The president of Brazil’s environmental protection agency Ibama, Rodrigo Agostinho, concurred with his staff’s technical report—a document first covered exclusively by SUMAÚMA—and this Wednesday barred Petrobras from drilling a test well at the mouth of the Amazon River Basin, roughly one hundred miles off the coast of Oiapoque, in the state of Amapá. Completed on April 20, the technical report stated that the proposal was unfeasible from an environmental standpoint and was steeped in technical and legal uncertainties because a broader assessment had not been done to show whether the oil industry is compatible with the region’s social and environmental context. “There is no doubt that Petrobras was offered every opportunity to remedy critical points of its project, but the latter still displays inconsistencies that are of concern for safe operations in a new drilling frontier located in a highly vulnerable social and environmental setting,” Agostinho said in the document that rejects the environmental license.
The opening of a new front for drilling in the Amazon is one of the great dilemmas for the current administration. The firm stance taken by Ibama defers to promises by President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva to protect the planet’s largest tropical rainforest, essential for climate regulation, and to combat climate collapse. The environmental agency’s decision will have repercussions both internationally and within Brazil, a country that even today regards oil as a symbol of progress. By refraining from interference and instead allowing the licensing process to follow its course, Lula has lent support to Marina Silva, Minister of the Environment and Climate Change, and demonstrated that he has understood his role on the world stage at a time when fossil fuels will become the villains of a planet facing climate collapse.
As a report published in February by SUMAÚMA showed, drilling in Block 59 would potentially open a new frontier for oil exploitation on Brazil’s equatorial margin, which stretches from Rio Grande do Norte to Amapá. The region is home to eighty percent of the country’s mangrove swamps and to a still little-studied reef system considered vital to fishing. In addition, an inadequate understanding of the dynamics of local ocean currents makes it hard to predict what would happen in the event of an oil spill and how to act to contain its effects.
The licensing process has been underway for nine years, since the British oil concern BP held rights to Block 59, but current Petrobras CEO Jean Paul Prates has made it a priority. Prates’s position put him on a collision course with Minister Marina Silva, for whom the project is inconsistent with Brazil’s commitment to stave off the heating of the planet and head toward a green transition. In an exclusive interview with SUMAÚMA in February, Marina stated: “In my personal opinion, Petrobras cannot continue as an oil exploration company. This is a challenge both for the government as well as for its shareholders. It has to be an energy company that will use the money from oil to make this [energy] transition, to quit this source that has a shocking impact on the planet’s balance.”
In denying the license, the Ibama president cited as one of the agency’s main concerns the absence of broader studies on the possible impact of the oil industry in the region. “The absence of Sedimentary Environmental Area Assessments (Avaliação Ambiental de Área Sedimentar, or AAAS) substantially hampers the demonstration of the environmental feasibility of this activity, given that no studies have been conducted to assess the suitability of these areas, as well as the suitability of this region, notably sensitive in socio-environmental terms, to the implementation of the oil production chain,” he said. “The mouth of the Amazon Basin is considered a region of extreme socio-environmental sensitivity because it contains Conservation Units, Indigenous Territories, mangrove swamps, and biogenic formations of organisms such as corals and sponges and presents tremendous marine biodiversity, including such endangered species as the Guiana dolphin, Amazon river dolphin, sperm whale, fin whale, West Indian manatee, Amazonian manatee, and yellow-spotted river turtle,” he further stated.
The president of Ibama also suggested that an AAAS—a tool established in 2012 by the ministries of the Environment and of Mines and Energy—be done before any decision is made about other applications for licenses to drill on the equatorial margin. Licensing processes are already underway for eight other wells in the region, along with forty-seven blocks under permanent offer by the National Petroleum Agency (ANP) and 157 under study for potential auction.
Brazil’s Climate Observatory, comprising organizations and research centers focused on climate change and the environment, said in a statement that, with this decision, the president of Ibama “is protecting a virtually unknown ecosystem and maintaining a position consistent with the administration of Lula, who has promised in his discourse to be guided by the fight against the climate crisis.” Suely Araújo, senior specialist in public policy at the Observatory, said that the decision raises a broader debate about the role of oil in the country’s future. “The moment has come to define a timetable for the elimination of fossil fuels and accelerate a fair transition for oil exporting countries like Brazil and not to open a new drilling frontier. Whoever goes to sleep today dreaming of oil riches tends to wake up tomorrow with either a stranded asset, or an ecological disaster, or both,” she said.
Translated by Diane Whitty