Dispatch from the Amazon: Can extracting oil and gas in the rainforest be green?

by Antonio Pasolini on July 24, 2010

The 400-plus-mile plane journey between Manaus and Urucu is like an overture to a green opera. From the airplane you gaze in awe at the vastness of the Amazon forest, a sea of trees that lies quietly and powerfully on the ground below, looking eternal as the earth itself. It’s a feeling of amazement as well as relief. Yes, the forest is still there, or at least part of the original coverage. But in an ever-expanding world, the pressure from development forces threaten biomes all over the globe. In the case of the Amazon, the threat comes mainly from cattle ranching (60%), mining and agriculture.

At some point, in the middle of the green sea, a small clearing presents itself as our destination. There’s a small runway for the airplanes and a scattering of concrete boxes housing the offices from where Urucu is run. When our group of journalists invited for a visit sponsored by Brazil’s development and investment agency, Apex, lands on Urucu, we find ourselves in a tiny enclosure in the middle of the jungle, surrounded by hundreds of miles of greenery that expands in every direction.

The story behind Urucu has touches of an Indiana Jones saga. Back in 1917, a geologist called Pedro de Moura, while doing research in the area, realized that the place could be the site of oil reserves. In 1954, the first discovery of oil in non-commercial amounts took place in three locations in Amazonas state. In 1986 oil was found at Urucu and by 1988 production started there.

To find out how to tread as lightly as possible in such pristine setting, Petrobras hired a group of scientists to give advice on how to be socially and environmentally responsible. Three basic measures were suggested: employ local work force, recover deforested areas and minimize road construction. Since then, that has informed the ethos of the place. Despite the fact that we were on a highly directed tour of the site, it’s impossible not to be genuinely impressed by the efficiency and systematic discipline seen at Urucu, where 55,000 barrels of oil and 10 million cubic meters of natural gas are produced per day.

During a presentation to the press, exploration manager Júlio Cesar Carvalho Coelho boasts that the local municipality of Coari, the township of 80,000 people where Urucu is domiciled, received $23,375,000 in royalties in 2009. Petrobrás contributes over $1,000,000 per day in tax revenue to Amazonas state. The company never had any spills in the region. A pipeline to transport LPG (cooking gas) from Urucu to Manaus was completed in late 2009 and no road was open for that purpose. Most of the material transported to and from Urucu is shipped up and down the river of the same name. A recycling center ensures nothing is wasted at the unit. And the list goes on.

Then there are the reforestation efforts within Urucu. The unoccupied areas are recovered to their original state based on a meticulous inventory of plants and local fauna. A nursery with more than 170,000 seedlings of 90 native species operates in the area. Local wildlife has benefitted from the company’s presence because it inhibits hunting, says the employee in charge of the nursery.

Despite all the immense social challenges that Brazil faces, some of which were historically inherited, the country has scored some impressive environmental achievements. 48% of the country’s energy matrix is renewable, with hydropower and biofuels accounting for most of it. It has set an ambitious emissions reduction target of 36.1% to 38.9% by 2020 that was presented at the COP15 meeting in October 2009. The target was made into law with the introduction of the National Policy on Climate Change.

Brazil also claims it has succeeded in reducing deforestation since it peaked in 2004 and on 22 July it announced a reduction of 47% between August 2009 and May 2010. Forest clearing is the country’s biggest source of carbon emissions and curbing it is seen as the single most important step to reduce the country’s carbon footprint.

In fact, forest protection is the subject of a heated debate at the moment, as the agribusiness lobby group in congress is pressing to change the text of the 1965 Código Florestal (forest code) to loosen up regulation and avoid penalties. Environmentalists say the altered code will legalize deforestation and undo some of the legal achievements of the last few decades. Besides, it will compromise the country’s ability to meet its emissions target.

But for now let’s get back to Urucu. One operational staffer is demonstrating how oil gets pumped out of the ground, waxing lyrical about the quality of the stuff, how easy it is to decant it (separate it from water) and its general superiority. The press crew is then invited to get their hands doused in freshly pumped oil and make a wish. He says the oil unleashes the spirit of the forest and our wish then becomes reality. It is a quirky touch to a day of corporate hospitality, but somehow in tune with the magical location of this unique oil operation. I wondered then whether Petrobras, when touched by oil, wishes that it could, in the not-so-distant future, become a 100% renewable energy company (it already has a biofuel arm called Petrobras Biocombustível), although that’s not very likely to happen any time soon. In any case, that was my wish when I got my hand greased with Amazon oil.

Sure enough, fossil fuel and natural gas are not clean, although some consider the latter a less dirty, transitional option until we find something better that can be scaled up to mass consumption. But for the time being and the foreseeable future, we will be using fossil fuels as a source of energy. Petrobrás and Brazil know that and are happy to provide the goods, including oil drilled from the deep water, pre-salt layer. As a developing country, Brazil wants to make money and speed up development. Until renewable energy can power the world, the example that Urucu sets is that we must try to make it as nice and light as possible. Its business is not renewable, but it endeavors to make it sustainable at the point of extraction.

Perhaps the ethos of this Amazon oil exploration unit is best translated by Urucu’s press contact, who quotes the famous Amazonian poet, Thiago de Mello, to explain the company’s vision. It goes like this: “I don’t have a new way, but a new way to walk.” That sums up what Petrobrás is doing in Urucu. Here’s to hope that a new, renewable way will be found sooner rather than later.

Disclosure: Energy Refuge’s trip to the Amazon was sponsored by Apex, a governmental agency that promotes trade and investment in Brazil, with funding provided by Petrobras, Eletrobras and Banco do Brasil.

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