Plan for Amazon gas pipeline irks environmentalists

Environmentalists were caught off guard when South American leaders announced plans to build a massive natural-gas pipeline through the Amazon rainforest.

Proponents say the $20-billion project, still in early planning stages, would help satisfy the growing regional demand for gas and help make South America less dependent on outside sources.

But environmentalists say it could damage part of the Amazon—the world’s largest wilderness—by polluting waterways, destroying trees and creating roads that could draw ranchers and loggers.

“There are some aspects of the project that are, let’s say, worrisome,” said Roberto Smeraldi, of the Friends of the Earth-Brazil.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez says the pipeline is a central part of his efforts to reduce dependence on the United States and its pressure for free-market policies known as the Washington Consensus.

It’s “the beginning of the South American consensus”, Chávez has said. “This pipeline is vital for us.”

At a meeting in Brazil’s capital in mid-January, the presidents of Venezuela, Argentina and Brazil promised to prepare in-depth studies for the 10 000km pipeline, stretching from Venezuela to Argentina, by mid-year.

Smeraldi said the short timetable seems unworkable.

“A government like Brazil’s can’t do similar studies for projects covering 500km after 10 years of discussion, and now they are going to manage in-depth studies for a 10 000km project in six months?” he said.

Smeraldi said he believes the pipeline theoretically could be built with minimal impact to the environment, but the cost would be prohibitive.

Chávez has said he wants the continent’s state-owned oil companies to build and oversee the pipeline, and leaders have agreed to meet in Argentina in March to review plans being prepared by their oil companies.

He said Venezuela and Bolivia “have gas for 200 years” and can supply fuel to Brazil and Argentina, where there is increasing demand for power generation, cooking gas and cars.

The Venezuelan leader estimated the pipeline would cost $20-billion to $25-billion, but Smeraldi said strict adherence to Brazil’s tough environmental laws would double the cost.

No one at Brazil’s environment ministry was available to comment on the proposed project.

Glenn Switkes, of the International Rivers Network, said if the pipeline were ever built, it would inevitably foul the environment.

“There are a lot of issues involved: direct construction, the question of drainage, all the roads that need to be built,” Switkes said.

Roads are particularly devastating to the Amazon rainforest. They allow ranchers, loggers and miners to flood into areas that previously were inaccessible.
Environmentalists estimate that each road cut into the rainforest causes destruction of the forest for 50km on each side of the road within a few years.

“They always say they’re going to fly in the pipes and not build roads, but they never do that,” Switkes said. “Then they say that the pipeline will go around important ecological areas, but they never do that either because it gets too expensive.”

Analysts also questioned the economic wisdom of the plan, especially after Brazil’s government-run oil company announced it would invest $18-billion to develop the country’s natural-gas fields.

“Both Brazil and Argentina have gas fields large enough to cover their own domestic demands. I don’t see why they would like to undertake this hugely costly project, with money they don’t have, not to mention environment costs,” said Norman Gall, executive director of the Fernand Braudel Institute of World Economy.

The plan also seems to conflict with other pipeline projects proposed for the region.

“If the government goes ahead with this pipeline [from Venezuela], it will have no money to for any other type of investment,” Smeraldi said.—Sapa-AP

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