In what is surely one of Caribbean Conservation Corporation’s most significant conservation victories, the government of Costa Rica recently denied permit requests from a group of American companies seeking to begin offshore oil drilling very near Tortuguero National Park. For two years, CCC has been directly advising government officials and local organizations about the potential impacts of oil drilling on the Tortuguero sea turtle nesting colony. Our efforts paid off with a resounding “NO” to the oil companies. Giving CCC and its members great pride is the fact that the government’s official statement denying the permits included nearly ten references to CCC and sea turtle conservation.
On February 28, 2002, the National Technical Environmental Secretariat formally rejected the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) presented by an oil company to get a permit to drill for oil off the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica. After two years of campaigning against oil drilling because of its potential impact on sea turtle populations, the hard work CCC and a handful of other groups put into the issue has finally paid off.
Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast hosts globally important nesting populations of green and leatherback turtles, a hawksbill nesting population of regional importance and also occasional nesting by loggerhead turtles. Along the coast, sensitive coral reefs and mangrove swamps can also be found. A couple of miles offshore, ocean currents concentrate sargassum seaweed in large rafts where post-hatchling sea turtles find food and refuge. Previous experiences and studies indicate that both sea turtles and the coastal habitats mentioned are sensitive to the environmental impacts caused by oil drilling.
In November 1999, the US-based oil company MKJ Xploration began marine seismic surveys to determine if oil or gas could be found offshore. A vessel moved up and down the coast and fired powerful airguns repeatedly into the water to identify suitable drilling sites at the bottom of the sea. The impact of this activity on fish stocks, sea turtles and marine mammals has never been possible to determine.
In previous years, oil drilling rights to large tracts of Costa Rican territory were given out to the highest bidding oil companies. However, the boat firing airguns was the first news that many coastal residents and organizations had of the plans to drill for oil off the coast.
Immediately, CCC began evaluating the potential impacts that oil drilling could have on the area’s sea turtle populations and the habitats upon which they depend. It quickly became apparent that oil exploration would have profound effects on the Tortuguero turtle population which CCC and others have been protecting for over four decades. Crude oil, absorbed through the skin and lungs, or injested in the gut, can negatively impact almost all the physiological systems of sea turtles. Lethal and sub-lethal impacts include carcinogenesis, increased susceptibility to parasites and diseases, decreased dive times, decreased nutrient assimilation, organ dysfunction, disturbed hormone balance, abnormal development and disruptions to sense organs, respiration and blood chemistry. Sea turtle deaths caused by oil spills have been recorded in the Gulf of Mexico, the Gulf of Arabia and many other locations.
CCC prepared a scientific summary on the potential impacts that oil exploration could have on sea turtles and sent copies to the Minister of Environment and Energy and to the many local groups that had begun organizing against oil exploration. Time was of the essence. One oil company was already preparing its Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA), which was the last step before aquiring drilling permits. The first drilling rig was planned for construction south of Tortuguero National Park, only a couple of miles from the coast.
As soon as the EIA had been presented, CCC evaluated the document to determine if it had sufficiently considered the area’s sea turtles. CCC also facilitated the evaluation of the EIA by coral reef, environmental policy and geography experts. All the evaluations were sent to the Minister and the National Technical Environmental Secretariat, the government agency responsible for assessing the EIA.
After its initial review, the Environmental Secretariat requested additional information from the oil company, and again CCC provided technical evaluations.
For two years, CCC continued to provide local groups and elected officials with sound scientific arguments against oil exploration. CCC staff also met with government officials, politicians and coastal communities to point out the benefits of conservation and the economic and ecological significance of the country’s sea turtle populations. Through public hearings in Limón, the largest town on the coast, and widespread media coverage, the arguments against oil exploration became known throughout Costa Rica.
Late in 2001, it became apparent that the Environmental Secretariat’s ruling on the oil exploration EIA would coincide with Costa Rica’s presidential and legislative assembly elections. Through the coalition of groups working together against oil exploration, CCC’s arguments reached many of the election campaigns. Based on these arguements, all three leading presidential candidates openly expressed their opposition to oil drilling.
Finally, on February 28, 2002, the Environmental Secretariat rejected the oil company’s EIA. A 52-page document, probably the most extensive ruling ever made by the Secretariat, detailed the reasons for the rejection. CCC was mentioned eight times in the ruling, sea turtles an additional four times. The ruling stated that “…[the EIA]…should have seriously considered that the sea turtle populations of Caribbean Costa Rica are ecologically and economically important…”
As expected, the oil company appealed the ruling to the Minister of Environment and Energy. The outgoing Minister Elizabeth Odio gave a final blow to the exploration plans by rejecting the appeal. For now, it appears that the threat of oil exploration has been averted and that the future is still bright for Costa Rica’s Caribbean sea turtle populations.