Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Chile's Ex-President Eduardo Frei gives thumbs up to Aysen Project

Ecologist Orrego Questions Frei’s “Double Standard”

Senate head Eduardo Frei has come out strongly in favor of a controversial plan to build several massive hydroelectric dams in Region XI, an area of Patagonia also known as Aysén.

In his most recent Senate Web site column, Frei – a former president (1994-2000) who continues to represent the moderate Christian Democratic party – described the proposed dams as a “priority for the country.”

“One thing’s clear: Chile is in an extremely vulnerable position in terms of energy,” the column reads. “That (vulnerability) limits our growth and affects our competitiveness. The country’s overall interests require us to take advantage of all the resources available to us… Water is one of them.”

Two of the country’s principal utilities – Spanish-owned electricity giant Endesa and Colbún, a Chilean company – are together looking to construct two massive hydroelectric dams on each of Region XI’s largest rivers: the Baker and the Pascua. Dubbed the Aysén Project, the dams will cost an estimated US$2.5 billion. That price tag that does not include construction of a 2,000-kilometer transmission line – the world’s longest – that would feed roughly 2,400 MW of electricity to energy-hungry central and northern Chile.

Frei and other backers of the project insist the dams are both necessary and sound. To start with, the Aysén Project promises to free Chile from its vulnerability vis-à-vis ongoing shortages of Argentine natural gas. Patagonia’s rivers, furthermore, represent a clean and renewable source of energy, they argue.

“It seems absurd not to take advantage of the wealth of electricity that our rivers can provide us. This is the least polluting, cheapest kind of energy,” Frei explained in his column.

Despite its apparent benefits, the Endesa-Colbún dam project has generated a tremendous amount of local, national and more recently, international opposition. The dams and transmission line would be environmentally devastating for the pristine southern Chile, say opponents. Instead, they argue, the country should invest in energy alternatives: among them smaller-scale hydroelectric dams, wind generators and solar cells.

Leading critics of the project include Ecosistemas, a Santiago-based NGO headed by ecologist Juan Pablo Orrego; a broad-based Region XI-based coalition calling itself the Citizen Coalition for Aysén Life Reserve; and the influential U.S. environmental organization Natural Resources Defense Council. Another U.S. NGO, the Sierra Club, has also recently joined the anti-dam campaign (ST, May 1).

Here is the full article.

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