Bloco de Esquerda's Mariana Mortágua calls on PM to pronounce on economy minister's 'serious affirmations'

Gas drilling off the Algarve coast: Economy minister does it again

Former oil boss made first ‘gaff’ less than two weeks into his government role

Economy minister António Costa Silva has done it again: let drop a remark that sparks political mayhem. First it was the ‘possibility of a windfall tax’ on companies that were managing to make unusual profits, now it is that he holds “no bias” towards projects of gas exploration off the Algarve coast.

Opposition party Bloco de Esquerda has been the first out of the gates to start the ballyhoo, accusing the minister of “ignoring Portuguese law” with “serious affirmations”.

The government officially dropped plans for fossil fuel exploration in 2019, on the basis that the future should be in renewables.

“The government cannot have it both ways – one face that seeks to protect the environment and fight climate change, the other that defends drilling off the Algarve coast to extract fossil fuels…” says Mariana Mortágua (BE).

But this minister of the economy has never made any bones about his irritation with fossil-fuel detractors. He is, after all, the former boss of Partex Oil and Gas. He has shown his frustration in the past as plans to turn Portugal into an oil and gas producer turned to dust. And this week has seen that the passage of time hasn’t changed his opinion one iota.

He told parliament yesterday that Portugal “could already have an important natural gas hub in the Algarve and be producing a commodity that is now in short supply in Europe (due to sanctions brought in following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine).

“If there are businesses interested today in investing in these reserves, and if they come to me, I would not have any reservations”, he said. “I do not think out of the box. I do not have any kind of box…

To be fair, Mr Costa Silva also has no previous political experience. He may well not have a box, but his remarks appear to have come without any kind of reference to his team (the government executive).

The same applied to the remarks about a windfall tax. They had to be hurriedly swallowed.

The Socialist government has an absolute majority – but this is a topic that has seen heroic opposition in the past. It will be difficult to resurrect gas exploration off the coast of the Algarve without a massive, ugly (and universally-justified) fight.

Negocios online adds that “the minister guaranteed that there is still no offshore mining project in the offing”. 

In a way, this latest ‘gaff’ will have served as a rallying call to those who fought drilling plans in the past.

Campaigners always warned this day might come. Now they see how close it could be getting.

Mr Costa Silva made his remarks during one of the many parliamentary hearings to discuss the State Budget before voting in its finality on May 27. 

He referred to the former PSD economy minister Álvaro Santos Pereira’s backing for oil and gas exploration, on the basis that the country needed “a wave of reindustrialisation” which would “create wealth and employment”.

The government changed (to the Socialism he has become politically attached to) “and we (the country) passed to a different cycle which is governing according to what municipalities say and public opinion, without having a clear vision of the importance the project in the Algarve could have had”.

Another characteristic sentence, in fact. With no box to worry about, the minister managed to criticise if not insult his boss’s former administration.

BE’s Mariana Mortágua remarked: “The economy minister is no longer a representative of private interests in fossil fuels. He is the minister of a country and of a government that supported a law that prohibits these practices which are polluting and highly damaging to the environment and public interest”.

She has asked today for prime minister António Costa to ‘pronounce’ on his minister’s remarks so that the country can know whether gas and oil exploration is suddenly back on the map.

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