Bogota, Colombia (PanAm) – The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) escalated their attacks against Colombia’s oil industry in the first half of 2015, but widespread rejection and criticism is mounting from the country’s citizenry. In particular, locals have witnessed the blasting of key pipelines, such as the Transandino pipeline in Tumaco, near the Pacific coast.
The latest attack, which took place on June 25, caused the spill of 410,000 gallons of crude oil, leading to serious environmental damage to the area. Environment Minister Gabriel Vallejo called it the “worst environmental damage the country has seen in the last 10 years,” adding that the surrounding ecosystem is likely to never fully recover.
In another attack on the environment, this time in Putumayo, the FARC forced 19 oil-tanker drivers to dump 130,000 gallons of crude on the highway. The environmental harm will reportedly last months, if not years, having damaged vegetation and water sources in the area.
So far in 2015, there have been 47 oil-related attacks in Colombia, contributing to the loss of 30,000 barrels of oil and causing a massive financial drain on the country. The clean-up costs are similarly enormous, totaling some US$10 million in damage, according to Carlos Leal, executive director of the Colombian Association of Petroleum Engineers (ACIPET).
Leal warns that if these attacks continue, Colombia’s oil industry could be severely harmed, especially given the poor year for oil markets.
“What could happen is that companies could acquire force majeure clauses, because no one is going to operate with these losses, nor within conditions in which economic viability and safety are not guaranteed. Therefore, it is likely that companies will have to leave the country or declare bankruptcy.”
Colombia has lost out on US$1.5 million in crude this year alone, not counting the production that is forgone in places where resources remain untapped as a result of guerrilla activity.
“That is something that the guerrilla does not realize. If they do realize it, and are doing it on purpose, it isn’t known. Unfortunately, nothing is done to hold those responsible for these acts accountable,” Leal says.
In the past 30 years, almost 4 million barrels of oil have been spilled in Colombia, an amount comparable to the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska, or the 2010 explosion on a British Petroleum (BP) oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico.
“That event cost [BP] $18.9 billion in penalties, and in Exxon’s case, they are still paying fines. Meanwhile, who is charging the guerrilla [for their damage]? No one. No one is held accountable for these events that are cumulatively of equal proportion,” the ACIPET director says.
There are other ways in which the FARC harms oil production in Colombia. Besides raiding oil tankers and blasting pipelines, the guerrilla also infiltrates communities and worker groups to provoke strikes that slow production. “This is to the detriment of the nation, since the crude oil that is not produced is crude that is not sold and that will not produce royalties.”
Environmental Impact of the Oil Spills
The attack on the Transandino pipeline in Tumaco, which has generated the biggest environmental disaster in Colombia’s recent history, continues to yield serious consequences for the neighboring community.
Close to 160,000 people have been left without drinking water for 18 days, and even though Ecopetrol and the Colombian government transport water in trucks from other parts of the country, the demand has not been met.
The contamination of the Mira River, which reaches the Pacific Ocean, has also had an effect on the fishing industry, one of the most important economic activities in the region.
For Gonzalo Andrade, a professor at the Institute of Natural Sciences of the National University of Colombia (UNAL), the oil spills have forever changed the ecosystem of the surrounding area, since aquatic species cannot survive in water contaminated with fossil fuels.
When crude oil dissolves in water, it mixes in different layers. “The superficial layer of black oil, which floats, is the only one we can see, but some of it dissolves in water and some sinks in such a manner that a spill ends up affecting all of an ecosystem’s components,” said Germán Márquez, a biologist at UNAL’s Institute of Environmental Studies.
The contamination depletes oxygen levels in the water and the sea becomes uninhabitable for fish. The microorganisms that live in the sea bed and act as a source of nutrients for other species are also affected.
Why Is the FARC Waging War on Oil?
At the peace negotiations in Havana, the FARC’s delegation responded to the attacks by saying the environmental damage was “not the intended consequence.”
“We do not take pride in the results of our actions against petroleum infrastructure, just like we do not take pride in the death of enemy soldiers when these occur.… We must recognize that the escalation of the war aggravates this situation, affecting people and ecosystems, and unfortunately what took place in Tumaco has had terrible and undesirable consequences,” said Carlos Antonio Lozada, a FARC negotiator.
Ecopetrol says its efforts to prevent the oil spill from reaching the Pacific have been impeded by the guerrilla.
“These outlaw groups have intimidated communities, harassed helicopters working for Ecopetrol, and have impeded workers from performing their duties in an effective manner to repair the pipelines and control the crude spilling into the rivers and sea.”
Leal says that while the FARC’s contradictory nature can often be difficult to decipher, he believes the guerrilla may have targeted the oil industry based on its unwillingness to pay extortion money.
“They look to get money by extorting companies, contractors, or third parties. In this case, the FARC must leave this industry alone, despite it not paying up. This sort of activity is logically punishable by law, and oil companies respect the law and would not allow this type of behavior.”
Written by María Paula Suárez Navas for The PanAm Post