‘Covert ops’ off Aljezur coast rattle anti-oil campaigners, prompting instant government response

An extraordinary row has blown up over what appear to be illegal ‘soundings’ taken by an Italian supply ship off the Alentejo coast.

In just a few hours following the alert sent out by Lisbon-based climate change group Climáximo in association with ALA (standing for Alentejo Litoral pelo Ambiente), the national fuel entity issued a statement – refuting all knowledge of what activists feared were ‘covert ops’ related to the GALP/ ENI drill site, 46 kms off the coast of Aljezur.

As the group explained over social media: “The detection of the Italian ship taking soundings at sea at the beginning of September, leaving Sines port in the direction of the region of sea around Aljezur, is a sign of alarm, just a few days before the local elections, for the movements against the exploration of oil and gas”.

Climáximo’s post was hotly followed by Algarve-based group ASMAA (Algarve Surf and Maritime Activities Association) which sounded a “red alert” over the movement of a completely different ‘vessel’ – the drilling platform Saipem 12000.

ASMAA suggested Saipem 12000 was “on the move” en-route for Portugal.

“Expect GALP/ENI drilling attempt before year end just after elections”, said the post.

To be fair, there is no evidence that the Saipem platform is Algarve-bound.

Online Marine Traffic website puts its position as off the coast of west Africa, heading for Las Palmas (in the Canary Islands).

Shipping news website Splash24/7 reported 10 days ago that Saipem 12000 has been commissioned by ENI to sink an exploratory well in Morocco’s Rabat deep offshore zone.

Says the site, the vessel should be there by March next year.

It is therefore conceivably possible that it could be heading for Portugal first, but it is also unlikely given that drilling during the winter months off Aljezur’s wild west coast has never been on the GALP/ ENI agenda.

Only weeks ago, GALP executive president Carlos Gomes da Silva reinforced this position, saying the company was hoping to drill off Aljezur “in the spring of 2018” (when the winter sea’s are calming).

But the furore prompted by activists’ posts saw national fuel market entity, ENMC, put out a press statement via Lusa at 8.55 this evening.

If anything the statement simply added to the confusion.

According to the ENMC no vessel took soundings “with a view to oil prospection” off the coast of Aljezur.

In other words, as the Vos Purpose most certainly did take soundings (they have been minutely detailed on online website shipspotting.com) who (and what) was it taking them for?

Says ENMC, it has not given “authorisation for the realisation of any oil exploratory sounding work in the offshore Alentejo Basin, involving the concessions Lavagante, Santola and Gamba” – and (and this is the ‘good news’) the terms of GALP/ ENI’s contract have lapsed.

Just as Expresso reported earlier this summer, drilling schedules expired this year, and GALP/ ENI have yet to put in for any kind of extension.

As Climáximo’s João Camargo agrees, the whole situation raises “many doubts” over the objective of the Vos Purpose soundings, and over which companies are doing them.

Though ENI is an Italian company and the Vos Purpose sails under an Italian flag, “the ship is not identified as being associated with ENI or with GALP”.

Possibly its soundings were for another activity altogether – nothing to do with gas and oil?

But that raises the question, why did the ENMC ride into this online furore so rapidly – not even waiting for ‘normal office hours’?

It’s a “right old muddle” that may become clearer with the light of day.

One thing is certain, activists are jittery and “demanding explanations” from energy secretary Jorge Seguro Sanches.

Climáximo’s spokesman though is not so worried about the “red alert” over the Saipem drilling platform.

“We need to keep watching it”, he agreed. “But I don’t think this is a red alert”.

[email protected]

IMAGE: The Vos Purpose, gross tonnage 2,948 tons