Coalition Opposing Coastal Oil Drilling in Costa Rica

Summer 2000 Issue Articles:

* Coalition Opposing Coastal Oil Drilling in Costa Rica

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Coalition Opposing Coastal Oil Drilling in Costa Rica

By Sebastian Troëng, Roxana Silman and Cindy Taft

The U.S.-based Harken Energy Corporation, in hopes of obtaining the Costa Rican government’s approval to test for oil offshore near the Limón port of Moín, submitted its Environmental Impact Study (EIS) for review on July 7, 2000. Costa Rican authorities initially meant to announce their decision on August 7, 2000, but have now postponed their pronouncement indefinitely, apparently awaiting ministerial review of concerns raised by the general public, fishing and tourism sectors, scientists, conservationists, indigenous groups, and environmental NGOs, including the CCC. CCC has submitted technical evaluations noting the deficiencies of the project’s EIS to the Costa Rican government.

Texas Tea

In 1999, Costa Rica’s Ministry of Environment and Energy (MINAE) awarded four concessions for the exploration of oil off its Atlantic coast to MKJ Xplorations, Inc., a small Louisiana-based company. MKJ was the only oil company to bid on the concessions. Since then, Harken Energy Corporation has acquired control of 80% of the concession originally obtained by MKJ.

MKJ conducted seismic tests in November of last year and Harken claims that analysis of the geological data from the testing suggests that there may be more significant reserves in the Moín prospect than initially thought. Harken has noted that there may be potential for oil extraction from the Moín block similar to that from a productive area they control in Colombia, thus their interest in test drilling at Moín as soon as possible.

Harken explores for and develops oil reserves, primarily in the U.S. in the Gulf Coast states, and in Colombia. Harken’s stocks haven’t been worth more than two dollars per share in over a year. Despite its lackluster finances, the Houston-based operation is bolstered by its potential political connections. U.S. presidential candidate George W. Bush, is a former stockholder, board member, and paid consultant to Harken.

Environmental impact study questioned

In May, CCC prepared and distributed a position paper about the potential impacts of offshore oil exploration on sea turtles in Costa Rica. Minister of the Environment and Energy, Elizabeth Odio, then asked the National Technical Environmental Secretariat (SETENA), the branch of MINAE that handles environmental impact studies, to have CCC review the EIS.

With assistance from coral reef/sea grass bed expert Ana Fonseca, M.Sc., and environmental policy expert Javier Mateo-Vega, M.A., CCC prepared two evaluations. The first evaluation referred to technical shortcomings of the EIS and the potential impacts of the proposed test drilling on the area’s marine turtle populations, coral reefs and sea grass beds. The second evaluation focused on procedural shortcomings and the failure of the EIS to address many aspects of the terms of reference of the EIS, set by SETENA. Both evaluations have been submitted to the General Secretary of SETENA, the Minister and Vice Minister of the Environment and Energy, several Costa Rican legislators, and to various organizations and individuals opposed to the proposed oil exploration.

SETENA’s decision on Harken’s proposed test drilling project was initially expected on August 7, 2000, later postponed to August 17, 2000, and at this writing, has been postponed indefinitely. In the meantime, it appears that Harken has been given extra time to address concerns raised in the review of their EIS. Still stinging from large-scale and sometimes violent protests against its plan to reform and privatize the national telecommunications and energy industries, the Costa Rican government may be sensitive to issues that will cause further public outrage. Many feel the government is stalling in order to gauge public opinion on oil exploration.

Growing opposition and legal action

Protestors express their opposition to oil development in Cost Rica.

Since the first exploration concessions were authorized, many stakeholder groups have been organizing and expressing their opposition to oil development along their coasts. Many remember the problems left from previous attempts to prospect for oil in their region in the 1970s, problems they feel have yet to be resolved. Local and national organizations opposing offshore exploration have become more active, and meetings have been held in the Talamanca region, Limón and San José. Numerous presentations and forums have been held recently to inform the citizenry about the proposed drilling project and its impacts, and to plan more activities in opposition to the proposal. Many of the groups participating in the anti-oil drilling coalition have agreed to a joint public declaration that will first be made public at a meeting of the Central American Water Tribunal. The document details the reasons for opposing oil exploration and exploitation in Costa Rica, and is based on concerns about the negative economic, social, legal and environmental impacts. On September 27, 2000, the declaration will be presented at an open meeting. Traveling the main road from Limón to the Panamanian border, one can see many signs opposing the oil industry posted along the way, primarily in front of lodges and other coastal tourism establishments. Given the unpopularity of oil development, there may also be increasing opposition among politicians representing Limón and the minority political parties. With national elections coming up in 2002, more politicians may side with the opposition. In early 2000, the environmental law organization Justicia para la Naturaleza prepared a lawsuit representing 17 Caribbean organizations, businesses and individuals requesting the nullification of the concessions. The lawsuit asserts that the oil concession granted by MINAE violates Costa Rica’s laws, its Constitution and various international treaties or conventions to which the nation is party. The co-plaintiffs in the lawsuit allege that that the concession process was not carried out in accordance with Costa Rican law. Neither before nor during the concession bidding process were the municipalities and communities of the region informed about or consulted for their views on the possible consequences that oil exploration and future exploitation would have on their region and their livelihoods. CCC joined the lawsuit as a co-plaintiff and has provided documents detailing the potential impacts that offshore oil exploration may have on marine flora and fauna, as well as the inadequacy of the Harken EIS in addressing those impacts. The lawsuit is still pending in the Constitutional Court with no indication on when there might be a ruling. While awaiting SETENA’s decision regarding Harken’s proposal, the opposition is mounting. If SETENA approves the project, the lawsuit pending before the Constitutional Court may succeed in stopping further oil exploration. But if SETENA rejects the project as this point, the future of other oil development projects along the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica may be sealed. Costa Rica has already granted six more terrestrial blocks in northeast Costa Rica, near Tortuguero National Park and Barra del Colorado National Wildlife Refuge, to Denver-based Mallon Oil Company. It is important that public pressure against the project be kept up while awaiting Harken’s revisions of the EIS. SETENA and other officials are probably trying to size up the degree of public opposition to the project before making their final decision. CCC, together with qualified professionals, is prepared to review any revised EIS submitted by Harken. CCC will continue to oppose oil exploration along Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast on biological grounds and disseminate the relevant information at public meetings, to litigants and policy-makers.