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The Dangers of Oil Exploration in the Amazon River Mouth: The Issue of Developmentalism

Jéssica Tavares Fraga Costa

Leura Dalla Riva

Ligia Payão Chizolini


Despite the strong popular support gained by the Lula government in the 2022 elections, with a focus on environmental protection and addressing climate change, conflicts between the government and the Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change (MMAMC in Portuguese) have emerged during the first year of Lula's new term, particularly concerning proposals for oil exploration in the Amazon River Mouth by Petrobras, as mentioned in other essays in this volume.


This essay aims to present the dangers of oil exploration in the Amazon River Mouth and the development of debates and apparent conflicts during the year 2023 among the MMAMC, Ibama, the Brazilian Legislature and the Attorney General´s Office (AGU in Portuguese). On one hand, these disagreements reflect the complexity of the debate surrounding oil exploration in the Amazon River Mouth, highlighting the need to find balance between development, energy transition and environmental preservation. On the other hand, in the context of a climate emergency, persisting in fossil fuel exploration represents a developmentalist project, contrary to the necessary energy transition to mitigate the catastrophic effects of climate change.

  1. Oil Exploration in the Amazon River Mouth and Conflicts between MMAMC, Government, and Brazilian Legislature

The Amazon River Mouth Basin is a region with approximately 282,909 km², including the continental shelf, slope, and deep-water region, bordering the Demerara Plateau and the Pará-Maranhão Basin. It is located off the coast of the Amapá State and the northwest coast of the Pará State (Brazil, 2021).


The first studies for the exploration of the Amazon River Mouth Basin were conducted in 1963. Interest in the area intensified in the late seventies, with contracts signed with three different oil companies, which drilled thirty-three wells of the current ninety-five. Since the enactment of the Oil Law in 1997 and the creation of the National Agency of Petroleum, Natural Gas, and Biofuels (ANP), Petrobras requested three exploration blocks in the Cone of the Amazon in the first bidding round. Since then, Petrobras has won a significant number of available blocks in the six bidding rounds, including those in the Amazon River Mouth. In 2013, the 11th bidding round for oil and natural gas exploration areas was held by the ANP, offering block 59, a region currently in the licensing process for exploration to commence (Brazil, 2021).


According to the Amazon Oil-Free Monitor of the Arayara Institute, there are currently 278 blocks under contract and in the process of oil and natural gas exploration in Brazil, while 955 are in the bidding process and 1,006 are under analysis and study for potential exploration throughout the country. Regarding the Amazon region specifically, there are 52 blocks under contract and in the exploration phase, 92 in the bidding process, and 307 in the study process. According to the organization's survey, of the nine countries where the Amazon Rainforest is located, only French Guiana does not explore or intend to explore oil and gas in the region. In this scenario, Brazil has the highest number of exploratory blocks, followed by Bolivia with 129 exploratory blocks, of which 47 are already under contract or exploration. The third place goes to Colombia, which intends to explore gas and oil in 104 blocks within the Amazon territory, of which 18 are already in use (Arayara Institute, 2023).


The Amazon River Mouth is also in the region of the so-called "Equatorial Margin" that extends from Amapá to Rio Grande do Norte. Recently, Ibama granted a license to Petrobras to drill oil wells in the Equatorial Margin but in the Rio Grande do Norte region (Potiguar Basin), maintaining the denial of projects in the region near the Amazon River Mouth (Carregosa, 2023).


Oil exploration in the Amazon River Mouth has been a topic of great controversy and debate over the past year. This debate has been marked by conflicting interests between the Ministry of the Environment and the government, with the participation of the Legislature through the creation of the Parliamentary Front for Oil with the aim of pressuring for the release of these activities. The main arguments involving the debate are highlighted below.


The exploration of oil in the Amazon River Mouth is of interest due to its strategic and economic importance in the region. The Amazon River Mouth region, located on the northern coast of Brazil, covers an extensive maritime area from the Amapá state to Rio Grande do Norte (Ferreira, 2015). Strategically, the Amazon River Mouth is considered an area of great oil potential. Geological studies indicate the presence of significant reserves of oil and natural gas in the region, attracting the interest of oil exploration and production companies. According to the Brazilian Institute of Oil and Gas (IBP, 2016), in 2013, the extractive activities of oil and gas represented 2.7% of the country's Gross Domestic Product, totaling about 124 million reais.


This region has been the subject of geological studies and research indicating the existence of significant oil and natural gas reserves. Arguments used to defend the project from a purely economic perspective focus on the idea that oil exploration in the Amazon River Mouth has the potential to boost the economic development of the region and the country as a whole. The exploration of large potential oil reserves in the Amazon River Mouth has attracted interest from both oil sector companies and the government (Schaffel, 2002).


According to a 2020 report from the Amazon Watch project, for oil companies the opportunity to explore these reserves represents an investment and profit opportunity. Large national and international companies have shown interest in obtaining licenses for exploration and production in the region, seeking to take advantage of the oil potential and expand their extraction activities. In turn, the government is interested in oil exploration in the Amazon River Mouth as a way to boost economic development and generate revenue for the country. Oil exploration can contribute to increasing the national production of oil, reducing dependence on imports, and strengthening Brazil's energy autonomy. Additionally, the government sees oil exploration as a source of tax revenue and royalties that could be directed towards investments in infrastructure, education, health, and other priority areas (Amazon Watch, 2020).


The interest of companies and the government in the exploration of the Amazon River Mouth faces challenges and controversies, as oil extraction can cause incalculable damage to the environment and climate (Schaffel, 2002), especially when projects do not meet the requirements established by the environmental regulatory agency, as in the case analyzed by Ibama regarding oil exploration in the Amazon River Mouth. In addition to tensions between government sectors and the MMAMC, there are pressures from the Legislature, which recently created the Parliamentary Front for Oil, Natural Gas, and Biofuels, representing interests favorable to exploration.


Environmental concerns, preservation of marine ecosystems, and the protection of the rights of traditional communities are issues that need to be carefully considered and balanced with the economic benefits of exploration (NUSDEO, 2018). The MMAMC has expressed significant concerns regarding oil exploration in the Amazon River Mouth and insists on defending the technical opinion of Ibama, which rejected the license to Petrobras in May of this year (Amorozo, 2023), highlighting the potential negative socio-environmental impacts on biodiversity, marine ecosystems, and traditional communities that depend on these resources, as well as the risks of oil spills during exploration and production activities.


The complexity of the ecosystems in the Amazon River Mouth requires a rigorous assessment of risks and impacts before any decision is made. Although project advocates argue that the wells to be drilled are far from the Amazon River Mouth, the Petrobras project does not meet the necessary requirements regarding spill response plans, considering that the region has special characteristics due to its complex maritime ecosystem that differs from other coastal regions of the country (Antunes; Camillo, 2023).


The occurrence of leaks could result in irreparable damage to marine ecosystems, causing pollution and affecting marine life, including endemic and endangered species. The MMAMC emphasizes that oil exploration in the Amazon River Mouth can lead to the degradation of coastal and marine ecosystems, affecting mangrove areas, coral reefs, and other important habitats. These ecosystems play a crucial role in biodiversity protection, carbon capture, and support for artisanal fishing activities, essential for local communities (Zacardi, 2014).


The region of the Amazon River Mouth is characterized by sensitive marine ecosystems, such as coral reefs, mangroves, and areas of reproduction and feeding for various species. These ecosystems play crucial roles in biodiversity protection, climate regulation, and support for fishing activities. Oil exploration can result in the degradation of these ecosystems, negatively affecting marine life and compromising the ecosystem services they provide. Offshore activities always carry the risk of oil spills, which can have devastating consequences for the environment. An oil spill in the Amazon River Mouth could contaminate the waters, affect beaches and coastal areas, harm marine life, and have lasting impacts on ecosystems. The complexity of the region and logistical difficulties can further exacerbate the response to a potential accident.


Analyzing the economic and social benefits in relation to possible environmental damages in oil exploration in the Amazon River Mouth requires a careful and balanced assessment. Although oil exploration can bring economic and social benefits, it is important to consider that potential environmental and climatic damages may be greater and more enduring. It is essential, therefore, to conduct a comprehensive assessment of environmental risks and impacts, involving the participation of experts, affected communities, and environmental organizations. This analysis must consider economic and social benefits but also ensure the protection and preservation of the environment for present and future generations, especially in a context marked by increasingly frequent extreme weather events.


The region of the Amazon River Mouth is considered an area of great environmental importance, hosting sensitive ecosystems such as coral reefs and mangroves, as well as unique biodiversity. Due to the environmental risks associated with oil exploration in this region, the granting of licenses has been the subject of debates and thorough analyses. Various environmental organizations, scientists, and traditional communities have expressed concerns about the negative impacts that oil activities could cause in the Amazon River Mouth. In light of this, it is necessary to bring the current debate to the knowledge of the documents related to these procedures to ensure a proper assessment of the case at hand.


Next, we delve into aspects of the technical opinion of Ibama on the case, as well as the position of the Attorney General of the Union.


2. Technical opinion of IBAMA on the case and the Sedimentary Area Environmental Assessment (AAAS)


In 2014, an environmental licensing process began for the exploration and production of oil and natural gas in block FZA-M-59, corresponding to the basin located at the mouth of the Amazon. However, IBAMA denied the drilling license for the exploratory region based on multiple reasons. Among them, it cited the ideal conduct of a Sedimentary Area Environmental Assessment (AAAS in Portuguese) to assess the feasibility of the project in the area (Brazil, 2023).


According to Interministerial Ordinance MME/MMA No. 198/2012, which requires the study in the process of granting exploratory blocks for oil and natural gas, AAAS is the correct instrument to "promote the analysis of a specific sedimentary area, considering potentially existing oil and natural gas resources and the socio-environmental conditions and characteristics of the same, based on the environmental impacts and risks associated with oil activities" (Brazil, 2023).

According to the IBAMA´s dispatch, this environmental study is of utmost importance because:


"[...] it could have helped to build a safer path for the evaluation of individual projects, identifying knowledge gaps, anticipating conflicts, establishing technical criteria for operation, and, above all, pre-evaluating the suitability of areas for oil sector enterprises. (...) The absence of AAAS significantly hinders the opinion on the environmental viability of the activity, considering that no studies were conducted to assess the suitability of the areas, as well as the adequacy of the region, of notorious socio-environmental sensitivity, for the installation of the oil production chain" (Brazil, 2023).


In this sense, is clear the essential nature of the AAAS study for the socio-environmental context, in which the exploration and production of oil and natural gas in the Amazon River Mouth is inserted, given that it is the best tool to assess the area and identify potential risks derived from exploratory activities.


3. AGU's favorable opinion on oil exploration in the Amazon Mouth


On August 22, 2023, the Attorney General's Office (AGU) issued an opinion at the request of the Ministry of Mines and Energy, aiming to clarify whether the AAAS is mandatory and if IBAMA has support to deny environmental licensing if it is not performed (Brazil, 2023).


Initially, the opinion addressed a preliminary question, seeking to determine whether IBAMA had denied the environmental license due to the lack of the Sedimentary Area Environmental Assessment. The analysis led to the conclusion that, indeed, this was one of the grounds used to deny the license. Once the preliminary issue was resolved, the opinion concluded that the legislation that regulates the subject (Interministerial Ordinance MME/MMA No. 198/2012) does not condition the granting of the environmental license to the performance of the Sedimentary Area Environmental Assessment but merely presents the instrument as a mere aid to decision-making. Thus, the AAAS would have a non-binding nature to environmental processes and would not be, in the words of the AGU, "an end in itself." The decision, therefore, relegates an important environmental study to a figurative role, existing in legislation with the aim of entertaining the norm's applicator and not actually being carried out (Brazil, 2023).


With this reasoning, the opinion empties the legal content of the norm, whose existence is justified by creating a new environmental instrument for circumstances that exactly correspond to the situation presented, that is, the granting of exploration and production of oil and natural gas. Thus, the imperative nature of the legislation is removed, transformed into a mere suggestion.


The AGU's argumentation is based on opinions from legal advisory bodies of the Ministry of Mines and Energy, stating that the decision made within the AAAS is not binding on the result of environmental licensing. Understandings of IBAMA and the Supreme Federal Court (STF in Portuguese) in ADPF No. 825 are also invoked, stating that the federal agency is not obliged to request the performance of AAAS to approve environmental licensing.


However, this line of reasoning developed in the opinion disregards that, although it has been decided that IBAMA is not obliged to require the AAAS to grant environmental licensing, the reverse is not true. In other words, nothing prevents the federal agency from denying licensing if it understands that the elaboration of the Sedimentary Area Environmental Assessment, which was not done, was essential for that specific licensing process, given the importance of this study and area studied.


IBAMA is the competent executing body to exercise environmental policing power, being technically capable of determining the need for a specific study for a certain enterprise. By requiring the Sedimentary Area Environmental Assessment, the agency is exercising its legal assignment and concretizing the environmental protection advocated by the Federal Constitution.


On the other hand, the AGU's opinion focuses on interpretative technicalities, neglecting the macro view of the environmental problem, resulting in an excessive weakening of the environment. The understanding exposes the region of the Amazon River Mouth, an extremely sensitive area of the ecosystem, to voracious exploration, without even assessing the location through the instrument provided by law for this circumstance.


Therefore, the interpretation made by the public attorney renders Interministerial Ordinance No. 198/2012 ineffective, distorts the meaning of previous statements by various agencies regarding the need for the Sedimentary Area Environmental Assessment in the environmental licensing process, and confronts the protection system promoted by brazilian Constitutional Environmental Law, ignoring primarily the important principles of prevention and precaution, whose objective is to prevent environmental damage.


4. Development and oil exploration in the Amazon Mouth in the context of a climate emergency


The extreme climate events of recent years make it even more evident that the planet is currently facing a climate crisis that jeopardizes not only human life but life forms in general. In just this year of 2023, Brazil faced severe socio-environmental impacts due to climate change, such as the historic drought in the Amazon, extreme heat waves, and floods in the South of the country, among other events (Costa, 2023; Levy, 2023). In this context, mitigation and adaptation measures, as well as a just energy transition, are essential to curb the serious impacts caused by these changes.


The Lula government gained strong electoral support in 2022 by adopting a contrasting stance to the environmental dismantling that marked the Bolsonaro government from 2019 to 2022. However, the government's insistence on fossil fuel exploration characterizes a development-oriented view that, as well pointed out by L. Vieira (2023), recalls the conflicts of 2008 between Lula and Dilma and Marina, which triggered the rupture of the alliance at that time and needs to be overcome.


In his first term, Lula appointed Marina Silva as Minister of the Environment, but Marina left Lula's government in 2008, after several conflicts with other government sectors (especially involving the Sustainable Amazon Plan (PAS in Portuguese) and the construction of hydroelectric plants in the Amazon region).


As highlighted by Eliane Brum, progressively, the PT (Workers' Party) governments were getting closer to agribusiness sectors, especially from the second term of President Lula. In 2006, Lula went so far as to state that indigenous people, environmentalists, quilombolas, and the Public Prosecutor's Office would be "obstacles" to Brazil's growth (Brum, 2019, p. 69-70; Pichonelli, 2006). According to the author, "the PT's vision of the Amazon during its time in government turned out to be very similar to the vision of the Amazon held by the military dictatorship governments" (Brum, 2019). This conception became evident during the early Lula governments, especially in the conflicts between Dilma, then Minister of Mines and Energy (2003-2005) and Chief of Staff (2005-2010), and the Minister of the Environment Marina Silva (2003-2008). As Brum emphasizes, Marina Silva's first term as Minister of the Environment is not a consensus among environmentalists because, as Minister, she would have authorized two dams on the Madeira River (Santo Antônio and Jirau). Still, Marina represented a counterpoint to the developmentalist views of the Lula government: "a former rubber tapper from Acre, black and indigenous, she was possibly the only minister who knew the Amazonian reality and integrated the challenges of the climate emergency into government actions" (Brum, 2019, p. 70).


This scenario seems to persist in Lula's third term, which now faces even greater pressure for the approval of oil exploration in the Amazon Mouth from an extremely conservative legislature, inheriting the attacks on environmental and climate issues and sociobiodiversity from the Bolsonaro government (Ávila, 2023), by the Agribusiness Parliamentary Front and now also by the Parliamentary Front in Support of Oil, Gas, and Energy (Nova, 2023).


It has been observed that arguments in favor of oil exploration in the Amazon Mouth emphasize the economic benefits and job creation that may result from this activity for the region, boosting regional and national economic development and strengthening the country's energy autonomy. It is also argued that oil exploration in the region can generate significant revenues for the government that can be directed towards investments in areas such as infrastructure, education, health, and social programs, contributing to the economic and social development of the country.


Petrobras has been setting records for oil extraction in the pre-salt, with around 4 million barrels per day (Lisboa, 2023). Still, as pointed out by Sidarta Ribeiro in his "Letter to developmentist friends": "the Brazilian people have never enjoyed the promised benefits of pre-salt oil exploration" (Ribeiro, 2023). As the author rightly states: "the time of oil has already passed" (Ribeiro, 2023).


Ironically, fossil fuel exploration is not only at the root of greenhouse gas emissions (Angus, 2016) but also affects Brazil's clean energy matrix because extreme climatic events, such as severe droughts, impact water flows and, consequently, hydroelectric energy production, the main sector of clean energy in Brazil. This situation can be easily observed in the Amazon region, which has been facing severe impacts of climate change on the El Niño phenomenon. The drought that hit the region in the last months of 2023 is an alarming and unprecedented event that led the government to compensate for the energy deficit caused by the interruption of the Madeira River plants by activating highly polluting thermal power plants (Ruptura, 2023).


Brazil has enormous potential for clean energy production and overcoming the fossil energy model (IEA, 2020; Brazil, 2022), largely responsible for the current climate changes (Angus, 2016). It will be up to the government, however, to resist legislative pressures and overcome the developmentalism that has led us to the climate abyss and invest seriously in a just energy transition that globally places Brazil at the forefront of facing and adapting to the climate emergency.


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