By Tarjei Leer-Salvesen
In Lake Maracaibu, South America's largest freshwater reservoir, Statoil has joined forces with the American company Chevron (operator), as well as Phillips and Arco. They have bought an old field producing 15,000 barrels daily, and wants to upgrade it to reach a production of 100,000 barrels.
The local population and fishermen complain about massive pollution and destroyed fisheries in the lake, and demand that foreign companies be kept out of the oil industry. Now they threaten to block the canal leading to Lake Maracaibu in order to stop oil-tanker traffic. 80% of Venezuela's oil is transported through this canal.
Earlier this spring the Greek tanker "Nissos Amorgos" ran aground in Lake Maracaibu and spilled large amounts of oil. This caused massive fish death, and part of the mangrove forest surrounding the lake was polluted. The fishermen are claiming a compensation of more than NOK 2 billion.
"We bring Norwegian standards to Venezuela," says Berit Rynning Øyen of Statoil's Information Department. She adds that accidents obviously are all oil companies' nightmare, but she does not think this will happen. The protests from the local population she only knows from the newspapers and therefore she does not want to make any comments.
Norwegian companies' participation in the oil adventure in Venezuela is one of the priority areas of the INTSOK cooperation, in which the Ministry of Petroleum and Energy and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs are actively involved.
The Orionoco belt
The Orionoco River runs south and east of Lake Maracaibu. The area contains mangrove and rain forests, and various Indian tribes live here. Large volumes of heavy oil have been found in the area.
Statoil and Hydro together have a 30% stake in a consortium that now has a license to recover heavy oil on a large scale in Zuata in the Orionoco belt. The project has an upper investment limit of more than NOK 20 billion.
The Warao have asked that oil recovery in the Orionoco belt be stopped. They now get support from the organization Orionoco OilWatch, which ask the authorities for a thorough study of the environmental impact before permitting large-scale production. Amazon Watch, an American organization studying the infrastructure of South America, is also highly critical of the plans.
The companies are adamant that there is no rain forest in their license areas, but rather dry flat country. A pipeline is to be built to carry the oil to the coast. According to Amazon Watch, this pipeline will cause great problems. All the projects in the region lead to the construction of new infrastructure, which then ends up paving the way for more new and destructive projects. Amazon Watch says that some rain forest will be lost due to the pipeline that Hydro and Statoil will use. Moreover, the Orionoco belt is connected with a number of rivers and streams, and accidents and continuous releases could have an impact also on other parts of the region.
"Amazon Watch asks Norway not to invest in this destructive project. Heavy oil is not good for the environment in the Orionoco river system nor for Norway's image as a leading nation when it comes to sustainable development," says Atossa Soltani, head of Amazon Watch.
"Amazon Watch asks Norway not to invest in this destructive project. Heavy oil is not good for the environment in the Orionoco river system, nor for Norway's image as a leading nation when it comes to sustainable development."
Atossa Soltani, head of Amazon Watch.
Difficult to understand
Hydro does not understand the criticism. Kama Strand of the Public Affairs Section in Hydro's Exploration and Development Division says it is important to point out that the protests are not aimed directly at their project. She also underlines that there is no rain forest in Hydro's license area. As far as Hydro knows, the pipeline will not run through existing rain forest.
One thing is certain, however, there are a lot of critics of the oil boom in Venezuela, and Statoil and Hydro are entering yet another conflict-ridden part of the world through their foreign investments. Along for the ride is the Norwegian government, actively supporting this involvement.
Statoil and Hydro in Venezuela
Statoil is participating in two projects in Venezuela, in one of the projects the company is involved together with Norsk Hydro. Statoil has bought an existing oil field in Lake Maracaibu, of which they own 20% together with Chevron (40% and operator), Phillips and Arco. In the Orionoco belt, Statoil and Hydro each have a 15% stake in a land-based heavy-oil project. The French company Total (40%) is the operator, and another partner is Maraven, a subsidiary of PdVSA, the state-owned oil company in Venezuela.
Norwatch Newsletter 9/97