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Coastal science and societies

fish and coral reef Abrolhos Marine National Park, Brazil
Brazil’s federal prosecutors are suing the government to block the sale of leases to explore seven offshore sites. Photo by Leo Francini/Alamy Stock Photo

Blocking Brazil’s Oil Boom

Federal prosecutors and NGOs are lining up to stop the inclusion of key sites in Brazil’s upcoming oil lease auction.

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by Eduardo Campos Lima

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On October 10, the Brazilian government will put leases for dozens of offshore oil fields up for auction, a number of which are close to the Abrolhos Marine National Park, the most important sanctuary of biodiversity in the South Atlantic. The move has sparked criticism from environmentalists and federal prosecutors.

The polemics began in April when the Brazilian newspaper O Estado de São Paulo revealed that the president of the Brazilian Institute of Environment and Renewable Natural Resources (IBAMA), a government agency within the Ministry of the Environment, had rejected a report from his staff. IBAMA’s technical analysts advised against the exploitation of oil in four blocks in particular, which are in the Camamu-Almada basin. The analysis showed that if an oil spill occurred in the basin, it could impact the marine park even though it is 300 kilometers to the south. IBAMA’s technical report was overruled when the Ministry of the Environment approved all the blocks set for the auction, according to O Estado.

Federal prosecutors have since filed a lawsuit against the government, seeking to prevent the inclusion in the bidding of the four areas nearest the marine park, and three others in the Jacuípe basin, which could also affect the marine national park. (Public prosecutors in Brazil are members of a branch of the judiciary system. Among other roles, they inspect and audit executive and legislative powers and sue the government when they identify illegal measures.)

The prosecutors’ push is supported by an organization whose name translates to Abrolhos Connection, a consortium of six international and local NGOs. Abrolhos Connection hopes to convince the 17 companies that have registered for the auction not to bid on the four blocks in the Camamu-Almada basin.

That oil companies are pushing to exploit areas near the Abrolhos park is not new, explains Guilherme Dutra, director of the sea program at Conservation International-Brazil, one of the organizations in the consortium. “Since 2003, oil block auctions have been including regions near Abrolhos,” he says. “Our campaigns prevented the works.”

Over that same period, the threat that oil poses to the park has become clearer. In 2010, oil company BP acquired blocks in the Camamu-Almada basin. Potentially motivated by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill that happened that same year, BP ran a simulation to estimate the potential consequences of a spill that was 10 times bigger than most companies usually consider. That study showed that an oil spill in the region could reach Abrolhos within five days. For environmentalists and scientists, the area needing protection around Abrolhos grew.

Spills in the Camamu-Almada basin could easily affect Abrolhos, agrees Anna Carolina Lobo, manager of sea programs at World Wildlife Fund-Brazil. “The problem is not only the dispersion of the plume. Sea organisms are in contact with vast areas, many of them are migratory.” Corals and other species in Abrolhos are already hurt by ocean warming, microplastic pollution, and toxic tailings from the Mariana dam, which failed in 2015, Lobo says.

Brazil’s National Agency of Petroleum, Natural Gas and Biofuels (ANP) argues, however, that just because an oil block is sold doesn’t mean it will be developed. The “environmental viability of the project will be analyzed during the process of environmental licensing,” said the ANP in a statement. It’s possible that a company may acquire the right to explore an oil block but not obtain the environmental permission to exploit it.

“This mechanism has a basic problem because it leads to conflicts,” argues Rodrigo Leão de Moura, a biologist at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro and one of the coordinators of Rede Abrolhos, a consortium of scientists who work at the national park. “Brazil should previously define what areas will be offered for exploitation and what areas will not. … If such an analysis was done before the auctions, we could avoid this kind of problem.”