Dec 21, 2009
Even worse, it's 95 degrees Fahrenheit and the humidity is stifling, but the disease-carrying insects mean you have to dress head to toe in thick, impenetrable clothing to be sure you don't end up as lunch.
Imagine having to work a 12-hour manual shift at a drill rig under these conditions, seven days a week for six weeks in a row. This is the reality of oil exploration today. Most of the world's easy oil was pumped long ago and energy companies have to go to the frontiers of human endurance in order to get the job done.
From the deep oceans off Brazil, to the frozen tundra of Siberia – oil companies are testing the limits of engineering and project management to sate our unquenchable thirst for black gold. But, as can be expected in the oil industry, none of this is without controversy.
Deep in the Peruvian Amazon, Franco-British oil group Perenco is drilling three wells in an area that could produce up to 100,000 barrels of oil a day.
The Amazon has become synonymous with environmental destruction all over the world and any sort of activity will stoke the ire of even the mildest of environmentalists. Oil exploration is near the top of the eco-warriors' hit list. It's dirty, requires masses of equipment and any spill or mishap can cause significant and long-lasting environmental problems. So should it be allowed at all?
"Europeans should concentrate on reducing their own CO₂ emissions instead of telling Peru what to do," says Antonia Brack, Peru's charismatic and plain-speaking environment minister, echoing the view of other developing nations expressed in Copenhagen last week. "It is our forest and we can look after it ourselves.
"There are activities that are more damaging than oil exploration, such as migratory agriculture and alluvial gold mining." This, he says, destroys 150,000 hectares of forest a year, compared with the 7.5 hectares that have been cleared for Perenco's drilling.
The problem for Peru is that it has to import almost 150,000 barrels of oil every day. The costs involved in this are a massive strain on its fledgling economy. After the 2008 oil price spike, energy security is high on the agenda for every country in the world, so why should a country remain impoverished if it has the resources to meet its own needs and generate those
all-important petrodollars to fund its growth? That is the clear message of the Peruvian authorities.
Perenco's operations are in the Loretto region of Peru. This vast area is mostly rainforest, with its administrative centre in Iquitos on the Amazon River.
Ivan Enrique Valera is president of the Loretta region. From his offices in Iquitos he pays close attention to all the companies operating in the area.
When The Daily Telegraph met Mr Valera late one evening, he had just returned from inspecting a drilling programme in the south of Loretto to make sure all water was being injected back into the well and not being discharged into the environment. He is vocal about the importance of drilling for oil in region.
"The Amazon should not be maintained as a museum," he argued. "Those who think it should can come over here and pay for the development of the people."
The royalty revenues generated from licences and oil production are going to significantly help the country develop. In Iquitos alone, Mr Valera plans to completely rebuild the City's sewerage system and rebuild all its roads with the money it generates – and 90pc of the funding for this plan will come from oil revenues.
The oil industry is also becoming a major employer in the region. Of the 900,000 people who live in Loretto, Peru's largest administrative region, about 10,000 are employed directly by the oil industry. With an average family of five people, about 50,000 individuals rely on the oil industry for their income.
Iquitos is said to be the largest City in the world that is completely inaccessible by road. You have to fly in from the capital Lima or spend weeks sailing up the Amazon tributaries to reach it. This has created a logistical nightmare for Perenco.
To protect the forest, no roads have been constructed to the site. All of the equipment is shipped on the Amazon and its tributaries to a logistics base cleared at the side of the river. A fleet of helicopters is based at the site to ferry all personnel and equipment to the drill sites. The logistics have to be timed to perfection as it takes about a month to get equipment shipped up the river. Company staff are flown in on a seaplane.
Each of the three drill sites has been cleared of trees, but they are not much larger than a football field, at 2.5 hectares each. The forest floor has been lined with heavy duty plastic to prevent potential spills leaking into the ground and the company will inject any water that is pumped from their operations back into the reservoir.
The company is doing all it can to prevent any environmental problems, but as Shell has learnt in Nigeria, if the indigenous people feel their home is being exploited it can lead to conflict.
Father Ricardo Alvarez, a Dominican friar now living at a monastery in Lima, has spent more than half a century living with indigenous communities in the Amazon, working more than 20 years ago as a liaison between local communities and oil companies such as Royal Dutch Shell and Total. He is cautiously positive about the future of the forest and its people. However, he believes that oil companies need to learn from past mistakes in order to keep local people on side.
"When oil companies first came to the Amazon more than 20 years ago, no politicians were involved and Shell dealt directly with the local people, says Fr Ricardo Alvarez. "Engineers came in and built schools for the local people and taught them all about the local oil industry."
This then stopped as politicians started to get involved in the process. "In my 57 years in the forest I saw indigenous people marginalised," says Fr Alvarez. "The key to the future is exploration not exploitation."
He believes oil companies need to establish a dialogue with native people, eliminate their marginalisation by helping to provide social services and education. He also believes engineers from large cities need to make sure they are fully briefed on the history and cultural aspects of the people in the local area. "A lack of proper community relations is what creates the problem," he says.
Perenco has certainly learnt lessons from the priest. It has rebuilt and refurbished a hospital boat for the area that will constantly sail around the Amazon tributaries in the area and provide medical and dental care for communities.
As oil companies generate profits local people need to feel the benefits too. "That's the only way it will work", says Fr Alvarez. Perenco's model appears to be working well, with government ministers, the regional president and the local community fully behind what they are doing.
Of course, it is early days. A pipeline needs to be constructed to take the oil out and there is plenty of scope for an accident that could be environmentally destructive. But the development of fledgling economies will not stop – and, as Fr Alvarez says "rich Westerners with their polluting ways are in no position to lecture the people of Peru over what they can do."