador cites Mining and Energy Ministry figures which show that the oil industry accounts for 0.3% of the country’s water usage, and adds that fracking wells use twice as much water as conventional oil well. While these figures alone may not be particularly alarming, they should be considered carefully when set against the context of the severe drought that has hit many parts of Colombia in recent months, creating water shortages that have affected hundreds of local districts. Another period of drought earlier this year in Casanare was at least partially blamed on the depletion and contamination of local water supplies by oil production, with some instances of fracking methods allegedly being employed. For the many Colombians who have seen their water supplies affected by these periods of drought – which, thanks to climate change and El Niño cycles, were not the first and are likely to be repeated in the future – the prospect of local water supplies being contaminated by the chemical by-products of fracking is unlikely to be popular.

Colombia is not alone in Latin America in opening itself up to fracking, with neighbouring Peru having gone down a similar route in recent times. In July, its government unveiled plans to explore for unconventional oil and gas deposits, including shale gas, up and down the country, despite having just announced a sweeping climate change strategy in which it promised to curb carbon emissions. As this year’s host of the annual UN climate talks, the dual stance of committing itself to tackling climate change while pushing ahead with plans to develop fracking within its borders could easily be seen as contradictory.

The same can be said of Colombia, which also recently announced both a National Plan of Adaptation to Climate Change and a Strategy of Low Carbon Development, while the new Environment and Sustainable Development minister, Gabriel Vallejo López, told a recent Latin American and Caribbean Carbon Forum that climate change was an “absolute priority” for the Colombian government. Yet, experts have been clear that for carbon emissions to be brought down to levels necessary to prevent runaway climate change, the majority of the world’s proven reserves of oil, gas and coal need to be left underground. To this end, Colombia’s new taste for fracking –as with Peru – is somewhat incompatible with a real commitment to tackle global carbon emissions and climate change.

colombia drought caribbean coast getty bbc
Drought has hit many parts of Colombia in recent months, leading to severe water shortages. Critics worry that fracking, which uses a lot of water and has led to contamination of local water resources in other countries, will put even more strain on water supplies across Colombia. Photo courtesy of Getty Images via the BBC.