In a week where scientists race against time to wake the world up to the “disaster of continued use of fossil fuels”, Portugal runs in the opposite direction and tries to cover miles of beautiful coastline in oil rigs and pipelines. As environmentalists query whether it is too late to stop ruling politicians from putting natural resources – not to mention the future of tourism, an undisputed “pillar of the economy” – at risk, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon sounded the alert at the presentation of the fourth and final intergovernmental report on climate change in Copenhagen on Sunday. “Science has spoken,” he warned. The question is: “Is Portugal listening”?
The short answer would appear to be “no”. Not only do we face the prospect of the whole Algarve coast being dotted by oil rigs and/or gas pipelines within the next decade, fuel giant Galp announced this week that it was “confident” the government would give the green-light to further oil prospection along the Alentejo coast starting as early as next year.
Calling the plans “completely absurd”, MEP José Faria – Portugal’s only full-member on Europe’s ENVI environmental committee – assured the Resident on Monday that he would be bringing the matter up at the next parliamentary session in Strasbourg.
“I wonder if the European Parliament is even aware of Portugal’s plans,” he added. “Bearing in mind everything that was said in Copenhagen last weekend, they would appear to be totally stupid.”
But the voices against Portugal’s energy policy have been few and far between. Citizens groups like MALP (Movimento Algarve Livre de Petróleo) and ASMAA (Algarve Surf and Marine Activities Association) have risen and fallen, due to a lack of funds and the inability to mobilise sufficient public interest.
Quercus – Portugal’s oldest environmental NGO and dead against oil and gas exploration anywhere along the country’s coastline – explained the failure.
“Portuguese public opinion suffers from inertia,” Quercus’ João Branco told us. “But when people finally get the message and start complaining, local politicians sit up and listen as they don’t want to lose people’s votes.
“This hasn’t happened yet, which is tragic,” he added. “People need to wake up – particularly people who live in the Algarve.”
Ironically, people have woken up in the Canary Islands. Indeed, the regional government there has backed local outrage over plans for oil rigs off the archipelago – but its backing has been over-ruled by the Spanish government, which is still insisting the unpopular deal forged with oil company Repsol goes ahead.
Seventy-five MEPs from 20 countries are now fighting the Canary Islands’ cause in Europe.
Protestors say Europe must put an immediate ban on Repsol’s plan and concentrate on finding other sources of sustainable energy.
As Ban Ki-moon reiterated in Copenhagen, “there is a myth that climate action will cost heavily but inaction will cost much more”.
In Portugal, Quercus’ position is that the risks posed by drilling for gas and oil far outweigh any possible benefits – “no matter what politicians like to say”.
Another voice on the landscape is that of Algarve MEP Mendes Bota, the only local politician who has been prepared to put his head above the parapet.
Bota began warning of the dangers of turning the Algarve into a “gigantic drilling field” over 20 years ago. His inflammatory outbursts predicting disaster for the region’s tourist industry were eventually silenced by his party, but as the veteran campaigner assured Barlavento newspaper earlier this year, he doesn’t retract “a single comma” of the manifesto he delivered in 2012.
Entitled “Oil in the Algarve: 10 reasons against”, Bota highlighted the fact that with all the risks inherent in an industry diametrically opposed to the Algarve’s bread-and-butter of tourism, there was not one contra-deal that gave local people any kind of advantage.
“I know when a struggle is lost,” he told Barlavento in August. “If exploration is profitable (and everything indicates that it will be), which government would tear up contracts and open themselves up to claims for millions of euros of compensation?”
But is the fight really lost? Quercus’ João Branco is adamant that it is not.
Environmental Impact Study needed before exploration
“It is most certainly not too late,” Branco stressed. “Up until now the government has simply authorised prospection licences for the Algarve.
“This is obviously hugely worrying as these forms of energy are practically obsolete – particularly after what we have heard over the weekend. We simply have to stop using fossil fuels. End of story.
“But any request for exploration of oil or gas has to be preceded, by law, by an Environmental Impact Study (EIA).”
While Branco is aware that EIA’s are “invariably manipulated to justify decisions that have already been made”, he suggests the time delay that one would pose could work to Portugal’s favour as the climate change debate inflames the world and influences public opinion.
IPCC report laid bare
Apart from the bottom line message that fossil fuels have to be phased out by 2100, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change maintains that most of the world’s electricity can – and must – be produced from low-carbon sources within the next 35 years.
If not, the world faces “severe, pervasive and irreversible” damage. “Science has spoken,” UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon stressed. “There is no ambiguity” in the message. “Leaders must act. Time is not on our side.”
“Invest to progress in the rarefied club of international oil producers”
But as Ban Ki-moon prepared to address his audience in Denmark, Portugal’s blinkered attitude continued, with Económico presenting its story on Galp’s ongoing plans for oil prospection with the headline: “Invest to progress in the club of international oil producers”.
Económico described Galp as an “international reference in the rarefied club of oil producers who are out of the control of sovereign states”.
It was the same day that Galp’s executive president Ferreira de Oliveira told Lusa that his company had a “good partner” for prospecting in deep waters off the Alentejo.
The project is “now in the hands of the government”, he told the news agency.
Bets now are on whether Portuguese public opinion will at last wake up.
By NATASHA DONN [email protected]