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Brazil’s minister of the Environment and Climate Change, Marina Silva. Photo: Sergio Lima/AFP

Brazil’s minister of the Environment and Climate Change, Marina Silva, went to bed Tuesday night with a sense of victory. It didn’t last long. In twenty-four hours, Marina saw her ministry brutally “deforested.” The minister seems to be all on her own, within her own government, when it comes to blocking interests behind state-run Petrobras’s effort to open a new exploratory front in the Amazon. And she is also on her own, in Congress and in the administration itself, in defending President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s pledge to protect the largest tropical rainforest on the planet and tackle the climate crisis.

On Tuesday, Marina assumed that the issue of the environmental license permitting Petrobras to drill an exploratory well in the Foz do Amazonas basin had been settled inside the government. At Lula’s request, she met with Petrobras CEO Jean Paul Prates (Workers’ Party); the President’s Chief of Staff, Rui Costa (Workers’ Party); and Mines and Energy Minister Alexandre Silveira (Social Democratic Party) to present the technical arguments that led Brazil’s environmental agency Ibama to deny the license. When the minister left the meeting, she stated in a press conference that Ibama had made its decision and it would be enforced. “It’s a technical decision—and a technical decision, in a republican government, in a democratic government, is enforced and respected, based on evidence,” she said.

The minister announced that everyone at the meeting had agreed on a way out of the deadlock: the ministries of the Environment and of Mines and Energy would conduct a strategic assessment of Brazil’s entire equatorial margin, which runs from Rio Grande do Norte to Amapá, in order to analyze the feasibility and cumulative impacts of possible oil exploration in an area of particular environmental sensitivity, one that influences the balance of the entire Amazon ecosystem. This solution had already been suggested by Ibama’s own technical staff and by Ibama president Rodrigo Agostinho, in the document in which he denied the license on May 17.

This analysis, called a Sedimentary Area Environmental Assessment (Avaliação Ambiental de Area Sedimentar, or AAAS), was established under a joint administrative decree signed by the ministries of the Environment and of Mines and Energy in 2012. An AAAS is mandatory before any new oil exploration frontier can be opened, and one should have been done before the Brazilian oil regulator, known as ANP, began auctioning blocks in the equatorial margin back in 2013. At the time, however, an exception was made, unacceptable today in a ministry responsible for protecting the environment. “From now on, it is determined that there will be compliance with the law that requires all oil exploration fronts or highly complex projects to undergo a strategic environmental assessment, or Sedimentary Area Environmental Assessment,” Marina said. In her statement, the minister leaves it clear that only after conducting an AAAS would a decision be made on any application for a license to drill in the equatorial margin. Her sureness gave the impression that this view had been assimilated by the government as a whole.

Mines and Energy Minister Alexandre Silveira ignored the agreement announced by Marina Silva only hours before and, in a direct attack on her’s international prestige, said that ‘Brazil’s environmental ambassador, recognized worldwide, is Lula’. Photo: Edilson Rodrigues/Agência Senado

On Wednesday, however, in front of senators, Minister Alexandre Silveira ignored the agreement announced by Marina Silva only hours before. In a tone he had never previously used with the minister, he said Ibama’s decision was “inadmissible,” that it was merely a “bureaucratic matter,” and, in a direct attack on Marina Silva’s international prestige, that “Brazil’s environmental ambassador, recognized worldwide, is Lula.”

Silveira opted to reduce a technical decision, based on the best science and reached by specialized personnel, to a matter of mere formality. The minister defended the thesis that an AAAS should be required only in those blocks in the equatorial margin not yet auctioned off but not in those already granted under the 2013 auction. In the Foz do Amazonas basin alone—one of five in the equatorial margin—eight more blocks await environmental licensing decisions from Ibama, seven belonging to Petrobras. Across the entire equatorial margin, there are another twenty-one blocks with the same status, another forty-five in “permanent offer” (for sale) by the oil regulator ANP, and 157 under study for auction.

In his statement, the minister of Mines and Energy made conceptual and legal mistakes. “If this licensing process starts over, first we would be violating a contract, and not just with Petrobras. Other oil companies that won blocks there will raise reimbursement issues with the Federal Government over resources they have invested, including licensing fees,” Silveira asserted. But conducting an AAAS doesn’t mean a license will be denied; it simply makes the licensing process safer, something everyone should want. That was his first mistake. His second was that companies are entitled to apply for an environmental license for any project, but Ibama has no legal obligation to grant one. Refusal of a license is part of the game; five applications by the French company TotalEnergies were denied in 2018, right in the Foz do Amazonas basin.

The question that begs an answer is this: Why are Petrobras and the ministry of Mines and Energy fighting to avoid a strategic environmental assessment if they are allegedly so certain oil exploration is safe in the equatorial margin? Shouldn’t they be the first ones interested in settling the matter and proving the proposal’s safety, allowing them to move forward not only with the FZA-M-59 block but with all the others as well, lending both Brazil and investors peace of mind? The issue here isn’t that the environment minister and Ibama are calling for the law to be enforced and the assessment done, but that the ministry of Mines and Energy, Petrobras, and part of the government are resisting compliance and asking society to trust their word alone—and not the technical and scientific evaluation that Petrobras should have conducted but didn’t.

When Ibama’s president denied the operating license, he based his decision on a unanimous technical report by the ten specialists within Ibama’s Sector for the Environmental Licensing of Offshore Oil and Gas Exploration, which was concluded on April 20 and anticipated in a report by SUMAÚMA. The technical report found gaps in predictions of possible impacts on the three Indigenous territories in the Oiapoque region, in Amapá, as well as uncertainties in the plan Petrobras submitted for attending to wildlife in the case of an oil spill—in an area of endangered endemic species and particularly strong ocean currents. “The absence of Sedimentary Environmental Area Assessments 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,” Agostinho said in his order.

The need to address the cumulative impact of oil exploration—if licenses are granted and if large quantities of oil are found, the latter being uncertain—was raised in several reports issued by Ibama during the licensing procedure for the FZA-M-59 block. The licensing of a single well “cannot evaluate the social and environmental transformations occasioned by developing the set of projects,” reads a report issued on January 31 of this year. Furthermore, it cannot “ predict whether oil is a suitable economic activity for the region, compatible with other activities.” The report goes on: “Therefore, it cannot answer a fundamental question: is a given region suited to the development of oil petroleum exploration and production, considering the entire chain involved? Under what conditions?”

In addition to the declarations by the minister of Mines and Energy, a statement was released by Petrobras on Wednesday, reaffirming that it will appeal the license rejection. Yet another blow for Marina and the environment. The state-owned oil concern knows the appeal will be analyzed by Rodrigo Agostinho himself and that it is unlikely that Ibama’s president will alter the technical decision he made, given that the process dragged on for nine years and yet issuing the license was deemed unsafe. Hence the proposal that a strategic environmental assessment be conducted, something that could take at least two years, as Marina said at a hearing in Congress.

Institutional Relations Minister Alexandre Padilha likewise disrespected Marina Silva and the ministry of the Environment and Climate Change when he said the “discussion is still ongoing” and “Congress can contribute.” Padilha, a member of the Workers’ Party, like the CEO of Petrobras, is one of those in the Executive responsible for Congressional liaison. Congress itself dealt Marina an even more aggressive blow: the “deforestation” of her ministry. A joint committee, comprising senators and representatives, which was set up to study the provisional measure that defines the structure of Lula’s administration, took powers away from Marina’s ministry while empowering the “Centrão” [big center], a loose coalition of self-interested conservative politicians. Lacking a cohesive, majority base, Lula caved and offered up Marina’s ministry, which likely will no longer have autonomy to manage the national environmental registry of rural properties (CAR) or national water resources policy.

Lula has yet to say anything about the changes Congress engineered to the structure of the ministries he assembled after his election. Marina is alone in defending herself and her ministry from an attack on two of the president’s main pledges: to protect the Amazon and other biomes and to tackle the climate crisis. When asked about the issue of environmental licensing while he was in Japan, the president bolstered advocates of exploration-at-any-cost by mentioning something always cited by Petrobras: that the FZA-M-59 block lies more than three hundred miles from the mouth of the Amazon. This is misleading because the licensing process does not talk about the geographical point where the river discharges into the Atlantic but rather about the environmental influence of its sediments.

A recently concluded study, led by Luciana Gatti, of Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research (INPE), shows how the Foz do Amazonas basin, whose sediments spread over an area of 115,800 square miles, plays an important role in capturing carbon from the atmosphere. And this is at a time when deforestation means that in various parts of the Amazon rainforest, more of this gas—the main culprit behind global heating—is being emitted than being captured.

The lower and upper houses are set to vote this Thursday on the provisional measure that will alter the correlation of forces within the government and the direction of Lula’s environmental agenda. On Wednesday, leaders of the government stood by while voting took place in the committee, without putting up any resistance. Marina Silva knew negotiations were underway to undermine the environment. What the minister doesn’t know yet is how much Lula intends to cave—and whether the two of them might come to another parting of the ways, as they did in 2008. The difference this time, in 2023, is that the world’s concern has changed. Politically, on a planet in climate collapse, the biggest loser will be Lula himself. And his third term in office hasn’t even turned five months old.

Spell check (Portuguese): Elvira Gago
Translation into Spanish: Meritxell Almarza
English translation: Mark Murray. Edited by Diane Whitty
Photography editing: Marcelo Aguilar, Mariana Greif and Pablo Albarenga
Page setup: Érica Saboya

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