Tuesday 10 August 2010
Source: The Guardian
A gas pipeline cutting through 660km of Amazon rainforest will deliver cheaper, cleaner energy to a sprawling industrial city buried in the heart of the jungle. But environmentalists fear the pipe is simply a bridgehead towards greater exploitation of the rich gas and oil fields lying beneath some of the most remote and undisturbed rainforest on Earth.
Thanks to government tax breaks, the 2 million-strong city of Manaus is a manufacturing powerhouse hidden in the middle of the forest. It plays host to companies such as Honda, LG and Samsung. A doubling of the city's population in the last decade has seen demand for power rocket, with electricity produced by burning expensive diesel. There is also a national need for more power as the Brazilian economy roars out of recession. The exploitation of the enormous hydroelectric potential of the Amazon region is already ramping up and Manaus is due to be connected to Brazil's national grid next year. Opponents fear that the new gas pipeline will ultimately enable energy to be exported from the Amazon, driving further development – along with risks of spills and providing pathways for illegal loggers.
The pipeline begins at the well site in an isolated region of forest by the Urucu river, to the west of Manaus. It has been buried a metre underground and will bring some of Petrobras's 791m barrels of proven Amazonian oil and gas reserves to the city, at a rate of up to 10m cubic metres of gas a day. The pipeline, which cost at least $500m, was completed last November but only next month will the first of four huge new turbines start spinning and turning Amazonian gas into electricity.
The Petrobras-owned drilling and processing installation at Urucu is surrounded by dark and sweetly humid forest, raucous with bird calls and white-faced monkeys. A baseline survey by pipeline contractor Skanska found 52 large mammals, including jaguars and tapirs, 11 primates, 192 water-living species, 600 different birds and 29 bats. Inside the plant, chemical engineer Albert Jamhour proudly states that this oasis of oil and gas is Brazil's largest LPG plant, while the lightness of the oil makes it especially valuable.
The first phase of the Urucu development attracted heavy criticism. While protests failed to stop the new gas pipeline, they scaled back much of the plans. A road planned to run alongside the pipe was abandoned over fears that illegal logging would be made easier, as has happened elsewhere.
Another 900km pipeline south to the city of Porto Vehlo remains no more than a theoretical plan, according to Petrobras's Urucu Exploration director, Julio Coehlo. But the company has been granted a preliminary licence by Ibama, Brazil's environmental protection agency, which expects the pipeline to go ahead.
Petrobras, the state-controlled energy giant, has invested $8bn in the Amazon to date and plans to spend a further $2.5bn in the next four years. And it says Urucu is the most profitable onshore site in Brazil. Coehlo said: "For sure we have not discovered all that is there to be discovered."