SOUTH AMERICA: New pipeline promises to brighten Amazon's future

Deep in the middle of the Amazonian rain forest, buses whisk men in orange work suits off to help lay down a pipeline that is today one of the region's most remote energy infrastructure projects.

It's enough to make even the most moderate environmentalist blanch.

But after years of opposition, a plan to transport gas 400 miles from its source at a clearing called Urucu, passing 80 species of rare orchids on its way to the Amazonas state capital of Manaus, has been met with reserved praise, even from hard-core activists.

The project by the Brazilian state-controlled company Petrobras is emerging as a model for reducing environmental and social impact, say many observers. And it comes as dozens of other oil companies are looking to explore an expanse that, while among the world's most biologically diverse, also happens to be the largest unexplored region with hydrocarbon potential after Antarctica.

Fine balance

"Prior to the discovery at Urucu, all petroleum produced in South America came from oil fields close to the Andes. But Urucu is situated more than 1,000 miles to the east... and everything in between must now be considered to have hydrocarbon production potential," says Tim Killeen, a senior researcher at Conservation International. "If this is not done right, we are going to lose the most important part of the most important forest on the planet."

The Urucu pipeline project is especially key since it comes at a time when Latin American leaders are looking toward energy integration projects - such as Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez's 'Pipeline of the South', the 5,000-mile, $20 billion pipeline that would transport gas across the entire continent - plans that some have compared to the cutting up of the American West to lay down railways.

Environmental study
Virgilio Mauricio Viana, the environmental secretary of the state of Amazonas, says the state pushed Petrobras to carry out an independent environmental study with the local university, and then simplified the language into a document copied 5,000 times and distributed to locals.

As compensation, Petrobras agreed to build seven secondary branch pipelines, adding over $30 million to the $1.3 billion price of the project, so that local communities can also use cleaner gas, instead of diesel fuel, for electricity. They also awarded the state government a $21 million grant for social services, such as jobs training, potable water, and free health care services.

Viana says that the company was willing to take on additional costs, in part, to overcome years of opposition that had delayed the pipeline's construction.

Via: Gulf Daily News
Sara Miller Llana (The Christian Science Monitor)

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