Is Colombia One Step Away from a Fracking Ban?

While lawmakers debate a proposed fracking prohibition, deepening struggles over the social and environmental impacts of oil and gas extraction loom.

February 8, 2023

Colombia's Minister of Mines and Energy Irene Velez Torres in a session on The Different Roads to Energy Transition at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Switzerland on January 19, 2023 (World Economic Forum /Flickr / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

At the end of November 2022, Colombia’s Minister of Mines and Energy, Irene Vélez, responded to a motion of censure and removal by conservative legislators who complained about the economic panic generated by her “inflammatory” comments regarding the country’s energy policy. In particular, opposition lawmakers took offense with Vélez’s suggestion that advanced industrialized nations pursue degrowth, and with the ministry’s support for gas imports from Venezuela. Vélez swiftly fended off the motion of censure in a vote of 132 against and 24 in favor, while defending her vow to closely review the country’s 381 signed oil contracts that have not yet broken ground and the 32 already in implementation phases.

This political drama unfolded amid intense debates over the past six months on a proposed ban on fracking in Colombia. Vélez was named minister in August of 2022 by incoming progressive President Gustavo Petro with the aim of leading the country’s energy transition away from fossil fuels. She previously served as a scholar of energy transition models at the Universidad del Valle and an activist supporting the territorial and resource rights of Indigenous, Afrodescendant, and campesino communities in rural regions of Colombia. In response to criticism by conservative legislators surrounding her stance on alternative energy policy, Vélez emphasized that the government’s transition agenda is grounded in the realities faced by rural and urban communities, including lack of access to water, electricity, and jobs, and in cooperative methods of energy production.

“[In our decarbonization planning] we are not talking about leading with a simple technological fix, or a remodeling of el cacharro [the old, dilapidated car],” said Vélez before congress. “We are talking about the inclusion of other social actors who will be able to produce energy, what our government has called ‘energy communities.’”

Colombia's Proposed Fracking Ban

Progressive lawmakers, environmental groups, and social movements might soon win a huge legislative victory prohibiting fracking, one that could reverberate positively throughout the Global South. In its current iteration (the fourth since the initial submission in 2018), the proposed law, PL 114/2022, has 74 co-sponsors in a congress with greater representation by left and center-left parties, and strong backing from the Colombia Free of Fracking Alliance (Alianza Libre Contra el Fracking, ACLF), a civil society movement of about 100 organizations from around the country.

The hearings will extend into early 2023, but so far have faced two back-to-back setbacks and intense media scrutiny in a short period of time. In June, the lower chamber declined to discuss a previous iteration of the proposed ban, in large part because of the nation’s dependency on dwindling oil reserves and the perceived need to explore the estimated 83 billion cubic meters of natural gas fields in the country. Then in July 2022, the Colombian Council of State overturned the 2018 commercial fracking moratorium that had delayed seven fracking projects contracted between 2014 and 2016. Together, the contracts between Colombia’s National Hydrocarbons Agency (ANH in Spanish) and three multinational oil companies: Drummond (based in Alabama), ConocoPhillips (based in Houston), and Parex Resources (based in Calgary Canada) are worth $517 million dollars. In 2019, the Council of State had previously amended the moratorium and greenlighted two fracking pilot projects in Puerto Wilches, in the Santander department.

The current legislation contains several propositions that are visionary and potentially replicable in other countries in the region and beyond. For starters, it targets the environmentally damaging technique of multi-stage hydraulic fracturing (fracking) of nonconventional hydrocarbons. Although in widespread usage around the globe, fracking for the extraction of shale oil and gas remains highly controversial because of the massive amounts of resources required to drill. Some chemicals used in the process, such as methanol, ethylene glycol and propargyl alcohol, can irreversibly contaminate the water and surrounding soils. Fracking also releases methane emissions that worsen atmospheric warming of the climate 80 times more than carbon dioxide, and health-harming pollutants like benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, xylene, hydrogen sulfide, silica dust, and nitrogen oxide.

Beyond banning hydraulic fracking, the Colombian state and many civil society actors envision this law as a significant step toward the nation’s energy transition, with plans for the country to develop reliable renewable energy from wind, solar, and hydrogen within two years. This comes at a time when several other nations are doing the opposite, such as in Argentina’s Vaca Muerta region, where the government is incentivizing the construction of natural gas pipelines in an area already suffering from health and environmental contamination and intense seismic activity. Bans on fracking are, however, in effect in a number of locations globally, including France, Germany, Bulgaria, Vermont, and New York state.

In Colombia, the law would entail negotiating an end to already signed fracking contracts in order to avoid protracted disputes in international courts. These negotiations could mean progress towards the government’s objective of settling alternative development conflicts in rural areas. Much of rural Colombia has reeled from the lack of implementation of policies pertaining to land access, territory, rural production, and programs for transitioning away from coca growing that were agreed to in the 2016 Peace Accords between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia- People’s Army (FARC-EP).

The two pilot fracking projects, Kalé and Platero, started in 2019 in Puerto Wilches and were financed by the national oil company Ecopetrol and ExxonMobil. Local communities have risen up to oppose implementation of the project, arguing that they have not been assured their concerns will be adequately addressed. The pilot projects were conceived as a first step toward the drilling of approximately 13,000 other wells and much diversion of water from already dying rivers; they are now on hiatus until the decision on fracking is made.

The Debate Around the Ban

During the legislative debates over the past five months, conservative lawmakers and state-owned Ecopetrol authorities have fiercely defended fracking oil and gas reserves, arguing that the country’s oil is dwindling and the ban would represent a 40 percent drop in foreign investment. They also warned of the loss of 95,000 jobs and anticipated earnings in local government revenues amounting to millions of dollars every year. In September, the Vice President of Operations of Ecopetrol, Alberto Consuegra, noted that fracking was absolutely needed to supplement the company’s decline in oil resources.

But by December 9, Consuegra had shifted his narrative and announced that Ecopetrol was ready to invest more than $6 billion in conventional oil exploration and around 1,600 new drilling wells throughout Colombia. It is unclear whether Ecopetrol has completely given up on exploiting natural gas, especially with recent deep-water gas discoveries in the Caribbean region.

The company—and the Colombian government—are purportedly responding in part to pressure from the Biden government, which asked Colombian officials to increase oil production for import to the United States by 40,000 barrels per day, in response to dwindling supplies due to the war in Ukraine. Although Ecopetrol will possibly disinvest from fracking in Colombia, it still has a high stake in international fracking operations, including several sites operated alongside Houston-based Occidental Petroleum in the Texas Permian Basin. This is one of the natural gas supply sources that Colombia will depend on for imports.

At the hearings, Petro government officials guaranteed energy self-sufficiency from oil and energy transition sources until at least 2037, although the previous government’s figures showed existing oil resources could only guarantee energy security for another 7.5 years. Throughout the hearings, environmental and energy ministers, legislators, and other officials strongly emphasized that the proposed ban did not encompass conventional oil and gas resources, which do not require the horizontal multi-stage drilling technique. Conventional oil extraction still uses explosives and chemicals that release greenhouse gases and cause contamination, especially in offshore locations. Communities in Arauca, Magdalena Medio, and other regions have for years been fighting to stop multinational oil companies, armed actors, and the Colombian military (heavily funded by the U.S. government) from continuing to militarize and pollute their forested and protected ecosystems.

Several members of ACLF, including leaders from Ecopetrol’s Workers’ Syndicate Union (USO), also demanded a public debate on changes to Ecopetrol leadership, due to allegations of corruption and attacks on workers’ lives and rights. Recent human rights reports cite connections between Ecopetrol, armed paramilitary groups, and violence against environmental leaders in Puerto Wilches, although Ecopetrol has denied the allegations.

Colombia holds the record globally for the highest number of social and environmental leaders assassinated annually. At least 187 leaders were killed just in 2022, and 1,407 since the Peace Accords were signed in 2016 according to the Colombian Institute for Development and Peace Studies (INDEPAZ). Human rights and environmental/territorial justice are two of the main struggles supported by Vice President Francia Márquez.

Can Colombia be a Leader in the Energy Transition?

During the contentious debates on the fracking ban, Vélez noted that the other 380 already signed oil contracts would not be prohibited (presumably these would go through extensive government scrutiny), and that any future contracts would only be eligible for approval between six to eight years from now. At the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos in late January, she announced that Colombia will no longer issue oil and gas exploration contracts, a statement that purportedly prompted the resignation of Mines and Energy Viceminister Belizza Ruiz. Vélez later issued a correction, stating that the first step is to carry out a close study of existing contracts.

A significant early victory of the Petro administration was the passing of a tax reform law in November 2022, which includes progressive duties of up to 15 percent on crude oil exports when global prices go above a certain level. The government also signed a pact with 82 energy providers in October 2022 to reduce the price of energy delivered to households by at least 8 percent initially. Prices had increased by an estimated 22 to 50 percent in 2022, although tense negotiations over sector regulations are ongoing.

It is still early to determine if the policies of the Petro administration represent a major step toward closing Colombia’s inequality gap through increased revenue from fiscal reforms and the participatory impetus towards decarbonization. But the fact that state officials in the country often thought of as the biggest U.S. ally in the region are willing to take an environmental and human rights stance, challenge the logic of Northern dominance of global production processes, and impose limits on global and domestic elite entrepreneurs is a sign of concerted shifts in a positive direction.

Throughout the debates, it has been evident that community-led opposition to fracking is key to pushing the ban forward. This has involved a massive coalescence of civil society groups that have centered their analyses solidly on scientific, policy, and practical evidence from impacts on the ground in Colombia, the United States, Argentina, and elsewhere. The collaborations come after decades of grassroots strategy building among organizations with diverging but also common interests. According to Amarilys Llanos, an activist and lawyer with the Cesar Without Fracking and Gas Movement, “We have been talking about giving new meaning to the dreams of younger generations…We can’t allow [fracking] here, but we can imagine something different…and the [energy] transition is a good opportunity for that.”

Regardless of the tumult of debate, it seems that change is coming in Colombia. A group of grassroots organizations has put together a comprehensive proposal for a planned phase out from fossil fuel dependence and a new energy sector financed by the type of taxes that Petro’s fiscal reforms will generate. This new energy would be public and communitarian, and based on technological innovation that is ecologically appropriate and socially inclusive. Alongside these institutional efforts, many communities are also organizing for a liberation of Mother Earth from corporate dominance, and an end to militarized and armed conflict alongside platforms for social, gender, and racial justice. The strength of these initiatives extends hope towards ecological and social justice in Colombia’s near future.

Patricia Rodríguez works as International OGI (Optical Gas Imaging) Analyst and Advocate at Earthworks. OGI is an infrared technology that detects fugitive and uncombusted emissions of methane and volatile organic compounds from the gas and oil industry.

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