Northeast oil spills pose new environmental headache for Brazil

. Oct 10, 2019
Northeast oil spills pose new environmental headache for Brazil Oil stains along the Sergipe coast. Photo: Marcos Rodrigues/Secom

Having barely recovered from the Amazon rainforest fire crisis, Brazil has another environmental matter to worry about. In recent weeks, several oil stains have appeared all across the country’s Northeast border, damaging flora and fauna and making the region’s idyllic beaches unusable. 

It took the government about a month before ordering an effort to clean up some 100 tons of sludge from the coast.

So far, 139 areas in nine northeastern Brazilian states have been affected, with reports of deaths of endangered animals, such as sea turtles and bird species.</p> <p>President Jair Bolsonaro ordered the Federal Police, Navy, the Brazilian Environmental Protection Agency (Ibama) and <a href="">Chico Mendes</a> Institute for Biodiversity Diversification (ICMBio) to be ahead of the case. While authorities are in a race against time to reduce the loss, Mr. Bolsonaro declared that the oil is “not Brazilian,” meaning it would not be the country&#8217;s responsibility. </p> <p>The statement matches a study <a href="">Ibama</a> released on September 25. According to the report, the material found on the beaches is crude oil, in a form that Brazil does not even produce. The results were part of an analysis made by Petrobras’ research center in Rio de Janeiro. The state-owned company also suggested that the oil could be Venezuelan, potentially leaked from a ship in the Atlantic Ocean.</p> <p>President Bolsonaro has been reluctant to accuse Venezuela directly, but he says that there is “one country on the radar.” When the first samples showed the probable origin of the oil, the Brazilian leader told journalists to direct their questions to Petrobras’ CEO Roberto Castelo Branco: “I do not want to create problems with other countries,” he said.&nbsp;</p> <h2>The next steps and what can be done</h2> <p>Though the government dismisses the origins of the oil stains, questions are still hanging in the air. With the Bolsonaro administration already seen as synonymous with lax environmental controls, public opinion demands more than just short-term measures.&nbsp;</p> <p>The first step is damage limitation. President Bolsonaro has not ruled out the possibility of requesting compensation from those responsible for the oil leak, saying that the matter will be the concern of Environment Minister Ricardo Salles.&nbsp;</p> <p>In the meantime, Brazil&#8217;s National Oil Agency (ANP) is preparing to <a href="">auction off 36 oil fields for exploitation</a>. Among the interested companies are Petrobras itself, as well as Exxon Mobil, Chevron, BP, and Royal Dutch Shell.</p> <p>Next month, the government will hold a mega-auction of the transfer of rights oil blocks, which could hold some 15.1 billion barrels of oil.</p> <p>The Brazilian government expects a flood of money from these auctions. But there’s another overflow that concerns experts, and one that the government cannot simply throw money at. Investigations suggest that the spills are the result of leaks in an oil ship, and Brazil could now go after Venezuela if Petrobras&#8217; and Ibama&#8217;s suspicions are proved correct.</p> <p>Tiago Trentinella, an environmental lawyer of Iglecias &amp; Famá Advogados, explains that the government can ask for compensation as soon as a probe identifies the cause.&nbsp;</p> <p>“There must be an investigation to see which company is held accountable. Then, several agents can claim redress: federal, state and municipal governments, even individuals who are personally affected,” he says.&nbsp;</p> <p>Despite President Bolsonaro&#8217;s suggestion that the leak was a criminal act, it is just one of several hypotheses under investigation. Experts also warn of the possibility of a shipwreck or accident during the transport of oil from one ship to another, or even the irregular washing in the hull of a ship passing by.&nbsp;</p> <p>Mr. Trentinella says that, in major cases, oil carrier companies have more than one damage containment protocol and emergency plan. “We need to remember that an oil loss means money loss. There is a serious environmental issue involved indeed, but the main concern in avoiding commodity waste is the company itself.”</p> <h2>Bad choice, bad timing&nbsp;</h2> <p>ANP’s latest oil field auction comes in a bad time. Occurring so close to the oil spill, experts have also complained that four of the blocks to be sold off are dangerously close to the Abrolhos Marine National Park, an archipelago off the southern coast of Bahia which is home to Brazil’s largest biodiversity of marine life.&nbsp;</p> <p>According to environmentalists, fossil fuel prospecting in the region threatens the largest bank of coral reefs in the South Atlantic and the breeding of humpback whales. Local fishermen and tourist activities could also be affected.</p> <p>The oil stains should be a warning signal to the rest of the oil measures. Biologists predict that the region will take decades to recover, and Ibama technicians have already recommended that future explorations should be prefaced by strategic and in-depth studies. This was ignored by the current head of Ibama, Eduardo Bim, and ANP director Décio Oddone.&nbsp;</p> <p>As Mr. Trentinella remarked, regulations and procedures do exist, but are those measures enough? As mother nature has not spared Brazil from turmoil in 2019, the question is as uncertain as the cause of the oil stains.</p> <hr class="wp-block-separator"/> <p><em>This article has been updated to correct imprecisions about the government&#8217;s reaction to the disaster.</em>

Lucas Berti

Lucas Berti covers international affairs—specializing Latin American politics and markets. He has been published by Opera Mundi, Revista VIP, and The Intercept Brasil, among others.

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