MENLO PARK, CALIFORNIA (mongabay.com) - This time last year, scientists announced the discovery of a reef system at the mouth of the Amazon River that they said is quite possibly the only reef of its kind to be found anywhere in the world.
Right from the beginning, the scientists began issuing warnings about companies’ plans to drill for oil in the region, which they said would pose a significant risk to the reef if they were to move forward.
Environmental group Greenpeace published the first underwater photos of the Amazon Reef earlier this year. The photos were taken by the crew of a submarine launched from the Greenpeace ship Esperanza during an expedition that included several of the oceanographers who discovered the reef.
“This reef system is important for many reasons, including the fact that it has unique characteristics regarding use and availability of light, and physicochemical water conditions,” Nils Asp, a researcher with Brazil’s Federal University of Pará who helped discover the reef and took part in the Greenpeace expedition, said at the time. “It has a huge potential for new species, and it is also important for the economic well-being of fishing communities along the Amazonian Coastal Zone.”
But plans by French oil major Total and others to drill for oil in the region have scientists like Asp concerned. Total entered into a $2.2 billion strategic partnership with the Brazilian state-owned oil company Petrobras last year, and has been granted five exploration blocks near the estuary at the mouth of the Amazon River by the Brazilian government. British oil giant BP and QGEP, a Brazilian company, each own one exploration block, as well.
It’s estimated that there could be as much as 14 billion barrels in the area. Exploratory drilling could start as soon as this summer, with the closest well to be drilled just 28 kilometers (17 miles) from the reef, according to Greenpeace.
The reef system is believed to extend 9,500 square kilometers (or nearly 3,700 square miles), from the territorial waters of French Guiana to Maranhão State in northern Brazil. It is composed of corals, sponges, and rhodoliths, a marine algae that resembles coral. Very little light is able to penetrate the waters of the Amazon River, which are so clouded by mud and sediment by the time they empty out into the Atlantic Ocean that parts of the reef have grown under conditions unlike any other known reef.
“Our team wants to have a better understanding of how this ecosystem works, including important questions like its photosynthesis mechanisms with very limited light,” Asp added, noting that less than five percent of the ecosystem has been mapped so far. The scientists believe that, because parts of the reef developed under such extreme conditions, they could teach us a lot about how other reef systems may fare in a warming world.
During their on-site explorations with Greenpeace, Asp and team observed several different species of crustaceans, fish, and invertebrates on the reef, including an as-yet unidentified butterflyfish. Dolphins and migrating whales are also known to frequent the area.
There are still a number of hurdles for companies like Total and BP to clear before they can start drilling, however. A spokesperson for the Brazilian Institute of the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources, better known as IBAMA, told Mongabay that Total and BP are still awaiting permits to begin exploratory drilling, the aim of which would be to verify the existence of the oil reservoirs beneath the ocean floor. No drilling licenses have yet been issued to any companies seeking to operate in the region around the Amazon Reef.
“The enterprises in the sedimentary basin at the mouth of the Amazon River, whose licensing is conducted by IBAMA, already filed environmental studies that are currently under review by the Environmental Licensing Board of the Institute,” the spokesperson said. “There is no conclusive technical opinion recommending whether or not to grant a license for exploitation.”
Environmental Impact Assessments (EIAs) were first presented to IBAMA by Total and BP in 2015 and have gone through a number of assessments by the agency, which has asked for further information and reformulation of some aspects, including that information on the Amazon Reef be added to the baseline and impact studies in the EIAs.
“In terms of the reef areas,” the spokesperson said, “IBAMA has asked companies to submit information regarding the location and their associated biodiversity, in order to complement the environmental diagnosis, and its inclusion in the analysis of environmental impacts and risks.”
Neither BP nor Total responded to requests for comment.
It’s hard to determine how long the EIA process will take, according to Helena Spiritus, a climate and energy campaigner for Greenpeace Brazil, because it depends on the quality of the information provided by the companies and on the political pressure IBAMA is under. “Due to Brazil’s political crisis,” Spiritus said, “the licensing process has been weakened and some projects have been receiving pressure to be accepted.”
While IBAMA has asked the companies to alter many aspects of the EIA, including the addition of new emergency plans that take the Amazon Reef system into account, the companies insist that the reefs are not in danger, Spiritus told Mongabay.
“Drilling hasn’t started yet, but we have to be very quick in asking Total and BP to stop their plans of drilling on the Amazon Mouth because they could receive a license to operate very soon,” she said.
“There is no evidence that a drilling exploration in the region could be done in a safe manner, and the oil dispersion models presented by the company were considered by IBAMA as so limited that they do not allow for an adequate assessment of the potential impacts. IBAMA has since asked for a new oil dispersion model to be presented, and we are now waiting for an answer from the company.”
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Updated 61 days ago Article ID# 4140322