|Forseeable impacts of oil industry activity in Yasuní|
The opening of the oil frontier, if the ITT project is developed, would entail the creation of a new oil industry zone, where the same impacts would be seen as those that have been well documented in already operational zones.Those impacts can be summarized as follows:
In addition to these impacts, it is also necessary to consider the other impacts triggered by oil industry activity, such as the link between the building of roads and illegal logging -- as is the case in the logging activity in Yasuní National Park and even in the so-called “untouchable” zone – as well as colonization, tourism, bioprospecting and other threats.
Impacts of drilling wells
The oil industry recognizes that for every vertical well that is drilled, 500 cubic metres of solid waste and between 2,500 and 3,000 cubic metres of liquid waste are produced, while directional drilling leads to 20% to 30% more solid and liquid waste per well.
If the plans to drill 130 wells in the ITT fields are carried out, this would create 65,000 cubic metres of solid waste (equivalent to 13,000 dump truck loads of five cubic metres each) and between 325,000 and 390,000 cubic metres of liquid waste (equivalent to more than 65,000 dump truck loads). The companies say this waste will be left beneath the drilling platform, a mechanism through which toxic elements are spread by the first rains. If the drilling is horizontal, the figures could rise to 78,000 cubic metres of solid waste (equivalent to 15,600 dump trucks) and between 420,000 and 504,000 cubic metres of liquid waste (84,000 to 100,000 dump trucks). If the number of wells drilled is doubled, as per the Sinopec proposal, then the volume of waste would be doubled as well.
It should also be taken into account that in terms of the lifetime of wells, those that are used to extract heavy crude tend to collapse rapidly, and in order to continue extracting the crude, new wells need to be drilled.
Forests, water and climate are closely linked. Mature forests capture water and maintain the balance of the ecosystem and local temperatures. Tropical forests absorb a large amount of solar radiation, and as a result, massive forest clearing increases the reflectivity of the earth’s surface. The albedo effect is the increase in solar energy reflected towards outer space, and is fundamental in the control of global warming.
Texaco deforested up to five hectares of land to build a drilling platform. However, according to Executive Decree 1215 (Environmental Regulations for Ecuadorian Hydrocarbon Operations), the maximum allowable in a protected area today is 1.5 hectares for the installation of a platform, camps and heliport.
If the platform contains several wells, the regulations allow for up to 0.2 hectares for each additional well. Then there is the deforestation associated with the building of access roads, which can be up to five metres wide, as well as rights of way for pipelines and transmission lines, camps, and other infrastructure.
The most significant deforestation is the indirect deforestation associated with the building of roads for infrastructure maintenance and the colonization generated by the project itself.
Impacts of produced water
Produced or formation water is a type of sedimentary water that results from 150 million years of natural processing and contains very high levels of chlorides and heavy metals. It can contain concentrations of sodium chloride and other solids as high as 100,000 ppm (parts per million). By contrast, seawater can have concentrations of up to 35,000 ppm.
This high salt content is significant because it increases the solubility of other elements, including the radioactive element radium. In addition, this water reaches temperatures of 80°C. It also contains particles of soluble hydrocarbons and the chemicals that are used to separate the water from the oil and to protect the drilling installations, such as demulsifiers, paraffin inhibitors, biocides and others.
The average water-to-crude ratio in the Amazon region is 80 barrels of water for every 20 barrels of crude oil extracted. This means that after 29 years of operations, the accumulated production of crude oil would total 960 million barrels, while the water produced with it would total 3.84 billion barrels, or four times more.
Produced water is already a problem for the state company Petroecuador, which was penalized in 2005 after a report from the Comptroller General’s Office determined that it failed to comply with its established objectives for reinjecting the water.
However, the volume of produced water will be much greater in the case of the ITT project and Block 31, and given that the proposals for developing the oil fields involve reinjection, the company that undertakes the operations would be faced with the problem of where to reinject the water, for a number of reasons.
1. The reinjection of produced water has been carried out in the permeable strata of the geological formations of Orteguaza and Tiyuyacu, Napo, Hollín and others. But these formations do not have an unlimited capacity for storing all of the water produced.
2. The formations where the water is reinjected contain faults and are not impermeable throughout; many reach the surface and are connected to underground and surface aquifers.
Moreover, if the water production patterns are similar to those seen in Block 16 (which is more structurally similar to ITT and Block 31), the water-to-oil ratio would be 90 barrels of produced water for every 10 barrels of crude on average. As a result, the extraction of 960 million barrels of oil would lead us to expect 8.64 billion barrels of water.
If we accept the assumption that the ITT reserves contain 960 million barrels of crude oil, then their exploitation would mean that 8.649 billion barrels of produced water – a whopping 1,375,052,616 cubic metres – would be released into the environment.
The possibility of reinjecting all of this water is unlikely if not impossible, because of the vast size of the formation that would be required. The water would inevitably be discharged in Yasuní itself, or, as has been proposed, in the Shushufindi fields that are already oversaturated from the discharge of produced waters. But in addition, the water that can be reinjected will pollute the underground water sources in this important reserve.
Because of its composition, temperature and the chemicals it contains, produced water that is brought to the surface is extremely toxic for the environment. Most freshwater organisms cannot withstand the high salinity of produced water, and subsequently die off.
It is estimated that there are over 2,000 species of fish in the rivers of the Amazon region, many of which have yet to be identified, in addition to a wealth of other organisms that enable their existence at the top of the food chain. They reproduce in the floodwater areas where food chains develop and the majority of Amazon fish species deposit their eggs. The toxins in the produced water enter and pass through the food chain until reaching the final consumer: human beings.
At the same time, other animals living in the Amazon region, especially mammals, whether wild or domesticated, normally face a shortage of salt. As a result, the highly saline produced water spilled in the area will attract peccaries, deer and other animals, and when they drink this water, they will also ingest toxic substances.
Contamination of the soil can also lead to the strangulation of plant roots, thus damaging or in many cases killing off nearby vegetation.
The substances contained in oil industry waste are often bioaccumulative and directly linked to numerous diseases, since they include carcinogenic, teratogenic and mutagenic substances.
Impacts on the Huaorani people
Both the ITT zone and Block 31 are the territory of the Huaorani indigenous people, as well as the hunting grounds of other indigenous groups that live in voluntary isolation. These are traditional hunter-gatherer societies that move throughout a large area inside the park’s borders, sometimes reaching the so-called oil blocks.
The danger is even greater given that the area in question is part of the territory used by three indigenous ethnic groups – the Tagaeri, Taromenani and Oñamenane peoples – who have voluntarily chosen to avoid all contact with the outside world and reject any attempts at interaction or occupation of their territory. These are the last free beings in Ecuador, true warriors, who live in what are described as “societies of abundance” because they produce just enough to satisfy their needs.
When contracts were negotiated for oil activity in Block 16, forceful warnings were voiced about the threats this posed to the Huaorani people. Calls were made for strong measures to prevent negative impacts on this indigenous community, but the effects of oil industry activity have been dramatic: disease, growing poverty, violent conflicts…
The reports of killings in these zones, first in May 2003 and then allegedly in May 2006, alerted both society and the government to the dangers of encroaching on the territories of these peoples.
Increased insecurity in the tri-border area (Colombia, Ecuador and Peru)
A comparison of the oil-producing and non-oil-producing zones with the distribution of cocaine production zones makes it possible to visualize the relationship between these two activities. It is known that oil exploration activity uses practically all of the “precursors” needed to process coca leaves into coca paste and cocaine.
Numerous substances used by the oil industry can also be used as chemical precursors for illicit drug production, such as white gasoline, sulphuric acid, hydrochloric acid, nitric acid, sodium hydroxide and potassium permanganate.
The development of the ITT fields would be directly linked to the building of roads, colonization and illegal activities such as unauthorized logging, biopiracy and, without a doubt, illicit drug crop production. The tri-border area is already known as a high-risk area.
Consequently, the environmental disaster caused by oil activity would be combined with social pressures and extreme violence, thus creating a national security problem for Ecuador. In addition to national security-related conflicts, internal conflicts will also arise due to the incapacity of the state to deal with the demands of local populations.
A new oil production zone will expand the area of conflict and spark disputes with Peru over the risk of contamination spreading into this neighbouring country, an issue that has already caused problems between the countries.
Removal of waste to Shushufindi
One of the proposals that is consistently put forward in all of the projects under discussion is the removal of waste for disposal in Shushufindi.
The town of Shushufindi is currently the second most populated in the province of Sucumbíos (after Lago Agrio), with 32,184 inhabitants, or 25% of the province’s total population. Its population includes both settlers and indigenous inhabitants.
The Shushufindi oil field has five storage stations (Shushufindi Centre, North, South and Southwest and Aguarico), a refinery, a gas processing plant, a gas pipeline, and over 100 waste pits, some covered, others uncovered. In other words, for a place of its size it is overloaded with oil industry infrastructure.
The environmental risk in Shushufindi is 3.8 times greater than the average in other Amazon District settlements. The risk of conflict is 6.5 times greater than the district average. With regard to the frequency of spills, the risk is 3.5 times greater in terms of the presence of waste pits and 2.5 times greater in terms of spilled and unrecovered volumes.
The report by the Comptroller General’s Office notes that according to the National Hydrocarbons Directorate (DNH), a total of 7,937,638 barrels of produced water were released into the environment between 2000 and May 2004, although the figure quoted by the Reinjection Unit is 5,181,827 barrels. In any event, the most important point to consider is that if Shushufindi does not have the capacity to handle its own waste production, it is unlikely to have the capacity to receive waste that is produced elsewhere.
Shushufindi is probably the town that is hardest hit by the impacts of oil industry activity. In addition to the environmental pollution, it also suffers a critical health situation (it is the town with the highest rate of tuberculosis in the country) and alarming levels of violence, primarily due to the trafficking of chemicals and white gasoline used for illicit drug production. Reports from the Esquel Foundation and the Centre for Justice and International Law (CEJIL) present figures of between 680 and 715 murders in the province of Sucumbíos, with the highest rate corresponding to Shushufindi.