Latin America

In a surprise to environmentalists and church leaders, Brazil’s Lula revives plans for offshore oil drilling in Amazon basin

While publicly defending a green agenda in his travels around the world, Brazil’s President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva seems to have decided on a different course at home. His center-left government has revived plans to expand oil exploration in the Amazon region. This position, confirmed by America with Brazil’s Ministry of Mines and Energy (M.M.E.), has caused disappointment among environmentalists and Catholic Church leaders in Brazil who advocate for the Amazonian peoples, the protection of the forest and the sustainable use of natural resources.

Archbishop Roque Paloschi of Porto Velho, one of the most vocal Catholic leaders in the Amazonian states, told America that “the prospecting for oil drilling in the Amazon is extremely worrisome.” In his view, this could cause “social and environmental damage, causing the forced displacement of communities and generating more poverty among Amazonian peoples.”

Brazil is the steward of the largest area of rainforest in the Amazon region. There are currently just over 50 active oil exploration or production blocks in the Brazilian Amazon; however, there are another 400 blocks under study or already ready for exploration offered by the government. The Equatorial Margin, considered the last frontier for the discovery of offshore oil reserves in Brazil, contains five Amazon River basins, stretching from the state of Rio Grande do Norte to the state of Amapá.

The most controversial blocks that will be approved for exploration are located offshore, in the Atlantic Ocean, at the mouth of the Amazon River basin. Petrobras, a government-controlled oil company, is pushing to begin preliminary drilling in search of new oil reserves. The company plans to invest almost $3 billion between 2023 and 2027 in the region. Almost 100 attempts have been made in the river basin to find oil, but only one, in the 1970s, discovered natural gas in commercial quantities. That “successful” extraction proved so complex that developers decided to abandon the effort.

Mr. Lula wants to drill again.

“I want to keep dreaming. Petrobras had a platform ready to do research in the region,” he said in an interview with Brazilian public television last August. “What we can’t do is stop researching. We have to know if there is what we think there is. When we find out, we’ll make a decision about how we can explore and avoid a disaster on our beloved shores of the Atlantic Ocean in the Amazon.”

Mr. Lula’s predecessor Jair Bolsonaro made clear efforts to dismantle environmental policies, facilitating access into previously protected territory for illegal mining operations and the timber trade, and encouraging the occupation of Indigenous land. After four years of Mr. Bolsonaro’s extremism, many Brazilians expected a greener approach from the Lula government. Petrobras’s new attempts, supported by the president, have caused an internal divide in the federal administration. The environmentalist wing, led by Environment Minister Marina Silva, strongly opposes this energy policy.

In May 2023, the country’s environmental regulator, under Ms. Silva’s oversight, denied authorization for exploratory studies by Petrobras because of “technical inconsistencies” in its applications. Without that licensing, Petrobras cannot move forward. The company has appealed the decisions.

During a visit by Mines and Energy Minister Alexandre Silveira to Rome in early May 2024, America asked him to clarify his position on the issue. The ministry responded with an official statement: “The M.M.E. believes it is necessary to develop new exploration frontiers such as the Brazilian Equatorial Margin.” Without the opening of new fields, Brazil’s existing oil production is set to peak in the next five years.

“This policy is important for maintaining [commodity] reserves, the level of oil and natural gas production, energy security and the country’s economy, since oil will still be the main driving force behind global economies for a considerable period of time,” the ministry said.

The statement adds that, “if Brazil fails to develop its oil potential, others will do so to meet the established demand.” Finally, the Brazilian government justifies its oil exploration by pointing out that other ongoing initiatives are being put in place to “stimulate” renewable energy in the north of Brazil, including expanding access to hydroelectric and solar power.

Archbishop Paloschi, echoing other local bishops, believes that the federal and Amazonian state governments should not retreat to previous development models based primarily on resource extraction but should instead implement new models for Amazonian development. “They need to look for economic alternatives that guarantee the well-being of the peoples, without false solutions and the commodification of land and natural goods,” Archbishop Paloschi says. “Full life can only come about with respect for human dignity.”

The Pan-Amazonian Ecclesial Network, known as REPAM, has been sending representatives to public debates on the issue of oil exploitation in the Amazonian region. “It is essential to stop the production and consumption of fossil fuels across the planet as soon as possible,” REPAM said in a public letter sent to the United Nations’ COP 28 meeting in December 2023.

“We need to keep the Amazon free from oil and gas exploitation, while also preventing mining, which pollutes [the land] and concentrates income. A great example was set by our brothers and sisters in Ecuador, who decided to stop the oil industry’s activities in the Yasuní National Park,” in the Ecuadorian section of the Amazon region, said REPAM in the letter.

In 2025, Brazil will host the United Nations conference on climate change, COP30, in Belém, a city located in the Amazonian region where the proposed oil exploration will be conducted.

Benedito Alcântara, a history teacher, lawyer and specialist in environmental law, is a REPAM delegate from the Diocese of Macapá. Mr. Alcântara lives in Macapá, right by the mouth of the Amazon River, between the states of Pará and Amapá. He reports that the idea of exploring for oil in the Amazon is subject of lively discussions in his community.

“It’s certainly a priority for governments because we already know that the oil stock of southern areas is limited,” Mr. Alcântara says. “The Amazon has always served as a historical storehouse, a territory to be seized, harassed, to extract its riches.”

“Oil is just the newest trend in this regard,” he says.

The region has been disturbed by previous waves of exploitation that have included the damming of rivers, clear cutting for the timber industry, mineral extraction and rubber production—all efforts that were accompanied by crossing the rainforest with roads and long highways, most notably the Transamazonian Highway. Planners for that famous roadway, constructed in the 1970s, never fully took into account its environmental and social impacts.

“Now it’s oil’s turn. I don’t think my parents would ever have imagined that we’d get to this point, where they’d want to take oil out of the Amazon,” Mr. Alcântara says. “The local elites of the two states involved are also very keen [to proceed with test drilling]. Their vision follows a development model focused on the profits they will immediately make from the oil project.”

According to Mr. Alcântara, local politicians and businessmen have been saying that the arrival of the oil rigs will generate progress and income for the people of the region. The majority of the people of the region are poor and live “in a vulnerable situation” and have taken hope from these promises of oil wealth. “People will jump on board without realizing the big interests behind it. Unions and some organized groups are the only ones questioning this proposal,” he says, noting that Amazonian peoples have no training or expertise in oil drilling.

Other environmental activists and nongovernmental groups are also very concerned about the risks that research for potential oil production sites and, more specifically, test drilling at the mouth of the Amazon River could cause. Greenpeace Brazil has launched an expedition to study “dynamics of coastal and oceanic waters to map out the possible pathways for oil to take in the event of a spill.” Their idea is to prove, before the opening of new oil wells, that an offshore oil spill could be drawn back into the tidal river, reaching the coastline and severely damaging Amazonian ecosystems.

In Archbishop Paloschi’s view, in this context of inequity and conflicting human and ecological interests, the church is strongly called to be “a proclaimer of life” and to denounce “the structures of death.” Expressing great disappointment with the current federal and state governments, he says: “The development that the peoples of the Amazon crave is to have their own territories, their way of life respected, rights respected, [and] public policies with access to health, education, means of communication, transportation and sustainability.”

Mr. Alcântara says that the local church leaders know that people want to get out of poverty, but they are “concerned because there is still no articulation [of the people’s conditions], no organized civil society capable of advocating for them and addressing this issue on the same scale as the local elite.”

“We have no idea of the environmental impacts that this industry can cause,” he says. “We don’t even have enough studies on the life systems that exist here—the biodiversity, the islands, the corals. What impact could it have if all this is destroyed?”

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