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Unique Coral Reef at Risk as Oil Companies Prepare to Drill Near Amazon River

Companies estimate 30 percent chance of damage to the newly discovered ecosystem in event of a spill

By Dom Phillips

Oil companies planning to drill near a vast coral reef at the mouth of the Amazon river have calculated that the unique ecosystem has a 30 percent chance of being affected in the event of an oil spill.

photo of ambulancePhoto Jeso Carneiro Oil companies may start drilling near the newly discovered Amazon river reef as early as this summer.

In February BP told The Guardian it planned to start drilling a block it controls by August 2018. Brazilian company Queiroz Galvão also has a block it expects to start drilling from next year.

The unique reef system astonished marine biologists when its existence was widely revealed last year, and is believed it could be the home for dozens of previously unknown species. (Read Earth Island Journal’s report about the discovery here.) But activists warn that an oil spill could irreparably damage the 1,000 kilometer-long ecosystem before scientists have even had a chance to study it.

“It’s unlike any other reef that we know about,” said Sara Ayech, an oil campaigner at the London offices of Greenpeace. “If the companies drill there’s a risk of an oil spill and if an oil spill hits the reef, then we could see parts of it destroyed before we even document them.”

The Brazilian government has estimated that the Foz de Amazonas, or Amazon Mouth area, could hold 15.6 billion barrels of oil. A consortium of oil companies led by French giant Total, and including BP and Brazil’s state-run oil company Petrobras, snapped up five exploration blocks in the area when they were auctioned off in 2013.

In January, Total said it had begun moving equipment to the Amazon area and planned to start drilling this year. The oil reservoirs it hopes to reach are situated in 1,900 meters of water, nearly 200 kilometers from the coast.

Scientists from Greenpeace examined the publicly-available Environmental Impact Study Total submitted to the Brazilian authorities and found references to the possibility of an oil spill reaching the reef.

Reef structures in the area to be drilled “present possibilities of being impacted by oil,” the study said. In winter that possibility could be as high as 30.33 percent, while in summer, 20.93 percent, the study produced for Total by companies Proceano and AECOM said.

As long ago as the 1970s, scientists suspected the existence of a reef hidden under the murky waters of the River Amazon’s mouth. But it was not until 2012 that they confirmed the system existed, in conditions coral reefs are not commonly found.

Last year a paper in Science said there were 61 species of sponge alone in the extensive reef system. Earlier this year scientists were able to film the reef from a Greenpeace ship for the first time.

“Scientists are calling it a new biome. And scientists think that there are potentially new species there but they need time to document them,” said Ayech.

In May, prosecutors in the State of Amapá asked Brazil’s government environment agency Ibama to suspend oil exploration and reopen the environmental licensing process.

“The data offered by the company does not provide enough security for the environmental licensing to proceed,” prosecutor Joaquim Cabral told The Guardian in an email. Ibama said in an email it had asked for additional information, which it was studying, and has yet to grant the license.

“Drilling operation will start only when we have the final authorization from Ibama,” said a spokesperson for Total in an email. The spokesperson said that the first well was 28 kilometers from the nearest reef element and the second, 38 kilometers away, adding that the company had done extensive environmental studies.

“At present, the regulatory agencies are still analyzing the Environmental Impact Study, which was based in a conservative scenario, and will only issue the license if they consider the risk acceptable,” the Total spokesperson said.

The Guardian
The Guardian UK, one of Britain's top daily newspapers, provides coverage of international environmental issues. Earth Island Journal is a member of the Guardian's Environment News Network.

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